Sermon (Cromer, 28/5/17)

“What comes next will be more severe on the worshippers of the cross and their allies.” -Islamic State/Daish statement on Tuesday, after the Manchester bombing on Monday which killed 22 and injured 59.

Then on Friday gunmen attacked carrying Coptic Christian families to visit a monastery, killing 29 and injuring over 20.

Al-Shabaab in Kenya has released a video inciting Muslims to kill Christians.

Two weeks ago Hindu mobs attacked a church and a prayer meeting in north India. In North Korea tens of thousands of Christians are at this moment imprisoned in horrific labour camps for their faith; North Korea is the worst country in the world for persecution of Christians. Yet despite the risks people there are turning to Christ, and it is reported that the church is growing.

The persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom was severe, and most of those converted in the days after Pentecost fled Jerusalem. Acts 11 tells how some of them went as far as Phoenicia on the coast, Cyprus and Antioch, the cosmopolitan capital of the Roman province of Syria, telling the message – first, to their fellow Jews alone, then to others, the Greek speaking general population. We don’t know who these Christians were – they were certainly not apostles, for they had stayed in Jerusalem. They were not there when Jesus gave the great commission – only the eleven were there. Yet here they are, telling the message everywhere they went. They were just ordinary Christians, like us; yet they knew they had a message to tell. Just like us.

What was this message? v 20 tells us it was the good news about the Lord Jesus. What do you think that good news was? I guess many of us would say that it is the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead, proving that death is not the end. That’s true, and the apostles talked a lot about Jesus’ resurrection – but they didn’t say anything about death not being the end. So what was that good news? Was it that Jesus died for us, taking onto himself responsibility for all our wrong-doing? That’s true too. But we need to remember that the message the first disciples spread resulted in a terrible persecution, in which many of them were put to death. Some people may not like the news that death is not the end – certainly one Jewish party, the Sadducees, believed death was the end – and people may not like the idea of someone else taking responsibility for their wrong-doing – but would those teachings result in such a persecution? What was the message that roused such hostility?

The story of Peter and Cornelius in the previous chapter tells us more: Peter summed it up by saying the good news was of peace through the Messiah Jesus, who is Lord of all. Then he went on to explain, telling his listeners about Jesus’ good life and miracles, and about his death and resurrection, and ended by saying, v 42, ‘He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ We see in all that the two strands of the gospel: Jesus is Lord and Saviour. He is Lord, Lord of all, appointed by God to judge the living and the dead. Remember that in those days the ultimate authority to judge if a person was guilty or innocent, and what punishment if any should be imposed, rested with the person in authority – in the case of the Roman Empire, the final court of appeal lay with the emperor himself. To say that Jesus was Lord of all, and judge of everyone who had ever lived, was to say that everyone is ultimately responsible to Jesus for what they do – everyone, including the local authorities, the priests, the governors, even Caesar himself. Everyone, including each one of the listeners. That’s what aroused such hostility. So why is it good news?

The answer is Jesus. He is the one who is Lord of all – and he reigns with justice, wisdom, and above all, love. He is the good shepherd. These days of election emphasise that we all want good government – and Jesus is the perfect world ruler, who will bring about a perfect world. Free from…  Full of….. Our king is our Savour. Not there yet. But the time is drawing near.

That’s the other strand of the good news: Jesus is the Saviour, bringing us forgiveness and peace with God through his death and resurrection (rather than through our own efforts to obey God), bringing us life with God as citizens of his kingdom, life as members of God’s family, life that will last for ever. God already lives in us.

It really is good news! And that’s the message the first believers were spreading. It’s also the message that brought persecution upon them – yet they persisted in telling the message. They weren’t seeking popularity; they wanted people to have peace with God and eternal life, through believing in Jesus the King, the Christ. That’s why they were called Christ-ians.  And we have the same message. Let’s not keep silent for fear of upsetting people. Some want to hear! Some of you? HC

I’ve concentrated on the first few verses of our reading. Let’s see more briefly what else we can learn.

  1. The importance of encouragement. Barnabas means Son of Encouragement. He too was from Cyprus, and believed in Jesus on the day of Pentecost or shortly after. He sold some property to help provide for believers in need, and he introduced Saul of Tarsus to the church in Jerusalem when everyone else was scared of him. He was sent to Antioch to see what was going on – and encouraged the people there to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. As a result of his encouragement, the church grew. Are we moaners, critics, or encouragers?
  2. The importance of teaching. Luke gives several examples of sermons in the book of Acts, but they are all summaries. The good news needs to be unpacked! There’s so much more to learn – what is God like, how does he work, what did Jesus do, what did he teach, how should we live with God, how should we love one another, what’s God’s plan, what does the future hold for us, and so much more. New Christians needed to be taught, mature Christians still have lots to learn. So Barnabas taught, Saul taught; and the church grew. Let us encourage our teaching ministers, and learn from them!
  3. The importance of releasing missional disciples. Those anonymous Christians who first brought the message to the Greek speakers in Antioch weren’t told not to speak to those people. They were allowed to get on with it, even though it was a new development. Barnabas was released by the church in Jerusalem to go to Antioch. Barnabas saw the potential in Saul of Tarsus, and brought him to a place his gifts could be of most use. Disciples who are learning from Jesus and want to share what they’ve learnt need to be encouraged to do so – even if they want to do something new, or go somewhere far away. Even if they are doing important stuff in our church. What can we do to encourage one another to use our gifts wherever God needs them, even in unexpected places?
  4. The importance of actions, not just words. True teaching leads to growing Christ-likeness, to practical love for those who need it most. The church in Antioch believed Agabus, and decided to act. Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is? We need to be good news as well as speak good news.