November 20, 2016

Unstoppable Impact

Alright, quick survey this morning: Who has seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding?  Chick-flick or not, I’ve seen both of them, and they are hilarious.  Perhaps my favorite meme in the movie is when Gus (Toula, the main character’s dad) shows his pride in his Greek heritage by explaining how every word ultimately has its roots in the Greek language.  Watch this scene with me.

Gus’ argument is basically that knowing Greek is useful in every situation because it will give you the context to better understand what’s happening.  In his view Greek is like a universal decoder.  Now, of course, he’s mistaken.  The Japanese word “kimono” does not have Greek roots.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we did have some sort of a tool that would allow us to make sense of out any situation?  No matter where we were or what was going on we could pull this thing out of our back pockets and immediately have greater clarity on the matter and a sense of where we should be going with it.  Well, as it just so happens, as Christians we do have this kind of a tool.  It’s called the Gospel.

This morning we are in the sixth and final part of our series, Unstoppable Gospel.  For the last six weeks now we have been wrestling with this idea that as followers of Jesus we are part of an unstoppable movement in this world.  It is the movement of Gospel to reach the hearts and minds of all those who would willingly receive it.  This Gospel, this good news about the life made available to us in Jesus Christ, is a truly unstoppable force in this world.  It has been since its public revelation about 2,000 years ago when Jesus walked out of His tomb on the third day.

Since that day it has rolled forward on an unstoppable mission.  It’s a mission made unstoppable by the power of the Holy Spirit filling all those who have committed their lives to its advance.  The Holy Spirit empowers us to spread the Gospel.  Our mission is also unstoppable, though, because it is driven by an unstoppable message: Jesus died for our sins, rose again, and reigns as Lord.  When we keep this at our core, there is no force in the world powerful enough to overcome it.

Still, though, this message won’t be heard without the proper context.  Absent that it sounds like offensive nonsense.  The necessary context for the hearing of the Gospel is the unstoppable love of our God.  This love flows from Him to us and from us to other people.  That’s simply the way it works.  If it doesn’t flow from us to others, then it is merely pooling inside of us and that situation will invariably leave us unhealthy.  As a result, loving people is a powerful expression of loving God.

From this point, we started to turn outward.  A couple of weeks ago we looked at the fact that we intersect daily with people who need Christ.  These unstoppable opportunities which initially at least seem like mere chance encounters, are God’s way of giving us the space to put His unstoppable love into practice around us so that people will be more likely to hear our unstoppable message.  But, if we are going to make the most of these unstoppable opportunities, we are going to have to greet them with an equally unstoppable courage.  With this in mind, last week, with the help of the story of Peter and John’s encounter with the Jewish leaders, we saw that courage is doing what God commands regardless of the consequences.  When we step out and make ourselves part of God’s unstoppable mission we are going to face challenges and persecutions for it.  That’s a promise in the Scriptures.  All the same, God will give us courage to speak boldly for Christ.  We can receive and act on this courage because—as we’re going to talk about this morning—the unstoppable Gospel of our Lord is relevant to any and every situation we may face in life.

This morning as we wrap up this journey, I want to leave you with a challenge.  You now know that you are part of an unstoppable mission driven by an unstoppable message in the context of God’s unstoppable love with unstoppable opportunities to share this good news when you embrace the unstoppable courage God gives to see it done.  The question that remains is this: What are you going to do with it?  Well, there’s only one thing to do with it: Share it.  Okay, but how?  I mean, we encounter so many different situations in our lives.  How do we share the Gospel in all of them?  A good starting place would be to follow the example of Paul.

In Acts 17, Luke shares the story of Paul’s trip to the city of Athens.  As far as the various cities Paul stopped in to share the Gospel and attempt to plant churches on his various missionary journeys, Athens was perhaps the least likely of all of them to be a place where he was going to find any success.  It was steeped in paganism, religious pluralism, and superstition.  There were temples to every god and goddess the people could imagine and even a statue dedicated to an unknown god just in case they missed one.  At the same time, Athens was a hub of cutting edge movements in philosophy and thought.  Luke describes the place like this: “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  Paul’s insistence that all of these other philosophies and theologies were false combined with his proclamation of a God who demanded our undivided loyalty was not a message that many were going to be interested in receiving.  And yet, it was something new to the intellectual crowd who gathered at the Areopagus to discuss such things—especially the bit about this Jesus character rising from the dead and offering eternal life to His followers—and so when they got wind of his message they invited him to take the floor and make his case.

What Paul did with this golden opportunity was amazing and offers us a clear picture of the fact that the Gospel can be relevant in any and every situation.  How would Paul share the Gospel with this audience whose cultural and religious assumptions were such that the approach he normally took was doomed to failure?  Check this out with me in Acts 17 and then we’ll talk about it for a few minutes.

In Acts 17:22, Paul started by trying to establish some common ground: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.  Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

So what is all of this beyond a brilliant sermon on Paul’s part?  Paul takes the unstoppable message of the Gospel and puts it in terms that his audience was going to be able to understand.  He found a point of commonality and began building from there.  He knew well that the Gospel was able to be applied in any and every situation of our lives and to every single human culture no matter how secular or, in this case, pagan it may be.  Now, this is not by any means to suggest that all human cultures are equal.  Some are better than others.  Nor is it to suggest that all human situations are the same.  Some are better than others.  All the same, the Gospel has a word to speak into every single culture and situation we might find ourselves facing.  It has a word to speak into every single culture and situation the people around us might find themselves facing.  And when these words are spoken—and heard—Gospel transformation will be the result.

Okay, but your situation and my situation and the situations of the people around us are not like what Paul was facing here.  What good does it do us to examine how he proclaimed the Gospel to the intellectual elites of first century Athens?  Because while his exact message may possibly not be the most helpful thing about this passage of Scripture (although as our culture continues to more and more closely resemble the culture of first century Athens the actual words will continue to be more and more relevant), we can glean some really important truths from his approach.

For instance, how often have you heard a Christian bash the culture?  How often have you been a Christian bashing the culture?  We often hear it from socially, politically, and theologically conservative Christians, but the bad-mouthing is hardly limited to them as many of the reactions from Christians who are socially, politically, and theologically liberal to the election of Donald Trump has demonstrated.  When the culture around us doesn’t fit with what we believe to be right and true, our first instinct is often to hate it.  Well, while Paul had deep and profound disagreements with the state of the Athenian culture, you don’t see any anger or hatred in his words here.  If we hate the culture, we will not be able to effectively minister to the people who are part of it.  Paul had his disagreements, but he approached the people with great respect, taking them where they were rather than expecting them to be somewhere else.

Instead, Paul found the points where the Gospel connected with the culture.  Specifically, he addressed the deep religiosity of the people.  They were so religious in their outlook that they worshiped an unknown god to make sure they didn’t miss one and thus incur wrath.  Paul took this opening and revealed the identity of this unknown god as the one true God; “the God who made the world and everything in it.”

Establishing this foundation of commonality is what allowed Paul to offer conviction instead of condemnation when he began to drive home the truth to them.  Our culture today often conflates the two ideas, but they are different and the difference is important.  Condemnation simply says, “You’re wrong.”  We’re not called to condemn anyone and a Christian who does that is a Christian who is in the wrong.  God Himself has no interest in condemning the world.  After all, as Jesus Himself said in John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Conviction, on the other hand, goes a step further.  It says, “You’re wrong, but there’s a way to get right and I’d like to show you how.”  See the difference?

The key here, though, is that without some common ground to serve as a starting place the people to whom we are offering conviction will only hear condemnation because they won’t trust us to come with them on the second part.  Conviction is best heard from out of the context of a relationship.  Paul established a basic relationship of common ideas and thus was able to say, “The times of ignorance [by which he meant a lack of knowledge, not that they were somehow unintelligent] God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” without needlessly driving them away.

The larger point here, is that we can do just what Paul did with the men of Athens in all our interactions with the people around us.  No matter what the nature of the situation we or the people around us find ourselves in, the Gospel can be contextualized to that situation and its transformational power can be unleashed to great effect.  In other words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any situation.  It doesn’t matter what the situation is, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the life those have made available to us can have an impact on it.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any situation.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s do a little exercise together.  Let’s think through some situations in which people might find themselves and see what kind of an impact the Gospel might be able to have on them.  For instance, has the person experienced the death of someone close?  The Gospel can speak to that.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any situation.  With this person, we can talk about the resurrection and Jesus’ power over death.  Because of His power over death we need not fear it because in Christ we know death is only a momentary separation ahead of an eternal reunion.  How about a person who is experiencing a financial hardship?  Easy.  We can talk about God’s ownership of all the world and His faithful provision to His faithful stewards.  Paul’s promise in response to the generosity of the Philippian people was that God would supply every need of theirs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  That hasn’t changed.  Perhaps the person is experiencing the consequences of some sinful choices she has made.  We can then talk about Jesus defeating the power of sin and offering us freedom from it if we are willing to receive it.  We may still have to walk through the consequences, but He will give us the power to not make things any worse than the already are.

How about some more?  Has the person experienced rejection?  Talk about the God whose intent to accept us is so great that He sent His only Son to die in our place to make a relationship between Him and us possible.  Has she been persecuted or abused?  Talk about the perfect love of our perfect heavenly Father who has compassion on the broken and the hurting and who lifts up the fallen.  Has he been the subject of bigotry?  Talk about the community in which there is no male nor female, Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, and where all are received by God as they are and from there are transformed fully into the person God designed them to be.  Is she experiencing disappointment?  Share the great news of the God who will never disappoint us, but who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.  Has a relationship been broken?  Talk about the God who plans to restore all things and who both offers forgiveness to the fallen and enables the offended to forgive and find freedom.  Is she struggling with a big decision?  Remind her that we serve the God who gives wisdom freely and generously to all who ask without doubting.  Is the person struggling to find significance?  Talk about the God who created each one of us uniquely, loves us completely, and has vested us with a purpose.  Are they searching for meaning in life?  Talk about the God in whose image we were created and who we were designed to worship as our chief end in life.  Is he feeling like he doesn’t have much of a role in the church?  Share the news that Jesus equips all the saints with specific spiritual gifts designed to help make the whole body what He intends it to be and that without his specific gifts the church will be less equipped to accomplish its mission.  Are you getting the picture?  No matter what the situation is, the Gospel can have an impact on it.  Find me a situation and just like Gus, I’ll show you how the Gospel can have an impact on it.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any situation.

This just brings us back to the question and challenge I offered you a little while ago: What are you going to do with it?  Think through this with me now.  The Gospel brings life to everyone who embraces it.  You have people around you, people in your lives, who do not know that life.  No matter what their situation is, regardless of what their story is, the Gospel is capable of impacting it in positive, transformational, life-giving ways.  Without the Gospel, though, they will find only hurt and brokenness and death.  So…what are you going to do about it?  Are you going to sit on it?  Or are you going to share it?  The Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any situation.  It can, because it was revealed to us in a way designed for every situation.  Think about it.  What’s something that every situation we find ourselves in needs more of?  Love.  Here it is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

As we wrap up not only our time this morning, but this journey we’ve been on together for a month and a half now, I want to take us to this giving because that’s where we find the fuel that makes all of this unstoppable.  The giving started in the birth of a baby boy.  We are on the cusp of the season of preparing for the great celebration of His arrival.  The giving continued as He grew and eventually built a powerful ministry wherein He revealed to us the words of truth and showed us the life that is truly life.  But the giving climaxed when Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, gave His body to be broken and blood to be poured out to sign and seal the new covenant God was making with us that would make it possible for us to live that life through Him.  His resurrection three days later was the great proclamation that the deal had been made, that the way had been opened.  In helping the disciples understand what was coming, Jesus told them to make remembering what it took to unleash the unstoppable impact of the unstoppable Gospel onto the world a regular part of their worship.  And so this morning we are going to follow the pattern they set at our Lord’s instructions.

In the bread, we remember the broken body of Jesus; broken to pay the price for our sins.  In the juice, we remember His blood poured out to sign and seal the new covenant of life God was making with us.  If you are living within the spacious boundaries of this covenant, if Jesus is your Lord, if you are experiencing the unstoppable impact of God’s unstoppable Gospel, then this is all for you.  As you are served the bread and the juice, hold on to them and prepare your heart to receive.  We are going to eat the bread and drink the cup together this morning.  If you cannot honestly say you are a committed follower of Jesus, we are really glad you’re here this morning, but I’m going to ask you to hold off on taking the bread and the juice for now.  Rest assured, nobody’s going to be judging you for being honest.  Instead, take a few moments between you and God and have a conversation with God about where you are in your relationship with Him and how you can move even closer.  When you get there this physical reminder will mean even more to you and we will be glad to celebrate taking it with you.  The same goes if you have kids who haven’t quite gotten their hearts and minds wrapped around it yet.  But if you can confidently say you are in Christ, receive with gladness this powerful reminder of just how far God was willing to go to unleash His unstoppable Gospel on the world in a way no one could miss or deny.  Deacons, come on forward to serve as I pray.