Sunday, May 13, 2012

Easter 6 Acts 11:19-26

Introduction:  Sympathy—that’s what I see in these early Christians.  It’s a word that means that you feel what someone else feels.  Most often, you are sad when they are sad.  Sympathy can also mean that you are happy when they are happy.  When your brother wins, you are happy because you see that God has blessed him.  When someone else gets what you want, you are happy because God was good to him.  When that person marries a wonderful man, but you are sitting at that wedding all alone without a date, you are happy.  You could not be happier.  Why?  Because that person is your friend, your family.
This applies to the church too.  When God blesses another church with growth, it makes us happy.  We couldn’t be happier.  Why?  Because they are part of that “one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church,” which we confess in the Nicene Creed.  The same Lord who loves us loves them also.  We are better than family—the Bible says we are one body.  When they are sad, we are sad; when  they are happy, we are happy; and when they need help, we want to help them—even if it’s going to cost us.
That’s what we see here—the Jerusalem church rejoiced at the success of God’s Word in a another place, so much so that they were eager to help in whatever way they could.
This is also what Christ was like.  He saw us in danger, damned because of our sins, and he wanted to save us.  Though it would cost him greatly, he took the way of the cross.  He did it for us, because he cared more about us than he did about the pain he would suffer.  Now also, a strange thing has been happening on earth—strange to the ways of the world at least.  People who believe in Christ become like him.  They start to show that same self-sacrificing attitude.

Christians are Christ-like
1. The Jerusalem Christians showed this, 
2. the Christians in Antioch showed this, and 
3.  by the grace and power of God we do too. 

1.  In Jerusalem, the glorious, untouchable days of the early church did not last long.  Peter and John had been arrested for healing a crippled beggar, but then they were released with only a warning.  Stephen did not get off so easily.  He was stoned to death for preaching about Jesus.  Saul was going from house to house, dragging Christians off to prison.  Many believers left Jerusalem because of this.  Some of them went to Antioch.  Meanwhile, the persecution in Jerusalem got worse.  King Herod put James to death—James, the brother of John, who had been one of the three who were closest to Jesus.  Herod also arrested Peter, though an angel would come to break Peter out of jail.  Those were troubling times in Jerusalem.
When they heard the news that another church was growing in the heathen city of Antioch, we would have understood if they would have felt they had too many problems of their own to pay much attention to this new church.  We would have understood if they had felt that they had been abandoned by those people who left Jerusalem and started this church in Antioch.  We would have understood their resentment.   If they had wanted to keep their leaders in Jerusalem, we could understand why.  The church was under attack.  They needed all the good men they could get.
Actually, though, we see the Jerusalem church very interested in these new believers in Antioch.  They needed help.  The city of Antioch had a reputation.  They were the “Sin City” of Syria. Right away the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas, one of their best, to go to Antioch and help.
We hear that “Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”  It was Barnabas who first introduced the Apostle Paul to the church in Jerusalem.  They would miss his ability to encourage and teach, but their brothers in Antioch needed him more.

2.  The Church in Antioch was greatly blessed to have Barnabas with them, and later Saul.  Barnabas taught them to set their hearts on the Lord’s will.  The Holy Spirit worked through that encouragement so that they become so much like the Lord Jesus in his love that people noticed, and started to call them “Christians.”—people who are with Christ.”
We could have understood if the Antioch Church had not been Christ-like.  They had their own problems.  They could have put themselves and their needs first.  First of all, they needed strong leadership.  There was a large Jewish population, and the Jews would probably attack the new Christians.  Those who were not Jews would attack them too.  There is evidence that they were mocked, and some used the name “Christian” in a derogatory way. Antioch was also a city full of temptations.  Even the Romans complained that the sins of Antioch were polluting Rome.   The Antioch church had enough problems of its own to worry about. 
But Antioch followed the way of Christ.  They set their own needs aside, and turned their thoughts to others.  When they heard about the famine in Jerusalem, right away they took up a collection to aid their fellow believers in Jerusalem.  Soon after that, they sent Barnabas and Paul away to preach and teach in other cities.  Antioch would in fact become the base camp for Paul’s missionary journeys.
If there is anything impressive about this story, it is because this self-sacrificing love for others is so unnatural to the human heart.

3. We call ourselves Christians, but it does not come easy for us to be like Christ.  Selfless love was not a natural quality in those Jerusalem and Antioch Christians, and it is not a natural part of us either.
I’ll tell you what comes naturally—self-interest.  We are naturally too concerned about ourselves to be happy when God blesses others.  When our Christian brothers and sisters in Lodi dedicate their new church someday in the future, how many of you will consider going down there to celebrate with them?  How many of you are happy that God has blessed other churches with lots of members, great pastors, and great musicians?
In our self-interest, we are naturally too worried about our own needs to give up  much to help others.  When you think about giving an offering to church, how often is your first thought, “I hope I don’t need this for something else?” Have you ever made out a check to the church, and then decided that it was too much?  When the church asks for help, is your first thought, “I’ve got enough to do already?”  Self-sacrificing love is unnatural.
Because it is so unnatural, and in fact impossible for us to do by ourselves, Christ stepped into our shoes to do it for us.  He gave up all the riches of heaven for us.  In perfect, self-sacrificing love he gave his life to God for us.
The Bible calls this redemption—the price that was paid to get us out of hell and into heaven.  We have been redeemed by his death.  That price set us free from hell and bought us a ticket into heaven.  His death was the Passover lamb that ended our hopeless life in slavery to sin, and his resurrection parted the Red Sea for us to pass through into heaven.
Now being redeemed also means that you have a new perspective.  The old life as a slave to self-interest is over.  The new life as citizens of heaven has begun.  You have eternity in heaven.  You have it all, and you live in this kingdom under your Lord who would give you everything you need.  Indeed, he is our resurrected Lord, the same Lord who loved us so much that he died for us.  There is no need for us to worry about ourselves anymore.  That life is over!
We are free now to be concerned about other people, especially other Christians.  They are closer than friends, closer than family—they are our eternal family.  The same Lord who loved us and gave himself up for us has loved them and given himself up for them.  Our love for our Lord makes us love them.  Their joy becomes our joy, and their needs become our needs.  When you see that God has blessed them with a loving spouse, a beautiful family, a secure job, a nice home, you are free to be happy for that person.  There is no need to be jealous about what you don’t have—you have it all in heaven.  When you see someone in need, especially a fellow Christian, you are free to help, no matter what the cost.  Our Lord is worrying about our needs, so we are free to turn our thoughts and resources to our fellow Christians.  We are free to sacrifice our interests so that we can help them.  Our Lord has our back, and he has already given us everything in heaven anyway.
When you give your offering, you don’t have to worry that you might need that money for something else.  You are not losing anything.  You are helping other Christians whom your dear Lord loves.  Do you think your Lord will let you go broke when you are helping his church and his people?  Only if he knows that it will somehow be good for you to go broke.  We are free to stop worrying about ourselves and turn our thoughts to other Christians.
Conclusion:  Being a Christian means not only that we get our eternal life from Christ, but also that we live like Christ.  Will that mean sacrifice?  Yes.  Will that mean drowning our sinful nature and its selfish desires?  Yes.  Will we feel a loss if we do this?  Maybe.  I think the Jerusalem church probably felt the loss of Barnabas.  I know the church in Antioch felt the crunch when they sent money to aid the Christians in Jerusalem.  I know they felt the loss of Saul and Barnabas when they sent them out to do mission work later.  But they knew that they already had everything with Christ.  Christians, we know that we have all the riches of heaven through faith in Christ.  We have nothing to worry about, nothing to lose.  There is nothing to stop us from being like the Christians in Jerusalem, and being like the Christians in Antioch.  There is nothing to stop us from doing what Jesus said in the Gospel, “Love each other, as I have loved you.”  Christ gave up what was good for him, because he wanted to help us.  Christians, be Christ-like.  Amen.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, Amen.