Sunday, April 3, 2016

Macedonia Cordially Invites You: Sermon on Acts 15:30--16:12

Good morning, brothers and sisters! It's good to see you all here this morning! It was wonderful to see everybody last week on Easter Sunday – this church sure did feel packed! And it's great to see you now. 

Easter isn't over, you know. Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, as a season in the church year. We're celebrating a whole season of resurrection. Now, all of us know the story of the risen Jesus – how he walked the earth with his disciples for forty days before returning to the right hand of the Father in heaven. The Gospels tell us that much. 

But what comes next? What follows in Easter's light? To find that out, we have to turn to another book: Acts. For the next few months, we're going to be exploring what Acts has to say to us. It's the story of what went on after Jesus rose from the dead. Some have called it a history of the early church, but it actually isn't. It's not a history of the church; it's a history of the mission, a history of the gospel's movement.

We could start from the beginning, in Acts 1. But you might have noticed that that isn't where this morning's passage was from. We're not starting at the beginning. We're leaping feet-first into the middle. After the gift of the Spirit. After the preaching of Peter. After the stoning of Stephen. After the conversion of Paul. 

In chapter ten, Peter introduces a Roman centurion named Cornelius to the faith, after God gives the okay through a vision. In chapter eleven, some of the scattered believers – Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene – began sharing the good news with Greeks living in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas minister there for an entire year, discipline all the new converts and seeing that God's hand was at work in this. Stirred by what they see God doing, they go on a first missionary journey – to Cyprus, to Pamphylia, to other pagan cities, and back to Antioch. 

And once they reached home, “they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). The mission had burst out of its Jewish bounds! It was still for Jews – for Jews first, in fact – but now the Gentiles weren't an afterthought. They were welcomed into God's people on equal terms: through faith.

Not everyone in the church was happy, especially not the groups Paul liked to call Judaizers. Some of them, we see in Jerusalem, were converted Pharisees – like Paul was – but they had a different outlook. In those days, a lot of Jews thought Gentiles could be 'saved' through keeping the few rules God gave to Noah, but to be a part of God's people, to have fellowship on equal terms with God's chosen Israel, you had to convert and become fully Jewish – obey the whole Law, be circumcised, the whole shebang. 

Paul and Barnabas knew better. They saw that God was leading the way. So the apostles and elders met at the Jerusalem Council to make the call: Is faith in Jesus enough to make anybody part of God's people? Were Paul's new converts second-class strangers, or were they citizens of the kingdom? We know how things turned out: Non-Jews in Jesus – all or most of us, I'd guess – belong to God's people through faith and faith alone; we're only asked to behave well, like visitors to Israel always were, and not to throw up obstacles to the fellowship Jesus started (Acts 15:20). God had already “purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9), full salvation as part of God's people comes “through the grace of our Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11), and that settles that. If they – we! – get the Holy Spirit, that's no second-class salvation!

And that brings us to this first important scene in our passage. When the Jerusalem Council draws to a close, the apostles and elders have put together a letter to send to the Gentile believers, carried by a pair of head honchos and prophets named Silas and Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22-29). They head to Antioch, the center of the whole controversy, where everything spilled over into the smoldering mess that ignited the trouble. All the people of the church come together to hear the letter (Acts 15:30). Paul and Barnabas stay stationed there for a while, but Judas and Silas are there as visitors – guest preachers – conference ministers or district field directors, if you will – and they “said much to encourage and strengthen the believers” (Acts 15:32).

Later on, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp disagreement” about Mark – Paul doesn't want to forgive him for deserting them earlier – and so Barnabas takes Mark, and Paul joins up with Silas, and they go around to revisit the churches they've started (Acts 15:36-41). After picking up a convert named Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), what do Paul and Silas do? “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey” (Acts 16:4). In other words, they brought news from headquarters. But it doesn't sound like it'd be good news, does it? I mean, the letter tells them what to do! Who wants a new set of rules? Who wants to be reminded that somebody's in a position to boss them around?

Well, it is good news. It lets them know they aren't alone. It lets the churches know that the Judaizers are wrong – they really are saved – and the people who know Jesus best say so. They don't need to throw themselves into a complex faith, full of legalistic intricacies. These churches Paul and Silas visit are getting news of the gospel all over again – that when they first believed in Christ, first entrusted themselves to Christ, then they were in – no extra hoops to jump through! 

And yes, some things are expected of them in the aftermath. They can't give in to idolatry. They can't give in to sexual immorality. They need to avoid bloody and strangled food – the kinds that reek of pagan religious practices. They shouldn't put any unnecessary obstacles between them and their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. But neither will extra obstacles be tossed their way in return. So this letter from HQ really is good news to them. They aren't alone. The leaders in Jerusalem are thinking about them all the way up here in Cilicia – the south coast of Turkey – and northward into Lycaonia. Folks like Peter and James are praying for them and looking out for the best interests of Gentile believers they've never met.

And so what's the outcome of Paul and Silas traveling around to bring this word back to the churches? “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (Acts 16:5). That's an echo of what happened in the Jerusalem church after Pentecost, when “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). In other words, because of this word of encouragement from HQ, the churches way up in Syria and Cilicia and beyond were feeling bold and confident and strong – they were dedicated to the mission they had in their own backyards – and God granted the growth (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:7). Church focus and church growth were spurred on by the impact of hearing this good news from Jerusalem.

And you might be thinking, “Well, what could that possibly mean for us, here at Pequea?” Here's the takeaway. Churches do not live alone. No more than Christians live alone. We who've gathered here know the second truth. The Christian life isn't a walk we do by ourselves, from the comfort of our own homes, watching televangelists on a screen, and thinking that's enough. The Christian life requires involvement in one another's lives! 

There's a reason the words “one another” crop up so often through all Paul's letters. When the Holy Spirit's handing out spiritual gifts, he spreads them throughout the church. If our Christian lives are each jigsaw puzzles, you're missing most of your pieces, and you've got plenty that other people need. When we hold apart, when we lose touch, then our growth is stunted and stalled. God made us to need each other. His design for the Christian life is life together, life as the church. That's why we meet together at least once a week. It's not just to feel better about ourselves, as if our private lives were the main thing. Church services are for refocusing and strengthening ourselves for the church's kingdom ministry. Whatever we do, we're meant to do as members of the church.

Just the same, churches don't live alone. We aren't meant to have all the resources for kingdom ministry here within these walls, here in this group of great people God's gathered. The ministry of Pequea EC isn't about us – it isn't about meeting our needs, or fulfilling our wants. The ministry of Pequea EC is about nothing less than the kingdom of God! We are inviting and leading people into a new world where Jesus is King; and we are helping that world to crash down on this one. We serve Christ's invasion. 

And when we set our eyes and minds and hearts on the kingdom and not just on our local church, then it sets us free to do things we never dreamed we would! It sets us free to work selflessly side-by-side with other local churches – whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, you name it. So long as those churches are really churches, where the word of God is faithfully taught, where Jesus is lifted high, where the common faith is confessed – then if we lead a thousand people to the Lord and every single one of them goes to one of those churches as God leads them, then we've served the kingdom, and that is all that matters. Our church lives best when we're not so much Pequea-minded as kingdom-minded – when we have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

But there's more. For the churches in Cilicia to band together, to cooperate, was not enough to spur the kind of growth Luke portrays here. What these churches needed was to hear from Jerusalem – from headquarters. That gave the encouragement they needed. They didn't just need to hear from their local pastors; they needed a visit from Paul and Silas; they needed the letter from the apostles and elders. The churches in Syria and Cilicia had to realize they were part of something bigger than themselves, and that there were leaders in the Church who were thinking and praying about how best to support those little distant churches way up in Cilicia. Wouldn't it be great if we had something like that?

And we do! At Pequea, we belong to a denomination. It's called the Evangelical Congregational Church. It's more than just a string of letters on the sign outside. We have a bishop, Bruce Hill. You've met him – he preached here just a few months ago, and most of you heard him a few weeks ago too. Right now, we have a conference minister, Gordy Lewis; soon we'll instead have a district field director, Keith Miller. Once a year, our National Conference meets – just like the Jerusalem Council met, gathering leaders and elders together to make big decisions and refresh each other. And words of encouragement are constantly coming from Church Center in Myerstown – messages to help us keep our focus, keep our confidence, and move forward. 

And I can assure you that we gain more from being in this denomination than we would by breaking off on our own. We can always find things to complain about. But think about this: not only do we get plenty of encouraging words from them, but they pray for us all the time, they make resources available, and they take an active interest in helping us when we let them know how things are going with the ministry here. In our post-denominational age, it would be easy to resent them, to think of them as a burden, to miss out on what they offer. But if we instead love and welcome them, if we pray for them like they pray for us, if we receive their encouragement, then we – you – can be strengthened in faith, too.

So back to Acts. What happens when the churches of Cilicia have all gotten the news Paul, Silas, and Timothy came around to bring? “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (Acts 16:6-7). Those verses always struck me as weird. Is it just me? Or did it ever seem weird to you too that the Spirit put the brakes on Paul's ministry in those places? I mean, isn't the Spirit's aim to take the brakes off? Well, sometimes. As it turns out, somebody will plant churches there – Peter tells us that in one of his letters – but that isn't what Paul's meant to do now. The Spirit wants to send him somewhere with greater need.

We'll get back to that in a bit. But let's slow down here and recognize what's happening. When Paul goes out to spread the good news in new places, he does not get to decide to go where he wants, when he wants, how he wants. Oh, he can try. I mean, he tried to go preach in Bithynia. That was Paul's plan. But he got different marching orders from up above. Specifically, he was stopped in his tracks by “the Spirit of Jesus.” 

Here's the big takeaway: Jesus has not left his church alone! He has not left the mission alone! Last week, we celebrated Easter. We shouted hallelujah to the news that Jesus did not stay in the grave; that death could not hold him, can never touch him again; that Jesus is alive forevermore! Jesus came back to earth; Jesus returned to heaven; but Jesus is not now a spectator, munching popcorn on the throne of grace. The risen Jesus is actively involved in what we are doing. Jesus is still King of the Kingdom. Jesus is still Head of the Church. Jesus never took his Spirit away. Jesus remains the star of the show. Easter – Resurrection – isn't a day of the year. It's the new title for the story of the world. We live in Easter's light.

Maybe there are times when you feel like you're running under your own steam. Maybe there are times when you don't know what to do, and worse, you're not sure anybody cares. But here's the promise: Jesus cares, Jesus knows, Jesus gives strength. When he asks us to follow him, he doesn't mean to get to work while he watches! He means that he's leading us, going on before us, shouldering the brunt of the burden. He doesn't call us his servants; he calls us his friends. If Jesus were dead – if Jesus had gone the way of every other religious leader before or since – if he were nothing more than Confucius or Buddha or Muhammad or Zoroaster – well, then he would be on the sidelines now. He'd be in the bleachers. 

But Jesus isn't dead! Jesus got back on the field with us. And he may not be physically on earth, but what do you think he meant when he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)? It means he's our living, active, present Leader. Not just in the Acts of the Apostles, but in the Acts of Pequea... the Acts of Carl and Grace, the Acts of Wilmer and Mary Jane, the Acts of Joe, the Acts of Bill, the Acts of Bobbie, the Acts of Mike and Wanda and Julie. Our lives could all be retitled The Acts of the Risen Jesus! Don't rely on your own steam or your own wisdom. Let the Spirit of the Risen Jesus stand in your way, let the Spirit of the Risen Jesus turn you around.

Back to Acts again. The third scene is what happens next: “So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us!' After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:8-10). Jesus didn't stop them just to have them sit around. When it became clear that Jesus was keeping them out of Bithynia, they did the best thing they could do: they got in a position for whatever he might have in store next. They went to Troas, a seaside settlement near the ancient battleground of the Trojan War. It was the perfect place for launching out to sea.

Too often, we miss what's going on here, when Paul makes the move to Macedonia. This is actually a big shift. A few hundred years before, a man made the opposite trip – from Macedonia to Troas – but for very different reasons. That man was Alexander the Great, and he came to bring war. Here, Paul retraces Alexander's route backwards from Troas to Macedonia, bringing not the invasion of troops of war but the invasion of the gospel of peace. 

And so Paul travels from what's now Turkey to what's now Greece – from the continent of Asia to the continent of Europe. Paul's never been there before! And although some believers have already been living in a few places in Europe by then, the point is that the mission is spreading into new territory. Specifically, when he sets foot in Macedonia, Paul will soon find himself on the Via Egnatia, the Roman road that leads to the capital city of the empire. With this passage, we flip to the second half of the story, as the kingdom mission makes its way from Jerusalem to Rome.

In other words, Jesus wasn't content to let Paul keep doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of place. Jesus did not want Paul to keep retreading old ground. Jesus gave Paul a new setting and a new ministry. That must have been an uncomfortable moment for Paul. Ministry in the Middle East – Paul knew how to do that. He had networks of churches just a province over. He knew what he was in for. It was – so far as Paul's sort of dangerous life goes – comfortable. He was in the zone! But Jesus asked him to leave the Middle East, to leave Asia, to go to that strange continent called Europe. That's trailblazing. That's new ground. That's a frontier – no other churches around, no believers at first outside his team.

Sometimes, we're in the same boat. We want to keep treading the same ground. We want to keep doing the same kind of thing. We've settled into our routines. We're comfortable with the kind of people we've got in our lives. But Jesus has other plans for your lives. And I believe Jesus has something new planned for this church. We are here in this place to spread the gospel, to make Christ's invitation known. That's always why we've been here. But we live in a rapidly changing world. We know that. The world is plenty different now than it was when I was a kid, and most of you would say that's recent history. I believe God is calling us from our Asia – our happy, safe, familiar ways of 'doing church' – to our Europe – a new kind of ministry.

I don't believe it'll be easy. We don't know the terrain so well. It will ask changes of us. It won't be all different – it's the same gospel, after all, and we'll meet familiar kinds of faces along the way. But 'doing church' the same old way, ministering like we're still in Asia – that won't cut it. 

I don't know what our Macedonian ministry will look like. But I do know that, just as Paul dreamed a Macedonian man desperate for the gospel, so all over Salisbury Township and the neighborhoods around it, there are plenty of “Macedonians” – people hungry for the gospel of Jesus Christ, people we are not reaching by doing the same things we've done before!

Friends, we have the leadership of the EC Church behind us; we have the fellowship of the saints beside us; we have the Risen Jesus above us; we have his Spirit among and within us; and we have the Macedonian invitation before us. Our community cordially invites us, and Jesus sends us: “God has sent us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). 

If you aren't sure what you're doing in life – if it all seems like just a routine – then let me suggest this is what you need to hear. We – all of us – are on a mission from God. All around us, people silently cry out in their souls, “Come over and help us!” Macedonia cordially invites you. Please don't say you'd rather stay in Asia.

No comments:

Post a Comment