Sunday, July 15, 2012

To the Ends of the Earth [Acts 11:19-13:3] (2 September 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

Since the first week of July we have been learning from the first few chapters of Acts. Today will be final message of nine messages in this series. Before proceeding let us recap what we have learnt so far.

In the first sermon on Acts 1 we saw that the disciples were told to wait for the outpouring of the Spirit because the Spirit would usher in a new era during which we need to be very sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Each situation that confronts us needs to be evaluated for its own merit. What worked yesterday might not work today.

Then from Acts 2 we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus had changed things at a cosmic level. So great was the change that the new age of the Spirit had begun while the old age characterized by enmity to the Spirit was still around. The two ages inevitably clash because their agendas are different. The old age is ruled by death while the new age of the Spirit is characterized by life in Jesus.

In the third sermon we saw that healing happens today precisely because the Spirit works to reverse death. We saw that the barrenness of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, like illnesses and debilitating conditions, are but a sign of the reign of death which God has overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, there is no formula for healing. We can only depend on God’s initiative and hope that he stretches his hand in response to our pleas.

Then from three stories in Acts 4, 5, & 6 we learnt that the Spirit promotes a form of life in the church that is drastically contrary to other forms of life to which we are used. While the old age tells us to seek prestige and look to money for security, the Spirit produces humility and asks us to find security in God. While the old age tells us to make people dependent on us so as to hold on to power, the Spirit asks us to willingly give away our power, to empower others so that he can work through others.

In Acts 7 we dealt with the martyrdom of Stephen. We saw that he was open to the realm of heaven in which the death of Jesus is given cosmic significance that runs contrary to the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23. And we saw that Stephen imitated Jesus in his death—a death of which Saul of Tarsus was a witness. We saw that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

In the sixth message we learnt from Act 8 about the effect that Saul’s persecution and Stephen’s death had on the church. We saw that persecution is a foolish thing to undertake because it forces the church to behave like a body. We also saw that the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53 applies to Jesus but not to Jesus alone. Rather, it applies to all who follow Jesus. I ended the sermon with a call to recovering this essential element of our calling in relation to the world.

In the seventh message we learnt from Acts 9 what happened to Saul on his way to Damascus. We saw that what changed Saul from a persecutor of the church to a defender of the faith was a vision in which he saw the crucified Jesus, the one whom he believed was under God’s curse, at the right hand of God. Saul realized that God’s way of ruling and conquering was by allowing himself to be the target of human hatred and violence. Jesus conquered his enemies by allowing them to kill him. Jesus had placed himself under the curse of Deuteronomy 21.23, but by virtue of his innocence had transformed it into a blessing. And with this conviction Saul became Jesus’ twelfth apostle.

Last week, from the episode of Peter’s dream about unclean animals, I drew three important implications: first, the equality of women and men in the ministries of the church; second, God has done away with circumcision as the marker of the people of God, though not as a marker of the Jewish people. The priority of the Jews in salvation history needs to be remembered; third, it means that our past does not matter, that what matters is that Jesus reaches out to undeserving humans and lavishes them with his love.

Till now in Acts, the gospel is still in the area of Palestine, though barely. As seen in the next slide, from Acts 1 to Acts 10 the gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Caesarea, a distance of only about 50 miles! So much for the gospel going to the ends of the earth! As you can see, the gospel is still in Palestine. Incidentally, it was at Caesarea that archeologists found the only evidence that confirms that Pilate was indeed appointed as governor of Judea during the reign of Tiberius. The slide shows what is called the Pilate Inscription.

In Acts 11 we read about initial travels of Barnabas and Saul. Saul, you will remember, is in Tarsus, his birthplace. Meanwhile, the gospel was being preached along the Mediterranean coast, till it reached Antioch. The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to oversee the church there. Now Barnabas had recognized in Saul tremendous potential. So he went north from Jerusalem to Antioch as seen in the next slide. He then went to Tarsus, where Saul was, and brought him back to Antioch. While they were at Antioch the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. About that time a Christian named Agabus prophesied a famine that would affect the church in Jerusalem. So the church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem with financial assistance.

Then next we encounter Barnabas and Saul is in Acts 12.25. Let us hear now the text for today.

[Here read Acts 12.25-13.3]

We have finally stepped outside the bounds of the Promised Land. It has taken half the book of Acts to describe this arduous journey during which we have seen the church slowly learning the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. At times, like when Peter heals the man at the temple, or when Stephen confesses Jesus to the point of death, or when Philip witnesses to the Ethiopian eunuch, the church shone. But then there have been the not so positive episodes of casting lots, of Ananias and Sapphira, of Peter’s reluctance to proclaim the gospel to uncircumcised Gentiles. It has been a rough ride, but for that reason, a real one. And finally, we are poised to have the church unleashed on the world.

At the end of Acts, we find Paul in Rome, witnessing to Jesus in the capital of the Empire. In a period of about twenty-five years the gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Rome. The next slide shows the spread of the gospel in the first century. In the second century, as the next slide shows, the gospel had reached the Western extremities of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, and the Northern ends of central Europe. The map does not show the massive spread of the gospel along the Nile and East of Mesopotamia.

In the third century despite severe persecution during the reigns of the Emperors Decius and Diocletian, the church continued to grow till it had extended far beyond the scope of the Roman Empire and had affected almost every area of life.

Such miraculous growth! In a race of religions, this was the one to back! Projecting the growth of the first three centuries indicates that the gospel should have reached the ends of the earth latest by the sixth century.

But after the first three centuries something happened. The church got stuck. Growth rates decreased. And when Islam rose among the Arabs, the church held on for dear life but kept losing territory. In fact today, of the seven main centers of Christianity during the first three centuries, only Rome still remains even nominally Christian.

What happened? How was this force stopped—this force that Paul calls the power of God for the salvation of the world? And why do we now still experience the frustration of not making the kind of impact on the world that we see in Acts and in the first three centuries of Christianity? Why is it that Europe is now post-Christian? Why is North Africa Muslim? Why is the Middle East Muslim? Why did the gospel presumably fail in India and China? Why is South America merely nominally Christian? And why is North America, like Europe, also post-Christian?

Such weighty questions! Can our text answer them? I believe it can. There is one tiny sentence in there. The leaders of the Antioch church are worshipping and fasting when they hear the Spirit say, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And then it comes. “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

So innocuous! So harmless! So benign! But so powerful!

Most Christians would agree that Paul is probably the greatest theologian of all. Even Peter had to admit that some of the things Paul wrote were difficult to grasp. And even today, as we learn more about the world in which the early Christians lived, we find new insights into Paul’s letters.

And probably most Christians would also agree that Paul is probably the greatest missionary of all. Missiologists and missionaries today still study Paul’s missionary methods and his missionary journeys.

But we have failed to link the two. Paul’s letters were written during his missionary journeys. They are not theological treatises but theological reflections on his missions. This fine thinker could only produce the depth of theology while he was on his missionary journeys.

But we have locked up our fine thinkers. We have labeled them theologians and have asked them to write treatises for us. And they come up with tomes of systematic theologies and thousands of “how to” books. And we fail to see the relevance of all the doctrine we learn. Have we ever asked ourselves, “How in the world does believing that God is Trinity change the way I live?”

And then we send others on mission trips. We have labeled them missionaries and we ask them to raise support for their trips and then to give us reports on them. And so they sweat to raise funds and give us reports of their missions. And we feel nice and warm as though watching a slide show means that we have fulfilled the commission. Have we ever asked ourselves, “How in the world does knowing the widespread ignorance about Jesus change the way I live?”

Barnabas and Saul were part of the leadership at Antioch. One was an encourager beyond compare, the other a thinker in the grip of a heavenly vision. Any local church could do with such Christians. And yet we read, “They laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

They sent their best duo off. They presumably trusted that God would provide adequate replacements for Barnabas and Saul. But the church in general has not been able to trust in this way. And herein lies the root of the stagnation of the church. How does it normally work? Someone graduates from seminary and we make him a youth minister. After some years he is promoted to assistant pastor. And then, when his productive years are over, he gets to be a senior pastor. If he is a gifted person, why was he not commissioned as a missionary? And if he was not gifted, why in the world is he a pastor?

We have made the church look like a corporation as though getting to be senior pastor were like becoming a CEO. We have not listened to that voice that says, “Set apart for me.” That is why so many pastors burn out. That is why long-term missionaries are so few. That is why the church adopts a ghetto mentality. And that is why much that passes as Christian literature is filled with platitudes.

You see, the more gifted you think a leader is, the more likely God is calling her elsewhere. Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to hear God say, “Set apart for me”? We must! For only when our most gifted brothers and sisters go to the frontiers and engage unbelief with belief and then reflect on their engagements will we develop expressions of theology and missiology that are appropriate for our contexts.

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