This is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and many believed. And the word of the Lord spread throughout that region.
Happy Birthday Pastor John! We love you!
This morning’s message will highlight the origin of the growth of the early church “to the ends of the earth” and challenges to the growth of the church today. Before doing so I pray and trust you will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God loves you with an everlasting love, that he sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for the forgiveness of your sin and that he has prepared a place for you in heaven. In a few moments we will celebrate that incredible reality with the miraculous reception of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
I begin with a reminder that today is the 15th anniversary of events that changed life in America and around the world. Most of us vividly remember that day, September 11, 2001, now known worldwide as 9/11. Images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City burning and collapsing are indelibly etched in our minds and hearts. Yet I was recently reminded that today’s freshmen in high school, who were not yet on the ground in 2001, are learning about 9/11 only as history.
Those terrible acts of radical Islamic terrorism occurred only three days after I was installed in St. Louis as 12th president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The events that followed changed my life and ministry. My brief time with you today won’t allow details to be shared. Perhaps I can do so at some point in the future.
Similar motivations were at play 2,000 years ago in what we now call the Holy Land. The man honored by the Christian world as the apostle Paul, arguably the greatest missionary in the history of Christianity, started out as one bad dude! Incredibly, the highlights of his early life reveal violent and aggressive behavior toward followers of Christ.
In Acts 9 we read that this man was called Saul, his Hebrew name. He agreed with and watched the coats of the men who stoned Deacon Stephen in Acts 7-8. Soon after that he began to destroy the church and was now also plotting threats of murder against the Lord’s disciples. For starters, he was planning to haul off to prison in Jerusalem any men or women from Damascus who believed in Jesus. That’s a distance of 135 miles as the crow flies but, believe it or not, 1,800 miles by auto.
Saul’s motivations are not clear, but possibly he believed that Jewish converts to Christ were not sufficiently obedient to Jewish law, or that Jewish converts mingled too freely with Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, thus associating themselves with idolatrous practices.
The young Saul also perhaps rejected the claim that Jesus came back to life after death.
At any rate, Saul resolutely dedicated his life to travelling from synagogue to synagogue, with the blessing of the Jewish High Priest, urging and implementing the imprisonment and punishment of Jewish men and women who accepted Jesus as the messiah.
Saul persecuted the church and those who belonged to the church! But his dastardly deeds were divinely interrupted one day on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus.
Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He replied: “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you’ll be told what to do.” For three days Saul was blind and ate or drank nothing. Then the Lord directed a man in Damascus named Ananias to restore Saul’s sight.
After his sight was restored he got up and was baptized, received the Holy Spirit, ate some food, regained his strength, spent several days with the disciples in Damascus and promptly began to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God.
Those who heard him were amazed and asked, “Isn’t this the man who came here to take to prison those who call on Jesus’ name?” But Saul was empowered all the more. Sometime later he changed his name to Paul, the Latin version of his name, because he was a Roman citizen.
It’s almost like the father who said to his wayward son: “Change your life or change your name.” Saul changed both his life and his name.
In Acts 13:42-49, today’s Scripture reading, Paul and Barnabas were preaching in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. Many Jews were persuaded by their message to follow Jesus.
The following Sabbath nearly the whole city gathered to hear Paul preach. But the Jews saw the crowds, were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what Paul was saying.
Then Paul and Barnabas answered the Jews boldly: “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. But since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles with the message of Christ. This is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
Gentiles were essentially non-Jewish pagans. Some were atheists who didn’t believe in any god. Others worshiped false gods. Yet God had prepared their hearts for Paul’s powerful message.
When the Gentiles heard the message of Christ, they rejoiced and many believed. The word of the Lord spread throughout that region.
Things were going well! Almost reminiscent of the description of the originally small but rapidly growing number of those who followed Jesus just after his resurrection and ascension: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”
However, even at this early time in Christian history, conflict ensued:
The Jews incited the leading religious women and men of the city, who stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and drove them out of the region.
Hard to believe that supposedly godly people would act that way. Hard to imagine that folks who considered themselves God’s people would say and do things that caused division in God’s church. Hard to comprehend how people who knew the command of Jesus to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth would do anything to work against his cause, even to the point of driving away from the church people with passion for Christ. But it happened.
Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas, who must have been discouraged, were not dejected but instead energized! They shook the dust off their feet against the Jews and went to Iconium, about 85 miles away.
These disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit!
Amazing that selfish, ungodly behavior toward new believers resulted in a movement that changed the world. Embryonic Christianity, reviled and rejected by the Jewish religious establishment, began to grow among the Gentiles, who became dedicated, devoted Christians and saw as their mission in life to do what Jesus had commanded. They became his witnesses, telling their world who he was and what he had done!
It’s ironic that in the process of moving the primary early church focus from Jews to Gentiles, God used the basic sinful nature of humanity to accomplish his greater purpose. People who called themselves godly were actually self-serving, internally focused, doing things that catalyzed conflict and worked against the spread of the Gospel of Christ. Unthinkable to us Christians in the 21st century, especially to us who comprise Zion Lutheran Church, or is it?
Recently I read an article titled The Most Common Factor in Declining Churches by Thom S. Rainer: http://www.lifeway.com/pastors/2016/08/16/the-most-common-factor-in-declining-churches/.
He begins by identifying a common pattern among churches that are already in decline or in danger of beginning to decline: an inward focus. Here’s what he says:
“The ministries of declining churches are focused only on the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of the members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get things their way.”
He then identifies several warning symptoms of churches headed toward decline:
- There are very few attempts to minister to people in the church’s community.
- Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires.
- Members in the congregation are openly critical of the pastor, other church staff, and lay leaders in the church.
- Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.
- The past becomes the hero.
- Current culture is seen as the enemy instead of an opportunity for believers to become salt and light.
- Pastors and other leaders in the church become discouraged and withdraw from effective leadership.
Sound familiar? That’s pretty much what was happening in Paul’s day. The Jews were concerned primarily about themselves. This syndrome is not uncommon also today, even in congregations of the national church body of which Zion is a member. Many congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are in decline.
Let me speak very frankly here. A few years ago Zion fell into a season of decline. There were reasons for that sad reality. But in more recent months there are very positive signs that that brief period of decline is in the past. Especially at a time like this but also at all times, it behooves us as children of God to ensure that we keep the main thing the main thing, remembering why we exist as a Christian congregation.
The people who formed this church over 134 years ago were told by the founding pastor: “The greatest enemy we have to face is German Methodism!” That may have been true in 1882 but it’s not the case today. Our greatest enemies as a congregation in 2016 are the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh! Those enemies produce and thrive on complacency, traditionalism, and a party spirit, all of which are fueled by a pinch of German hard-headedness. Believe me, it takes one to know one!
Is there anyone among us today who believes he or she has an inside track on perfect perception and flawless insight? Is there anyone among us who sometimes thinks and acts self-righteously, judging the motives of other people? It would be dishonest of me not to raise my hand in response to both questions. How about you?
Is there anyone among us who has lost the first century Christian vision of taking the Gospel to people in Walburg, Georgetown, Jarrell, Bartlett, Salado—our own Jerusalem and Judea—and from here to the ends of the earth? Dear friends in Christ, my purpose here is not to throw stones at anyone but to remind us of who we are and why we’re here.
Let me speak even more frankly. As a congregation we are facing decisions that will impact Zion’s influence in this community and beyond, for years to come. What we choose to do as a congregation will result either in God being glorified and his love being proclaimed ever more caringly and boldly or, conversely, in the power and promise of the Gospel being sidelined and sidetracked.
Satan would love nothing more than to distract us from our primary purpose of being a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, shining forth the love of Christ for all to see. Satan would delight in seeing this group of believers divided and diverted from the mission Christ has given us to be his witnesses, to the ends of the earth. We dare not allow that to happen. This week’s letter from Zion’s Board of Elders addresses that challenge.
Whatever you think about the decisions that lie before us, the mandate we all have as followers of Christ is to set aside selfish desire to prevail over those who disagree with us and to figure out, lovingly and responsibly, how to make those decisions in a way that shuns disharmony and shouts solidarity. I believe that applies to each of us here at Zion.
Now let me speak personally. Along with a large number of other Zion members, Bob Greene, Mike Linebrink, and I served on a specific committee to help raise what is now nearly $3.7 million toward Zion’s Invest and Invite Capital Stewardship Campaign. Our preferences are obvious.
We desire to see this congregation continue to do whatever is necessary, like St. Paul said later in life, to become all things to all people so that by any means some might be saved. We, along with the other 216 family units who pledged 3.7 million hard earned dollars to this campaign, believe improving and enhancing Zion’s facilities will help accomplish that objective.
At the same time, we know that some do not agree. We respect their right to express their disagreement. Furthermore, we believe it is incumbent upon Zion’s leaders to hear and to address, as fully as possible, the reasonable, responsible and rational concerns of committed members of Zion who are faithfully worshiping and financially supporting the Lord’s work here on the hilltop.
Building new facilities requires additional expenditures. A decision to do so must be made responsibly and prudently. We should not spend more than we can afford. We must not borrow more than we can repay. We dare not ignore God’s will to give cheerfully, in proportion to what we have received from his bountiful hand.
At the end of the day, if we are serious about our purpose as a church to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, whatever decisions are made must be accepted or, better yet, embraced by a critical mass of Zion’s people.
We all confess the truth of Holy Scripture. We all profess our faith in Jesus Christ, Savior of the world and Lord of the universe. We all have the God given responsibility to spend our lives and our fortunes on influencing the eternal destiny of people who live in the darkness and despair of unbelief, whom the Bible says, without faith in Christ, will not receive eternal life.
If we truly believe there is a heaven and that there is a hell, we can do nothing less than put our individual and collective shoulders to the wheel in working together toward the goal of doing what Jesus commanded and prophesied. The Gospel will be brought to the ends of the earth!
Rainer concludes his article with a word of hope: “For those of us in Christ, there is always hope—His hope. I don’t have my head in the sand. I know times are tough in many churches. I know congregations are declining and that some are even dying every day. I know many church leaders are discouraged. But we serve the God of hope. Decline in our churches does not have to be a reality.” I agree completely and trust that you agree as well.
There are lots of moving parts in the process of becoming and remaining a church of health and vitality, many more than can be satisfactorily addressed in a Sunday morning sermon. It begins by remembering other words of St. Paul to the Corinthian Christians:
The love of Christ constrains us. He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled the world to himself, not counting mankind’s sins against them and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
I trust you will join me in continuing to pray God’s blessing on our endeavors, together, to reconcile people to Christ, to help Zion be not a mere monument to the past but a beacon of light shining brightly on the mission Jesus has given us for the future.
Remember, it was he who said: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, to bring my salvation to the ends of the earth!’”
God grant it, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!