Sunday, June 28, 2015

“What's In a Name?”

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 11: 19-30

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.   

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

4nd Sunday After Pentecost, June 28th, 2015


“….and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians." (Act 11:26 NRS)


Today we conclude these messages from Acts.  My hope has been to start a serious conversation about what it means to be ‘a Church in the Spirit’.   Hopefully, the conversation will not end, but has only begun.   Next week, we will begin our summer series of messages from the book of Galatians, entitled, “Got Freedom?  How the gospel of Jesus Christ helps us get and stay free. ”


Now let’s get back to today’s message.    As we started out 11 weeks ago, Jesus left the building, but then, the Spirit came to empower the church for its work in the world.  But this empowerment came only as the church of Jesus Christ followed and obeyed the new leadings of the Spirit.  Thus, the church only came alive and continued to thrive because it was a church in the Spirit.


Our final message comes at the place where the church made its first, big, very important move:  It has moved from being a stationary church located only in Jerusalem, to becoming a mission-oriented church in Antioch of Syria.   This new location puts the church on the edge of the world, ready to launch out as it preaches, teaches and prepares to take the good news out into the world where it can be heard, seen, accepted or refused.   It’s risky business being a missional church in the Spirit, but this risk is necessary for the church’s future life.   It’s the good kind of risk that enables the church to take Christ’s mission of hope, faith, love into the world so that the world can be saved.    


DISCOVERY: BEING CHURCH ON MISSION

What I want us to especially focus upon how the followers of Jesus, who make up the church, finally get their name as CHRISTIANS.   It wasn’t until moved out from its home base, moving from Jerusalem to Antioch, “… that the disciples were first called "Christians." (Act 11:26 NRS)


Do you find this a little peculiar?   Isn’t it rather strange that no one knew what to call the new baby until it left home?  The parents couldn’t name it.  The other siblings didn’t know what to call it.   How do you name a baby anyway?   Well, if you do it right, you always put some thought into what you should or shouldn’t name the baby.   I’ve heard that some people don’t have the baby named until they get home from the hospital, but waiting until the baby grows up and leaves home,  now that’s a little weird, don’t you think? 


In some countries of the world, you have to get the babies name out of a book of suggestions.  They  won’t let you name the baby just anything.  You couldn’t name your baby Zebra or even Nelson unless that name was in the government’s book.   Of course, that kind of government regulation sounds oppressive to us, but you shouldn’t name your baby anything you want, now should you?   If you do whatever you like, as we sometimes do here in America,  you can get some mighty strange, weird, sounding names.   Ok, you asked for it, how about naming the baby, Zzyzx (pronounced Zay-zix).   This baby was born, of course, in California and is actually named that after town on a road with the same name, aka,  ‘the last place on earth’   . http://abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/bizarre-baby/story?id=23439916.   If you give your baby a name like Zay-zix, or as ABCDE, pronounced, ABseeDee, of course I won’t call it strange, but don’t expect me say is correctly.   Whatever you name your baby, I hope you’ll pick a name that fits.


In the book of Acts, the name ‘Christian’ did not come all at once.   Early on these followers of Jesus were given some other names.  They were called part of the ‘apostle’s fellowship’ (2. 42), those who preached the ‘message about this life’ (3.15), ‘people who belonged to the way’  (Acts 9.2).  Those were all good names, but they didn’t stick.   Luke didn’t even call them ‘church’ until Acts 5:11,  after it proved itself to be ‘honest with money as a ‘community of truthfulness’ (Willimon, p. 53).   Interestingly, the church did not know what to call its members until it went out on the road, away from home, moving out to answer its true calling and purpose.  


Maybe this isn’t an accident.   Maybe this is how the church really does make a name for itself.    Only when the church moves out its own little world does it really make a difference or get attention.   The name the church got was was  Christian¨,  which means ‘little Christs’.   Here, we see the church being defined, not by the people within it, but by those who were on the outside, looking in.  


The church that gets its true name, has to be a church that leaves its own Jerusalem, either figuratively or physically, and it must become a mission station in the world,  launching follow the Spirit on mission in the world.  The church that follows the Spirit does not get its name based on location, but based upon it´s mission.    Have you noticed what´s been happening with new church names lately?      If you compare the names of churches that want to be on mission today,  many of them have dared to give themselves names that define their mission, like Collide, Revolution, Elevation, Restoration, Sanctuary, or Journey.  What you notice is that these churches are defining themselves to the culture why they exist and what they want to do---be on mission for Jesus Christ.   While I don’t think the actual name of a church matters that much the living church must be on the move, always learning, always experimenting, always reaching out, and always being a church that is launching its mission.  




DISCIPLESHIP: BECOMING THE CHURCH

But how do we launch, and keep on launching?   Who is it that we ‘become’ or want to help others to become?    What is the core purpose or mission we have be handed to be the a church made up of people who are called Christians?   


Maybe the answer resides in the very text we’re focusing upon.   Notice again that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians" (Act 11:26 NRS).   Is it  not simply this word ‘Christian’ nor the name ‘Church’ that gives us our true name, but it is that we focus on our main mission—a mission that is nothing more and nothing less than the great commission where Jesus told his very first disciples to ‘go, and make disciples….(28.19)   Remember that this was not just any commission, nor was it a mere suggestion, but it was also a commandment of Jesus that his disciples are to receive Christ’s power and authority---through the life he lived, the death that he died, and through the resurrection power was given and now gives, so that we too are commanded to go out into the world, not just to teach polite people, nice lessons about God and life, but that we are to “Go,  making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”


OF course, there are many ways the church of Jesus Christ can catch on to the seriousness of this great commission.    This is a commission that right along with ‘great-commandment’ to ‘love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it is also a great commission that is also a commandment too.  The early church took disciple-making so seriously, that it did not understand its mission to just to win converts, nor to get members to fill up churches or Sunday School classes, but the church went into the world as people who had been made into ‘disciples’  who also had the commission to ‘make disciples’.   Unfortunately, many churches today may not survive unless they become more intentional about making disciples as the main part of being church.


How do become the church by ‘making disciples?  ´Part of the answer comes right here in our text.  Our text gives insight into the disciple-making process when it tells us:  Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people  (11: 25-26), 

Think about this?  How long would the church have survived or how far would the church have gone into the world, if it had not made a disciple out of Saul, who was later named Paul?   Here, in this brief description, we can see the two most important things we could ever learn about what discipleship means:  Discipleship is a process that takes time (here is it about a year), and it is a process that is about people (not programs) making people into life-long followers of Jesus.  It is not about keeping or maintaining buildings or programs (that is secondary), but it is about a personal ‘teaching’ and a personal ‘learning’ process where people are intentionally made into disciples who learn to follow Jesus, as opposed to people who simply come to a church to learn about following Jesus.   While discipleship can happen in many ways, it must come down to at least this one way; it must be intentional, personal and relational just like it is here, with a person teaching and a person learning, sometimes even teaching and learning from each other, about who, about why, and how one actually follows Jesus Christ as a way of faith and a way of life. 


Years ago, I went through a process of discipleship called “MasterLife” which Southern Baptists put together.  I had to become certified in that program to become a missionary.  It was a good program, but it was still only a ‘program’.   A year or so in our churches, we went through another good program of discipleship, which the Methodist church put together, called, “Disciple.”  It’s a good program too, but it’s still just a program.   Such ‘programs’ are good for passing information, but don’t seem to be personal nor intentional enough to make disciples by themselves.    At times the church has done a good job of being and teaching others to become Christian,  but because the world is less impacted by our faith today,  even becoming more hostile toward faith,  we must become even more intentional, get more personal, become more relational, be more serious, and have more intentionality and accountability built into the process of making disciples.   Whatever we must not do, is reduce being Christian to ‘getting people to come to church’.  If we want to be a church in the Spirit---which is the only kind of church that has a future,  then we must learn from Antioch that making-disciples is the greatest calling and command for the future of the church. 


DEPENDANCE: BELONGING TO CHURCH

Finally, what might this actually look like when the church makes a disciple?   Jesus himself said it will look like a tree bearing good fruit:   You will know them by their fruits. (Mat 7:16 NRS).  While discipleship can be accomplished in many ways, the only true test of a disciple making church is whether or not people actually become “doers of the word and not hearers only”(Matt, 7,22 & James 1.22).   Can we define what it means to be a ‘doer’ of the word? 


What happens at Antioch helps us.   When prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch and one of them predicted that a severe famine would soon take place, the ‘disciples’ at Antioch then become concerned that they wanted to ‘send relief to believers living in Judea” (11.29).  Because they were true disciples of Jesus, and because these were their fellow brothers and sisters,  they could not imagine following Jesus without helping letting others know how much they belonged and depended upon each other.   As someone has rightly said,  There are NO lone ranger Christians”.  That pretty well sums up what it means to be Christian: to belong to Jesus in a way that we know we belong to each other.


In a book about the Hope for the Church, Church consultant Eddie Hammet tells about  a social experiment he did with his Sunday School class in Hendersonville, N.C.  They sent out people to ask “why” they didn’t come to church.   Do you know what one overwhelming answer was?  “Those people in the church don’t believe in the church either!”  It’s interesting to realize that the one thing that convinces the world that we are really who we say we are is not how much we care for the building,  nor it is how much we care for ourselves, but it following Jesus means that we care and believe in each other---that Christ is in us, and wants us to care for each other as he cares for us. 


Wanda Kidd, a Baptist minister of youth in North Carolina tells of working on her project for her Doctor of Ministry degree.  She was doing the project how to do evangelism in a world where the majority of people, even believers that are living around us, don’t have a clue what church means.   She gathered several youth in a study group that went on for several weeks and took them through a discussion-study group where the young people listened as other told stories of how the gospel had impacted their lives.   One young woman was struggling and suffering through the process.  She sat in the corner all balled up, in a fetal position.  She was often detached, and disinterested, but still wanted to continue with the group.  In the final session, another young man saw her pain and her inability to tell her own story, and then he basically said to her, in front of all the others: 

 “You know, I was bad in English grammar and sometimes my life is like sentence fragments that don’t make sense.   But what does make sense in this whole gospel thing,  is that I see in your pain you are looking for Jesus and Jesus is looking for you and that one of these days the both of you are going to find each other.”  With that word of compassion the woman got out of her chair, went to him and embraced him saying,  “thank you Charlie”.  Do you know what that boy gave her,  he gave her hope.  Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian---that we give each other hope?  Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Whose Vision Is It?

A Sermon Based Upon Acts 10: 9-16; 24-28; 44-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.   
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4nd Sunday After Pentecost,  June 21th, 2015

The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Act 10:15 NRS)

“Where there is no vision, the people perish….” (Prov. 29: 18).    

That’s a quote from a very memorable Old Testament text.   During my early college years, I was preparing to preach my first sermon from this popular text.   I sought out a senior student to give me some advice.   I I took the word ‘vision’ to mean having a view of how things should look in the future.   But my friend shocked me when he explained how I had gotten meaning of ‘vision’ in this text wrong.   Here, “vision” does not mean having a view of the future, but it refers to obeying God’s law so that you can have a future.   The New Living Translation captures this nuance:  When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild… (Pro 29:18 NLT). 

What do you do when someone tells you you’ve got it all wrong?  My wife will tell you that I don’t like to be told that I’m wrong.  I can get defensive.  I like to get it right.   I pride myself in trying to do things right.  While it’s good to want to do right, it’s not good when won’t admit you could be wrong and learn something new. 

In today’s text, Peter has a vision (10:3) and gets it wrong—at least he does at first.   He needed to understand and accept the new thing God was doing, but he keeps resisting it.   If Peter wants to live in the past, he could be right, but hope will die.   But if Peter is willing to live toward the future, to trust God, take risks, and move with God into that future; he must learn to let himself be wrong before he can get it right. 

In this vision, three different times God commands Peter to do something he’s has never done before:  Get up Peter, “kill and eat!” (10:13).   It’s all very strange.   New vision can be that way.  What God is commanding him to eat has been considered forbidden foods---foods that God himself had called ‘unclean’ in God’s own written law.  Now, however, for a reason unknown to Peter, but known to God, God is asking Peter to move beyond that Law.   Can you see how strange, and even how risky and dangerous this might seem?   In this ‘vision’ God wants to take Peter and the Church in a whole new direction, but Peter doesn’t want to go there.  By no means Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (10:14). 

If it’s hard to imagine God going against his own Law,  can you dare also imagine somebody saying “no” to God, not once, but as Peter does, saying “no” three times (10:16).   But don’t we sometimes do this too?   Don’t we sometimes hear or sense God calling us to do something, but we keep putting it off, or worst, we directly say no to God?  “The 7 last words of the church is (before it dies): “We’ve never done it like this before!   That’s the same as a ‘no’.  It’s not easy to think about doing something differently, having a brand new life-or to have a life-changing vision.   It is natural for any of us,  at least at first, to say, “No, we’ve not done it that way before!”   Think how hard it is for anyone to change their beliefs, to change their daily routines, or to change their own points of view, especially their core religious viewpoint.   Most of us, like Peter, will resist because we wouldn’t dare believe God could do something different today than God did yesterday.  

If you have ever been confused change or facing the newness of the unknown, this is exactly where Peter is.  Haven’t we all be there, at least in some way?   So, what does God do when Peter struggles and resists this new vision?  God backs off.  He lets Peter stay confused and puzzled for a while, so he can gain the time and experience he needs to figure it out.   By casting this new vision, God plants the seed of change and newness in Peter’s mind, but Peter will be allowed to figure it out for himself.   What and How Peter figures out what this vision means, is what I want to talk to you about today.

GOD GETS BIGGER
The very first thing in this story that confronts Peter and us is that our God is the God who can and will something new.    I am about to do a “new” thing” (Isa. 43.19).  The word ‘new’ is written all over the Bible (Jer. 31.31; 1 Cor. 11.25, Rev 21.5), so why do we still tend to get set in our ways?  Do you see Peter’s own puzzlement and resistant?   He is completely shocked that the God in whom he trusts, in whom he believes, and who he is trying to obey, is asking him do something different than God has done in the past.   Besides, Peter has been with Jesus and Jesus never ate pork!   How could this voice be God’s voice if it suggests something Jesus never did?  Could he dare try to improve upon Jesus?  

Well those of us who call Jesus “Lord” know this is a daring, risky suggestion, but didn’t Jesus himself saying that “greater things you will do than I have done” (Jn. 14:12)!  Could it be that this just might be one of those ‘greater things’?   How does Peter (or we) determine whether or not the voice that is getting into our heads lately is really God’s voice, especially when it tells us something we’ve never seen or heard before?   Before we try to clarify whether or not God might be speaking new things to us, especially when it seems to go against the past, let’s get back to the most basic point Peter must learn, which we too must also learn again and again.   That point is this:  If we let God be truly God, then God must always greater and bigger than we can ever know.  

To understand that we are not God and that we must let God be God, is the most important truth any human can ever learn.    And isn’t this part of what it means to discover the truth of God when we stop being ‘god’ over our own lives or stop thinking we have the ‘corner-market’ explanation of God?   Isn’t this exactly the most important part of the knowledge of God that saves us?   Because we can’t save ourselves by ourselves, we need a God who speaks beyond us.  Besides, as Paul once put it,  salvation only comes when we “let God be true” and, let everyone else be a liar’ (Rom. 3.4)?   Paul’s point was not everyone is a liar, but that only God’s truth endures, and this truth is God’s truth that always transcends our own, no matter how smart we are.  

Recently, I watched a documentary about Henry Ford, the great automaker.   While you can appreciate Henry Ford for his individuality, his ingenuity, and even for his work ethic and how he put so many Americans to work, Henry Ford also got things many things wrong.  He criticized his own son too much.   He was hard to be around and he bullied those who worked for him and looked up to him.  He also hated and blamed Jews for the problems of American society, which made him agree with Hitler ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/henryford-introduction/ ).

My point is not to judge Henry Ford, but to remind us that we have all been wrong about some things, even while we’ve been right.   Being human means we are always limited in our understanding and are always in need of learning more.  This is also true of our understanding of God.  Even our best grasp of God’s goodness, grace and love still comes up short of knowing everything about God, or even knowing all about where God might lead us.    When the prophet said ‘his ways are not our ways and (his) thoughts are not (our) thoughts” (Isaiah 55.9), this means that even the truth we now know about God remains mysterious even when it is fully revealed or disclosed.    This is why we call the true way to practice of religion, faith—a faith we must practice with humility and not arrogance.   This is why the Jews did not dare to even write down God’s name.   This is why Moses discovered that God is holy and that no one can see God and live.   When you come to know the true God, you also must realize that you never fully find all if God as much as you finally let God have all of you.  

Let me show what letting God be bigger and greater means, even with the most important belief we have about Jesus.  While we can say firmly that God has been ‘fully’ revealed in Jesus Christ, we must not say that God has been ‘finally’ revealed in Jesus.    While we should say with confidence that Jesus is the way, truth and life,  because we have come to personally  experience the loving, forgiving and graceful God revealed fully in Jesus Christ, there is still more to learn from Jesus or know in Jesus.   If God had revealed everything we needed to know in Jesus, then why did Jesus say the Holy Spirit would reveal even ‘greater things’  (Jn. 14. 12-18) or that the Spirit would come to guide us into all truth (16: 13)?    Once I heard someone explain the difference between what God reveals in Jesus and what God has yet to reveal this way:  In Jesus, God gave us one piece of the pie that explains God and that piece of pie takes us all the way to the center of who God is and what God’s truth is, but it is still only one piece of whole pie.   Since God is an ‘eternal pie’ there is always more pie to come.  God never runs out of pie.   Would let God pass you another piece of pie?

What Peter is having trouble with in this text is this next piece of the ‘pie’.    Peter is having trouble with what we too might have trouble with, especially when something new is taking place.    To move this example from culinary language and put it into   farming language, with this new vision God is asking Peter to ‘plow new ground’.    When you are plowing new ground, even when you are plowing it with God, if you go too fast, something is going to break.   You must go slowly and you must work together, and you must keep moving forward, moving with care and caution step by step.  It’s find to take it slow, but what you mustn’t do when God is at work,  is either lag too far behind or move too far ahead.    Either way could get you into trouble.  

But how do you do that?   How do you stay with each other and stay with God when you are moving into ‘new’, unfamiliar territory?   This brings us to the next thing we must learn from Peter’s vision.    We need to see what helped Peter say ‘yes’ to get to the new place God was leading him.

THE WORLD GETS SMALLER
Notice how reluctant Peter is to say yes to the new thing God is doing, until the ‘world’ comes knocking at his door.   Do you see this?  Look closely.  Peter has awakened and the next thing he hears is a knock at the door. 
“Knock, Knock!” 
“Who is it?”
“It’s Cornelius!”
“Cornelius who?”
“ It’s Cornelius the first believing Gentile who’s invites the Jewish Church to open the door their heart to get to know people outside of their comfort zone.”  What do you do when the world knocks at your door, but is not the world nor the people you’ve  always known?   Knock, Knock!  Are you still there?   Do you want to open your door?

When Pastor Fred Craddock was pastoring a church in East Tennessee, near Oak Ridge, the nuclear energy changed the landscape of the surrounding community where his church was located.  New people were moving into mobile units everywhere.  He told the Church Leaders,  “We’ve got to get out there and visit these folks”?  But his church leaders said they wouldn’t fit it and decided to change the bylaws so newcomers had to own land before they could join the church.   This ruled out most of these new people who had not been there long enough have land.  Pastor Craddock never got them to them to change their minds or to open their hearts.  They did not reach out.

Years later, after Pastor Craddock became professor Craddock, he was traveling in the area with his wife and they decide to drive by and see how they little church was doing.   When they drove through the community, there were cars all around, the little church building was filled with people, but the sign on the door said “Barbeque Restaurant”.   Now, the little church building was filled with all kinds of people---all these people the church wouldn’t invite, but now it this was no longer a church.  
I’m glad the church in Jerusalem didn’t become another Kosher Restaurant, aren’t you?   I’m glad that Peter obeyed the Spirit, even when he didn’t know what to do next, and opened the gate and let those folks in.   I’m glad the church continued to move, stay alive, and thrive, but it only did this because it was willing say yes to the new vision the Spirit revealed and to go where the Spirit was leading---in a new direction, out the church door, beyond the temple, to visit and invite and to dare to disciple strangers, beginning with this stranger named Cornelius.  And do you see what happened, when Peter obeyed?   The Spirit gives him a discovery about God and the world: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (vs 34-35).   As Peter allows God to get bigger, the world appears much smaller, and people are more alike than they are different.

YOU COULD BE AMAZED
As the Church says ‘yes’ to God’s Spirit, new surprises begin to take place.   While Peter is preaching about Jesus to Cornelius and his friends we are told that the Holy Spirit ‘…fell upon everyone who heard the word.”  Then, we are told those  “believers who had come with Peter were astounded (or amazed, ESV) that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, (Act 10:45 NRS).

How can we be part of a church that doesn’t just sing about amazing grace, but that still experiences realities of God’s amazing grace?   Would you follow a new vision just to see where and who it leads you too, or would you rather stay behind in a church that remains uninteresting,  un-exciting, or un-amazing?   What’s the difference?  The difference depends on letting God be big enough to lead us to those places where we can meet people we haven’t met so we can also learn to accept the people God already loves.  You will something as amazing as this when are willing to let the Spirit ‘amaze’ and ‘astound’ you.  

Martin Thielen tells about a young college student named Bill.  Bill had wild hair, spiked with vivid colors, and wore a nose ring.  Bill always wore a T-shirt with holes in it, blue jeans and no shoes.  Bill, a brilliant young man, became a Christian while attending college.  He attended a Christian organization on campus, but he also wanted to find a church.  Across the street from Ken's college was a well-dressed, conservative, very traditional church.  

One Sunday Bill decided to visit that church. He walked into the sanctuary with his nose ring, no shoes, jeans and a T-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started, so Bill walked down the aisle looking for a seat. But the church was packed, and he could not find a seat anywhere. By now, people were uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Bill got closer to the front of the church. When he realized there were no seats left, he squatted down and sat in the aisle.  Although this was perfectly acceptable behavior at his college fellowship group—trust me—this had never happened before in this church!

The tension in the congregation was palpable. The preacher didn't know what to do so he stood there in silence.   About that time, an elderly man, one of the old patriarchs of that church, slowly made his way down the aisle toward Bill.  The man was in his eighties, had silver-gray hair, and always wore a three-piece suit.  He was a godly man, very elegant, dignified, traditional, and conservative.  As he started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves—you can't blame him for what he's going to do.

How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid with a nose ring, wild hair, T-shirt and jeans and no shoes, sitting on the church floor? The old man walked with a cane, so it took a long time for him to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the old man's cane.  All eyes were focused on him. Finally, the old man reached the boy. He paused a moment, then dropped his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, the old man lowered himself and sat down next to the boy. He shook the boy's hand and welcomed him to the church.

Would you like to be a church that not only sings about amazing grace but still experiences it?   Well, are you willing to see new and amazing visions?    Do you have a God whose love is still big enough to amaze you?   Would you take some actual steps outside the church to get out and meet some of those amazing people whose love for God might also ‘amaze’ you?   Could you be just as amazed at God’s love for a stranger as your are about God’s love for you?   The truth is, if we want to be a church in the Spirit, we don’t have options, we only have decisions to make.   And the only decision we have is whether or not we will obey and go with the Spirit where God is leading his church.  Besides, it’s not our church, nor is it our vision, but it’s God’s church and God’s vision.   When we see this, and I mean really see this,  we join Peter, as we stop saying ‘no’ and we start saying ‘yes’ and we become part of the church that still can astound and be amazed. Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

“The Church As Evangelist”



A Sermon Based Upon Acts 8: 25-40
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin. 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3nd Sunday After Pentecost,  June 14th, 2015

So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"  He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"  (NRS Acts 8:30-31).

George Carlin the late comedian once said “Religion is like a pair of shoes.....Find one that fits for you, but don't make me wear your shoes.”

Evangelism is a scary or even a ‘dirty word’ among some.   It conjures up images of Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses or even Baptists, going door to door trying to shove religion down the throats of people who are not the least bit interested.   While many in increasingly secular world still have respect for some religion;  that goes only as far as they keep it to themselves.   

Can the church ‘rescue’ biblical evangelism from the negative impressions so many people have about it, in and outside the church?   I believe that we can, and I also believe that we must?  But how?  How can we bear witness to the gospel in a world that is increasingly secular and non-religious?  Perhaps we can take our cue from today’s text in Acts, where Luke gives the first close-up view of one of the very first evangelists.     

ON THE ROAD AGAIN
As we begin to examine this story, let’s try to answer a very important question about what evangelism means and why we should be evangelistic in the first places.   Philip is among the very first to take the gospel away from Jerusalem and take the gospel on the road, so to speak--north to Samaria (8.5), and then down south on the ‘wilderness road’ that leads to Gaza (8.26).  An evangelist is exactly this kind a person; a person who takes the gospel ‘on the road’ away from the church and out onto the streets of life and into the world.

Seeing an evangelist in action is how we best learn what evangelism means.    As we watch this first evangelist in action taking the message of the gospel ‘on the road’ away from Jerusalem reminds me of something I heard from a speaker, who made the observation that “If the church had only remained a Bible study in Jerusalem, we would not be here today (Robby Gallty, 2015).  What was true then is just as true now.  The gospel is a living truth that must be lived, told, shared, and given away.   Just like any beautiful flower or life-giving vegetable plant in the garden, the gospel must be constantly plucked or picked or its beautiful life-giving quality dries up.   Without the practice of a healthy evangelism, a church will also find itself dead on the vine.


The word ‘evangelist’ (which Philip is officially called in 21:8) generically means someone who shares the message of good news about Jesus.   But more specifically, to be an evangelist also means that you explain what the good news about Jesus means.   This is exactly what Philip does.   This Ethiopian Eunuch (26-40) was reading the Scripture, but had no understanding until the reading in the Bible was explained to him.   Without an evangelist, people can read the truth in the Bible, but they will not get to truth of the Bible unless somebody explains it to them.    
      
RE-IMAGINING LIFE  
The good news we Christians have to explain comes from the truth about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.   In other words, the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4.5) is to explain what God has done through Jesus that God has done in no one else (Acts 4.12).   That’s exactly what happens in this story, isn’t it?   After Philip heard the Eunuch reading his Bible aloud, he approached him and asked him, “Do you know what you are reading?”     It was then, that the Eunuch responded,  How can I unless someone guides me? (31).   This is the kind of intentional, personal dialogue that opens the door for the message of the gospel to be communicated, but    since people are seldom found reading their Bible’s in their chariots these days, let’s first consider the broader question of why the church is to be evangelistic.  

Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggeman, who has been called a ‘prophet’ by those who hear him, can help us zoom in on it.   In one of his prolific writings, he offers a very interesting definition of evangelism as “the invitation to re-imagine our lives” in the story of the Bible, especially in the story of Jesus.   Isn’t that exactly what Philip helps this Ethiopian Eunuch to do---to reimagine what his life means in light of discovering who Jesus is?  Bruggeman goes on to suggest that an ‘evangelist’ is the person or the people who do the very creative work of trying to alter people’s perception of the world, how they view their neighbor and how they see themselves so they will be determined to live differently in the world."  (Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism,  Abingdon Press, 1993, pp. 10; 125). 

Do people around us still need to have their perceptions altered or reimagined?    Of course they do.  Every day in the papers, in the news, and online, we hear and read of people who have some of the wildest, craziest, and even most dangerous perceptions of reality.   These ‘wild and crazy’ perceptions aren’t just restricted to radical Muslims either.   I never forget hearing a Christian woman share about having a vision from God who spoke to her through “pink-dolphins dancing on power lines”!   Of course some of the strange perceptions people have are ‘harmless’, but others can be harmful and dangerous.  Ever wonder what goes on the mind of a person who kills themselves or someone else?  It not the kind of thing you like to think about?   Ever wonder what goes on the mind of a politician or any person who will do anything for money or power?  Ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a person who will hate someone for the rest of their lives, even when the person tries to apologize?  At some time or another all of us need our perceptions challenged or changed.
Many of you heard or saw the movie about Chris Kyle, the American Sniper who was tragically killed by another an ex-soldier he had taken to a shooting range.  Kyle was trying to help that young man overcome the post-traumatic stress of warfare.  When the trial of Eddie Ray Routh was starting up,  police videos revealed images of a mentally ill man, going in and out of delusionary states, which some say proves Routh knew ‘right from wrong’ when he fatally shot Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield.  The videos fueled even more speculations about what what was really going on in Routh’s mind and why he murdered Kyle and Littlefield, who were only trying to help him.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Kyle.    

While we may never know what happens inside of a deranged mind like Eddie Routh, what is of even more value is to try to answer what goes on in the mind of people like Chris Kyle or Chad Littlefield, who are willing to put their own lives at risk to reach out and help a fellow human being who is hurting mentally, emotionally, financially, or spiritually.  What really wonders me is not the evil in the world, but the good people do that is beyond comprehension.  What makes people care enough to dare to do the risky, dangerous, and uncertain work of love and compassion for people they don’t even know?  Like that young girl, Kayla Mueller, who went to Syria to help refugees as an Aid Worker and got herself captured and killed by Isis?  What goes on in a mind or a soul like that?  Time Magazine said that it while many  millennials would like to create multi-million dollar app or record a block-buster song, or start in a movie or be a winner in sports, all Kayla wanted to do was end bring hope and suffering.   It would do the world a lot of good if they would make a role model out of her. http://time.com/3705013/kayla-muller-millennials-role-model/.     Wouldn’t you rather live in a world of ‘crazies’ like that, than to live in a world where everyone wants to be sensible, careful, get big or rich, or just get by or play safe with their life? 

Several years ago, there was quite a ‘strange’ discussion among Baptists about whether or not God hears the prayers of Jews.   Today it sounds crazy that someone would even dare suggest they know what God does and doesn’t do?   Anyway, one day, while the discussion was going on in the newspapers,  I read an very interesting statement from a Jew who lived in the United States, maybe in the south, who once had escaped the death camps of Nazi Germany.  He said that where he lived now, in the deep South, his Southern Baptist neighbors were always trying to convert him because they believed he was going to hell.   How does that make you feel?” the news reporter asked him?   How do you like living around people who are always trying to get you converted because they think you’re going to hell”?   He answered: “It’s a lot better than living around people trying to kill you and send you there!”     

That Jewish fellow was on to something.   He’s on to the difference that a truly evangelistic church can make in the world.   The difference between people who would try to ‘convert’ each other or those who die to ‘kill’ each other is the difference obeying Holy Spirit can make.  It is the Spirit of God that Philip was obeying (v. 29) when he left Jerusalem to risk going into Samaria and down to Gaza to share the gospel.   People who are evangelistic are those who obey this Spirit--- who is true compassion, who is true grace,  and who is the Spirit of the goodness of Jesus Christ.   This is the ‘spirit’ that still moves obedient and willing people out of their comfort zones to take the risk that is necessary to take the gospel out on the streets of life so that people can re-imagine what life can be and who they can be, if they too obey this same Spirit.    

GETTING PERSONAL
What would the world be like, if no one obeyed this Spirit?   Aren’t evangelist those who obey the Spirit to go out on the road to explain why Jesus means everything and to also explain why we are ready to go anywhere and to go to anyone to take this message of God’s love and compassion.  

But how do we take it on the road in our world, to explain Jesus to anyone or anywhere, especially when our ‘anywhere’ has become less favorable toward evangelism or the gospel?    Isn’t this what frightens most would-be evangelists because we fear what others might think or ask of us?  Besides, how do we share the gospel in a world that is increasingly more secular, post-Christian, or sometimes even hostile toward our faith in Jesus Christ? 
 
Recently I read about a Texas truck driver who was fired for listing “Jesus” as his co-pilot on his official log book.  He said that it was his custom to do this with his other employer, but now his new employer has fired him for doing it.   The driver protested his firing by calling upon other truck drivers to stand with him, by standing up for their rights to share their faith. While I’m certainly not questioning the sincere commitment of that truck driver, if you take that kind of stand you will also have to deal with the rights of an employer to demand that legal documents remain legal.   Even the truck-driver admitted afterward that he would have kept his faith more personal, if he had known he’d be fired. (http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2015/02/13/texas-truck-driver-claims-he-was-fired-for-writing-this-word-in-his-logbook-and-now-he-wants-other-drivers-to-stand-up-for-their-faith/).

It amazes me how desperately the early church respected the rights of others and did not to break the civil, secular or social laws or customs when they shared their faith.   (Rom 13: 1-8).   We also see this kind of wisdom when we observe how Philip did not just following the Spirit to, but he also waited on the Spirit to tell him when to speak and what to say.   Do you see how Philip waits upon the Spirit to open up the conversation?   Only after he saw the Eunuch reading the Bible and after the Eunuch asked the right questions, did Philip ‘then’ (v. 35) share Jesus (vs. 35)?  Today, we need to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit more than ever.  We need to be like Philip in knowing when is the time right and what is the right way.  If we can learn anything from Philip’s example, it is that when the Spirit is leading and if we are obeying, we can also trust that the Spirit will provide the right occasion and opportunity;  but we must still follow and not get ahead of the Spirit.

Iran born, ex- Mulism, and now Texas Baptist pastor, Afshin Ziafat, tells how BJ Higgans was a young man who accepted Christ at age 8 and wanted to share with everyone about his new found faith.   BJ was so bold in his witness, that as a child, his teacher had to warn him and his parents also had to ask him to try to be a little more careful in how he shared his faith.   In his early teen years, BJ went on his first mission trip to Peru, but really wanted to go to North Africa, especially to Morocco and there to one day be a missionary.   He told his older sister that he wanted her to go to Morocco with him so they could tell others about Jesus.   But at age 15, BJ contracted a rare disease and after a six-month battle, BJ died and went to be with the Lord.     

BJ left a diary, which he wrote about his thoughts and hopes when he was only 13 years old.   In that diary BJ wrote with incredible wisdom about the events of the world and how Christians need to get out of their comfort zones and share the love of Jesus more now than ever before.  After he died, his parents, Brent and Diana Higgins, felt that the diary needed to be published and put it in a book entitled, “If I Could Die For You”.   In that book they address the issue of why God would allow a young boy to die and be unable to answer his call to the mission field.  Why?

In the book the answer that comes, is revealed after BJ died, and his parents and older sister take BJ’s ashes of to Morocco, to scatter them on a hill overlooking a Muslim village.  The guide who took them to the top of that hill keep on asking them why they would do such a thing, and they told him BJ’s story of how he wanted to share the gospel with the people and this why they would bury his ashes on this hill.   Then, they prayed for that village and then came home.  Only later did they find out that the guide who took them to the top of that village was so moved by the story of the spreading of that young man’s ashes, that he gave his life to Christ and is today the leader of the underground church in that Moroccan village. 

Later on BJ’s dad went to the Sudan on a mission trip and is still carrying with him BJ’s Bible that BJ never got to take to Africa.  On a bus one day,  a poor Sudanese preacher who speaks English, tells BJ’s Dad that he doesn’t have a Bible.  Instead of getting a Bible for him,  BJ’s Dad, gave that Sudanese preacher BJ’s Bible and now that Bible is being used by a Sudanese pastor to preach the gospel in North Africa. http://thevillagechurch.net/resources/sermons/detail/jonah-gods-heart-of-compassion/.

I tell you this story because many people would not be caught ‘dead’ sharing their faith. But a young 15 year old would have.   He died, but his witness is still alive,  years after he died.   I know that I would much rather be a witness in my life than in my death, wouldn’t you?   But sadly, but many Christians are very much alive, but their witness and evangelistic energy is very much dead?  Jesus has given us life, not just once but twice, so why aren’t we following his Spirit?  We can trust that the Spirit has given us life for a reason and that reason is a reason that one day can outlive us, if we will now decide to be alive in our witness for him.   Amen.