The Fervent Church

Acts 18:23-28

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / May 14, 2006


            I began my week on Tuesday morning, opening the church mail, which had arrived on Monday.  Amid the mail was an update from ‘head office’ regarding the state of my pension. The notice informed me that I was free to retire in 2033.


            Seeing the date 2033 brought me some perspective. Now, of course, any number of things could happen to me between now and then—I realize that. But I couldn’t help my imagination from wandering from 2006 to 2033. Where would I be? Would I be retiring from St. Giles Kingsway in 2033, or would I be two or three congregations removed from here?


Indeed, only the Lord knows the answer to that . . . but I would like to share something with you from the depths of my heart: My intention and my hope is to remain at St. Giles Kingsway indefinitely.


            Why is that? There are many reasons, not the least is my dear wife’s threats and instruction about not disrupting our household as I did in 2002 when we left Beeton. More seriously though, as time goes on, as I gain more opportunities to be with the people who gather here, my affection for you grows.


That alone, however, would not necessarily keep me here indefinitely. Something greater than my personal affection for you is required—I would need to know that our relationship, the relationship between minister and congregation, was effectively promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


            Part of what I would like to communicate to you this morning is my heartfelt optimism that our co-labouring for the Gospel will succeed in bearing fruit. I would not remain here if I felt otherwise. I could not remain here if I felt that we were not going to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives for the glory of Jesus Christ. I am optimistic—we will make a difference.


            First and foremost, my faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ—I think you know that about me already. But I hope you also know that I believe in you. Yes, I have great confidence in the people of the Lord gathered here and, for this reason I regard St. Giles Kingsway as being capable of great things.


Indeed, you could say that we are already doing great things, but I view the ceiling of what we are capable of accomplishing to be even higher and—with God’s help—it is a ceiling we can someday reach.


Hence, this sermon series. This series, ‘The Marks of a Healthy Church’ is not my approach to bringing healing to a sick congregation. No! This series has the high ceiling in view. This series is a portrait of what is possible when we walk closely with Jesus.


As the title suggests, our corporate disposition and energy level provides some evidence about our health as a congregation. Did you know that, in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul actually commands us to be “fervent in spirit”? (Rom. 12:11). We conclude, therefore, that this characteristic is not some optional add-on, but is fundamentally important to our health and effectiveness as a local church.


The same phrase Paul employs in Romans 12 is used by Luke in Acts 18 to describe Apollos. Luke describes “a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:24, 25).


            Luke says that Apollos was fervent; Paul commands you and I to be fervent—what exactly does that mean? The Greek word used by Luke and Paul is the word zeo (pronounced ‘dzeh-o’). Literally translated, zeo means, ‘to be hot’. It is a word used to describe boiling liquids or the glow that arises from solids that are heated.


            We sometimes refer to a short-tempered person as being a ‘hot head’. I don’t think that is how Luke regards Apollos. Certainly Paul is not commanding the Christian community to resemble a group of easily agitated ‘hot heads’. And yet, let’s not miss the force of the word meaning, ‘to be hot’.


            In some Christian circles you hear individuals described as being ‘on fire for the Lord’. Given what we read about Apollos, that description may not be far off what it means to be fervent.


            A caution should be stated here. Fervency without biblical prudence will not promote God’s glory. You have seen such examples on your television set. The preacher paces back and forth across a stage—when he’s not shouting, he’s wiping the sweat from his brow. He’s passionate, he’s excited about his message, and he does everything he can to get the crowd excited about his message.


            But there’s something fundamentally wrong. The preacher has taken a single verse from Acts 19 (v.12) completely out of context, and is now insisting that the viewers at home call the 1-800 line immediately to order one of his green ‘prosperity handkerchiefs’, which he has personally blessed.


            No doubt about it—this preacher is fervent—but is this the fervency Paul calls you and I to? Is this what Apollos was like?


            I don’t think so. Luke presents Apollos as a balanced individual. With Apollos, you get both light and heat; you get responsible biblical exposition and you get a preacher on fire . . . “fervent in spirit, (Apollos) was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25).


            We have already noted the danger of having heat without light. We should balance that notation with a warning about possessing light without heat. As Presbyterians, we often pride ourselves with our scholarship. We cherish the intellectual heritage from which we have come—from Calvin to Knox, from Rutherford to Bonar—we have benefited from many who have thought deeply, and have written extensively, about what the Bible is calling the church to do. 


            We have a reputation of possessing a great deal of light, but other denominations have challenged us regarding the extent to which we give off heat. Frankly, I take no delight in the nickname sometimes assigned to Presbyterians: ‘The Frozen Chosen’. Apollos was not frozen in his delivery of a biblical message, and neither should we be cold in our expression of the Christian faith.    


            Now, I admit, congregational fervency is difficult to measure. It’s not as if I can wander into the sanctuary on Sunday morning with a device that will measure the spiritual energy in the room. I lack a resource that will tell me what the current level of spiritual fervency is at St. Giles Kingsway.


            And yet, Luke is able to discern that Apollos is fervent. Fervency then, must be something we can reasonably detect; fervency must be observable in some regard. Otherwise, it would be cruel for Paul to command something of us that is impossible to confirm.


            I want to encourage you this morning and share with you what some of our newer attendees have said about St. Giles Kingsway. I often hear newer folks talk about the ‘warmth’ they observe in this place. These folks do not always articulate specifically what they like about worshipping here, but they are moved and encouraged by a genuine sense of warmth.


            It should be noted, however, that Paul is not merely commanding fervency for Sunday morning, but he is commanding fervency for life. Paul is insisting that every part of our lives be marked by a kind of warm spiritual energy. Our Christian fervency, if it is deeply embedded within us, will give off heat in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our community.


By contrast, if our warmth on Sunday morning cools as we drive out of the church parking lot, we need to question whether our fervency was genuinely from the Lord or whether it was a self-manufactured façade.


            Many of you are aware that I came to faith as a teenager at a Christian camp, even though I had spent considerable time in a Presbyterian congregation as a child. And lest anyone think that fervency is some optional, non-essential, Christian trait, I need to tell you it was the fervency of the camp staff (summer after summer) that I found to be the most compelling evidence of the reality of Jesus Christ and His love.


            Parents of young children are often warned that, ‘it’s not what your children hear from you that impacts them, as much as it is what they see from you that affects their behaviour.’ The same can be said of the witness of a local congregation—our orthodox doctrine and our sophisticated forms of worship will likely not compel anyone unless it is accompanied by a fervent faith. Unless we are seen to be ‘on fire for the Lord’, our testimony to the community around us will be greatly compromised.


            If you agree with this, that fervency is vital to the health of a congregation, what can we do to enhance our level of fervency? How do we increase the warmth of our faith?


            I submit to you that increased fervency is gained by living in close proximity to Jesus Christ. In the same way the warmth of the earth is largely determined by the proximity of the sun, so too is the fervency of the Christian determined by his/her proximity to the Son of God.


            If the light of the Lord shines upon you, you will be fervent. By contrast, if you keep your distance from Jesus, your spirit will grow cool. It is as simple as that.


            Unfortunately, there are cold congregations out there. There are congregations where fervency is nowhere to be found. I have heard some of you remark of such congregations following a visit there.


I am thankful, as I mentioned earlier, that St. Giles Kingsway has been described by some of our newcomers as a ‘warm’ congregation. That’s a wonderful compliment for us to receive.


            Friends, I hear Paul calling us still further along. I see more in Luke’s description of Apollos than a warm and friendly man. I picture a man who is hot about his relationship with Jesus. Apollos is bubbling over with enthusiasm; his zeal reveals a deeply embedded passion for the things of Christ.


            Let us covet that kind of fervent zeal for ourselves. Let us covet that level of spiritual energy for St. Giles Kingsway. To that end, I implore you to pray often as you live in close proximity to the Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.