27/97 24.8.97 Scripture: Acts 13:1-12
TWENTY years ago the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches united in 1977 to form The Uniting Church in Australia. For most of this time the church has been concerned with its restructure. The greatest publicity has been given to issues of social justice. Little priority has been given to evangelism and the proclamation of the Gospel. But what Christ made primary, the Uniting Church must not make secondary.
At Wesley Mission we believe that the church must always be the church in mission. The church must always have a cutting edge in evangelism. In public services in our Church-in-a-Theatre, on radio, and through television, we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. No moneys have even been given by Presbytery or Synod to support these ministries. But at Wesley Mission we believe the church can grow. It is growing in many countries. In Australia, where there is growth, it is mainly in small denominations and outside the main-stream churches.
There is virility and growth among the Uniting Church ethnic groups. This is obvious more at Wesley Mission than in any other Parish. But the "Anglo-Celtic" churches in Australia are not growing, except for growing older. They are not taking the business of evangelism seriously enough. Perhaps they are too busy in "the maintenance ministry" of just keeping things going. Perhaps the churches are so busy in caring for the social and physical needs of people, (and they are important!) that they have forgotten that Jesus told us to win the world. Yet the Uniting Church is the denomination best positioned to win Australians.
Australians admire egalitarianism, secularism and pragmatism, and so does the Uniting Church. The Uniting Church is a church of mates. People do relate well. Strangers soon find they are part of a family. Your background, race, education, and economic circumstances are not very relevant.
The Uniting Church is a church that faces society. Social issues are frankly confronted. Some denominations comfort the afflicted but the Uniting Church look at issues effecting our community in a way that afflicts the comfortable.
The Uniting Church makes things happen. The Australian mind set values religion as practical and caring especially for the poor and the helpless. A truly Australian church makes things happen!
The Uniting Church demonstrates these basic Australian attitudes. But it now must also be known by more basic Biblical attitudes: in commitment to Christ as Saviour, in upholding the Scriptures as the only basis of faith, in openness to the move of the Holy Spirit, and in obedience to the Word of God. It takes only a few Christians to make the difference. At Wesley Mission more and more are being caught up with the momentum of evangelism, seeking to win others for Jesus Christ.
It may even happen like this little verse that I once adapted to tell the story of church growth:
"Ten little Christians came to worship all the time,
One fell out with the elders, then there were nine.
Nine little Christians stayed up very late,
Missed the bus to the Mission, then there were eight.
Eight little Christians on their way to heaven,
But one preferred the TV, then there were seven.
Seven little Christians from all races mixed,
One objected to our ethnics and then there were six,
Six little Christians seemed very much alive,
But one joined a local church, then there were five.
Five little Christians, one from the North Shore,
Refused to pay the Bridge toll, then there were four.
Four little Christians busy as can be,
One got his feelings hurt, and then there were three.
Three little Christians, well, the story's almost done,
For two got married and shifted, then there was one!
Everybody knows there is not much one can do,
BUT that one brought his friend, then there were two.
Two little Christians, each brought one more,
Parked their car in our basement, and now there were four.
Four little Christians got keen and rang a mate
And asked each to come next week, then there were eight.
But now you've got the message, it's pointed and it's true
My poem may be lousy, but it's aimed at me and you.
For eight little Christians, if they double as before
Will multiply in eight weeks to one thousand twenty-four.
In this woeful little jingle is a message for our church:
If you leave it to the other, we'll all be in the lurch.
But if each little Christian obeys our Lord's commission,
We'd be a mighty parish here, at Sydney's Wesley Mission."
The church only grows as people learn to share the message and to invite others to the community of faith. There is no church in the New Testament that so expresses what I would like a church to be than the church at Antioch. This church, in Turkey north of Lebanon, was the first multi-racial church in the history of our faith. It began overseas missions and there the believers were first called Christians. Four things about the members of the church at Antioch can help Australian churches.
1. THE CHURCH OBEYED
The church in Antioch obeyed the Lord's Great Commission, His last command: Matt 28:19 "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." The church at Antioch obeyed that commission. Acts 13 tells us how they fulfilled the Lord's commission. "In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers."
Prophets told God's message as evangelists; and teachers taught the faith. There were "Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul." Here was a cross-section of society. Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus who encouraged Saul and John Mark into the ministry. Simeon or Simon the Black as he was known, was a Negro from North Africa. Simeon was the father of Alexander and Rufus later in the Church at Rome. Their mother treated Paul like a son (Rom 16:13). Simon of Cyrene carried the cross of Christ on the way to Calvary, and carried it ever after in his heart. Lucius is from a Roman background. Manaen, foster brother of King Herod, came from the royal circle. What different courses the lives of Herod and Manaen took! One became a hated ruler known for his cruelty; the other became a loved elder in the Christian church. One was to judge Jesus, the other to preach Him. And Saul, the Jewish Rabbi who was also a Roman citizen from Tarsus, Turkey.
The church at Antioch was a multi-cultural community where each person obeyed the Lord's Great Commission to witness, to disciple, to teach and baptise. Once in the Royal Albert Hall, London, at a missionary gathering one Anglo-Catholic asked the Duke of Wellington, who had saved England from invasion by Napoleon, "You don't believe in all this missions business, do you?" The Iron Duke knew what a Commission was and asked, "What are your marching orders from Christ?" "Oh, to go into all the world," was the response. "Then if you are going to be a soldier of Christ, you obey orders." There was no dispute. No argument. Jesus said it. The Bible declares it. Therefore we obey the gospel.
2. CHRISTIANS RESPONDED
"While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, `Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off." The laying on of hands did not give the two men anything they did not already possess. It was the church recognising them and committing support to missionary work.
This is one of the four great hinges upon which swings the history of the church. The first was the preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem. The second was the believers moving into Judea and Samaria. The third was when Peter made the great break-through to the non-Jews, the Gentiles. Now the Antioch church sent out its first missionaries to other countries, which opened the door of the church to people of all races. The church went from Antioch overseas. "The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus." Cyprus is a pretty name Makara, the "Happy Isles". On Cyprus, "when they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues." The missionaries went first to the Jews. "John Mark was with them as their helper." His was on-the-job training. The church must take its missionary obligations seriously, and the challenge to take to Gospel to all the world is still needing responses.
When churches send out missionaries, they find opposition. It happened here when the gospel was preached on Cyprus. "They travelled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the pro-consul, Sergius Paulus. This magician established the first Christian sect, a group of people who deny or distort essential Christian truths. This man called himself `Bar-Jesus', the son of Jesus and proclaimed new teaching. The pro-consul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God."
In Rome Sergius Paulus was "Curator of the River Tiber", responsible for keeping the shipping moving, the waters clean, the port functioning, and he collected the taxes. The governor's title was Pro-Consul, as Luke accurately records. He was interested in the preaching of Barnabas and Saul. He called the Christians to him. But Elymas Bar-Jesus opposed them and tried to turn the governor away from faith in the word of God. He was a sorcerer and the Romans were superstitious. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith.
Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, "You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?" He accused Elymas Bar-Jesus of "perverting the right ways of the Lord." Saul confronts him dramatically. For the first time he is called Paul, his Latin name, by which he will be known. Elymas called himself the son of Jesus. Paul called him the son of the Devil! Jesus Himself used this phrase when his enemies claimed to be God's true sons. Jesus said, "You are the children of your father, the Devil." (John 8:44).
"Paul said, `Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun.' Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand." Paul knew victory.
4. THE WITNESS WINS
Sometimes physical blindness brings spiritual sight. This had been the experience of Paul himself on the Damascus Road. Now, Elymas felt a dark mist come over his eyes, and he stumbled around seeking someone to lead him. "When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord." With the removal of opposition the Pro-consul became a believer. His whole family would have been baptised. Sir William Ramsay, famous archaeologist, found a marble slab which said a certain road had been opened at a date when "Sergius Paulus was pro-consul of Cyprus". Sir William found his daughter, Sergia Paula, became a Christian in Cyprus. Her son Gaius Caristanos Fronto became an important Roman official, prominent in the churches at Pisidia and Antioch.
Nothing causes more joy in heaven than when someone like Sergius Paulus hears the good news about God, is converted and turns to God. That is why we preach the gospel, that some may hear the good news and repent. God can make that change in your heart wherever you are and at any time. We need to be at the forefront with the church proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. The Australian Church, and the Uniting Church in particular must preach the Gospel and fulfil the Great Commission. If you have heard and believe, respond to Christ now!
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