Sunday, May 29, 2011

First Love (Revelation 2.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 29, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Wondrous Love" (Wyrtzen)
Hymn of Praise: "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (BEECHER)
The Word in Music: "I'm Putting on the Love of the Lord" (Schreiner)
Hymn of Response: "More Love to Thee" (MORE LOVE TO THEE)
Offering of Music: "Be Thou My Vision" (Miller)
Song of Sending: "Light the Fire" (Doerksen)
Postlude: "O Love, How Deep" (Manz)

Fast Forward/First Love
Text: Revelation 2:1-7; Matthew 24:11-14; Ephesians 4:1-3

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Normally, I recommend the audio version over the written version, as the written version is an early draft.  In this case, I think I prefer the written version... just in case you are wondering.  :)

Today is our last Sunday on “Being the Church,” using the early Christian community in Ephesus as a case study. This month we have looked at four different snapshots of their first few years, using passages from Corinthians, Acts, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy. Today we fast forward 20-30 years and see what has become of the Ephesian Christians a generation later.

I’ll remind you that in each of the previous weeks we have seen the importance of holding together grace and truth. Paul urged the church leaders in Ephesus to grow in the grace that builds up, builds together, and builds the church out into its mission. He also challenged them to hold to the truth, to defend against conflict from outside and inside the church community. We saw these twin themes held up in the speech to the elders in Acts 20, in the letter to the Ephesians, and in the first letter to Timothy, the young pastor in Ephesus.

We will see today that the Ephesian Christians did heed at least part of Paul’s teaching, but apparently at the expense of another part of it. Let’s look at the words of Christ about Ephesus in the vision to John in Revelation. 

I Know You

After an impressive self-introduction as the One who moves in and holds the Church, Jesus speaks a word to the Church in Ephesus: “I know you…” “I know you; I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance… you are some hard workers; I know your work, how hard you work, and how hard you work at working hard!”

What is it they work so hard at? They cannot tolerate evil men, and they test those who would teach falsely and find them to be false.

And then it is noted some more how hard they work at this and persevere in it.

It’s the Truth that they have latched on to, and they have made it the #1 thing for them. If you asked them what it means to be the Church, they would answer, “Truth!” They are diligent and careful and test all things against the Word and Spirit and they will not stand for any falsehood.

And they are right for doing so. They are right according to Scripture and they are right in keeping with what Paul urged their parents and grandparents to do a generation earlier.

Except… that’s not all he said. They have worked exceedingly hard at one-half of a whole. It’s like learning how to swing a tennis racquet but never using a ball. And they have practiced and practiced and practiced the swing over and over and have it down. But no ball; no game; no tennis.

And note that Jesus didn’t say, “Well done; you’ve really excelled at truth.” He simply says, “I know you, about your truth.” 

I Hold Against You

And Jesus continues, “But I have this against you… you have left your first love.” Now he doesn’t use the word ‘grace,’ which would have really made my point; but that is what’s missing. Let’s consider what “first love” might mean.

Broadly, it sounds like the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the first and greatest of the Commandments. This may well be what is in view.

More specifically, I believe it refers to the love they had “at first.” To understand that love I would return to Ephesians, the letter written to this same community a generation earlier. In chapter four, in the midst of the section about how the grace of God in Jesus Christ builds the church together in unity in order to build them out into mission, Paul writes this – listen for ‘love’:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Did you hear it? “Walk worthy of your Christian calling… showing tolerance for one another in love.” I believe this, too, is the “first love” that the Ephesians have lost. They have so focused on truth that they have forgotten the grace that unites and binds in Christ. It’s interesting that the word “tolerate” is found here and in Revelation. They know how to not tolerate evil men, but they have forgotten how to show tolerance for one another in love.

I decided to chase down the underlying words there and it turns out there are two different words for “tolerate” being used. What they have persevered in doing is not supporting or “carrying” (perhaps even ‘enabling’) (bastasai) evil men. What they have forgotten is how to “endure” or “bear” (anechomai) one another for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. I don’t want to make too much of a difference; you can’t with the kind of range of meaning each word has. My point is that something has been lost in the Ephesian church, and it flows out of Christian grace and love. 

Remember…

So when Jesus continues and says, “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first… or else!” I look to Acts 18-20 and to Ephesians to see what deeds they were doing at first, and I see this passage that talks about living out the faith with “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love, and being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)

That is what has been lost and that is what Jesus says they must rediscover as their first love.

Hear me clearly; I am not saying that truth is not important. I think that’s why Jesus circles around and does hold up the rejection of the Nicolaitans, a pagan false teaching of the day that involved worship of idols. Truth is important. It is entirely possible to distort grace by forgetting the truth, so that one takes on a “do whatever you want” attitude, saying that “God will look the other way.” The truth is that God is a pure and holy God, piercingly righteous and true. But just as surely as people can forget truth and err, so they can forget grace and err, and the letter to the church in Ephesus shows just how grave that error can be.

Jesus doesn’t commend their diligent pursuit of truth and tell them just to loosen up a little. If they don’t remember and REPENT and rediscover that first love – that grace – then they do not have a place in His Kingdom.

This is a hard word for lovers of truth. Ironically, it is a word of truth for lovers of truth; and it is one filled with grace, for it summons us to repentance and rediscovery of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, to those who overcome cold truth alone, repent, and rediscover that first love, they will eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. 

For Those With Ears to Hear

I included a passage from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to further explain what that full Gospel is and what it’s for. Listen again, too, to the context for Jesus’ words. He is talking about the future, as the end draws near. It’s the same kind of context for which Revelation is written.
Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:11-14)
Did you hear that? When lawlessness is increased, love will grow cold. But it is precisely that Christ-filled love that will cause Gospel truth to penetrate into a lawless world. Pure, cold truth will not do it alone, but faith lived out as love – grace embodied and incarnated in our lives. That is our testimony to the nations, to the culture around us.

The purpose of truth is not to “win” or feel morally superior, but to hold together with grace, in order to testify to the world about Jesus Christ. It is Good News worth sharing, not to be hoarded among the faithful or used to whip the unfaithful. Rather, the Gospel of grace and truth is to be lived out one conversation, one encounter, one life at a time in the places you live and move and interact.

I won’t connect all the dots for you today. You are smart enough to do that. I believe this teaching has great application for our witness as Presbyterians, as members of the Good Shepherd family, and as individual believers trying to live out this lighthouse-searchlight vision in big and small ways.

As Jesus said, “For those with ears to hear.” Amen.




Sunday, May 22, 2011

Internal Issues (1 Timothy 1.1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 22, 2011
Some Music Used 

 Prelude: "Ayre" (Telemann)
Hymn of Praise: "We Know that Christ is Raised" (ENGLEBERG)
Song of Praise: "Beautiful One" (Hughes)
Choral Offertory: "Speak, O Lord" (Getty, Townend, McDonald)
Song of Confession: "Have Mercy on Me" (Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Here I Am, Lord" (arr. Bobby White)
Song of Sending: "One Pure and Holy Passion" (Altrogge)

Internal Issues
Text: 1 Timothy 1:1-17

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

We are in the fourth week of our study of “Being the Church,” using the Christian Church in Ephesus as a case study. Between all the books in the New Testament, we have snapshots of that church over at least a generation, from it’s founding through its first pastor (Paul), to its second pastor (Timothy), to the picture given in Revelation some 20-30 years later.

We saw in Acts 20 that Pastor Paul, having moved on to other mission work, charged the church leaders in Ephesus to continue to hold together the grace and truth of the Gospel. We saw this message expanded and elaborated last week in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Grace builds the Church up, together, and out in ministry and mission. We also heard Paul’s challenge in Ephesians 6 to “stand firm” in the truth of God, when the Church and the very Gospel are at risk. In Ephesians, that risk was framed primarily in terms of spiritual attack from outside the Church, and we know that the early Ephesian Christians faced persecution from the pagan Greek culture around them as their message directly conflicted with the commerce in Ephesus around the worship of the Greek goddess, Artemis.

Today, in 1 Timothy, we find Paul writing to his younger friend and disciple, Timothy, who is now leading the church in Ephesus. In this letter, we find that the conflict is inside the church; yet we will see Paul’s same challenge: hold on to grace to build the Church up, together, and out; and stand on the Truth to defend and protect the Church against these challenges. 

Internal Issues

Chapter one describes the internal issues facing the Church of Ephesus. There were actually two problems going on simultaneously. The first is described in verses 4-5. Certain people were teaching “strange doctrines.” Specifically, they were “paying attention to myths and endless genealogies” and these were speculative rather than spiritual and true. While we don’t the exact nature of these strange teachings, they might have been Jewish myths or simply a preoccupation with names and bloodlines, speculating about matters not explicitly taught in Scripture. A modern example might be a preoccupation with the Shroud of Turin or yesterday’s predicted Rapture, generated through Harold Camping’s fixation with numbers in Scripture rather than the clear teaching of Scripture that “no man knows the day or time of His coming.”

You can imagine the issue, right? One group within the Christian community starts focusing so much on these strange teachings that they start leading others astray and also become uninterested in the core Gospel acts of ministry and mission.

But that wasn’t all – there was another group causing problems in the Church in Ephesus. Look at verse 6, which literally says “others, straying from these things [the love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith – v. 5], have turned aside to fruitless discussion.” Sounds like more of the same, right? But this group had an additional problem – they were focused on the Law, the Torah, except they were not trained and did not understand the Torah. We read in verse 7 that they were “wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.” Have you ever met those people? They want to be in positions of authority but are neither trained or qualified to have that authority… but that doesn’t stop them. And imagine if they are given the pulpit, or start classes and take the role of teacher. The problems come quickly!

We are not going to get to chapter two today, but it is my belief that this second group was made up of a number of women, because the literal word for “some others” in verse 6 indicates a male or a mixed group. Women, and particularly Greek women, would not have had the training in the Torah and yet may have been encouraged by a new openness to women in the Christian community. When you read Paul’s words in chapter two, you can see quite a correspondence between his correction of the Ephesian men and the first problem, and his correction of the Ephesian women and the second problem of “usurping teaching authority.” If that interests you, I’d be glad to talk further!

What I want to focus on though, is how Paul responds to this internal crisis. He moves next to a declaration of truth, particularly related to the Law that was being taught irresponsibly and incorrectly. He corrects that teaching with the truth before his rebuke of those teachers in chapter two. 

Truth

So, starting with the Torah-Law, the subject of false and weak teaching, Paul lays out some truth. And doesn’t he turn it on its head?! “The Law is good, if one uses it lawfully…” This is evidently what was not happening. We aren’t told how it is being mis-used or mis-taught, but we can infer from Paul’s correction here: “The Law is not made for a righteous person (to point the finger at others, perhaps?); but for those who are lawless and rebellious…” (v. 9). And then he goes on to list a bunch of examples. I bet I know which one jumped out at you; but let me ask you where you are in verses 8-10. Seriously, look again:

…Law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…”

Are you the righteous person? In and of yourself? In Romans 3:10, Paul quotes the Psalms, “There is none righteous, not even one.”

Lawless? Rebellious? – I didn’t make it past those two. Sure most days I behave pretty well, but I can’t escape those descriptions.

Profane? That’s related to profanity, you know.

Immoral? Surely not you, pastor? But don’t you remember Jesus teaching about the lust of the eyes, the lust of the heart.

Just because you haven’t killed or kidnapped or yes, experienced same-sex attraction, doesn’t mean you get out of this truth-telling session. Paul is making the same claim here that he makes at GREAT length in Romans: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God… when it comes to sin and unrighteousness and being convicted by God’s Law, it is a level playing field. Yes, some actions have more serious earthly consequences – murder is worse than lying. But in terms of our holiness, rightness with God, and purity before Him, we are ALL – every last one – the broken sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

Why does he mention “contrary to sound teaching?” Here, particularly, that was the problem. I don’t know what the untrained and misguided teachers of the Law in Ephesus were teaching, but from Paul’s words here, I know that it was not that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And because that was not being taught, what Paul says next was not being taught, and that is the very essence of the Gospel, which is the GOOD NEWS. Listen… 

…and Grace

This is the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (v. 11) and this is GRACE. Before getting to the broad statement of grace, Paul shares his own testimony as one of those sinners who has fallen short of the glory of God. Even though Paul was once a “blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (v. 13), he was “shown mercy… and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant.” (v. 14) And even more than being shown mercy, Paul was “considered faithful [and put into] service” (v. 12). It’s the same story we just studied with Moses back in the winter. God was pleased to use a sinful, self-serving, murderer (yes, Moses and Paul were complicit in murder!) and not only show them mercy, but redeem them into God’s own service. Do you understand how enormous and extravagant God’s grace is?! It stretches the limits of my understanding. And that is the Gospel, the Good News of Grace.

And so Paul restates this Good News Grace more theologically, for all who will hear, believe, and trust it:

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…

Do you really believe that? … or that Jesus loves you because you deserve it? That’s not the Gospel; that’s a lie. The Gospel is that… “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in him for eternal life. (vv. 15-16)

This Gospel is trustworthy, deserving full acceptance. That is the Word of Truth AND Grace. All have sinned, and Jesus has come into the world to save sinners. No exclusions, from the sin list or from the reach of God’s grace. Truth and Grace – the Gospel. 

Being the Church

Many of you know that I was privileged to speak to our presbytery this past week. I was speaking to the particular issue of sexuality and church leadership, but more importantly I had the opportunity to share this Gospel message: that no one is excluded from “all have sinned”; but no one is excluded from the reach of God’s grace. I did not go to presbytery to share Law or bad news or church politics; rather, to proclaim the Gospel of Truth and Grace. That is what Paul spoke to the struggling church in Ephesus and it is the same Gospel we need to hear, know, and live today.

So, with Ephesians as our case study, we must ask what we can learn about being the church. Paul has been consistent and clear that we must hold together truth and grace. The internal issues described in 1 Timothy make it abundantly clear that truth and grace must also be lived out in community as well as in mission. I commend you for being a community that understands this and lives it out. And yet there is so much more we must learn as we continue to be built up, built together, and built out in the name of Christ.

I love how Paul concludes this chapter, drawing our focus back off ourselves and to the Lord:

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (v. 17)

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Purposeful Gift (Ephesians)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 15, 2011
Some Music Used 

Song of Praise: "Come Now Almighty King" (Kauflin, Madan, Spiro)
Song of Praise: "Come, People of the Risen King" (Getty, Townend)
Choral Offertory: "Amazing Grace" (Newton/Lojeski)
Hymn of Sending: "We Are God's People" (SYMPHONY)

A Purposeful Gift
Text: Ephesians

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**


We are talking about being the church, using the ancient church in Ephesus as a case study. That church is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. In Acts we have some history of its founding and development as well as a message from its former pastor (Paul) to the church leaders as he is passing through to Jerusalem. We saw in that message last week that Paul held out the twin values of grace and truth as essential nourishment for a healthy church. Today we will look at the letter to the Ephesians, written to that same Christian community and exploring God’s gift of grace for building up the Church for its purpose in the world. In coming weeks we will look at 1-2 Timothy, which are letters to Timothy, the young pastor that followed Paul, with instruction on guarding against internal division and false leadership through the truth of the Gospel. And in two weeks we will look at the letter to the church in Ephesus recorded in Revelation, where, as an older church, they are challenged to return to their “first love.”

Today I’d like to walk you through the whole letter to the Ephesians. I am drawing on notes from a Bible study we did a number of years ago. And one of the things we did in that study was focus in on the main idea of each chapter. There are six chapters, so I’d like to name those six main ideas and briefly say a word about each one. The verses you heard read today were the key verses in each chapter that name those ideas, so you can go back and dig in some more at home. 

Ch. 1: The Great Gift of God’s Grace in Christ

A key verse is Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”

The first chapter of Ephesians is densely packed with theological words and ideas, from predestination to spiritual adoption and more. And most of the first chapter is one super-long sentence in Greek. And those verses can be mined over and over again for theological riches. And yet, those same verses speak of riches, of a treasure and inheritance, that is even more important than theological concepts. That is the blessing that is “every spiritual blessing.” That is the gift that is the inheritance of the adopted children of God. All of it points to one glorious and blessed truth: that God has gifted us with the supremely great gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

It is in Christ that we have the grace-gift of redemption and the forgiveness of sin (v. 7). It is out of God’s eternal knowledge and love that He sent Christ as a lavish grace-gift into the world (vv. 3-4) and adopted us into His family (v. 5). When you read Ephesians, chapter one, think GIFT – God’s loving grace-gift in Jesus Christ. 

Ch. 2: God’s Grace Radically Changes Our Identity

Key verses are Ephesians 2:1,4-5, and I’ll focus on the main thought – “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins… but God… made us alive together with Christ…”

The second chapter of Ephesians moves forward a step from the great gift and giver to the impact of that gift in our lives. It’s like the video camera on Christmas or a birthday moving from the newly opened present to the face of the one who has received the gift. But this gift is so significant, so life-changing, that it doesn’t just impact our lives; it transforms our lives. It changes our identity. We are not the same once we have received God’s great grace-gift. So this chapter explores that.

It’s in those key verses I already mentioned: you were dead, but God made us alive together with Christ. The chapter fleshes that out. How were we dead? We were dead in our trespasses, transgressions, and sins (wow, three different words for how we were dead!). But God – see verse 4 – but God, rich and mercy, because of His great love… even when we were dead in sin… made us alive together with Christ.

And not just alive, but raised up and seated with! Again, it’s far too much theology to unpack in one sermon. But God’s grace-gift changes everything about us, and radically so, from start to finish, in and out. We become God’s masterpieces (v. 10), made for good works and the glory of God’s name. 

Ch. 3: We Have God’s Grace to Share with the World

A key verse is Ephesians 3:8 – “To me… this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles.”

Starting about halfway through chapter two, and running through chapter three, we see that the radical change of identity that Jesus Christ (God’s grace-gift) creates is not just individual, but corporate. Not only does it brings people from death to life, but near from far off (2:17)… there are no longer strangers and aliens (foreigners), but one household with Christ as the cornerstone (2:19-22). This is the Church!

Remember back in Acts last week? One of the twin declarations of the Gospel was the grace of God which builds up the Church. That’s the message that runs throughout these chapters of Ephesians. God’s grace-gift in Christ doesn’t build up the Church by flattery – it’s not that kind of “build up” – it transforms lives and identities, drawing together and binding together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

So this is summarized well in Ephesians 3:8 – “To me… this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles (those far off)…”

We participate in God’s transformation of the world through the grace-gift of Jesus Christ by proclaiming in word and deed the news about Jesus to the world around us. We have God’s grace to share with the world! 

Ch. 4: So Grow Up and Live in Unity and Maturity

There are several key verses in Ephesians 4 and I’ll name them as we follow the main thought of the chapter – “I… entreat you to walk… (as you have been called (v. 1), being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit (v. 3); as a result… we are to grow up in all aspects into [Christ] (v. 15); therefore… be renewed… and put on the new self (vv. 23-24).”

After explicitly using the image of “gifts” (4:7-8) to describe God’s grace in Christ, chapter four describes a different kind of transformation. God’s grace-gift of Jesus Christ causes an immediate change of identity from old to new, from orphan to adopted and beloved. It also brings us into the family of Christ where we are to grow up and grow together. This is another way of fleshing out the picture of grace-that-builds that we looked at last week in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Not only does God’s grace draw people from all over the world into the church, it also knits together this church for mission. We are sent out, not alone, but tied together. The image for that comes in 4:16, the image of a working “body” to do the work of Christ, the head.

I would note a brief excursion in vv. 14-15 that touches on the importance of truth as guard against false teaching. Remember, this was the other twin teaching in Paul’s speech in Acts 20. Paul held out grace and truth as needing to be held together, and so he does here in 4:15 – “speaking the truth in love”; but so far, the first four chapters of Ephesians have majored on the grace that builds together, up, and out. We will see that the end of chapter six has a bit more about being strong and on guard. 

Ch. 5-6a: Reflect God’s Image by Loving Like Christ

Key verses are Ephesians 5:1-2 – “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us…”

Having come back to the theme of shared mission within the body of Christ, chapter five emphasizes personal behavior, which is to be a reflection of God’s image, much like a child’s behavior reflects on the parents. Remember, we are the adopted children of the Lord. So, we are to behave as such, even as we mature and grow together.

Chapter five ends with a famous (or infamous) passage – you know, the whole “wives, submit to your husbands” thing. Two notes – husbands are also to submit… see verse 21. But more importantly, this whole passage is in here not to teach us about marriage, but to teach us about the church. Marriage is used as an illustration to help us understand what being the Church is all about – which is what Ephesians is about! It’s like saying, “You know how marriage is when it’s at its best? That’s what being the Church is like.” See, it’s there in 5:32 – “This mystery (marriage) is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (And then v. 33 – “Nevertheless (while we are talking about the ideals of marriage)… work on that, too!”

This focus on Christian behavior carries on through the first part of chapter six, with examples in the family and in the society of that time. The point is back to, “If you are a Christian, then you are a child of God; act like one!” 

Ch. 6b: Be Strong and Stand Firm in the Lord! Be on Guard!

There are several key verses in Ephesians 6 and I’ll name them as we follow the main thought of the second part of the chapter – “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might (v. 10)… stand firm (v. 14)… pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert… (v. 18)”

So finally, in the last part of chapter six, we hear at length the other twin focus named in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. If grace builds up the church, truth protects it. So it is here. The Ephesian Christians are encouraged to “be strong,” “stand firm,” and “be on the alert.” This is not a physical conflict – “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (v. 12) but a spiritual one. So we are to stand in God’s strength and truth – not run away; not attack; but stand firm.

Again, we see the importance of holding together grace that builds the church up, together, and out, and truth that guards and protects. 

Conclusion

How would I consolidate all this into something to take away? It would go something like this: the great gift of God’s grace radically changes our identity, and builds us up, together, and out to bear witness of this gift of Christ in and to the world.

We have already received God’s grace-gift, Jesus Christ. If you have believed and trusted in Christ, that gift and identity as God’s adopted beloved is yours. You are part of God’s Church, united to one another through Jesus Christ, and led into participation in God’s mission in the world.

Live like it! Be strong, stand firm, and follow Jesus into the world that God loves, as bearers of the Good and hopeful News to those who desperately need to hear it. That’s what it means to be the Church; that is who you are! Amen.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Three-Year Ministry (Acts 20.17-32)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 8, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Word of God" (Bliss/Curry)
Song of Praise: "Ancient Words" (DeShazo)
Word in Music: "Come Now Almighty King" (Kauflin, Madan, Spiro)
Song of Response: "Fill Me Now" (Hansen, Peppin)
Piano Offertory: "I'll Tell the World" (Fox/Bock)
Hymn of Sending: "O Word of God Incarnate" (Walsham, MUNICH)
Postlude: "Revive Us Again" (Husband/Bock)

Three-Year Ministry
Text: Acts 20:17-32

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we continue looking at a case-study in being the Church, using a speech from the Apostle Paul to the elders of the Church in Ephesus. This speech is recorded in Acts 20, where Paul is traveling from Macedonia and Greece back to Jerusalem. He has previously spent significant time in Ephesus as pastor to the Christians there for some three years. But he is trying to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost and decides not to stop in Ephesus. Instead, he asks elders (church leaders) from Ephesus to meet him on the way and he speaks the words recorded in today’s scripture lesson.

I want to look at that speech with you because it offers a summary of one pastor’s ministry over three years. It also contains Paul’s challenge to the elders for the years to come. We will have an opportunity to follow the progress of the Church in Ephesus and see how they did and didn’t heed Paul’s words, where they thrived and where they struggled.

As a reminder, Ephesus was not an example of a “perfect church,” even with Paul as its first pastor. Rather, it is precisely in the real struggles of the Ephesian Christians that we learn something about our own struggles and potential failures. I should note, too, that though Paul talks about preaching “the whole purpose of God,” that is not spelled out for us here. Nonetheless, let’s see what he does say in this speech to the Ephesian church leaders. 

The Whole Purpose of God (v. 27)

I’d like to start with what may be the strangest verse in this whole text. That is verse 26: “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.” I didn’t understand that when I read it, and finally I just had to look it up. The next verse gives a clue what it means, but what really explains it is an Old Testament passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel 33:1-6 describes the watchman’s duty to warn of approaching danger. The passage goes on to say that if the watchman does his job and sounds the trumpet, and if those he is warning hear the warning, then it is on their head if they choose to ignore the warning. On the other hand, if the watchman doesn’t sound adequate warning, and knows of the danger, then the people’s blood will be on his hands.

So, when Paul goes on to say, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God,” (v. 27) he is saying that he has adequately sounded the trumpet. So having heard that, note that this is the second time he has said “I did not shrink from.” In verse 20-21, he also says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we also find out in verse 31 that Paul was ministering in Ephesus for three years.

So the picture we have is of Paul the pastor moving on to his next calling, but telling the church leaders that he has done and said all that God had called him to do. He put in the time, he lived among them, and he held nothing back, even when it was unpopular. He has adequately sounded the trumpet and now the continuation of ministry and obedience to God’s plans is in their hands.

Not only has he taught all he knew to teach, but he has also guarded his flock like a shepherd. It is perhaps because of this whole context of having sounded an adequate warning that Paul sounds it one last time before the elders. 

Truth to Guard (v. 28)

He warns them twice: “be on guard” (v. 28) and “be on the alert” (v. 31). Why?... because “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (vv. 29-30) His use of “savage wolves” reminds me of the “wild beasts in Ephesus” that we read about last week in 1 Corinthians.

Paul exhorts these church leaders after his own example of diligence. Not only did he teach the whole counsel of God; he also “night and day for a period of three years … did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” This admonishment was part of his watchfulness and now he is charging the elders to do the same.

I would note, too, that the danger is from without and within. He says that wolves will “come in” (v. 29) but also that they will “arise from among you” (v. 30). In the coming weeks we will see specific examples of these dangers and how the Church in Ephesus dealt with the challenges. 

Grace to Build Up (v. 32)

Paul doesn’t only speak in warnings and cautions; he ends his words with a kind of benediction and prayer, commending the elders to God. It is in that context that he speaks of the “word of God’s grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance…” (v. 32) This grace that builds up the church is the subject of much of Ephesians, which we will look at next week.

I highlight it here to point out the twin focus of Paul’s ministry and teaching, at least so far as it is summarized in this one short passage. He emphasizes both truth and grace. Truth is what helps defend and protect the body from being torn apart and torn down. But it cannot build up. The Word of grace is what builds up the Church. That grace is received as described in v. 21 through “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” And it is a grace that it is offered to Jews and Greeks – this will be the major focus of Paul’s letter to the Romans, as well as Ephesians. 

Ministry in the Tension

We don’t see yet what happens downstream from Paul’s ministry and words here, but I can tell you what is coming. What is coming is the same thing that the modern church has struggled with, and that is the balance between truth and grace… or Law and Grace… or truth and love. There are a number of ways to describe the tension; but it is a real and challenging tension however you name it. God is interested in both building up His Church and in defending it from harm.

It is very, very hard to live in the tension between truth and grace. We want to veer toward one or the other, and history has proven that. The culture around us gets too scary – the wolves start to howl – and we hunker down and raise our defenses. Or when conflict arises within the church, we are quick to divide or separate. On the other side, we can so cheapen grace that just about anything goes, and the church begins to look just like the culture around it.

What is so hard is to be the Church that continues to follow Christ out into the world, get our hands dirty, extend extravagant grace, and yet guard against a twisting of the Gospel or a turning of the truth. And yet that is right where we need to be, day in and day out. Perhaps that’s why Paul found himself “admonishing each one with tears”… because speaking the truth in love and extending grace with… guts… is really, really hard.

But, as Paul said, it’s the “whole purpose of God” (v. 27).

What does this look like?

It’s Jesus, crouched by the woman caught in adultery, with the stones all around where the mob had dropped them, saying to her, “Neither do I condemn you (grace); go and don’t keep doing this (truth).”

It’s a conversation I remember with a friend long ago who confessed something to me. I said, “There is nothing you have done or will ever do that will change my love for you. (grace) In that context, know that this is not God’s best for you. (truth)”

Turned around towards us, it’s recognizing that God is a God of second chances… and third and fourth, and God will always welcome us home. (grace) But it’s also recognizing that God is holy and pure and has made us for so much more than serial disobedience and habitual sin. (truth)

A church is the people; may we be a people of truth and grace as we follow the Lord Jesus where he leads us. Amen.


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.