May 5, 2013

Playing a Part

In 1996 a young man named Bob was drafted out of the University of Tennessee by the Texas Rangers as the 18th pick in the first round.  Like any person in his position he entered the Major League with boatloads of optimism.  He was offered a nice signing bonus and seemed set to make a quick trip through the farm system to his eventual big league debut.  He was even invited to join the U. S. Olympic team competing in Atlanta that summer.  Early on in the process, however, a doctor for the team noticed in a team photo that his arm was sticking out funny.  This led to some testing and it was discovered that he was missing a piece of ligament in his throwing arm.  Doctors were amazed that he was even able to turn a doorknob without excruciating pain.  The reaction was swift.  His signing bonus was cut to 10% of the original offer and for most of the next 10 years he languished in the minors.  Now, for a lot of players, this would spell the end of their career.  They play as long as they can because they love it, but they have a pretty good sense that the dream is gone.  But Bob, driven in part and by his own admission by his deep faith in God, began to work to change his style of pitching.  Previously his repertoire was a dime a dozen as far as pitchers go.  After a decade or so of trying the same things and getting the same results he came to understand that if he was going to extend his career at all, it meant taking a risky move that would probably mean tons more work and dedication and perhaps even more time in the minors.  Gradually his work began to pay off.  He perfected his new pitch and he got a chance to start putting it into practice.  Finally last year, everything fell into place.  No one could hit his star pitch and after recording more strike-outs and shut-outs than anyone else in the National League and playing in the All-Star Game, R. A. Dickey was awarded the Cy Young Award.

Let’s be honest: we love stories like this.  We love stories of people working hard to overcome incredible odds in order to accomplish incredible things.  Movies like the Astronaut Farmer or October Sky or Don’t Back Down or Miracle and others along these lines encourage and inspire us.  We are drawn to these because somewhere inside of all of us is an ingrained sense that if there is anything right with the world, hard work has to pay off eventually.  What most of us experience is futility.  Years and years of futility.  We work hard every day and just barely get by.  We may have more luxury than 99% of the rest of the world, but we don’t worry about the rest of the world very much.  We worry about our neighbors and it seems like everything’s paying off for them.  When is it going to pay off for us?  When is God finally going to come down and reward all our hard work?  We give faithfully.  We show up at church once a week—twice for the dedicated and, for the saints, volunteer at VBS—but we don’t see anything come from it.  Where’s the blessing that God seems to promise over and over again through the words of guys like Moses and Isaiah and Solomon?  This is reality for us.  So when we are able to escape all of this vicariously through the success out of the futility on the part of someone else by hearing a great story of how they did it, we jump at the chance.  The beat of eternity in our hearts starts to pulse a bit more quickly and we feel like maybe there’s a way out of the tunnel for us some day.  But then, almost like clockwork, our broken world rises up once again to remind us that futility is still the law of the day.

As we continue our look at the greatest story ever told this morning, last week we left off at one of those low points.  The church had been sailing along fairly smoothly.  They were being bold as they advance the message and mission of Jesus.  Yeah, there had been a few snags along the way.  The apostles had gotten themselves arrested…twice.  Beaten once.  But that was basically it.  They were immensely popular with the common folks.  People were joining the movement left and right.  There were some suspicious folks, but the good will generated by the church shamed them into keeping their complaints to themselves.  And then there was Stephen.  Stephen crossed the line.  He got too bold.  Whereas the apostles had kind of stuck their tongues out at the religious leaders, Stephen just plain spit in their faces.  He should have stopped with the history lesson and not gone on to calling them all out on the carpet for opposing God and not keeping the law.  That last line was probably what really set them off.  That one struck below the belt.  I mean, these guys considered themselves keepers of the law and here this Greek guy—not even a native Hebrew!—was telling them they weren’t really keeping the Law.  So they killed him.  And in the process they finally had all the evidence they needed to go wholesale after the Jesus followers.  They finally got to unleash their bulldog, Saul.  They had a rock star waiting in the wings in Saul and now he finally got to take center stage as they sought to put down this movement once and for all.  They drove most of the disciples out of the city and Saul started going from house to house to find any remaining believers in order to drag them off to jail.  They finally had their city back.

In doing all of this, though, they missed something important.  You see, the Jesus movement is different from other movements.  Most movements prior to it were leader-driven.  Jesus’ ministry was very much leader-driven.  The apostles were nigh on helpless without Jesus.  The religious leaders assumed the same would be true of this new movement.  Yes, the apostles had finally found their resolve, but they were obviously the leaders of the group.  This Stephen was clearly one of the leaders of the group.  If they took care of the leaders, the movement would fail.  If they separated the followers from the leaders, the movement would fail.  What they missed, though, is the fact that the Jesus movement is not leader-centric like the others.  Yes, good leadership is vital for the advance of the message and mission of Jesus, but because of the Holy Spirit, every follower of Jesus is capable of leading in some capacity.  Every part of the body has a critical role to play and if each part is doing its part all the parts work like they should even if they have to go leader-less for a time.  So, instead of finding a defeated and demoralized group scattered and hiding out around the region, what we find in the next part of the story is that another of that group of seven appointed to handle the food issue named Philip has traveled to the city of Samaria and is…preaching the Gospel there.

Through the work of powerful words and loving actions Philip pointed the Samaritans toward the kingdom community and the people of the city received his message gladly.  In fact so many people were receiving his words and responding that a local magician named Simon noticed that some of his usual customers weren’t coming around anymore.  Simon had been the talk of the town before Philip showed up.  Now, though, this other guy was gaining all his attention.  He had to find out why.  Now, it’s important here to understand how prevalent magical thinking was in this culture.  The idea of the kind of magical thinking common then was that with the right set of words or actions we could control the gods or the world more generally.  With the right spell people could make things happen that might not normally be accessible through other means.  A magician like Simon was someone who had a broad knowledge of these spells and could assist in the process by selling a spell scroll or perhaps an amulet or statue that had been imbued with powers or what have you.  Today this sort of thinking manifests itself as superstition, astrology, and the full assortment of New Agey, pseudo-Eastern spiritual movements.  This kind of thinking was and is really popular because sometimes it works.  All magic like this works some of the time.  This isn’t because there is actual power in it, but rather because of the law of averages.  I used to have a ratty old thrift store KU shirt that I wore for every game.  I’m surprised Lisa let me keep wearing it.  When I didn’t wear it they would lose.  So I made sure to wear it for every game.  That was magical thinking.  KU wins most of the time whether I wear a certain clothing item or not.  To think otherwise is silly.  The same goes for all magical thinking.  Still though, because of the potent combination of the occasional appearance of success and the semblance of power over our environment it gives, magical thinking remains very popular.

In any event, when Simon saw Philip and the things he was doing through the Holy Spirit, he recognized that, unlike what he was doing, there was real power at work here.  So he joined the movement too.  Well, eventually word got back to Jerusalem that the Gospel message had been received in Samaria.  As a result, Peter and John headed up there to investigate the report.  When they did they discovered that although the report was accurate, the new Jesus followers hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit.  And so Peter and John prayed for the people, laid hands on them, and they receive the Spirit.

When Simon saw this, he was very intrigued.  Thinking entirely out of his recently former worldview, he offered the two apostles some money if they would give this ability to him.  This action on his part was fully consistent with how he had been operating for most of his life.  You pay the fee and receive the power.  If he could tap into whatever it was the apostles had going for them such that he could give people this real power and not merely a trinket he could charge a whole lot more for his services.  He had dollar signs lighting up his eyes.  Well, this is obviously not how things work with God and Peter reads him the riot act over it.  Listen to his response in v. 20: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!  You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.  Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.  For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”  And our reaction here is to marvel a bit at the harshness of Peter’s response.  I mean, Simon literally didn’t know better than this.  Why would Peter jump down his throat like this?  The reason is that again, this kind of thinking was immensely common in that day.  Peter had to make abundantly clear that it was absolutely dead wrong.  It still is.  The view of the world expressed by Simon leads directly away from God.  Yet churches today tend to make light of new believers…and sometimes seasoned believers…acting in ways that belie deeply anti-Christian thinking.  Perhaps we should follow Peter’s example and police our own behavior a bit more effectively.  Anti-Christian thought patterns are corrosive to kingdom life and the advance of the Gospel.

After his work among the Samaritans (which is continued and expanded by the apostles as they journey back to Jerusalem), Philip is sent by the Spirit to the southern portion of Israel for some reason.  His Abraham-like journey is given more shape when he happens upon a Jew from Ethiopia who held a position in the Ethiopian government roughly akin to our Treasury Secretary.  Philip preaches the Gospel to this man using a verse from Isaiah as a jumping off point.  The man believes and seeing some water on the side of the road asks to be baptized immediately.  The Spirit then apparently supernaturally transports Philip somewhere else to continue his work while the Ethiopian man takes the message of the Messiah back to his homeland.  Well this event is kind of that halfway point of our journey.  And look where we are here.  The Gospel has covered Jerusalem.  Everybody knows about it there.  Jesus had not told the apostles to stop with Jerusalem, though.  Their next goal was to bear witness in “all Judea and Samaria.”  In these two stories of Philip’s ministry the Gospel has now covered almost all Judea and Samaria.  The believers have remained faithfully committed to their part of advancing the message and mission of Jesus in spite of the persecution they have faced and the Gospel has continued to advance.  The church has continued to expand.  But, there’s still the matter of the main villain Saul.  Dealing with him is really something that only God Himself was going to be able to do.

And so he does.  In the very next chapter Luke turns his attention to telling more of Saul’s story.  When Saul was unleashed by the religious leaders he was not going to stop until the job was finished.  For him, finished meant the Jesus movement and all its members were rounded up and stopped from ever spreading their blasphemes again.  When the next part of the story opens we find that Saul has set his sights beyond Jerusalem.  From v. 1: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  Saul was nothing if not thorough.  Now, most of you are pretty familiar with his story from this point forward and I just told it to you a few weeks ago so I’m not going to tell it in much detail here.  The big idea, though, is that God did indeed get ahold of Saul.  The resurrected Jesus appeared directly to him and asked why Saul was persecuting Him.  Well, in the face of such an overwhelming experience, all of Paul’s carefully constructed reasons to reject the claims of the Jesus followers fell to pieces and when a Jesus follower named Ananias was sent by Jesus to heal him, Saul finally repented and became a Jesus follower Himself.

Almost immediately Saul went out to the local synagogues and with his extensive knowledge and understanding of Jewish Scripture began not merely proclaiming but proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.  It’s like he had a puzzle all put together in his mind but there were a few pieces missing and he had been taught to think the pieces had not yet been found.  Yet when he discovered that not only had the pieces been found, but they could be seen by anyone who cared to look, he began sharing the completed picture with anyone who would listen.  His efforts garnered him the same treatment afforded to the apostles and worse because he was viewed as an especially egregious traitor given his previous position as the church’s chief challenger, but he continued on all the same.  And in v. 31, at the end of this part of the story, Luke writes this powerful little summary statement: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.  And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”  What a remarkable observation!  This is a radical departure from where we finished last week.  Yet how did we get here?  I think there are two critical elements and we can see them both in this story.

The first element actually makes itself known in the first verse of this part of the story.  I skipped over it earlier on purpose.  Let me take you back there for a minute.  Flip back to the beginning of the story at 8:4.  What’s it say there?  “Now those who were scattered…”  Stop right there just a minute.  Let’s go back just a bit further to the end of last week’s part of the story.  How did the story end last week?  Back up to the beginning of the chapter.  “And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution.  And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and [the Jesus followers] were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…”  Remember what happened when Stephen was murdered?  Unlike the mild persecution the apostles faced earlier in the story, Stephen’s death finally blew open the dam and the Jewish authorities declared open season on all the Jesus followers.  It got so bad that most of them had to flee the city into the surrounding region.  Luke flows smoothly from this apparently devastating blow to the church to telling us what happened when they left.  He starts this next part of the story in 8:4 by noting that “those who were scattered…” got really angry at God and the apostles and gave up on the Jesus movement, preferring instead the stability and safety offered by the paganism of Rome.  No wait, that’s not right.  Let’s try again: “Those who were scattered…” got really cautious.  They went into hiding and kept their heads down until things settled a bit and they could sneak back into Jerusalem and take a bit more controlled a stab at boldness.  No, no, that’s not right either.  Give me one more chance: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  They were driven out of Jerusalem for preaching the word and so naturally when they left Jerusalem they continued preaching the word.  Boldness.  Boldness drives the church through challenges.  It drives the church through the persecution that boldness sometimes sparks.  Remember Jesus’ final instructions?  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria…”  Where did they go when they fled Jerusalem?  “…They were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…”  And what did they do there?  They “went about preaching the word.”  They went about bearing witness.  They did their part.  We look at this as incredible boldness and it was.  They would have seen it as merely doing their part.  This is simply what Jesus had told them to do.  He didn’t say how long they were supposed to stay in Jerusalem and so they stayed there until God made it clear that it was time to go.  Then they went to all Judea and Samaria and continued doing what they had been doing in Jerusalem…and to the same effect.  They bore witness and people embraced the incredible truth of the Gospel.

But, the reality is that there are some challenges that we don’t have the ability to face down on our own.  Well, the real truth is that there aren’t any challenges we can handle successfully on our own, but there are some for which this fact is particularly pressing.  For the early church this challenge took the form of Saul.  Saul was a force to be reckoned with.  He had the ability and the authority to hound the church’s every step until it was too defeated to get back up again.  He was absolutely ruthless in his determination.  There was no reasoning with him and besides, he was smarter than you anyway so he would have poked your reasoning full of holes just before he poked you full of holes.  There was only one way Saul was going to be dispatched and that was divine intervention.  God had to do His part.  This is the second critical element.  Thankfully, God always does His part.  That’s never in doubt.  God always does His part and He did it here by going to Saul directly to invite him to join the movement.  I wonder if Saul ever voiced the oft-heard claim today, “If Jesus comes to me personally, then I’ll believe in Him.”  In any event, Jesus showed up and Saul believed.  The only real question here or ever is: will the church do her part?  Will the church be obedient to the instructions we’ve been given to bear witness in our Jerusalem, our Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth?

Remember what I said before about the fact that everyone has a part in the church and if every part does its part then all the parts work like they should?  The same thing applies on a bit broader scale.  In the task of taking the message and mission of Jesus to the world, the church has a part and the Lord has a part.  When the parts do their part, the result is the growth of the church.  When every part is played, the church grows.  Come back with me again to the end of the story.  What did Luke write there again?  “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria [that’s the whole region] had peace [internally because they were united and externally because their chief opponent had been converted into their chief proponent] and was being built up.  And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it [what?. . .it] multiplied.”  The church grew.  When every part is played, the church grows.  When through the ministry of powerful words and loving actions we create an attractive community that is committed to taking bold steps to advance the message and mission of Jesus in our community and beyond, growth is the natural result.  God’s out there doing His part even while we sit in here together.  He is preparing hearts and engineering experiences and convicting consciences so that people are ready to receive our message.  We simply have to proclaim it.  But we can’t just do it here.  Now, here is where we build the heart of our attractive community so that people have a place to go and connect and fellowship and truly belong and learn and serve, but the vast majority aren’t going to come here on their own.  We have to take the message out there.  We have to take it to Midway Elementary.  We have to take it to the WHF and Dinwiddie and Rocky Run ball fields.  We have to get our thumb on the needs pulse of the community and seek to see those needs met in the most empowering way possible.  We have to decide if we are going to boldly seek out every person God has designed us to seek.  Because let me tell you, if the answer to that question is no, then we need to drop “church” from our name because we’re not worthy of the title.  We have to decide if we are going to boldly do our part.  God’s doing His.  And when every part is played, the church grows.  Let us take the principles of the first church and apply them to our situation.   Let us through the ministry of powerful words and loving actions do everything short of sin to create an incredibly attractive community, and let us together as this community boldly join our active Lord in driving forward the message and mission of Jesus.  When every part is played, the church grows.  Let’s grow together.