31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
May 26, 2019
Acts 13:1-3, 14:1-20
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
As I prepared the names for today’s service of remembrance to follow worship in the Memorial Garden, I was reminded of a comment I heard at one of their memorial services. ‘He was a true gentleman. They don’t make them like that anymore, with that kind of faithfulness, dedication, and spirit of service and generosity.’
As we mourn the loss of each brother and sister who pass into God’s heavenly kingdom, we mourn for ourselves, and we mourn for the church. It is true that we are slowly losing a generation that valued civic duty and religious institutional commitment. We are slowly losing a generation that faithfully attended Sunday morning worship and unquestionably gave of their time and money to support the programs and ministries of the church.
And as we grieve the loss of each of these saints, we grieve the loss of the church as we once knew it. When people moved to Bristol in the 1940’s, the 1950’s, even the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, they asked their neighbors where to go to church because, of course, they went to church. For 1700 years, we lived in what was called Christendom, a culture that put Christianity at the center of public life, but no longer. No longer do we live in a world or country that automatically puts Christianity and church first, in a society where people automatically go to church.
And you could see that as a big problem or you could see that as a big opportunity. I see it as an opportunity. The end of Christendom means I get to go out and share the good news of Jesus Christ and make more disciples, just as Jesus asks us to do.
And because the world around us is one big mission field now, I don’t even have to look very hard to find someone whose life can be transformed by the unconditional love and grace of God. It’s amazing. It’s exciting. It’s completely intimidating! because the church has not had to do this in over 1700 years. We are a little out of practice.
In his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger writes about how the world behind us looks nothing like the world ahead of us. He writes about how the church is being called to journey off the map, to adventure into uncharted territory – as Lewis and Clark did.
It’s a fantastic read; however I don’t think the church is journeying into completely uncharted territory. While the world before us certainly does not look like the world we have known, it does look a lot like the world of the 1st century, the world Paul and Barnabas lived and ministered in.
It’s easy to forget what a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and multi-religious society the Christian church came to existence in. There were Jews who worshipped God the Creator, and there were also Romans who worshipped Zeus and Hera, Hermes, Apollo, and Athena. As people moved around for trade and sailors visited different ports, they brought their faith beliefs with them, worshipping fertility gods and goddesses, praying to clay, bronze, or even gold idols in the shape of animals and hybrid animals, like the Egyptian god Horus, a falcon-headed man.
When Paul and Barnabas left the Christian community in Antioch, they did not know what was ahead of them. They did not know how people were going to treat them. They did not even know if they would be successful – or what success might look like.
What they did know was that they had been set apart by the Holy Spirit. Set apart by the Holy Spirit. Called by the Spirit to do the work of Jesus Christ. Not nominated by a committee. Not ‘gee, this sounds like fun’. Not for riches and glory. Set apart by the Holy Spirit for the mission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s love with those who had not heard, with those who did not yet know.
And I wish we could say “and blessed by the Holy Spirit, they lived happily after after”, end of story. However as C.S. Lewis wrote so well, “Life with God is not immunity from difficulties, but peace within difficulties.” For Paul and Barnabas, life with God, life following Jesus Christ, life and ministry set apart by the Holy Spirit, was not without obstacles and hardships. They met resistance as they shared about Jesus. They were outright mocked and ridiculed. They dealt with hysterical crowds who wouldn’t listen, who one minute thought they were Roman gods from Mount Olympus and the next moment, were stoning Paul and dragging his limp body out of the city.
For every step forward, for every person who came to believe, it must have felt like three steps back. And what did Paul and Barnabas do every time they met resistance? Every time they met an obstacle or hardship?
They kept going. They kept preaching. They kept sharing. They kept being faithful to the call of the Holy Spirit, to the way of Jesus Christ, to the unconditional love of God.
When the unbelieving Jews stirred up others and poisoned their minds against Paul and Barnabas, what did Paul and Barnabas do? “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord” (Acts 14:2-3) Who does that? Who stays where they are not wanted? Where people are outright hostile to them?
When the same unbelievers followed Paul to Lystra and stirred up the crowds again, when they were successful this time in stoning Paul, what does Paul do? “he got up and went into the city.” (Acts 14:20). Who does that? Who goes back into the city where they were stoned and almost killed?
Paul does that, and he does it – not because he is stubborn, although that helps; not because he is going to show them; not because he believes in what he is doing, although that helps too. Paul persists in preaching, teaching, and sharing the love of Jesus Christ because he has been set apart by the Holy Spirit, called to give glory to the Living God.
We have been called by the Spirit to give glory to the Living God, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to teach people that there is a different way, I dare to say a better way, than putting our faith in worthless things, the better way of putting our faith in a Living God, the Creator of the World, in a God for whom all things are possible.
The journey of life has never been easy. There are always highs and lows, blessings and obstacles. The end of Christendom has not changed that. What has changed is that now, we have been blessed with the opportunity to share with others -that we “can’t say you’ll never be weary. [We] can’t say it doesn’t get tough. [We] can’t even say you always know where your next smile is coming from. But what [we] can say is that I’ve tried Jesus and he works.” (Because Jesus, Keion Jackson) “I’ve tried Jesus and he works.”
What an exciting opportunity the Holy Spirit has placed before us. Transformed by God’s unconditional love ourselves, we have the opportunity to go out and share with a new generation this incredible, amazing, life-changing love, transforming others’ lives with Christ’s unconditional love and transforming the world.