Well, here we are at Villa 91. Isn’t it great? It is amazing for me to stand here in our new church with all of you because we are doing something I did not think was possible. For the four decades of the existence of RIC and for all of my thirteen plus years as pastor of RIC we have benefitted from the hospitality of another church but have also been restricted in what we were able to do because of the schedule of the host church. So many times I wished we could have our own facility but it seemed that because of the demographics and transitory nature of our church we would not be able to do this.
Our move to Villa 91 started in June 2012 when the landlord of the building where our church association met told us she needed the building for a sister who was moving to Rabat. We thought this was a way of getting us to pay more in rent, but in September we met with her and realized she was serious and we would have to find another location.
As I thought about it we had three options. We could look for a replacement villa for AMEP, our church association, that could be used for the midweek meetings of RIC. Or we could look for a larger villa that could serve as an office for AMEP as well as the church home for RIC. We could either buy that villa or rent it.
So we set September 17 as a day for fasting and prayer to see if we could hear from God what direction we should take. We met that evening to share what we had heard and had an encouraging time of worship and sharing but at the end of the time there was no clear indication of what direction we should take and I was frustrated that God had not spoken more clearly. I left feeling somewhat discouraged but then, to my surprise and delight, over the next two weeks I received a very clear sense of God’s direction for us.
A few days after our day of fasting and prayer, I met with Pastor Philippe at Assemblee Chretienne and he shared that they were thinking of having a second service in the afternoon because their morning service was full. He was not hinting we should move but I sensed God telling me that we needed to find a villa where we could meet for worship as well as meetings during the week. It became clear to me that if we found our own villa, both Assemblee Chretienne and RIC would benefit and our ministries would expand. So option one was discarded and we began looking for a larger villa to buy or rent.
Hasan and I began to look at properties and I was blown away by how expensive these properties were to buy. Real estate is highly inflated in Rabat, way above the value of the buildings, and although the political climate is stable right now, what we have observed in the Arab world is that things can change very quickly. I had thought that a friend in the US could buy a building for us and let us rent it from him, but it became clear to me that I could not, in good conscience, ask him to consider doing that.
So the third option of renting a larger villa became our focus. We met at our Semi-Annual General Meeting in November and the congregation approved a 168% increase in our budget that allowed us to pursue renting a larger villa. To my delight, there was no opposition to this budget and potential move. And, in fact, there was excitement about having our own church home. This was confirmation to me that we were moving in the direction God intended for us.
Hasan and I looked at many villas but did not see anything suitable and I became anxious. We were moving through December and needed to be out of the AMEP building by the end of January. Then Hasan suggested I take a look at a villa he had seen with Connie, Sue and Ken Morrow when I had been in the US in August. They reported that it was a very nice villa but the meeting room would hold only about 140 people, so I had discounted it as a possibility. But finally I went and when I stepped inside Villa 91 and looked around, it immediately became clear to me that this was the place for us. I immediately saw how each room would be used. We had been looking for one large room but I saw how we would be able to function with an overflow room. The only changes that have been made from what I initially imagined is that what I saw as a meeting room upstairs has become the nursery and the room I had thought would be the nursery is now a storage room. It all fit into place.
In the last week of December we signed the contract with a landlord who is supportive of us, another answer to prayer, and in the first week of January we moved the contents of AMEP over to Villa 91.
The next hurdle was to raise funds for the set-up costs of Villa 91 which amounted to 77% of the previous year’s giving. This was a huge challenge and once again RIC responded with enthusiasm. There was a joy in looking forward to raising these funds, once again, confirmation that this was God’s direction for us.
Those funds were raised and now we are here. But who will we be in this new villa? Who we are is not dependent on what building we meet in. We are grateful for the gift of this building, but it is only a building. It is not the church. We are the church and we carry with us from the Assemblee Chretienne villa to Villa 91 our desire to lift the name of Jesus, to bring glory to Jesus in all that we do. We carry with us the sense of fellowship that results from being drawn to Jesus. We have a new building, new sound and video equipment, new chairs, but the same Holy Spirit who is at work in us. But now we have a larger space in which we can operate. How will we use this gift of space? This move allows us to take a moment and reassess who we are and to what we dedicate ourselves.
A couple weeks ago in my daily Bible reading plan, I read Acts 2:42-47
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Ever since I first became a believer and submitted to God by following Jesus, I have read these verses from Acts with a great deal of longing. What a thrill it must have been to be part of this new, growing, dynamic, pulsating, alive fellowship of believers. Acts 2:42-47 is how I have always wished it would be with us in the church. I have been part of nine churches in my Christian life and I have measured our life in these churches in one way or another by how we measured up to this description of the early church.
The closest I have ever come was when I attended Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1970s. Annie and I were two of about 600 college and graduate school age believers in a group called Seekers. Many of the characteristics of the early church were manifested in our fellowship. People with cars shared them with those who did not have a car. I received anonymous gifts that helped me pay my tuition fees for seminary. I learned a lot about the Bible from the multiple teaching opportunities each week. And maybe not every day, but every week, new believers were added to our fellowship.
In retrospect, we were part of a revival in the US in which an estimated 14,000,000 people became followers of Jesus and I have been longing for the whole of my Christian life to have a deeper and fuller measure of what we experienced in those years in the 1970s.
What happened in chapter two of the book of Acts is that the Kingdom of God burst onto the scene and the world was treated to a picture of what it will be like, at least in part, when the Kingdom of God is fully realized at the Second Coming of Jesus.
Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
This is the life we want and so we look at verse 42 to see what the disciples devoted themselves to:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
This one verse describes for us how we should be focused in our church experience.
They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching. What was that teaching? Remember that Jesus put the disciples through a three year course in ministry, teaching them and demonstrating for them how to do what it was he did. Then after his resurrection, he spent forty days with them in an intensive refresher course, helping them to see in light of his death and resurrection, a more clear understanding of all they had learned.
It was what they had learned from Jesus that the apostles now taught. They took what we refer to as the Old Testament and showed from that how Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. They took the teachings of Jesus over the three years they had been with him and taught what he had taught. With the filling of the Holy Spirit, the word of Jesus now lived and burned within them and they taught that living word.
They devoted themselves to the fellowship. The reason the universe was created, the reason humans were created, the reason Jesus was born, died and resurrected was so that we could share the eternal fellowship of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We were created to live in relationship with the Triune God and in relationship with each other. We were created to live in community.
Unity among God’s people has been a driving force throughout Biblical history and explains God’s reaction to all the conflict among his chosen people. The strongest condemnations of the prophets are reserved for Israel and Judah. By comparison, Egypt and Assyria and Babylon get off easy. It is the 300 year civil war between Judah and Israel that was most disturbing to God.
The teaching of divorce, that what God has united should not be separated, is another example of God’s concern for unity among his chosen people. The list of behaviors God opposes in the New Testament are opposed because they work against unity.
In Matthew 18 Jesus taught about how to discipline a brother or sister who sins. The process is meant to bring to repentance and to maintain unity in the body. The center of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 is concerned with unity.
This is why Paul was so upset with the Corinthians who were taking each other to court. This is why one of the first issues Paul dealt with in his first letter to the church in Corinth was divisions among the church.
Fellowship in the church is not an option; it is who we are meant to be.
In Acts 4, in the second description of the early church, Luke wrote that they were all of one heart and mind. This did not happen easily but happened in part because they devoted themselves to the fellowship. They worked at unity in the fellowship. When there was a disagreement, they worked to resolve the disagreement. A little bit later in Acts tension arose because it was felt that the Greek widows were being neglected at the expense of the Hebrew widows. So the twelve apostles chose seven Greek Jews to be in charge of the daily distribution of food. It takes work to maintain relationships. We have to work to overcome disagreements and differences, to understand how other cultures react to situations, but when we do, we benefit. The disciples devoted themselves to the fellowship, working toward the unity of the believers.
The disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread. This is a reference to what we call communion or the Lord’s Supper. This was not just a bit of bread and some juice or wine, as we observe communion today. This likely involved a meal in which they followed the command of Jesus, “Whenever you eat this bread, do so in remembrance of me,” and “Whenever you drink this cup, do so in remembrance of me.”
This also served the purpose of unity among the believers. When believers come to communion, they come in full equality where there is no rich or poor, no male or female, no Spanish-speaking or French-speaking or Korean-speaking or English-speaking, no employer or employee. When believers come to the communion table, they are all sinners in need of salvation. We are all equal when we come to the table of Jesus. We are all desperately in need of a living relationship with Jesus.
And the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. Prayer is also not easy. We struggle, all of us, with prayer. It takes energy and determination to pray. We have to make choices to pray. And when we pray, we are drawn into the mind and heart of God. As we pray, we are transformed and we learn how it is we are to think and feel about what happens around us. And as we pray, we work with Jesus as he reaches out to rescue those who are lost.
Each of these four characteristics of the early church serve the purpose of drawing us closer to God and closer to each other. In each of these activities of the church, the church drew closer to Jesus. The early church focused on Jesus by devoting themselves to these things.
And because the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, there were certain consequences.
Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The early church did not devote themselves to wonders and miraculous signs. The early church did not devote themselves to sharing what they had with others. The early church did not devote themselves to selling what they owned and sharing with those who were in need.
The early church devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer and then some wonderful consequences ensued.
It is very important that we understand the difference between the things we are to devote ourselves to and the consequences that result.
If we devote ourselves to miracles and wonders, then we risk becoming a superficial church, seeking the spectacular, developing techniques to get the results we want. We risk putting on a show that entertains but does not satisfy our deepest needs.
If we decide we want to be a church that shares, we risk becoming a church that creates a legalistic expectation of how we ought to be. We risk becoming a church full of people like Ananias and Sapphira who focused on the consequences rather than the four devotions. Barnabas had sold one of his fields and given the money to the church. Barnabas did this because he was devoted to the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. Ananias and Sapphira liked the admiration that Barnabas received for his gift and so decided they would give a piece of land to the church as well. The problem is that their gift did not come because of their devotion and they focused on the external consequence.
Giving in the early church was voluntary, not mandatory. When we begin to mandate what we consider to be appropriate Christian behavior, we slip into a superficial, lifeless church. We may have the form of a church but we will lack the life of the church.
So if you want to experience what the early church experienced, it is a mistake to work hard at getting everyone to share what they have with everyone else. It is a mistake to work hard to see miracles and wonders in the church. It is a mistake to seek those things that will be the consequence of devotion to God. If you want to have a church that is like the church in Acts, then devote yourself to the activities of the early church that drew them to Jesus.
So we are brought back to what the disciples devoted themselves to.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
We have time now to expand our ministry of teaching. When I was a young follower of Jesus in Boston, on an average week, I studied from six or seven different parts of Scripture. There was a Sunday School class before church where we taught through the entire Bible, book by book, over the course of three or so years. There was a sermon in the morning service. There was a late afternoon meeting of our fellowship during which we shared lessons learned from a chapter of the Bible we had all studied that week. There was a sermon in the evening service. We had a passage we studied in our small group that met each week. And I met with one or two people each week who were exploring a relationship with Jesus or who had recently become followers of Jesus and went through a passage with each of them. In addition I had my daily devotions.
As a consequence, when it came time for me to take my ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church, I walked into the Bible content exam without having studied at all. And I was surprised to hear that others taking that exam had been studying all week long. I scored 86 out of 100 in that exam, without studying, because I had soaked in the word of God over these years.
I would love to begin a class at Villa 91 that meets after church in which we would begin to teach through the Bible. Over the course of three or so years we could cover the entire Bible and then start all over again. This would be such a great addition to our ministry at RIC.
But teaching does not have to be limited to church classes. I want to encourage people to meet in small groups and study the Scriptures together. Even just two people can meet and read and discuss and pray together.
I want RIC to be known as a church that preaches and teaches the word of God, whose members know the word of God.
Villa 91 is now our church home and I am hoping that we will gather frequently at Villa 91 to share with each other, to encourage each other, to celebrate together. We may not have a meal together each week but I believe God is delighted when we gather together and develop deeper relationships. One of the joys of this church is the diversity we have and it is good to make efforts to expand our relationships to cross over national and denominational lines. I am praying that our fellowship will expand and deepen in our new home.
During Easter week a woman visited who had been part of RIC eight or nine years ago and she told people when she returned to the US how impressed she was with the strong sense of fellowship in our church. Another young woman talked with me and told me how impressed she was with the relationships in the church that cross national, denominational, and racial lines. I love hearing these reports and I want RIC to be known as a church where people love each other.
The church quickly became institutionalized and developed rites and rituals that are not necessarily bad but can remove us from the sense of community God wants to encourage. Jesus sat at the Passover Meal with his disciples when he instituted the sacrament of communion. We shared this at our Seder meal this past Easter week. The early church met in houses and shared a meal during which they remembered the body of Christ broken for them and the blood of Christ shed for them. We won’t do this at our potluck today, but perhaps one Sunday we will have a meal at the end of church and celebrate communion during that meal.
I want RIC to be known as a place where Jesus is central in all we do, where we recognize and rejoice in his presence with us.
For a long time I have wanted to have a room dedicated for prayer and now we have one on the top floor. This is a room where you can come, sit and relax, open your Bible, listen to music, reflect, meditate, and let your prayers come from your heart and mind. We will pray for each other, for the churches around Morocco, for the country of Morocco, for the whole world. I have no idea what God will do with our prayers in this room but suspect this could be the most powerful room in the villa.
We now have space so we can offer prayer for those who need prayer. If the Holy Spirit is working in someone’s life during the service, we can encourage that ministry by praying with people during and after the service.
Pierce Pettis wrote a song titled, Crying Ground, which is a metaphor for the church. He writes:
No need to hide what’s going on
Your story’s all over town
But it’s all right if everything is all wrong
Just come on down to the crying ground
Come on down to the crying ground
Let your tears be holy water
Rolling down your face, ain’t no disgrace
Come on down to the crying ground
I want RIC to be known as a place where people can be loved and accepted. I pray Villa 91 will be a crying ground for many people who need so desperately to be loved. I want RIC to be known as a place of prayer.
God has a plan and he is working out his plan to rescue this generation. God endures the suffering of the world, generation after generation, so that more can be rescued and brought into his kingdom. We want to work with him in our prayers, our actions and words. And we want Villa 91 to be a tool Jesus can use to do his work.
I have a vision of Villa 91 bursting with life, with people receiving healing, physical healing and inner healing, with people coming to faith in Jesus, growing in faith. I have a vision of Villa 91 being a home for people who love to give without having people scheming to receive. I would love to see people coming to faith in Jesus every day. But this is the work of God and we are not in charge.
Our responsibility is to teach the word of God, work hard to draw together in fellowship, remember in the breaking of the bread that Jesus is at the center of all we do, and to pray, pray, pray. As we do that, we will continue to be blessed and God only knows what will happen.
We have been given a great gift. We are blessed. We also carry more responsibility and I pray God will help us accept this responsibility with joy and great expectation. As I mentioned last
Sunday, God can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.