Acts

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

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Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8 (NLT)

Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.


 

A good dose of humility solves a whole lot of problems.

You don’t hear much about people pursuing humility. If you do hear about it, the pursuit can seem odd, along the lines of monks cloistered from worldly pursuits or Mother Teresa relocating to Calcutta to serve the poor.

As Christians, however, we are called to incorporate humility into our lives. First of all, we try to keep ourselves humble in an effort to imitate Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Despite being God in flesh, the only way Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up was on the cross, a horrible, painful humiliation preceding his death. He lowered himself for our sakes.

Paul was big on the importance of humility as a way to imitate Jesus. In a different letter, one he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:3-5, NLT.)

Humility is a concept for everyone. Across-the-board humility will be an important idea later in Romans, when Paul tells us about Christians relating to government. In the secular world, leaders often pursue titles and fame to lift themselves up. Christian leaders have a different mandate, however: The best of them are servant leaders, people who sacrifice to help others succeed.

In regard to troubling events of the last couple of weeks in our nation: Lord, give our leaders humble servant hearts, hearts aligned with yours. And as I pray, I have one leader in particular in mind.

Paul also seems to be saying that humility walks hand-in-hand with a second virtue, self-awareness. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? And maybe the most important question: Are you fooling yourself about yourself? He is talking about spiritual and moral strengths and weaknesses, of course.

I have a humorous book titled “Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” Some of it borders on silly, but I like the entry for “Pastor/Priest.” The definition: “A sinner who is so aware of the power of sin in his or her own life that he or she feels called by the Holy Spirit to announce that God loves sinners.”

A call to ministry of any sort is impossible unless the person first becomes acutely aware of his or her own sinfulness. You cannot describe the wonderful flavor of Christ’s living water until you have felt a desperate thirst for forgiveness.

As we search for deeper self-awareness, I should add, once again, how incredibly helpful the Bible is. If we judge ourselves simply by what we consider right and wrong, we are unlikely to make much progress. It’s hard to measure anything with a broken ruler. We need a holy standard.

The climactic moment of the Bible is the story of Jesus, who fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus, God in flesh, is the holy standard for living.

When performing a little self-assessment, I find it useful to turn to Matthew 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus’ teachings about how we are to live our lives as lovers of God and one another.

I’m not talking about doing a simple read-through of what we already know is there. I’m talking about reading it slowly, meditatively, letting each teaching challenge every aspect of our lives. It does not take long for our minds to find humility as we are reminded of our dependence on God for help.

And dependent we are. We cannot save ourselves; that’s why Christ came to die on the cross and save us from sin. On our own, we cannot even respond adequately to Christ’s gift. That’s why the Holy Spirit came after Christ’s ascension to guide us, sustain us and empower us.

An exciting thing happens in the midst of all this humbling self-awareness, though. Despite our inability to measure up, God’s Spirit lifts us up and makes great use of us. The Holy Spirit works among us to assemble the global church into something very much like the body of Christ.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we now do globally what Jesus did with the limited reach of his body. We are called to lovingly declare the growing presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, helping people find truth and eternal life.

No one person can come anywhere close to carrying the load, certainly not in the global church and not even in a small local church. The work of the church is something we do together, and everyone has a role.

Do you know what your role is? You have been made to do something in this effort. If you’ve joined Luminary United Methodist Church, the Holy Spirit is shaping you for the particular work we are doing in the area of Ten Mile, Tennessee.

Paul gives us just a few of many examples. Some of us have to speak God’s truth directly, inspired as God’s grace flows through Scripture, prayer and worshipful practices. Some of us need to be knowledgeable enough to teach. Some need to have those humble hearts—I think of Stephen in Acts—where acts of service flow naturally into declarations of who Christ is, regardless of the cost to the servant.

If you don’t know your role, there are all sorts of ways to discover it. Often, we explore possibilities with tests or in small groups. Start here: Understand the mission of the church clearly—we offer people a relationship with Christ—and then pray for guidance about your role in that mission.

You also can talk to your pastor. As a pastor, I know for certain part of my role is to help those I serve discern God’s calling.

How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?

Gloria Party 2

Acts 2:43-47
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.


Stay with me on the subject of tithing, and the party’s potential will only increase.

Last week, we looked to the Old Testament for guidance regarding God’s intent for tithing. In Deuteronomy, we found something out of sync with modern notions about tithing.

Even as part of the law, a joyous celebration was key to the tithe, along with a deep concern for the people in society lacking resources. Tithing created an atmosphere of abundance, driven by a general belief that God’s people working together in harmony could create a glimpse of heaven on earth.

I briefly spoke about what a modern tithing community could look like. Mostly, I gave you some numbers to consider. At Luminary, we easily would be working with an extra $240,000 a year. With our fixed operating costs currently covered, pretty much all of that would go toward ministries.

I invited you to imagine what would be different about our church if we were to achieve such community-wide levels of commitment. I got some great feedback during worship at Luminary today about what people saw as possibilities, all ministry-related.

I tend to see things in relation to what I call Matthew 25 ministries. Down deep in that chapter, starting at the 31st verse, we see a scene of judgment, where we learn Christ assesses the hearts of his followers based on how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the strangers, the sick, and the imprisoned—basically, the people of Jesus’ day living on the margins of society, just barely hanging on to life. This scene certainly seems to be the starting point for ministry in any culture.

First, if we were a tithing community, I see some of the things we already do being done in a bigger, much more effective way. Why could our food closet and our Wednesday night community meal not morph into a full-time feeding ministry, a place where all, rich or poor, could find physical and spiritual sustenance together?

In a tithing church, our clothing and furniture ministries could be so much more, operating in the heart of Ten Mile and Meigs County rather than up here on the hill. And our outreach to people in the community who feel like strangers, for one reason or another cut off from circles of friends and families, could be more organized and effective.

Here’s another one: Why just an annual one-day health fair? Why not a regularly accessible health clinic somewhere in the Ten Mile area?

Within a couple of years I think we would certainly finish this building, debt-free, and perhaps build new ones or refurbish old ones, all with expanded ministries in mind. Our second floor would quickly become a place of community for all ages. Our presence could be truly in the community rather than just in this one location. And I’ve not even begun to describe ministries our community probably needs but we don’t offer. (See, you’ve not even given the money, and I already have it spent.)

The picture I see is starting to look a lot like the church in our Acts text, and all we’ve done so far is discuss the effect of tithing. The early Christians quickly put tithing in their rear-view mirrors. They were living the kingdom of heaven on earth, if only briefly. Tithing wasn’t enough of a commitment, in their minds. Yes, Christ freed them from the law. He freed them to go further in areas tied to love of each other.

They were so excited about salvation through Christ that they began to practice a kind of holy communism, something very different from the political communism we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries. Modern communism is imposed by the dictates of tyrants; the early church’s communal life was inspired by the feeling of solidarity the Holy Spirit brings to a group. And again, it all played out like a party, one where everyone’s needs were met.

I get excited thinking of what one local church committed to tithing could do. I get giddy thinking of all of Christ’s church returning to a commitment to joyous tithing, the kind designed to celebrate our Savior and ensure no one is left out.

Imagine churches linked together from community to community—oh, wait, we’re the United Methodist Church, we already have that going for us. Now imagine us working with real tithing power, families tithing into ministry-minded local churches and local churches tithing toward our broader operations globally.

We would still have a stewardship issue, of course, but instead of scraping by, our main task would be ensuring the abundance is not wasted on fraud or luxuries that don’t benefit our Matthew 25-type ministries. Using our abundance to pursue vision and mission is a much more exciting task than begging our way through the year, wishing we could do more.

Tithing even impacts politics, but in a way where normally divergent interest groups find common ground. If you’re a Christian political conservative and you don’t like big government, tithe. The arguments in favor of big government will go away as churches deal with most social needs faster than government ever can.

If you’re a Christian political liberal, tithe, and lead the stewardship effort by bearing the standard for the outcasts of the world, ensuring ministries happen according to Matthew 25 principles.

Why ask others to do what we can do ourselves? We have the power to feed, clothe and heal the people around us, no election needed. And the word of salvation through Christ will spread.


I have to acknowledge that many people don’t know how to respond to a sermon like this because they are overwhelmed by debt. How do you tithe when you’re struggling to pay your debt service each month? There are several good Christian programs that can help people bring their debt under control and begin to handle their finances in a godly way. Any good pastor should be able to help someone find such a program.

 

The Upside-Down World

Matthew 18:21-35

Last week, I talked about the importance of communication, describing a model Jesus gave us to seek peace in times of discord. A few of my congregants told me afterward they found the sermon to be a bit of a toe-stomper—all of us, myself included, were thinking of moments where we had let our tongues get ahead of our relationships.

At least there is lots of forgiveness to go around. Jesus’ teaching on communication and unity is followed immediately in Matthew by a question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter’s question implies there are limits to forgiveness, even within the community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus’ answer, however, shows there should be no limits. Yes, Jesus provides a specific number, but biblically, sevens upon sevens point us toward a lifelong behavior rooted in an eternal truth.

Of all the marks of a dedicated Christian, a willingness to offer forgiveness may be the most important one. Jesus follows his answer with a parable, telling the story of a slave whose master forgives a ridiculously large debt. The slave, however, later refuses to forgive one of his debtors, a fellow slave who owes him a relative pittance. When the master finds out, he rescinds his forgiveness of the large debt and punishes the slave terribly.

“So my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” Jesus says in concluding the parable.

The demand on Christians to offer forgiveness within the community is indisputable, it would seem. And yet, I often see people struggling with the concept after disputes within their churches. I even have heard Christians use the phrase “I’ll never forgive you” or “I could never forgive that,” which, in the context of the parable mentioned above, causes me grave concern.

Forgiveness is a difficult concept because it seems to conflict with our desire for justice, particularly when we consider ourselves victims. There’s no doubt the two are somewhat related—some people certainly find it easier to forgive after justice has been achieved—but we have to remember the two concepts are not mutually dependent. And forgiveness is hardly the weak theological sister to justice. We are all told to forgive; we have no guarantees of justice as long as the world remains broken, just a promise God will set all things right in the end.

To borrow from Acts 17:6, we are called to turn the common notions of the world upside-down, just as the early Christians were accurately accused of doing. Forgiveness does this more than any other Christian concept, I think. Its most powerful effect is when it ends the cycle of punch and counter-punch, the model the world has long upheld as the norm, the way of thinking still driving much of the decision-making in the world today. Forgiveness likely prevented mass slaughter in South Africa after apartheid came to an end. Properly understood by the right people, forgiveness could end the problems of the Middle East.

Forgiveness also has the possibility to create some very awkward situations on Judgment Day. Imagine this scenario: A man full of anger and evil murders another man, and goes to prison for life. (Justice in this life actually prevails.) As years pass, the murderer learns that even his sins are covered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and he accepts Christ as his savior.

During the same time, the brother of the murdered man, a leader in his church, grows angrier and angrier about the crime, despite the killer’s conviction. The brother wants a more painful punishment for the killer, every day imagining the worst kinds of prison deaths. He never lets go of his anger, his hatred, leading a bitter life to the end.

At the judgment, who, according to our text today, is better off? With forgiveness as an important standard, Judgment Day is liable to be a strange scene. As hearts are measured for forgiveness, we may be surprised at who stands as righteous with God, and who does not.

 

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

 

Finest Fruit in the Market

Acts 17:16-34

In a crowd of people who have never heard of Jesus, what would you say, given the opportunity?

That’s the situation the Apostle Paul found himself in as he made his way through Athens alone, waiting on his Christian colleagues to catch up to him. Idols were everywhere, the Greek pantheon mutely watching over the public spaces, in particular the market, the Agora. Both his lifelong monotheistic Jewish sensibilities and his relatively new understanding of Christ as the path to God caused him to be horrified at the idolatry he saw.

In some ways, the situation was similar to what Peter faced when preaching the day of Pentecost, a story we heard just a few weeks ago. A gathering of lost people needed to hear the truth of Jesus Christ as Savior.

In other ways, the situation was very different, however. At least Peter had Jews before him, giving him a common understanding of one God over all things as a starting point. The radical events surrounding the arrival of the Holy Spirit also had drawn Peter a crowd.

Paul faced a distracted people who had little in common with a strange Jew espousing concepts even other Jews were rejecting. Ideas were everywhere; Athens’ glory had faded at this point, but it was still considered one of the great centers of learning and philosophy.

The people in Athens, we are told, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”

In other words, Paul’s situation was a lot like ours today, as people’s eyes and minds dart everywhere, focusing briefly before moving on.

Paul’s strategy gives us some additional insight into telling others about Christ, insight that is particularly useful in our culture, which seems to be shifting toward what Christians like Paul encountered in the early days of the church. Let’s look at some of his strategies:

1. He went where the people spent much of their everyday lives. The story of Christ and the concept of the resurrection was enough to get their attention, gaining him a more formal hearing before a council that oversaw public discourse in Athens. In the marketplace of ideas, we have plenty to offer—in fact, we should have confidence we offer the finest fruit in the market.

2. When given the opportunity to explain his beliefs, he met his audience where they were. He didn’t insult them; in fact, he complimented them on what they held dear, their broad-based interest in religion. He respected them as the people they were.

3. Paul used what the audience had in their culture to make a connection, tying his understanding of God to their altar to an unknown god. People want to know more about what they’ve already sensed.

4. Knowing the concepts surrounding Jesus and the resurrection can seem complicated when heard for the first time, Paul barely hinted at these ideas when before the council. I think his goal mostly was to get his audience to ask for more, and some of them did. A few joined the ranks of believers.

On the surface, Paul’s effort seems less effective than Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, where 3,000 were saved. What Paul started in Athens and in other parts of the Roman Empire using similar rhetoric remains astounding, however. The Holy Spirit ultimately worked through Paul to establish Christianity in the non-Jewish world, where it has thrived.

For example, tradition holds that one of the new Athenian believers, Dionysius, eventually became bishop of the church that formed there.

A measured, patient, thoughtful approach to telling others about Christ can have far-reaching consequences. We remain in great need of people willing to do this today.