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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Wild Beasts and Adversaries (1 Corinthians 15.30-32; 16.8-9)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
April 17, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Lift High the Cross" (Behnke)
Hymn of Praise: "Rise Up, O Church of God" (ST. THOMAS)
Anthem: "The Lord is My Light and My Salvation" (Behnke)
Hymn of Response: "Tell Out, My Soul" (Dudley-Smith, MORECAMBE)
Song of Sending: "O Church, Arise" (Getty, Townend)
Postlude: "Lift High the Lord, Our Banner with Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" (arr. Hayes)

Wild Beasts and Adversaries
Text: 1 Corinthians 15:30-32; 16:8-9; Acts 19:26-29; Ecclesiastes 8:14-15
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are beginning a study on “Being the Church” that will take us through the month of May. To do this we will engage in a kind of case study of the Church in Ephesus. You may hear “Ephesus” and immediately think of Ephesians in the Bible, and you’d be right to do so. And we’ll look at Ephesians one Sunday. But what is interesting and often overlooked is that the Ephesian Church is mentioned in more places than Ephesians, and in some historical detail. Ephesians is a letter TO that church, but references to the Church in Ephesus are made in 1 Corinthians, Acts, Timothy, and Revelation. Over the course of the month we’ll be looking at these to understand a bit of the story of the Christian Church in Ephesus, and we’ll consider what application that story might have to our own life as one of Christ’s churches in south Charlotte.

Before we get going, let me offer an overview of that Ephesian story. I will refer to the Church in Ephesus, but don’t picture a steepled building with “First Church of Ephesus” on the sign. There was not such a thing; moreover, I mean the Church with a capital ‘C’ – the collection of Christian believers in the city of Ephesus. They met in homes, sometimes assembled in the public square in groups, and struggled and grew like any group of Christians might. We’ll see that they had a number of godly leaders, including Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos, the Apostle Paul, and Timothy. We’ll see that theology and right belief were important in a city that was an intersection of Greek culture and religion. And we’ll see the sorts of things they struggled with, both from inside and outside the Church.

One good way to prepare for the month’s study would be to read Acts 18-20, which gives an account of the founding and first several years of the Church in Ephesus. Knowing that history and context makes the letters to that Church (Ephesians, Timothy, Revelation) more meaningful.

Today we will look at a passing reference to the Church in Ephesus made in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He not only mentions Ephesus by name, but uses vivid imagery to describe the challenges he faced there as well as why he pressed on in ministry. He sets those challenges and choices in the context of the Resurrection, which is a fitting starting place for us this Sunday after Easter. In a sentence, Paul teaches us that being the Church is a challenging and dangerous activity, but it is worth it because of the truth and power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Wild Beasts

In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul writes of having “fought with wild beasts at Ephesus.” (15:32) He didn’t tangle with a grizzly bear; he is referring to one of several human conflicts he encountered while in Ephesus. It is not explicitly clear which one he is describing here, but most likely it is something like the scene described in Acts 19, which you heard today. Paul was teaching publicly that hand-made images of Greek gods were not gods, but false idols. This teaching ran especially afoul of the Ephesian artisans because the temple of Artemis was in Ephesus and many artisans made a profit from creating and selling gold and silver statues and other religious artifacts. In the scene in Acts 19, the city is enraged and several of Paul’s Christian traveling companions were dragged into the midst of a mob. The situation was eventually diffused, but it represents the kind of conflict that the early Church had with the surrounding culture. It was neither the first nor last time Paul would run up against this kind of cultural conflict.

In 1 Corinthians Paul uses other language to describe the kind of opposition and conflict that went with Christian ministry: “danger,” “[dying] daily,” “[fighting] with wild beasts,” (15:30-32) and “many adversaries.” (16:9) Was this just a feature of early Christianity or is this something we should be prepared to face?

Why Risk It?

All around this description of wild beasts and adversaries, Paul offers theological and practical reasons for persevering as the Church. He basically says that it is only the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that makes being the Church worth the trouble, opposition, pain, and suffering. Did you get that? Only the Resurrection! That’s the thing we just talked about at Easter. It’s not the pretty Christian holiday where we dress up and get candy. It is the one thing that kept the Apostle Paul going day after day – the fuel, the food and drink, the sustenance to face yet another adversarial situation for the cause of Christ.

Listen to how Paul said it: “If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me?” (v. 7) In other words, there are no human motives that justify this amount of trouble. It’s just not worth it! He goes on, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (v. 7) I included the passage from Ecclesiastes 8 because this is the basic wisdom of Ecclesiastes without the redemption of God that book finally reaches at the end. If there is no redemption, if no salvation, if no resurrection or future hope, then the best we can do in this life is to try to make ourselves comfortable. Eat and drink; ease your pain. Why face adversaries that could be described as “wild beasts?” It’s just not worth it.

But it is worth it to Paul, precisely because Christ has been raised and the dead with him. There is hope; there is Good News. So Paul presses on to share the Gospel of Christ.

21st Century Church

Earlier I asked if the kind of opposition and challenges in Ephesus were only a feature of early Christianity or whether we might face similar challenges. I believe it is the latter. Being the Church is an inherently counter-cultural thing precisely because culture is what WE make and the Church belongs to God. And we have created a culture that caters to our needs and wants and comfort.

Particularly in the United States, and especially in the South, we have been lulled into thinking that Christianity can be a low-key, low-risk, comfortable thing, but I believe we have just deceived ourselves. Want to see a vibrant, living, Resurrection-powered Church? Look in China, Sudan, or Egypt. They know what suffering and persecution and adversaries look like. In contrast, and increasingly so, if you look for a “successful” church in the United States, you see something else entirely. First of all, the measuring stick of being “successful” is fairly alien to scripture. But what many will point to will look like pop culture success: pastor rock stars, stages and sound and lights, big budgets and fancy cars. That is more Hollywood culture than God’s Kingdom culture.

My point is not to gripe about American consumerist churches; rather it is to challenge us to continue to “seek first the Kingdom” – and here’s the focal point today – to expect “wild beasts and adversaries.” Faithfully being the church should not feel like a membership at the club or a golf outing with friends or a dinner date. It should have more in common with the camaraderie of serving on the front lines together or of running a strenuous race or facing an animal in the wild!

Do note that though Paul describes those who oppose him as adversaries, he is laboring that they might hear the Gospel! He is embodying Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies. As we will sing in our closing song, our only true enemy is Satan; we are to “wage war” in the world with the love and grace of the Gospel.

A Wide Door

Considering that, look at where Paul ends up in 1 Corinthians 16. This Resurrection Good News, which Paul really explores in chapter 15, isn’t just comfort through trials and suffering, it is jet fuel for the mission of God! He writes, “I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” (vv. 8-9) And Paul did stay on in Ephesus. Next week we will look at his ministry there. He was “pastor” for three years and we’ll see what his ministry and the ministry of the Christians in Ephesus looked like.

This is our opportunity as well – a wide door open to us! We are not to huddle away from the world, but are sent forth into it in the name of Christ. It is what we have been pursuing as a lighthouse-searchlight church. And it is precisely because we have been pursuing that mission that this study is relevant and important, because we WILL face obstacles, challenges, and even adversaries.

That sounds scary and exciting to me. Frankly, if church is about being comfortable, there’s better places to go for comfort. And any wobble, challenge, or obstacle (much less adversary) will frighten us off. Perhaps that challenge is also what has created such inertia for the church in the last 50 years to focus more and more inside the walls and away from culture. That way we don’t have to face wild beasts. But as we accept this lighthouse-searchlight challenge, this missional challenge, to be good neighbors, to be Church in the world, to be salt and light, to be the Church in this neighborhood and place and time, we will run up against new obstacles, challenges, and even adversaries.

What today’s text holds up to us – and what we’ll be focusing on in May – is a picture of Church that is vital, adventurous, scary, and fulfilling. And what will sustain us is not charisma or preaching, a big budget, our buildings or huddling together in them, youth and children’s ministry, or anything other than the very Resurrection hope of Jesus Christ.

Being the Church is a challenging and dangerous activity, but the truth and power of the Resurrection makes it worth it. Amen.

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