Sunday, April 24, 2016

Berea: Being More Noble: Sermon on Acts 17:10-15

Good morning, brothers and sisters. Last week, as we left these missionaries, they were being kicked out of the city of Thessalonica. Things got a bit hot there. Some treason charges were floated. And it wasn't safe for Paul and the others to stick around any longer. So they had to get out of town. 

Up until then, they'd been taking the main Roman road that leads straight to Rome, the Via Egnatia. Thessalonica is on that road. But they don't go along that road any more. Berea, the city they end up at, is not on that road. It's not even on the main road leading south. Paul and his friends are going off-roading. They are deviating from the plan they'd been going with.

And the question is, why? I think there are three reasons that lead them to take the detour. First of all, they now know that Jews are, for the time being, banned from Rome. There's no rush to get there. The second thing that probably motivates them is that going along that road would take them into territory that, honestly, the local believers are better equipped to handle. And the third reason is that folks from Thessalonica are going to hunt Paul down. They're going to expect him to take one of those two roads. So he's going somewhere else.

Now, the beautiful thing is that we know Paul does end up in Rome, which is his desired destination. That's where Paul is trying to get to, and he will get there. He's just going on a bit of a different path than he pictured. It's going to take longer, and it may feel like he's going in circles at times. We know what that's like, don't we? What it's like to seem like we have this vision of where we should be, but it seems like we're going in circles, we're veering off the beaten path. We go and we think, “How on earth are we going to get back where we're headed?”

Well, the beautiful thing that we learn from even this incidental tidbit about Paul's itinerary is that, yes, sometimes God takes us the roundabout way – but he will get us where he wants us to go. And the detour may be exactly what the world needs. See, if Paul had taken either of those main roads, he would have missed the city of Berea. He never would have gotten to bring the gospel to the people we read about in this passage, these people who are, as it turns out, very, very ready for what Paul has to say. He needed to get to Berea. He may not have known that. But God did. So even though the persecution, even through the banning of his people from Rome, God made sure that the message was heard by those who were most ready to receive it.

So they get to Berea. Now, just like in Thessalonica, Paul and his team – Silas and Timothy are with him – what do they do? What's their custom? Head straight for the synagogue! There are six days in the week to mingle with folks in the marketplace. But the Sabbath – ah, the Sabbath is the time to give the gospel to the Jew first. 

And so on arriving in Berea, the missionaries went straight for the synagogue (Acts 17:10), and they lay out the case for the gospel – just like they do everywhere else. In Thessalonica, they got away with this for three weeks before getting the boot. But the Jews of Berea don't react that way. They're “more noble” (Acts 17:11). And the big question before us this Sunday, as we gather together like they did, is: What makes them so much more noble? What credit accrues to the Bereans' character here?

First of all, Luke writes that “they received the message with great eagerness” (Acts 17:11). They could have just ignored Paul. They could have walked out. They could have plugged up their ears and shouted, “La-la-la, we can't hear you!” They could have given Paul the boot! But they did none of those things. Instead, they were excited to hear what he had to say. 

Now, they didn't know Paul from Adam. They know he's a Jew, they're Jews, but he's got some weird take on things that they've never heard of before. Why are they excited to hear some fringe Jewish wanderer peddle his idiosyncratic spin on the faith received once and... for all?... by the children of Israel?

The answer to that is, they were hungry for God! These men and women had a relentless yearning, a heartfelt passion, for more of him. And if listening to Paul could give them even a scrap of new insight or a tidbit of a taste of how good their LORD is, then, they figure, isn't that worth their time this sabbath? They have a hunger for God that puts many of us to shame. Theirs is not a sabbath-only religion. Theirs is not a perfunctory devotion. Theirs is an all-consuming passion that changes how they live – and makes them better.

See, the Thessalonian Jews, their religion made them worse. It made them violent zealots, full of envy and pride and hard-heartedness, manipulative enough to stir up a mob and pin the crime on Paul. And that is not at all what the Law of Moses was supposed to do for them! “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,” the Law said, with no partiality, no distortion, no other motives whatsoever (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). The Law demanded that Israelites should never “spread a false report” or “join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness” (Exodus 23:1). 

And that is exactly – exactly – what the Thessalonian Jews did. Sure, they could justify their meanness. They could point to exigent circumstances, talk a big game about the “greater good.” But the fact of the matter is, in the way they reacted to Paul and his message, all their religiosity defied the Torah, debased their character, and took them further away from God.

The Berean Jews have a different story. Their religion made them better. This nobility here – it isn't a matter of breeding, like the Berean Jews just crawled out of the deeper end of the gene pool. No, what happened is that their religiosity is what God meant for it to be – something ennobling, something that builds up good character, something that's focused on him and not on themselves – something that holds them accountable, rather than giving license to their whims and desires. We all could use a hefty dose of that kind of religion, that kind of piety – the kind that makes us noble, the kind that makes us consistent.

The Bereans have a hunger for God. And because they have a hunger for God, and because they know that his Law demands truth and fairness for all, they receive the message with great eagerness. What that means, in essence, is that they've got “passion before” – they're excited, they're driven, they're ready and rarin' to go, all before they even have something in Paul's preaching to get really excited about. The Berean Jews are “predisposed,” inclined from the get-go, to be ready and willing to hear him out. In short, their hunger for God makes them open-minded – in a very specific way, as we'll see in a couple minutes.

Now, let's be honest. If you had to write up a list of the top ten traits the church has a reputation for, as viewed by our neighbors, “open-minded” is not very likely to make the list. Its opposite might show up. And partly, partly, that's because we don't lie down and nod vigorously to everything the culture says – well, the healthy parts of the church don't, at least. But partly it's because the American church has a serious listening deficit. 

To look at us sometimes, you'd think the Body of Christ has three mouths and no ears – because we talk, and we talk, and we talk, but we don't listen. We're eager to get things moving with our canned evangelistic strategies, our methods that are supposed to work on any man or woman, without knowing the slightest thing about them – just get them to agree to a few quick things, and then blast 'em with the bad news and the good news, right? Or, if we don't feel like taking the risk that somebody might actually say something that goes off-script, maybe we'll just leave a tract – the perfect way to get a message across without ever having to hear what anyone else says.

Maybe canned evangelism is better than no evangelism – which is the other big pitfall we trip into, especially those of us in a traditional church with lots of churched neighbors and churched friends. But better than both is listening evangelism – an evangelism that takes seriously the biblical advice to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). We share the good news best when we know someone well enough to know what they believe and why they believe it; what they've been through, and how they feel about it; what they think they're doing great with, what they struggle with, what they like and dislike and where they are in this big journey called life – and that's not going to happen outside of a relationship where we listen. 

Are there times to share the gospel blind, just preach in the streets and from the rooftops? Sure. But if we had a reputation for being “quick to listen, slow to speak,” and yet at the right time we surely would speak... well, we might see something exciting happen. And not just as a means to an end – we might learn new perspectives ourselves. We should be certain about what the Bible teaches, but maybe not so certain we've figured out once and for all what that is.

So the Bereans were more noble because they received the message eagerly, because they were hungry for God; and because they were hungry for God, it made them open-minded. At the same time, Luke writes, they were more noble for a second reason: that “they searched … to see whether these things were true” (Acts 17:11). In other words, they didn't just take some visiting teacher's word for it. They didn't listen attentively to Paul and say, “Hey, sounds great, say no more, I'm in.” Like I said, they don't know Paul from Adam. Paul's telling the truth, but what about the guy who was there three weeks earlier, or the fellow who's coming next month?

And make no mistake: as Paul himself says, there are false teachers out there – people with bad ideas that sound good but will answer your hunger for God by stuffing your soul with junk food and making your head spin. Those “evildoers and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Maybe they started out with a lie, but now they really buy into what they're selling – but that doesn't mean you should buy it! In fact, don't buy it. But how can we not buy it, and still be open-minded? How can we do both? How can we welcome the message eagerly, but still search to see whether it's true?

The Bereans give you the answer: they were open-minded enough to hear, but critical enough to test. “Test all things; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). The Bereans give Paul a fair hearing, but that doesn't mean they switch off their brains. Berean faith is a thinking faith. What was Reagan's phrase – “Trust but verify”? Well, the Berean motto is, “Listen but verify.” On something this important especially, don't just buy it because somebody told you, or you read it in a magazine, or you saw it on the nine o'clock news, or it's trending on the Internet, or even because you heard it in church from a pastor or a teacher. Listen... but verify.

The Bereans are noble because they listen – which is more than most Thessalonians did. The Bereans are noble because they want to verify. But, third and greatest of all, the Bereans are “more noble” because of how they did those things: “They searched the scriptures every day to see if these things were true” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans weren't content to 'verify' Paul's message by asking if it already agreed with what they believed – if it confirmed their biases, spoke to their prejudices, if it gave them a pat on the back and an attaboy – in other words, if it “tickled their ears.” 

That's the standard plenty of us today use to decide whether we should believe something. It's the reason that, even within the church (let alone outside of it), people – especially in the younger generations, but not just there – are buying into the trendy gospel of love-is-love, do-what-you-want. It's the reason that, within the church and the culture, people will eat up anything that comes draped in the stars and stripes, tells us we're made for national greatness – because it's what tickles our ears.

The Bereans didn't make their feelings, or their opinions, the standard. They didn't project their biases up onto the universe, magnify them for the big screen. But they also didn't fall into the trap of endless questions. And honestly, in more postmodern quarters of the culture and even church today, that's a new temptation. They'll tell you that answers don't matter; that the fun is all in asking questions; that it's a sin to ever be certain, even of what God says; that it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as it isn't too much; that doubts are better than beliefs; that it's all and only about the journey, a road trip with no destination in mind.

There's a little bit of truth there. There's a real role that doubts and questions play in our faith – they can keep us humble, and they can make us stronger; they can help us better sympathize with those yet outside Christ; they can provoke us to keep in motion. And in things where God hasn't spoken, or where the church hasn't historically been able to nail down all the details, certainty is just another name for stubborn dogmatism. And we are on a journey – there's a reason the earliest Christians described their faith as being “followers of the Way.” 

At the same time, “the Way” isn't a road to nowhere. We have a destination; we are not just out to smell the roses and see all the scenery we can before we die. On things where God has spoken, and where the church has historically stood united, professing to be clueless is spiritually immature at best. And questions are wonderful – for provoking us to keep in motion toward answers, and ultimately toward the Answer, the Answer-made-flesh to dwell among us. But questions and doubts are malfunctioning if they forever hold us back from listening to the answers the Answer tells!

So the Bereans don't go on an endless road trip, and they don't look to their feelings or their opinions or their traditions or their cultural trends to put Paul's preaching to the test. Instead, they search – what? They search the Scriptures – they turn to the Bible as the standard, as the canon. The whole Bible – remember, all they've got then is the Old Testament writings. They turn to the Bible, because they don't assume they already know everything it contains. They don't sit around and think, “Oh yeah, I read that once; I know it pretty well; I've gotten all there is to get out of it; so I can just go by memory here.” No, the Bereans open it up again. Ad fontes – back to the source!

The Bereans don't just skim the Scriptures. That's not the word Luke uses. They don't just skim, they don't just glance, they don't just look, they don't even just read. They “searched” the Scriptures. They scrutinized, they examined, they studied intensely. The word suggests a thorough examination, from bottom to top, all the way to the end. They aren't content to stay just in Genesis, or just in Ezekiel, or just in 2 Kings – or just in the Four Gospels, if they'd had 'em. They aren't looking for only the words written in red letters. And they aren't taking a hop-skip-and-a-jump approach from verse to verse, from prooftext to prooftext. They're reading it in context! They're getting serious! They want to know the full witness of Scripture, and they want to understand it right.

And the Bereans don't do this on the sabbath. Remember, theirs isn't just a sabbath-only religion. No, the sabbath is for listening to what Paul has to teach; but scripture-searching is an every-day sort of thing. They do this daily. And remember, this isn't a culture where everybody has a Bible or two or ten sitting at home on the shelf, gathering dust. They could themselves lucky to have one of each book for the synagogue itself! So the serious Bereans, the earnest Bereans, aren't doing this all on their own – not sitting down in the privacy of their homes, in the privacy of their own individual thoughts, to read the text and come up with their personal pet theories on what it means. This is no “private interpretation.” This is serious Bible study, daily – together. One Berean's brain is not enough. It takes a synagogue, gathered together, putting in the time, remembering all the lessons they'd learned from rabbis or teachers before, but putting everything to the test here and now to see what the Bible really teaches.

Nor were they just curious. The Bereans didn't just think it would be cool to know. No, they search the Scriptures because they have real intent to know, to understand, and to act! Why? Because they revere the Scriptures. When they think of the Bible, they don't think of some collection of dusty, old, outdated books. They don't think of a volume of sage advice, or some obsolete words that need to get with the times. They view the Bible as a reflection of God's own authority and God's own truth! 

They would love reading Paul's letter to Timothy, where he says that “all Scripture is God-breathed” – that's literally what it says: every portion of Scripture, from Genesis on 'til the end, may have come by human hands, may have emerged from and into specific historical contexts, may have had its words chosen by human personalities that left their stamp all over the text... but beneath all of that, it's the work of the Spirit of God, carrying the writers along; it's resplendent with God's intimate touch, his very breath (2 Timothy 3:16). Can't your soul smell it, as you read the words on the page? Can't you feel his presence, maybe warm with electrifying power, maybe cool with soothing peace. Don't you feel his breath in the air all around you as the words seize you, speak into you?

The Bereans did. That's how they viewed the Bible. And one of the great tragedies of the American church today is that so many of us have joined the broader culture in taking a dimmer view of the Bible than that. So many professing Christians – even professing Evangelicals or so-called post-Evangelicals – don't treat all Scripture as God-breathed. Some follow Marcion, one of the first heretics, who said that the Old Testament reveals the wrong God and should be effectively tossed out. There are those today who say the same thing – maybe not, “toss it out,” but “judge it next to our selective view of Jesus and see what bits we can keep and which ones were bad all along.” Paul doesn't leave us with that. All Scripture is God-breathed – even Leviticus, even Joshua, even Ezekiel, even James. We may have to do some hard thinking about how to apply the words today, in a different culture, in a different time in God's big plan. But all Scripture remains God-breathed. Some has been fulfilled. None has been abolished.

And what's more, the Bereans would've loved hearing Paul say that the “Holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). That's Paul's gospel – that salvation, rescue from sin and death, comes through faith, through a trusting relationship with Jesus and from letting him include you in his trusting relationship with his Father through his Spirit of Sonship. And the Scriptures give you what you need. (And Paul's talking about the Old Testament, read in the light of Christ!) They make you wise.

And, Paul says, they're “useful” – all of it is useful – for four key things. First, for teaching. We need teaching. We need to be educated what to do – so that we can do it. We need to be educated what God wants us to believe – so that we can believe it. We need to see the world through biblical eyes. We need to see ourselves as part of the story the Bible unfolds. 

Second and third, the Bible is useful for “rebuking and correcting” – things a lot of professing believers today say are rude and evil to do, and yet they're two of the Bible's key functions! With the Bible, we can rebuke those in the church who go clearly off the rails. 

And with the Bible, we can correct those inside and outside the church who have bought into false teachings – who, being deceived, may be at risk of deceiving others. And finally, the Bible – the whole Bible – is useful for training us in righteousness – for teaching us how to live by the power of the Spirit, which is the only way to please God.

And in the end, these four things – teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training – make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). That's practical! That's belief made action; that's faith at work! That's what the Bible does for us: it reveals Christ, the whole Christ, Christ as the climax of God's action in Israel's story and ours, and in meeting Christ there – in learning from him as he spoke through his prophets and his apostles and in his own person – we're made like him, to do good works like he did and does, for we're his body on earth. And we know that, because we hear it in the words of the Scriptures.

In the end, here's the big point: Don't be like a Thessalonian. In the end, with all their bad behavior, with all their rabble-rousing, only “some” Thessalonian Jews accepted the gospel. But “many” of the ones from Berea did. Be like a Berean. Listen, but verify, and do it always by searching the Scriptures together. Look at the Bible like they did; view the Bible like they did; revere the Bible like they did; trust and use the Bible like they did. As you go, go with this question to reflect on this week. Each of us, ask ourselves: “Am I a Berean?”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thessalonica: Turning the World Upside-Down: Sermon on Acts 17:1-9

Good morning, brothers and sisters! And what a beautiful morning it is to worship God and celebrate what we've seen him do already today. Believers have been persuaded of the gospel and getting baptized for thousands of years now – generation after generation being washed clean by the invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one name, one authority, one God. 

But we know that before anyone can be baptized, they have to hear the good news – they have to hear that Jesus died to cancel our sin, that he was buried in the tomb as we're buried in the water, that he rose again to free us from death's power, and that he lives today and is coming again to be with us.

Have you ever wondered when your first ancestor heard the gospel for the first time? Who was the first Christian in your family tree? I've wondered that a lot. For myself, I'd have to imagine it was some Germanic tribesman in the centuries after Rome's fall. Did he hear it from St. Boniface himself, the great “Apostle to the Germans”? Or did it get passed on from tribe to tribe 'til it reached him? 

But where did St. Boniface get it? He was an Anglo-Saxon – he heard the gospel from his parents, and they from their parents and their priests, back to St. Augustine of Canterbury, whom Pope Gregory the Great sent from Rome to preach the gospel at the close of the sixth century. 

But where did Gregory hear the gospel? He heard it from his Roman parents and priests, and they heard it from those who came before them, and so on for hundreds of years. And where did they first hear the gospel? From the earliest believers in Europe – many of whom heard it when a band of intrepid missionaries answered the Macedonian call. 

That's the story we've begun exploring for the past few weeks – the Book of Acts that tells us how the gospel made it from Jerusalem to Rome, from Asia to Europe, from the old centers of God's work out to the fringes. The legacy of the mission.

Last week, following Paul and his team around Philippi, remember, we saw him cast a python-spirit out of a slave-girl because it tried to water down the gospel he preached. It tried to get everyone to hear Paul's message as compatible with the way their religious world always worked – just one more optional path to health and wealth, through one more generic god. And we saw Paul overturn that bland, sappy, very unchristian muddle with the crisp, clear name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul and Silas were put in prison, they sang their faith and showed the beauty of Jesus to the other prisoners. Their public worship entranced their newest neighbors – now that's evangelism.

This morning, as we pick up the story, Paul and Silas and Timothy have left Luke behind in Philippi to continue teaching the new believers there. And so they follow the Via Egnatia, a major Roman road, to the next logical spot: Thessalonica. Now, Thessalonica is a big city! Has anywhere from two to ten times as many people as most. Even today, it's the second-largest city in Greece. It's no Roman colony but is a free city, with decisions made by the whole citizen-assembly and staffed by politarchs. 

It no doubt took a while for our missionaries to even get their bearings in the city! Paul sets up shop in his trade – he works with leather, makes tents – and employs his favorite ministry practice. For the next three weeks, he works and evangelizes other craftsmen in the marketplace (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:19); and when the Sabbath rolls around, he heads for the synagogue and tries to persuade the Jews there to believe that Jesus really is the Messiah (Acts 17:2-3).

Paul's evangelism strategy doesn't boil down to, “Believe this because I told you.” It's not, “Believe this or else.” It's not, “Believe this because it'll make you feel better, or make your life good.” Paul says, “Believe this, because it's true and here are the reasons – I'll show you from the same books you trust.” 

That's a good lesson for us today – we can bear our personal testimonies, and we certainly should. We can live out the gospel as a winsome example, and we certainly should. Any new Christian can do that – and that's good, because we've all got a role to play in God's mission. But as we grow in the faith, as we learn our culture and learn the Scriptures and get trained in how to witness effectively, we're supposed to be able to make the case for Christ. 

That's what Paul does here – and Luke even says it's something he does as a custom! Paul learned it from the example of Jesus' synagogue preaching, and so should we (cf. Luke 4:16). As fond of we are of saying you can't argue somebody into the kingdom – well, you can't evangelize or testify or hug or love anybody into it, either. It's all on God's initiative, in God's power – but he'll use your evangelism and your testimony and your love and your explanation of the reasons to believe. And as we see here, it worked! Not everyone believed, but some sure did – Jews, God-fearing Greeks, and elite women (Acts 17:4).

After three weeks, Paul and Silas get asked – okay, maybe less 'asked' and more 'threatened' – not to show their faces at the synagogue again. And they don't. For weeks or maybe months, they focus on strengthening and teaching this new church, and continuing evangelism out in the streets, in the shops, wherever hasn't been closed off to them. And maybe the new Jewish believers keep sharing the good news with their friends, their parents and brothers and cousins. 

So the synagogue leaders get angry – they get “envious” of the gospel's success (Acts 17:5). They can't find Paul and Silas – maybe they're champs at hide-and-seek, maybe they're busy doing evangelism somewhere else in town – so the mob whipped up by the synagogue leaders goes after the next-best target: Jason, the convert who played host to the missionaries and probably to the new house-church. And so they haul Jason and other believers into the forum and lodge a formal accusation in front of the politarchs and the citizen-assembly. During the week I spent in Thessaloniki a couple months ago, I walked past the old forum plenty; I can picture the scene.

With Paul and Silas on trial in absentia, with Jason and friends in the hot seat, the mob accuses the missionaries of preaching a gospel that “turns the world upside down” – a message that Jesus is “another king” besides Caesar (Acts 17:6-7). In Philippi, Paul was accused of being unpatriotic and going against Roman custom. Here, he's accused of outright treason. Because there really was a decree from Emperors Augustus and Tiberius that predicting future kings was considered treasonous against the state. And this scene in Thessalonica is happening shortly after the new emperor, Claudius, kicked all Jews out of Rome because the message about Jesus had caused such a stir among them.

The irony is that, in the literal sense, this mob is lying. Paul and Silas aren't inciting a riot. The leaders of the synagogue are the ones causing a riot! They're the ones gathering lowlifes from the marketplace – unemployed layabouts eager for something to do, no matter what – and disturbing the city's peace. And they know full well that Paul and Silas aren't preaching Jesus as an earthly king, a contender for the Roman throne who threatens Claudius' reign. Paul and Silas are clear: his kingdom isn't of this world (cf. John 18:36).

At the same time, in a deeper sense, isn't this just the truth? Jesus is another king! The gospel does turn the world upside-down! And hallelujah – because the world's been the wrong-way-up ever since our backs faced Eden with the desert before us, and it could use a flip! The world around us is full of sin – that's the wrong way up! It's tainted by death – that just ain't right! The world around us is broken and hurting and rebellious and grieving and enraged and nodding off to sleep – and it needs to be knocked end over end, spun around, turned upside-down. Jesus was enthroned on the cross, Jesus conquered death and the grave, Jesus marched royally to resurrection victory, all so the world could be overthrown and restamped with a better way.

Friends, following Jesus is not life as usual. Jesus does not do things Caesar's way, or Mammon's way, or the American way. Jesus does things heaven's way. Where Caesar doesn't like it, tough for Caesar! Caesar can just learn his place – he can rule Rome, but there's another king in town whose kingship goes higher and wider and deeper. And I'd rather displease Caesar, rather lose out on Mammon, rather walk out of step with the American way, than displease King Jesus, the Anointed Son of God. Jesus is not Caesar's rival, nor Caesar's peer. Whether Caesar wants to admit it or not, Jesus is Caesar's Judge – and ours. Jesus also wants to be Caesar's Savior (and ours) – if Caesar (and we) will believe and follow him.

Jesus is another king – he's another kind of king – he is the King, the King of Kings. When we join his topsy-turvy world through faith and baptism, we aren't just asking him to step in and rescue us from sin – though there is that. Jesus is Savior, Redeemer. We aren't just devoting our inner lives to him – though there is that. Jesus is Shepherd, Soul Friend. We aren't just handing over the box in our souls and the days on our calendar marked 'religion' – though Jesus is God.

But Jesus isn't content with just that. When we join his topsy-turvy world, we're saying that we bow to King Jesus; that we serve him now, above all other kings and kingdoms. Like Abraham Kuyper said over a century ago, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, who is Sovereign of all, does not cry: 'Mine!' His kingdom is the important one. We cross over through the water, an act of immigration. On the other side, he gives us a new kingdom identity. He makes us swear a pledge of allegiance to him that trumps all others. He enlists us.

And make no mistake: following this King will turn your world upside-down, and it will turn the world upside-down. He'll flip your world over. All of our lives have broken places – spots tender to the touch. All of our lives have dysfunction – ways we just don't work right. 

Maybe you live with trauma of some kind – maybe there's a thousand-yard stare in your eyes from the horrors you've seen and lived, maybe you've been to addiction and back, maybe your soul aches from having a loved one torn away, maybe you cry out against constant pain, maybe you're sobered by brush-ups with your vulnerability or mortality. 

Maybe you struggle with anger, or wrestle with despair, or tangle with lust or greed. Maybe you've settled into a routine that chains you to mud when you were made to soar. Maybe you've settled for a life all your own when you were made to have a higher life lived in you. Maybe you measure yourself by all the wrong yardsticks. Or maybe you just look into your heart and see its deceit and darkness – or worse, your spiritual eyesight is so out-of-focus and occluded that your dark, deceitful heart looks fine and fair and true.

Following this King will turn your world upside-down. He wants to reach into those places and flip them over. He wants to flip your anger into peace, your despair into joy, your greed into generosity, your lust into love, your earthiness into heavenly freedom, your hurt into healing. He wants to take your heart of stone and flip it into flesh. He wants to flip your smallness into his bigness, your darkness into his light, your deadness into his potent life. 

Following this King will give you new allegiances. This King will give you a new family. He'll be your example. He'll be your leader. He'll teach you how to live, how to navigate a world you see as upside-down – a world where the way to be greatest is to serve the most, where the way to gain is to give, where life is on death's backside, where glory is found on the cross. 

From the heart out to our personal lives, our social lives, our legal, political, economic lives, this King will leave no stone in your world unturned – no attitude, no behavior, no dynamic, no custom, no tradition unexamined – nothing exempt from his kingly wisdom or his royal Spirit. That can be a scary thing. That can be a discomfiting thing.

This King is not the King of comfort; he's the King whose banner is his cross. This King doesn't drive people apart; he knits together his citizen assembly, the local church. He adopts us all into the royal family, appoints every citizen an ambassador of his kingdom to this wrong-way-up world. And so we regularly gather in these kingdom outposts, and we render patriotic service to the kingdom by celebrating the King, and we eat at the King's table, and we listen to the King's decrees explained and applied, and then we go out to live as good citizens and good ambassadors. 

We're offering the only passport, only visa, only green card there is that can let our neighbors in this world immigrate to the new creation. And bit by bit, with faith and hope and love, with the way of the cross and the light of the resurrection, we're turning this world over. That's a thing to celebrate! Because it's just what the world, just what our worlds, needs. Let's invite and serve the kingdom that turns the world upside-down, while we wait for the Return of the King.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Philippi: Spellbound by the Jesus Faith: Sermon on Acts 16:10-40

Last we left our intrepid missionary team – Paul, Silas, and Timothy – they listened as the Spirit of the Risen Jesus blocked them from continuing ministry-as-they'd-always-done-it. Their time in Asia was drawing to a close. Their first foray into Europe – their pathway to Rome itself – was dawning. And the Macedonians – people yet unreached with the good news – were calling for help, whether they knew it or not! So, once Luke joined them in Troas, they set sail for Macedonia and made their way to a city – a Roman colony – called Philippi (Acts 16:6-12).

They look for a synagogue – but there isn't one. To have a synagogue, you'd need ten Jewish men. And in this whole city, there aren't any. Instead, there are a few admirers of the Jewish faith – women who aren't really full converts, but who are interested. They pray out by the river, outside the city (Acts 16:13). 

So the four missionaries swing by, and they sit down, and they do conversational evangelism. Paul doesn't stand up and preach at them. Paul doesn't wield his apostolic authority with a heavy hand. Paul and friends sit down with these women, and they talk about Jesus – the Way to meet Israel's God – the Way of Salvation. A God-fearing merchant woman called Lydia – not a native, but a homeowner in Philippi – well, she believes. She believes because the Lord opened her heart. God took the initiative, and the gospel begins to take hold (Acts 16:14-15).

Paul and friends made a regular habit of visiting that prayer group along the river. Luke doesn't tell us how long this went on – certainly weeks, possibly a couple months. But then something unusual started to happen. “We were met by a girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, 'These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you a way to be saved!' She kept this up for many days” (Acts 16:16-18). They try to put up with it – they really do – but it gets to be a problem. So it's exorcism time.

See, for all Paul's tolerance in his letters of people who spread the gospel with impure motives, he does not believe our saying that all press is good press. It might be tempting to think, “Hey, what's wrong with what this girl's doing? This must be a friendly spirit who came to help get the mission moving along, right?” That's what the last Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church apparently thought, when she preached in Venezuela that Paul was the bad guy in this passage who destroyed her spiritual gift out of jealousy because this demon-possessed slave-girl was maybe closer to God than the Apostle Paul was. (Yes, she really taught that nonsense!)

What's going on here was obvious to Luke's readers. The Greek literally says that this slave-girl had a “spirit of Python.” The most famous fortune-telling oracle in Greece was at Delphi, where a priestess called a Pythia was possessed by the Greek god Apollo once a month to give riddles telling the future. That's what we have here: this girl is being used like that, to staff a local oracle-shrine and say whatever the demon wants her to say – Luke may be suggesting that the demon here is Apollo himself, even – and the whole business is very, very good for making money.

Still, wouldn't you think Paul might find it helpful to have a local authority going around and shouting that they've come to preach God's message of salvation? Wouldn't that speed things up? Maybe that's what we'd be tempted to do. Endorsements welcome from anybody, right? But that's not how Paul is seeing things. When we're out spreading the good news, there's only one Spirit we can trust and rely on. It isn't a demon. It isn't even our own spirits. It's God's Holy Spirit – the Spirit of the Risen Jesus. That's the only Spirit who consistently and perfectly leads us into all truth, the only one who always has kingdom interests in mind.

The problem with this python-spirit's testimony is that it's meant to mislead. What the demon wants to do is get everyone to hear Paul's message the wrong way. Have you ever had some important news to share, and somebody else beat you to the punch and gave people the wrong expectation? When I was in college, I founded a Christian campus group called Mars Hill, and one of the events we put on every year was an orientation to help Christian freshmen be mentally and spiritually ready for college. One year, a new professor – an ardent atheist – advertised the event to his classes, offering them extra credit to come to it. We had more people there than ever! Wasn't that so generous of him? Except when he told them what the event was, he told them it was something very different from what we meant. So a lot of people came, and a lot went away disappointed or with ideas we hadn't meant to get across. To this day, I don't know if that was intentional sabotage or just his own misunderstanding. But for some students, it poisoned the well against what we were there to do on and around campus.

That's what the python-spirit is up to. Through this girl, it wants people to hear Paul's message and interpret it differently than he means it. When she says “servants,” she means for people to think about the pagan priests who interpret Apollo's oracles. When she says “Most High God,” she wants people to think about Zeus or about one of the local mountain gods. And most of all, when she says “a way to be saved,” she wants people to think about the kinds of 'salvation' pagan religion offered – good health, worldly safety, prosperity – and not about salvation from sin and the promise of eternal life in the resurrection. If people get drawn to Paul through what the python-spirit says, they'll end up going through Christian motions while keeping pagan eyes; they'll toss Paul's God alongside all the other gods they serve. They'll see his religion as just one more compartment in a big pagan house with tolerant room for everybody.

You know, to look around us at this world – even at the church world – you'd think many professing American Christians first heard the gospel from a python-spirit. Because that's exactly the style of religion you'll find a lot of places – that we can serve God at the same time we serve values contrary to him; that 'God' is a generic thing who is whatever we believe him to be; that as long as we go through the motions, it doesn't matter what we really think or believe; and that all that matters is getting a 'good life' of safety and prosperity and health. 

And friends, this passage makes it clear: that's pagan! And as soon as it's clear the effect those lies will have on his ministry, Paul acts – and he cuts through all the watered-down words with just one name, one authority: “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her” (Acts 16:18)! 

Jesus is the cure – the real Jesus who lives and reigns and whose Spirit inspired the Scriptures. For every prosperity preacher who talks about 'God' this and 'God' that, Paul says clearly: “Jesus!” For everyone who wants to reinterpret God, to put him on a shelf beside this culture's multitude of idols, Paul banishes all our Zeuses and Apollos with the overwhelming name, “Jesus!” May we never have pagan minds or pagan hearts. May our view of the gospel never be filtered by a python-spirit. May we answer all these muddled, mixed-up misconceptions with one name: “Jesus Christ!”

So with those words, Paul sets the slave-girl free from the demon. Knowing that she might be less protected against her masters' cruelty, maybe he hesitated before. Luke doesn't tell us what became of her, but now that she means less profit to her owners, they might be looking to sell her – and maybe the Philippian church aims to pool some cash together, pay the sum, and set her free. Luke doesn't tell us, but that's how I imagine it. 

But Paul has another problem. The owners are furious that Paul just let loose a landslide right across their revenue stream. So it's time for legal action (Acts 16:19). Now, they could accuse him of property damage in a civil suit. They might even win a little something. But they've got a vendetta. They want to make Paul pay! So they accuse him of disturbing the peace and of spreading customs it wouldn't be lawful for a Roman citizen to follow (Acts 16:20-21). In other words, Paul's gospel is unpatriotic!

That sells well in Philippi, because if there's one value Philippi holds above all others, it's patriotism. Philippi was just a small city until about ninety years earlier, when Octavian – the future Caesar Augustus – and Mark Antony caught up with two men named Cassius and Brutus and made sure they died. Cassius and Brutus had been pretty busy two-and-a-half years earlier on the Ides of March, when they stabbed Julius Caesar to death. And here at Philippi, Caesar's blood was avenged. 

In honor of the victory, Augustus enlarged Philippi and made it a Roman colony – one of only four in all Macedonia. In several waves, he settled it with Roman army veterans – many of the people there in Paul's day would've been descended from military families. And as a Roman colony, Philippi got special privileges, and its two magistrates, the duumviri, were appointed from Rome itself. In other words, Philippians took everything Roman very seriously. Patriotism mattered above all else.

There are places in this country like that, aren't there? There's even a risk, in some churches, of making patriotism a higher value than the gospel. I read a story once of a frightening object lesson. One communion Sunday, a pastor had the American flag next to the altar, and while serving communion, he spilled the cup onto the flag. A man barged into his office afterward and threatened him if he ever disrespected the flag that way again. He said nothing about disrespecting the cup of the Lord God Almighty, the Savior of his life.  That, the man didn't notice.  He only noticed disrespect to what he saw as most sacred: the American flag.

Which one do we see as holier: the flag of our country, or the cup we receive as the very blood that redeems us from our sins and welcomes us into a higher kingdom? That man in that one pastor's church valued the flag more than he valued Jesus. And there's a word for that. The word is “idolatry.” We need to be seriously on-guard against elevating the emblems of our country, the signs of any civic allegiance, to the level of the sacred symbols and realities of the gospel.

But that raises the question: To follow the gospel, do we therefore have to be unpatriotic? Do we have to totally give up being American to be a Christian? Some of my old seminary friends said yes. But that's not quite what I see here. 

As Luke sets up this story, we find out that Paul and Silas are both Roman citizens, just like everybody in Philippi. What's more, when push comes to shove, they abide by Roman law – while the accusers and even their judges break it by badly mistreating them. Luke wants to show us that it isn't true that the gospel can't be accepted by Romans. Paul and Silas are Romans; they're about to convert some more Romans; and the whole book is about how their mission takes them to preach the gospel to the Roman emperor himself. They've got no problem with Caesar; they just want Caesar and all his subjects to know that Jesus is Lord and Caesar ain't – that the kingdom of God isn't under Caesar's jurisdiction, and that Christ's values correct Roman ones.

The gospel isn't unpatriotic. You can be a good Roman and believe it – even if some of your Roman neighbors don't see that yet. You can be a good American and believe it and practice it – even if the Supreme Court isn't so sure. You can be a good Liberian, a good Russian, a good Syrian citizen, and still accept and practice the 'customs' of the gospel. But Jesus is Lord of Lords, King of Kings, President of Presidents. The Supreme Court of Heaven outweighs the Supreme Court of the United States. The banner of the cross means more than the stars and stripes. The values of Jesus correct and clarify American values. 

When we gather as the church of God, we aren't here as Americans, or as Pennsylvanians; we're here as members of a kingdom purchased “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). When we ascend the heavenly Mount Zion, the flag no longer flies over us; it carpets the firmament beneath our beatified and beautified feet. We honor and respect everything it means to be a good Roman or good American, but we do it beneath the Lordship of Jesus first.  Every Caesar, from Imperator to President, and every Caesar's symbol, from the purple toga and laurel wreath to the stars and stripesit all pales as second-rate next to Jesus, but so long as it forswears the rivalry, it can bask in his righteous glory.

Paul's magistrates and accusers will learn that the hard way (Acts 16:37-40). They don't take time to even hold a trial. The magistrates just assume these outsiders aren't citizens; and since the slave-girl's owners are wealthy citizens who own land there, their testimony is all the evidence needed. Paul and Silas are stripped naked, beaten brutally until half-dead, and finally thrown in jail under the malicious eyes of a pagan Roman jailer. That prison was no pleasant place. Compared to a Roman jail, our county prison would seem like paradise. Paul and Silas were in the innermost cell – filthy, no ventilation, no light. Their feet are put in stocks, possibly spread too far apart as a way to torture them – a punishment reserved for serious crimes. They get no food; their bleeding injuries go untreated; and as night falls, all the other prisoners get stuffed into the same inner cell (Acts 16:22-24).

And that's where things get interesting. No one can sleep – not like that. So it's no surprise they're all awake at midnight. And Paul probably has some words from the longest psalm on his mind: “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. At midnight I rise and give you thanks for your righteous laws. I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. The earth is filled with your love, LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:60-64). Even though the wicked have bound him, Paul refuses to forget the message he's come to bring. Even at midnight – especially at midnight – he'll give thanks to God. So Paul and Silas turn to prayer and song.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25)! It can't have been easy for them to pray and sing. They're hungry, they're cold, they're hurt, they're barely clothed (if at all!), they're crowded, they're swatting away rats... and they sing beautiful praise to God. In their prayers and in their songs, they bear witness to the truth and majesty of the gospel. They share the good news with the prisoners who share their chains. Maybe those prisoners heard what happened with the slave-girl – heard that Paul and Silas were servants of the Most High God, who came to teach the way to be saved. Whatever background they've got, they're a literally captive audience – but, more importantly, they're a captivated audience. Hearing Paul pray, hearing Silas sing – it moves them, it entrances them, it makes them want more!

If there's one thing these prisoners have in common, it's that they know they've got no direction to go but up, in an earthly sense. They have no pride, no public honor, nothing else to crowd their heart. And when they hear something beautiful burst into their lives, they're spellbound by this Jesus faith Paul and Silas are singing into their lives. All the convincing they need is in the movement of the song, the passion of the prayer, set against the backdrop of the missionaries' unjust suffering. Imagine what it must have been like, in the dead of night, to hear these two men pray and sing! It draws out the yearnings of all those around them.

Can we say the same thing? Is our faith attractive to people? Is there enough truth and beauty in our lives to make them want to listen? That's not the same thing as asking whether our faith gives us a 'good life,' the kind the python-spirit wanted people to look for. Paul and Silas aren't singing because everything's coming up roses. They're singing because, even after a beating – especially after a beating – when everything around them is ugly and scary and painful and shameful and dark – then especially is Jesus beautiful. His strength is magnified in our weakness. And because Jesus is so beautiful, he makes our faith beautiful through our trials, so that in our beautiful faith, we can lift high the beauty of Jesus Christ, so that the prisoners around us can be spellbound for their own good.

That's the big question I want to ask you this morning. If nothing else, wake up for these next moments. Is Jesus beautiful to you? Does your faith show off his truth and beauty to others? Does it draw anyone? And what would it take to make your faith a beautiful witness? 

Friends, dive deeper into Jesus! Throw yourself into him. Draw near to him. Let his glory overtake you. When you least feel like talking to anyone, pray. When you look around and see nothing worthwhile, sing a song to God! Let Jesus be your all in all. Let him be all your hope and stay. Because if our faith is in Jesus, then our faithful prayers and faithful songs can show off the splendor of the King. We are God's people – we are the denizens of his Zion – and doesn't the Scripture say that “from Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2)?

Sadly, the chief jailer wasn't inside the cell. It was just prisoners there. The jailer may have gone back to his personal dwelling, leaving some lesser guards in charge outside. They couldn't hear the songs. So God did something dramatic. “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone's chains came loose” (Acts 16:26). 

Good news for prisoners! Bad news for prison guards. Worst news of all for the chief jailer! He was ready to kill himself rather than face the magistrates' wrath over letting everyone escape (Acts 16:27). But Paul stops him: “Don't harm yourself! We're all here!” (Acts 16:28). We know what stopped Paul and Silas from running. What about everyone elseplenty of ordinary criminals, guilty of real crimes and offenses?  Why didn't they make a break for it when they had the chance?  They were spellbound by the Jesus faith – that's why, that's what. They didn't want to run away from what they'd seen – not even escape prison, if it means losing what they're seeing and hearing.

The jailer knew what Paul and Silas were imprisoned for. He'd heard the stories, maybe heard the slave-girl himself. He knew these men had come to show a way to be saved. But not until now – as he saw in the earthquake the wrath of God; as he felt in his bones the fear of his situation (Acts 16:29); as he considered his death and what it all might mean – not until now does he ask them, “Lords, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). 

They turn it around – it has nothing to do with Paul and Silas being 'lords,' and everything to do with Jesus being Lord of everything. The beauty, the earthquake, the salvation – they don't come from Paul and Silas. They come from Jesus! “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). It isn't a complicated message. It isn't a to-do list. It isn't a long and elaborate creed. There's time for further details later, when Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32). It can all be summed up in this: look to the beautiful Lord Jesus; call to him to rescue you; turn to him to beautify you; depend on him for all you've got; join up with what he's doing even today!

Does the jailer do that? Just look how he turns from fear to fearlessness! Once worried about Paul and Silas escaping, now he escorts them in his personal custody, cares for them, feeds them at his own table – risking death to do that – and he entrusts them, formally and legally his prisoners, with his life (Acts 16:33-34). He and everybody he can reach get baptized right away – because they believe in the Lord Jesus, and through all the risks, that brings them joy. 

Take this with you this morning: Just trust Jesus. Trust him to save you. Bury yourself in him, and rise anew to sing joyfully to God – not the generic paganized 'god' announced by the python-spirit, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who pours out his Spirit onto and into us so we, too, can share the good news – so we, too, can be windows into the beauty of Jesus – so that others around us might be spellbound by the Jesus faith. Go forth and have beautiful faith through the gospel. Amen and amen.

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.