Stories of an Emerging Church: No Middle Ground

Stories of an Emerging Church: No Middle Ground

Stories of an Emerging Church: No Middle Ground

Acts 13:1-3; 14:1-22

June 29, 2008

- the first Christ-followers proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God in world profoundly different from our world

- in the first century no one could imagine a world without God – everyone’s world view had God (or the gods) at the centre – God (or the gods) was not only responsible for the creation of the world, but most everything could be explained as the activity of God or the gods

- here’s the point I want to make – that while there was radically different notions about God and the nature of God – no one was indifferent about God – no one ever shrugged in response to the notion of God

- no one was a-theistic

- but the world in which we, today, proclaim and live out the good news of the Kingdom of God is profoundly different – since the 17th century and the Enlightenment, in our particular culture in the west, God is not at the centre of most people’s worldview – even if they believe in God

- Walter Brueggemann writes, [Before the] 17th century it was hard, courageous work to imagine the world without God. Now into the 21st century, it is hard, courageous work to imagine the world with God.

- Today, a shrug is a common response to the notion of God – and to the relevance of the church

- what I want us to notice today, the lesson that I think we need to ponder in this story of the emerging of early church, is that the church proclaimed a radical and revolutionary message, that was impossible to ignore or to shrug off – indifference just wasn’t an option

- Luke presents a movement that is bold and courageous – a people with a message and mission that can’t be ignored – and, while not everyone was joining their movement, in fact, most were not, it appears that no one was indifferent to it – for the Christ-followers are either enthusiastically embraced or they are utterly and, often violently, rejected

- They’re like liquorice – black liquorice – you know, one of those things you either love or can’t stand – it seems to me that while not everyone likes liquorice, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about it – nobody seems indifferent – it’s either, oh I love liquorice too or, how can you eat that stuff

- There just seems to be no indifference about these Christ-followers or their movement – it seems that they were either wildly embraced or emphatically rejected – and that’s one of the things I see Luke wanting us to know about this movement in the early days – and it’s demonstrated emphatically in next few chapters as Paul and Barnabas are set apart and sent out by the church at Antioch

- Let’s look at the story – I am going to move very quickly through chapter 13, in fact I’m basically going to jump over it and go straight to Acts 14 because it there that we see it most clearly what we I think Luke is teaching us about this movement here – in ch 13 Paul and Barnabas are set apart to take the good news to the gentiles, the non-Jewish world – the first missionaries, if you like – this is a significant development in the movement called the Way

- But, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas encountered both a positive reception, as well as, violent opposition

- In Iconium (beginning of ch 14) they go to the synagogue – remember they are still Jews – and there they speak so effectively that Luke tells us a great number of both Jews and Gentiles believe – but those who opposed them used their influence to stir up the people against them

- And, while they stick around and try to win the people over, they are forced to flee for their lives when they discover a plot to harm them

- They take off for Lystra and Derbe – and there they get off to a great start again – Paul heals a crippled guy – and when the crowed witnesses it, they go crazy with excitement – but they interpret what they see in the only way that, at this point, they can interpret it, right?

- In the context of their own worldview and their understanding of God

- The gods have come down to us in human form! they shout

- Barnabas, they conclude, must be Zeus and Paul they deduce must be Hermes – now we get the idea that these rumours about them emerge over a few days, because Luke tells us that a priest of Zeus, whose temple was outside the city, brings bulls and wreaths to the city and wants to offer a sacrifice to them

- Wow, what a reception! – what a welcome – what an opportunity – they have these people, in the proverbial sense, eating right out of their hand

- Barnabas and Paul could have really milked this one, eh? – they could have really exploited these people for their own gain – they could have done a version of what some televangelists do – exploited the ignorance of these people who were prepared to make them gods

- But look at the response of Paul and Barnabas – Luke tells us that when they heard all this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd shouting – Paul and Barnabas are absolutely frantic about this misunderstanding and want to squelch the rumours quickly as possible

- They tear their clothing, Luke tells us – tearing one’s clothing, in the Jewish culture, was how someone expressed deep sorrow and sadness – it often was done upon receiving the news of a loved ones death – it was the initial act of mourning – a Jewish rabbi told me that it symbolizes the ripping apart of the body and the soul in death – Luke is telling us that Paul and Barnabas had the strongest possible reaction of deep sorrow and regret that anyone would think that they were gods

- So Paul says to them, “People, why are you doing this? We are simply mortals like you. We have come to bring you good news, to urge you to turn from worthless things, to the living God who made heaven and earth.”

- Paul begins with the most basic notion of God that they all agree on, that God is the creator – only, he tells them that they are messengers of a living God – i.e. not idols or impersonal forces, not gods, as they imagine – But Luke points out this in verse 18, Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them

- why? – because the people wanted to believe they were gods – they were desperate for it to be true – no indifference here, no shrug

- so, perhaps disappointed that Paul and Barnabas had not turned out to be what they wanted them to be, what happens next is not that surprising (verses 19,20)

- Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.

- So once Paul was found had recovered he and Barnabas leave town and the eventually head back to Lystra and I conium and Antioch – the places they fled from – and Luke tells us, they came back to encourage the Christ-followers with the lesson they themselves were learning, We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of Heaven

- That’s what they are learning – they’re learning to expect a strong reaction, either positive or negative – that there will be no middle ground – no indifferent shrug of the shoulders in response to their message – they’re learning that no one is indifferent

- So bold and so radical is their message – so extreme was their ministry and their challenge to the cultures they entered, that people either embraced it with enthusiasm or reject it, often, with violence

- There’s no middle ground – there is no such thing as indifference

- The church in the first century was not mainstream, their’s was not the accepted worldview and if the church didn’t realize it at first, they soon came to see that the good news they brought, was often received as bad news, as threatening news

- It was such a bold and radical message, it called for such a radical change in one’s world view and priorities, that one couldn’t be indifferent – it was liquorice – it was either loved or hated

- in this, I think, the early church reflected what Jesus was all about – they were getting the same reaction, Jesus got – people either loved Jesus and wholeheartedly embraced him, or they were afraid of him and outright rejected him – it’s interesting that the majority of people who embraced Jesus were the marginalized who had nothing to loose

- so Jesus said things people couldn’t be indifferent about like, whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple – surely he meant, unless you love them less than you love me, you can’t be my disciple – but he put it in a way that demanded a response, that couldn’t draw a mere shrug of the shoulders – he said, unless you sell all that you own and give it to the poor you will not enter the Kingdom of God – surely he meant that we have to get our priorities in order and stop being so self-centered, but that isn’t what he said – he these things in a way that was meant to offend – what he said didn’t allow an indifferent response – and just as Jesus warned his disciples when he was here, that they, like him, would be rejected and threatened and tortured and killed, so in our stories in Acts, it is happening – the same reaction to them as to Jesus

- Jesus wasn’t interested in giving people the option of shrugging their shoulders when it came to him, an indifferent response

- C S Lewis in Mere Christianity wrote this: "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us"

- Now, I think Lewis is being a bit simplistic here, but he make a good point – that the message of Jesus and the radical life to which he called people to was not something that one could easily be indifferent about – it had been the same with the prophets before Jesus and here with the church after Jesus – the early church proclaimed Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom in the same way and got the same reaction –but the response in our society to our message and to us, is primarily one of indifference

- I wonder if the lesson for us today in this is that the church’s own indifference, has led to the culture’s indifference about Jesus – I wonder if our adoption of the society’s values and priorities has led to a collective shrug of our societies shoulders when it comes to the church – the world just stops taking us seriously when we are not a credible example of the radical message of Jesus – the culture stops listening when we are not a strong voice of advocacy for the people with whom Jesus chose to identify – so people just shrug their shoulders when we do speak – Derrick Kidner say, “The shrug is the saddest commentary a person can make” – better the outright rejection, better, even, the violent response – at least then we would know that what we said, really hit home, that it really mattered

- The early church went boldly forward with a message and a way of living that posed a threat to the culture – their message and actions in the world couldn’t be ignored – being indifferent just wasn’t an option they left open – it is not an option we should be content to leave open, either – I’m not talking about being rude or being obnoxious, I’m talking about being credible – I’m talking about living out such an compelling and convincing case for life in Christ that it can’t ignored – that people will need to, will be compelled to, respond – either enthusiastically embracing it, or fearfully rejecting it – no middle ground