Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sticking it Out, Acts 14

As we continue to remember the what took place 10 years ago in this country, may we also keep it in perspective that equally heinous acts and even worse take place frequently all over the world. And while the terrorists declared holy war on our nation with their actions, the attack was more about politics, economy, and cultural and societal disrespect than about true persecution. But there are many of our brothers and sisters around the world who do face persecution every day. They lose their jobs, homes, and lives for believing and speaking the truth of Jesus Christ. As Paul and Barnabas wrap up their first missionary journey, Paul says to the new disciples and elders in the church plants, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.”
In the Pro Ecclesia document that we released this year, we wrote, “Remaining faithful in the cultures of this world requires the church to strive, struggle, sacrifice and suffer. Still the Church can be faithful and persevering in the world until the King and the Kingdom arrive in glory to perfect all creation and culture. We reject the assumption that [being faithful] to Christ and His Church is achievable with ease…” The road of the kingdom is a difficult road. Jesus called it the “narrow and strait way.” The Greek word translated “persecutions” is a word that conveys the image of squeezing or pressing. Think of squashing olives to make olive oil. We must endure much squeezing to enter the kingdom of God.
Paul encouraged the new church leaders and disciples that the squeezing process shouldn’t stop them from living for Jesus. He was letting them know that trials and tribulations are normal in the lives of those who live into the kingdom of God. The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross. I don’t know about you, but when I think of my brothers and sisters in Christ in Pakistan or Somalia, I don’t feel like I’ve been squeezed a whole lot. But they like these early disciples in this chapter are also much bolder than I.
We have seen the pressing, squeezing and hardships that Paul and Barnabas faced in this first missionary journey. They faced an attempted stoning in Antioch, and Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra. Their detractors and enemies followed them from town to town. When you do the Lord’s work, the enemy will hound you. We should be just as fervent in preaching the gospel as those were and are who oppose it. Paul and Barnabas didn’t invite suffering unnecessarily. They fled from 2 towns when the persecution increased. And they left Lystra after Paul had just a day to recover. But neither did they give up. They didn’t abandon these towns but went back to encourage the believers. Sometimes we may need to walk away from a situation or group of people, but we mustn’t give up in proclaiming the gospel or on God’s people.
Even in the midst of trials and tribulations, there are also rewards and blessings. Highlighted in this chapter is the healing of a lame man, much like Peter encountered in Acts 3. Paul saw the man, and our text says that Paul saw this man had the faith to be healed and said to him in a loud voice, “Stand on your feet.” The man leaped up and began walking. He was healed by faith. This faith came through the hearing of the gospel that Paul preached. As Paul says in Romans, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” The hearing of the Word is the key to the formation of faith. It is the response to the Word proclaimed. Jesus said to several people that He healed, “Your faith has healed you.” At the gathering in Minneapolis, one woman shared her vision of the church thusly: “A motley crew of sinners compelled by the love of Jesus and healed by our faith.” This vision recognizes that we are all sinners. We have different favorite sins, but we are sinners nonetheless. We are compelled by the love of Jesus—our love for Christ calls us to live for Him, not for ourselves. And we are healed by our faith—our faith frees us to allow Jesus’ transforming power to change us and heal us. There are no limits to Christ’s power. The miracle that occurred confirmed the Word that was spoken. Jesus allows us to be a sign and a wonder in the world and does signs and wonders through our hands.
The crowd thought Barnabas and Paul were gods. In contrast with Herod Agrippa, who basked in the crowd’s praises, the apostles do everything they can to stop the crowd from worshipping them and to correct the crowd’s errors in thinking and practice. Faith and practice go together. To disbelieve God is to disobey God. They call the people to repentance and point them to the true, living God. Our God is living—not just alive, but He is Life. Paul showed them that even creation points to God. He called them to turn from idols—cheap counterfeits of true God.
We too are challenged to stand strong in the faith, turning from idols to the living God, persevering until Christ’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness. Perseverance is key our Christian faith and life. Jesus is our Lord. Jesus is our strength. And in Jesus, we can hold firm. As difficulties increase, so does the revelation of God’s goodness.
Will Willimon says, “Growth and victory are wrought on the hard anvil of suffering and peril.” Our brothers and sisters in China know this very well. They face peril nearly every day and yet the church in China is exploding with hundreds of new believers everyday. Will we be a church that perseveres like those in places where it is much harder to be a believer? Will Willimon also says, “Any church bold enough to preach the word, which dares challenge the cultural status quo, which refuses to accept present political arrangements as eternally given, which is convinced of the truth of its message, which is willing to suffer for the truth, will grow!” May we be a people and a church who are willing to stick it out for the sake of the kingdom.

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