I didn't want to have to look everything up and give you exact references for what I write below. I do, however, tell you where I got it, how I know it, and how you can find it, too.
Jesus said that you'd be able to tell true prophets from false ones by their fruit (Matthew ch. 7). What I say below all concerns the difference between what works and what doesn't work. The things I write below are proven to be true by the fact that they work.
What does it mean that they work? Everyone knows that Christianity is about love. They will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another, the Bible says (John 13:34,35). In another place, he prayed that his disciples would have unity so the world will know that you [i.e., God] sent me (John 17:20-23). So Christianity really is about love. The disciples are even referred to as the household—or family— of God. Yet although we all know Christianity is about love, we also know that most Christians are not about love. Christianity is just about the most divided group of people on earth.
It wasn't always so, and it isn't always so today. The things I describe below are secrets to the success of various people who have found the power of God to love throughout history and who are also living that way today. This is not a pitch for any denomination. This is simply history and reality. In fact, it's sort of a pitch against denominations.
In the Bible, the Book of Acts describes a people following God that make us all want to be like them. In chapters two and four it talks about there being no needy among them because they took such good care of one another that they even sold their lands and houses so that they could share with the needy. They had favor with the people, and they had such power with God that some were afraid of them. The story of the church in Jerusalem that starts towards the end of chapter two and goes through the end of chapter four in Acts is really inspiring. If you believe in Jesus at all, it will make you think, Gosh, that's the way we ought to be living.
Christianity today is failing at living that way, and so they have to explain why they're failing. Most Christians will tell you that the sort of life you read about in Acts only happened in Jerusalem. It didn't happen like that elsewhere. This, however, is poppycock; it's just a myth because there's something Christians, as a whole, don't want to face. Jesus' demands are a lot stricter than most Christian denominations will tell you. Read through Luke 14:26-33 sometime. Jesus says you cannot be his disciple unless you hate your family (I comment on this shocking statement below), your own life, take up your cross, and forsake all your possessions. Then he tells a story about a man who started building a tower without counting the cost, then looked like a fool because he couldn't complete it. So he tells us that we should consider the cost before we consider following him. How many times have you heard a church preach that?
150 years after the Book of Acts, a bishop by the name of Irenaeus says that the churches of his day are so united that it seems like they have the same mouth and the same heart. He makes a poetic statement that as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole earth, so the preaching of the truth shines everywhere and is one (paraphrased from memory; it's in Against Heresies, book I, chapter 10; you can find it on the web at www.ccel.org, as you can all the following quotes). So these people were united like the church in Acts. Did they also share like the church in Acts?
Justin Martyr, writing in about A.D. 150, wrote a letter to the emperor defending the Christian faith, and he said, We who once valued above all things the acquisition of wealth now bring what we have into a common treasury and share with those who are in need (First Apology 14). Tertullian, writing a half century later, agrees. One in heart and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly possessions with one another. All things are common among us except our wives (Apology 39).
It's simply not true that only the church in Jerusalem lived like this. As you can see, the Book of Acts sort of life went on for at least close to two centuries. Paul, the apostle, once wrote the Corinthians and asked them to give money for the church in Jerusalem, which had suffered a famine. He told them that now, while they have an abundance, they should share, but later, if the church in Jerusalem had an abundance, then they'd be able to share. The purpose, he said, of all this was that there would be an equality (I think this is in 2 Corinthians 8.)
The reason for writing this section is to talk about a Gospel that worked. The Gospel that worked, that made Christians be one, love one another, and take care of one another, involved actually believing and doing what Jesus taught. Jesus taught people not to store up treasures on earth (Matthew, ch. 6). Paul, in that same letter to Timothy (1 Timothy, ch. 6), said that people who want to be rich fall into many harmful temptations and a trap. So the whole American things of buying fancy homes, fancy furniture, a yacht, and other toys is just not Christian, at least by Jesus' standards.
The quotes I gave above from Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian are not just a couple quotes I read. I've read their writings repeatedly, as well as the rest of the writings that are available from the second century church. (Again, you can get those at www.ccel.org.) They took Jesus' words seriously. Justin starts out his First Apology by talking about the things Jesus taught from his own lips. An apology means a defense. A number of these were written from the mid 2nd century to the early 3rd century. Generally they were letters to the emperor explaining who the Christians were and what they believed so that the emperor wouldn't just persecute them based on rumor.
So if Christians are going to experience what the early church experienced and show the world a real Christianity, they are going to have preach a true Gospel, the same one Jesus, the apostles, and the apostles' churches preached. That involves actually telling people about things like Luke chapter 14 and considering the cost of being Jesus' disciple.
I told you I'd stick to the facts. Everything above is just facts. Let me talk a little about interpreting those facts because otherwise you're going to make some assumptions about what I'm saying. I am not advocating a communist system. That statement about an equality is what Paul said. There are people who don't believe Paul actually advocated a communist system even in the church. I'm one of those. One of the letters to Timothy, which not everyone agrees Paul wrote, says that Timothy should command those who are rich in this world to share and to be rich in good deeds. So apparently he wasn't stripping Christians of their wealth, just asking them to take care of one another. Even if Paul didn't write that letter, it was used by people like Justin and Tertullian, quoted above, and accepted as the authoritative word of an apostle. They would have agreed with that statement in Timothy. In fact, both of them, in the same chapters that I quoted above, say that all such giving was free will, not mandated.
I don't believe that Jesus actually meant for us to hate our families, in the sense of not liking them or treating them badly. The fact is, though, that family is one of the major reasons for not going all the way for God. There's a story in one of the Gospels about Jesus telling a young man to follow him. The young man replied, Let me first go and bury my father. Jesus replied, Let the dead bury the dead. You, follow me.
Now, people tell me that the young man's request, in that society, did not mean that his father was dead. What he really meant was, Let me stay with my dad and help him run things here. Once he dies, I can be free to follow you. I don't know whether that's true or not, but I do know that Jesus was having none of it either way. Come on, he says, your family doesn't matter..
We're supposed to love everyone. You can love your family, too, but you had better hate them as well so that you can simply leave them if they will not follow Christ with you. That may seem harsh, but Jesus didn't offer an alternative way to be his disciple. He said you cannot be his disciple if you don't hate your parents, siblings, wife, and children. What's funny is that he says in another place that if you give them up you'll get a hundred times more in this life. Interesting, isn't it? Originally, Christianity really did bring you into a new family. Other Christians were not people you attended meetings with, they were real family.
I believe that this can only happen supernaturally. Obviously, Jesus and the apostles did, too. Paul, for example, said that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, (sorry, don't remember where that is, probably the letter to the Romans).
One of my favorite examples is a lady named Carole Vezey. She runs a ministry in Uganda called Favour of God Ministries. I'm sure you can look it up on the web. She came to visit us at Rose Creek Village for a week. She's a nut by just about anyone's standards. She heard about starving children in 3rd-world countries, and she started trying to send money to them. She was a single mother of three children, and she eventually sold all her furniture to help feed third-world orphans. Finally, she could bear it no more, and she headed to Africa to actually help people there in person.
At the start she was involved with a ministry in Kampala, Uganda. Kampala was a somewhat safe place to be, but at that time northern Uganda was under the terrorist control of a group called the Lord's Resistance Army. It was awful. The Ugandan government had shut down some villages and brought citizens together in camps so that they would be easier to defend against this horrible organization. It didn't work very well. The LRA had members hidden away in the camps, and they would make friends with people, then break into their houses at night, terrorize the family, and steal the children to become soldiers for the LRA leader.
Thank God that today that LRA leader is holed up in a forest in Uganda. Northern Uganda has been safe for three or four years. However, Carole couldn't wait for it to be safe. She needed to preach the Gospel to those terrorized people in northern Uganda, so she moved to Gulu—against everyone's advice, of course. On the way there, she was looking out both sides of the bus in great fear, and she said God asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was afraid, and she said God spoke to her inside and said, Perfect love casts out fear, which is a Scripture from 1 John. So she focused on loving those people in Uganda, and she wasn't afraid anymore.
When she arrived in Gulu, she didn't know what to do, so she just prayed. Over time God brought people across her path, and those people became Favour of God Ministries. I visited them in the Spring of 2008, and there's about 70 people, almost all African, working there. They are helping to counsel people whose lives were devastated by the LRA, they're helping churches to give up their selfish, divisive, and self-promoting ways so that they can work together, and they have a number of other ministries there.
Obviously, I'm not easy on modern Christianity. I speak against it, and I call people to return to the Christianity that Jesus and the apostles preach, and I make people uncomfortable because I really know what I'm talking about. At Favour of God Ministries I was right at home. There was no divisions and no denominational battles. We talked, we laughed, we prayed, and we preached together. Unfortunately, only being there three days, I mostly had to watch them help people because they know what they're doing better than I do, but I did get to help them put up a fence one day. (I also got to eat white ants, which were neither white nor ants, but they were bugs.)
Everywhere I go and find people like Carole Vezey there is no division. No one asks me what I believe about the method of baptism. No one asks me whether I speak in tongues or believe in eternal security. We simply go about the business of laying down our lives for Christ and for other people and an amazing love, that I believe comes from the Holy Spirit of God, makes our hearts more and more one every day.
This is real Christianity, and it works—every time.