Sermon Manuscript July 29, 2018
By Rev. Nicholas Dorland
Scripture Text: Acts 11:19-30
Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. Integrity is that idea from engineering and construction that is about internal consistency such that the bridge won’t fall down as you drive over it. It is about trust, and it is about accountability. Integrity is about doing what you say you will do, when, how, and in the manner you said you would do it.
Persecution of the followers of the way has led to them being dispersed into different countries and regions. As they travel to these new locations they continue to speak of the good news of Jesus Christ, and it brings about change and new faith for those who hear it. Paul and Peter have been in these regions, where those who have been dispersed are now living. The past two weeks we have heard of how Gentiles are becoming part of God’s plan of salvation (Acts 9, 10). This week we hear about the founding of a community in Antioch which is a very Hellenized city.
Here a tension starts to brew between the Jewish minded followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, and the more Hellenized followers of the way in Gentile territories. The Jerusalem church is concerned with preserving the faith the way they have received it, and with continuing in their practice of Judaism alongside being followers of Jesus. This is what they know how to do.
As the official seat of the newly forming movement of Jesus followers, they send Barnabas to check out this church in Antioch.
He is from the same community in Cyprus that leads this new development in Antioch, and he is clearly devoted to the Apostles teachings as he gave up his possessions in Acts 4, and began living in the community. His job is to check in and make sure the believers are being trained right, and he stays there for a year but not without help.
Having reported back to Jerusalem these new believers in Antioch show their devotion by sending aid to the church in Jerusalem when prophets warn of a famine about to occur in Judea. True to form with Barnabas and his devotion to service this aid comes with no surprise. This church begins to have a reputation among others in Antioch. A reputation that was not necessarily a welcome one. In a pejorative way these new followers of Jesus became known as Christians for the first time. One commentator believes that this term serves to show the tension between Jerusalem and the rest of the Christian world. Next week will look at the Jerusalem council and see how all of this gets worked out.
As Christians today I think we have two insights we can glean:
First is that opposition and tension are part of the package of being a follower of Christ. It doesn’t mean we are to be combative. The insight of this truth reminds us that our faith isn’t always popular, doesn’t make sense to many others, and can be viewed as hostile from other people. It was true then in the narrative of Acts, and it is all the more true now with the religious diversity of our country and world. What should we do with this insight? Is it a call to be on our guard?
I think it simply means we understand that we continue to have tension within Christianity and from outside of it. I believe that another thing it calls us to is integrity. The believers in Antioch being called Christians was meant to be derogatory, but the fact of the matter is this: it was because of their acts of service and their loving attitude that they were called Christians in the first place. We will be less hostile to other religions and to the world if our actions match who we claim to be. Above all else Christ came to serve others, to love them, to show the way to love god and love neighbors. We do well when our actions match our beliefs.
The second insight is this: change is inevitable. We are generally okay with change, especially if it is happening around us and not happening to us. What strikes me all along this series on the book of Acts is the amount of change that occurs to people. The Spirit is not only leading and guiding the church, but most importantly is changing people for the sake of their own good, and for the sake of the spread of the good news of God’s love. At Pentecost people are changed and filled with the Spirit. Saul is changed and turns his life in a completely different direction.
Even Peter was changed from his long-held convictions that he was doing what was right by keeping ‘clean and unclean’ distinctions. We have seen the Spirit not only change people in their expectations, but also change the perception of who is welcome, who gets to hear the message of the Gospel, and who God cares for.
If we have learned nothing else from this whole series I hope it is this point. I hope we have learned that to be Spirit led as the church in Acts meant being transformed. That change had to happen to people and not just in outside circumstances. To be a Spirit led church in the 21st century will mean the same transformation.
What transformation looks like is what is different today. We know the people on the margins of our society who need to be welcomed in. Let us be bold and courageous to make our outreach for these people. We also have started to speak about our values as a church and that is paired with our traditions.
We don’t mind external changes, but what will it mean for us if God is changing our identity as a church? What would it mean for God to call us to be something different? How will we be able to handle the tension of remaining who we have always been over-against growing and changing into a community whose mission vision and values are lived out and thereby have integrity as we reach out to our community?
So church: can we practice what we preach and hold up to tension, and can we glean how the Spirit works to transform people, people on the margins of society, and even us with deep held convictions?
As I preached my first sermon here on courage so I end today with the same invitation to have courage. As I said then: courage is not the lack of or absence of fear, it is being scared and doing it anyway. Friends, let us be scared and do it anyway and I believe we will see God doing more than we ever asked or imagined. Amen!