Monday, May 6, 2013

Easter 6 of Series C (Acts 16:9-15)

“And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this sixth Sunday of Easter comes from the First Lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteen chapter of the book of Acts. Dear friends in Christ, one of my favorite jobs to do on the farm was helping dad sort pigs. This was way, way back, when pigs were actually raised outside. When the herd was approaching market weight, dad needed to sort out which ones were ready for sale and slaughter. We would gather a bunch in our catch pen, and the fun of sorting would begin. We would run the pigs back and forth in the pen, and dad would sort out the ones who were ready for market from the ones who needed more fattening. The problem was, the pig didn’t always want to go where we wanted it to; it wisely wanted to stay with the herd. So, how do you make a pig, or any other animal for that matter, go where you want it to? You block off every other option, every door but the one you want it to use. That’s where having a couple boys came in handy. We would help separate the pig from the herd, giving it no other place to go, leaving only the chute. That wasn’t where the pig planned to go, or even wanted to go, but with a bit of work and some gentle encouragement, it was headed down the chute and into the trailer.

Saint Paul and his companions probably felt like herded pigs in Acts chapter sixteen. In the verses before our text, this band of missionaries is prepared to bring the Gospel to the nations, but they are stopped at every turn, not by Satan, but by the Holy Trinity. “And they went through the region of Phyrgia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to be encouraging the Church to take the Gospel to the nations? It doesn’t seem like it to Paul. Everywhere he turns, all he sees is closed doors; closed by the One who has promised to help them spread the message of Easter. All of his ideas and plans are failing; he is being frustrated by the same God who sent him!

But then a door is opened. “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” These missionaries were being herded. Doors were being closed, one after another; their concept of how the mission of the Church should go forth was being shattered by the Holy Spirit, but now another door stood open. A door that they had not considered, the only door left. How do you make a missionary go where you want him to? You treat him like a pig ready for market. You block off every other option, every door but the one you want him to use. You separate the missionary from his own plans and ideas, giving him no other place to go, leaving only one option. That wasn’t where the missionary planned to go, or even wanted to go, but with a bit of work and some gentle encouragement, he was headed where you wanted him to.

Paul wanted to be in control, but he wasn’t. It is Christ’s Church, not his. His plans and designs didn’t matter one bit; only the plans of Christ Himself matter, and He knows how best to direct His Church. We are frustrated when we see closed doors all around us, when our witness doesn’t seem to work, when the activities we plan have miserable attendance, when we are confronted with apathy or opposition by those around us. We think we are in control, we think we run the church, that we have the best ideas, the perfect vision to expand the work of our congregation and the work of the Church at large. We think that because we are church officers, because we are leaders in our congregation, because we bear important titles, even the title of ‘pastor,’ that we are in control, that we direct the spread of the Gospel. We think that it is our Church. But it isn’t. The Church doesn’t belong to us, any more than it belonged to Paul. It is Christ’s Church, not ours, a lesson He teaches with every closed door.

When we spend so much time trying to pry open doors that the Lord has shut, talking all about what we think that the church should do, or when we sit around that closed door weeping and complaining, we usually don’t see the other door that Christ has opened. The closed doors shatter the illusions of power and influence that consume us. It is Christ’s Church, not ours. We are not in control; we simply serve, we are under orders. So when Christ opens a door, we are to go, no questions asked. “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” It is Christ’s Church, not ours, and when He opens doors for the work of the Gospel, we don’t hesitate, we go!

The mission of the Gospel isn’t about us, it isn’t about our ideas, our thoughts, our vision; it’s about Christ and His work through the Holy Spirit. And what we find is that Christ works in unexpected ways. In fact, the unexpected seems to be Christ’s normal mode of operation. This is the same Jesus who brought salvation through suffering, victory through humiliation, life through death. The world wanted no part of a champion like that, for a Savior crucified like a criminal. In their eyes He had not triumphed, but had been triumphed over. But He rose in victory, against all human expectation, paying for sin, destroying death, and crushing Satan. Why then should we be surprised that Christ works in ways that we don’t expect to bring about the spread of the Gospel?

From the seemingly fertile fields of Asia and Bithynia, Saint Paul is driven to Macedonia, to Philippi, a city that seems to have no place for the Gospel to take firm root. Paul usually began his work in the synagogue, but Philippi had none. Christ had sent him to a city where there was not enough Jews to even form a synagogue, much less a Christian Church! But if Paul has learned anything in the last weeks, it is that it is Christ’s Church, not his, and so he seeks any foothold for the Gospel. “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.”

It’s Christ’s Church, not ours. He directs the work; He opens some doors, and He closes others, reminding us that He is in control. And not only does He send us where He wants us to be, He is the one working when we get there. We cannot make anyone a Christian, no matter how hard we try. That, too, is Christ’s work, and His alone. Paul saw this first-hand when he gathered with the women at the river to pray. “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was being said by Paul.” The Lord worked through Paul’s preaching to open Lydia’s heart, and with that great work, Christ had established the Church in Philippi. Paul was an instrument in the Lord’s hands; herded to Philippi, Paul didn’t make a single Christian, but Christ did, working through the Word that Paul proclaimed.

Christ is the sole actor in salvation, from start to finish. He alone took on our human flesh and the burden of our sin. He alone walked the way of the cross. He was so alone at that moment that He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We were not there on Good Friday, and even if we had been, we had no part to play in His sacrifice. We have no ability to save ourselves, because we are broken and corrupted completely by sin. Jesus alone bore the sins of the world; He alone paid the price for them. And now, He alone makes Christians. We cannot make anyone a Christian; we cannot even make ourselves Christians, for all people, even you and me, are conceived and born in sin, completely opposed to God. If it were up to us, salvation would’ve never been won; if it were up to us, the salvation that Christ has won would’ve never come to us. But it was not up to us. Christ did it for us, and He alone, for only He could win salvation, dying in our place, and only He can deliver salvation, opening our hearts through the power of His Word. Christ has claimed you by that Word; He alone has done it, even if He used human instruments to proclaim that Word to you, opening your heart to receive the Gospel.

It’s Christ’s Church, not ours. This is stern Law. It shatters any illusions of influence, any desires for power, any thoughts and plans that we think are best for our congregation and for the Church. Now this doesn’t mean that we sit around and do nothing, waiting for a dream to tell us what to do, or that we run around claiming that the Spirit has given us some new direction to the Church. No, instead we are to look to where Christ gives the Church direction: in the Word. Christ directs His Church through the Word, and He opens doors for that Word in our lives, He places people that need the Gospel right in front of us. We are not the actors, we are simply instruments in the Lord’s hands. Let Christ be concerned with the results; simply go forth and speak the Word to your friends, family, and neighbors. Do not be frustrated with closed doors, but continue to proclaim the Gospel in your vocation, and pray that doors will be opened to you.

It’s Christ’s Church, not ours. This is beautiful, sweet Gospel. Christ has not abandoned His Church; He has not left us alone, but accompanies us as we spread the Gospel in this sinful world. He has not left the success or failure of His mission to the nations up to us; He is responsible for the work, and He will accomplish it, even despite our failures and pride. He accomplished salvation Himself, and He will deliver salvation Himself, as He has done to you and to me: our feeble and selfish attempts to control the work of the Church are this day forgiven! You are an instrument in His hand to bring His Gospel to the nations, just as He used others as instruments to bring His Gospel to you, the glorious message that Christ died for you, He rose for you, He forgives you. It is Christ’s Church, not ours. Thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, who herds His Christians wherever He has need of them, for He has not abandoned His Church, Amen.

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