Saturday 11 November 2023

Paul 9

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren. Acts 14:2

In our previous sermon we considered the spirit filled ministry of Paul and Barnabas, how they both came to Iconium, that magnificent and major trading town under Roman rule as it was then. This town of Iconium now known as Konya which today we would say is situated in Southern Turkey.  It was there that both men, Paul, and Barnabas, entered the synagogue and preached so powerfully that, to belief in Christ, they won over a huge number, not only of Jews, but of Gentiles too.

 Again, I would remind you of those words of Henry Matthew, who in commentating on this story wrote:

Yet the success was not to be attributed to the manner of their preaching, but to the Spirit of God who made use of them.

‘They (that is Paul and Barnabas) spoke in such a way that a great multitude both of Jews and also of the Greeks, believed’ This is a phenomenal claim! How is it that such men like Paul and Barnabas could succeed on such a scale when going forward into history thousands of others have often failed. So, we must ask that question, ‘what was it that they had’ that most preachers lack? I think the answer is quite simply, because they stood aside and made room for God.

I think it works like this – in a struggle for faith, in a struggle for faith and to live a life of witness to God, a life of witness to Christ, failure often arises because we get in the way of God. We get in the way of God because of our pride, because of our vanity. You might think that good preaching is all about performance and polish and popularity, but it can become an ego trip where there’s no room for God.  An example of this ‘getting in the way’ of God or the temptation to personal vanity can be found in this little story of when somebody once told John Bunyan that he had preached a delightful sermon, “You are too late,” Bunyan replied, “the devil told me that before I left the pulpit.’ 

This story gives us an example of Bunyan’s personal humility and that story warns us too, that all glory must go to God. All glory must go to God – we cannot preach God, we cannot serve God, unless we make room for him, unless we let him in – otherwise we will just be full of ourselves. When we get in the way, when we are full of ourselves the glory of God cannot become manifest, the Holy Spirit will be absent when we are puffed up with pride and when we are puffed up with our own self-importance. 

Paul was once known as Saul, the Pharisee Saul, the persecutor of the Church until he was blinded and humbled on the road to Damascus. Afterwards he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but not before God speaking of Saul said, “he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel, for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake - God’s words – I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.

Years later, in his second letter to the Corinthians, the most personal of Paul’s letters that we have, Paul recounts how much he did suffer for the Gospel of Christ, how much he did suffer for God.  The hard work, the hardships he had to face, the beatings he had to endure, the shipwrecks at sea and the burden of worrying about the Church and all its problems.  What a transformation had been wrought in Saul! Saul the zealous Pharisee, persecutor of the Church, blinded on the road to Damascus and then had to be led by the hand, like a child, into the city.  And it was all part of God’s plan, all part of God’s plan. We might recall those words from Frances Havergal’s hymn “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee”:

Take my will and make it Thine,

It shall be no longer mine.

Take my heart: it is Thine own,

It shall be Thy royal Throne.

That’s what God did to Paul – God broke his self-willed spirit; he broke his pride in readiness for the Holy Spirit enter in. 

Years ago, put up on the outside walls of this chapel was a message reading, ‘that we as a chapel individually don’t hold the same beliefs, but rather that each person is encouraged to develop his or her own Faith in a continuing search for truth.’ But this statement we had on the walls of our chapel totally ignored that God through his creation had already proven the truth of his existence. As Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans, such people, in the face of such evidence of the existence of God, such deniers as they are, are godless and wicked. We come to the same problem again; pride. On the other hand, the message of the early Church was to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. That message means we must throw away our pride as Paul had to throw away his.

So, when we think of the humbled and transformed Paul, we can also think of Frances Havergal’s hymn, Take my life and let it be – And if we want further proof of what God’s desire is for each of us we only have to turn Psalm 51: 17

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise.

If we just break that Psalm down and consider it for a moment, we can see that it really says a lot.  It says, it tells us, what God is looking for – and what He wants from us.  In the simplest of terms, it is the abandonment of pride, to see the sheer futility of our vain selves, when we see it and know it for ourselves it will break our hearts, it will lead us to that contrition, that repentance, it will lead us to cry as Augustine did to cry these words: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

And so now I hope we’re beginning to get the picture now, the picture now of what is required from each one of us and I’m hoping also we’re also beginning to get a spiritual description and understanding of Paul and his preaching, and I mean preaching, not oratory or cleverness as the world would have it, but rather to say it was something much more awe-inspiring than that. His preaching was accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sense of the supernatural, a sense of the supernatural going out to the congregation, going out to those who were listening, a palpable sense of the presence of God.

And so, I think it is worthwhile to consider that this points to the calibre of the men, and the required holiness of the preachers, who should be called to lead our Church today.  I think it is worth our while to be discerning about the churches we might attend or associate with. In such churches we should ask are we merely being bored or are we being entertained or on the other hand is God’s spirit really there in the worship and in the preaching?

Who like Paul and Barnabas could speak now so that great multitudes would believe?  But we’ll leave it there, to think about later, because now we come again to our text, the second verse of Chapter 14 of the Acts of the Apostles

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

It’s here then, that despite everything that can be said, the spirit-led preaching, the sense of the presence of God, that we now, we come back to earth with a bump.  It takes only a little acid to sour the milk, only a little yeast to leaven the bread.  Because often it seems, you know, you can get a good thing going, a project or a campaign, a good organisation up and running; whatever, but that project can soon become a casualty, that project can become a victim of its own success in its early stages when it encounters opposition.  And the opposition, we should not have any reason to doubt, arose in Iconium from the same kind of opponents that Paul and Barnabas had met in Antioch. That opposition could be summed up in two words: 'vested interest.’ They were up against other interests, other considerations.

You see, it was unacceptable to the Jewish leaders to hear that the resurrected Christ was indeed the fulfilment of their own prophetic scriptures. But that message was indeed the message of the early Christian church – and to the ears of the Jewish leaders it was an anathema.  And in any case, since they had Gentiles of some social standing attached to their synagogues, who were making generous contributions to the upkeep of the synagogue, such Jewish leaders would be in no mood to countenance the arrival and the message of the Christian Church.

So, we have that verse (again)

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

I suppose you could say that this story just looks like a rerun of the previous episode in Antioch, in terms of what could be seen as the usual kind of opposition. Of course, but I’d ask you to stay with me anyway, because there’s much more to it than that.  We are talking here about the establishment of the Church, Christ’s Church.  And the thing we must consider is that Christ himself, Jesus came into the world in the teeth of opposition. We remember for example, how Herod murdered the infants in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Christ. How John, in his Gospel, wrote of Jesus, described Jesus as ‘the light,’ saying,

And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (1:15)

And this is the condemnation, that light came into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (3:19)

But even so, there were those who did receive the good news of Jesus Christ with great joy, they received it from Paul and Barnabas, as you know, before they were expelled from Antioch, before they reached Iconium – and they left behind them in Antioch followers and disciples who were filled with joy and filled with the Holy Spirit. One thing to bear in mind though – to hear some people speak of Christianity, you’d think that becoming a Christian lead to a gentle and passive alternative life-style. And when you hear some versions of Jesus, you’d think he was a laid-back hippie who embraced woke liberal values. If that was the truth then perhaps there wouldn’t be too much opposition to Jesus today.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  You don’t need a degree in theology to know that.  Just hear these words from the Gospel of John (3:36)

He that believeth in the son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the son shall not see life, but the wrath of God shall be upon him.

These are uncompromising words; they are hard words. They are hard words because spiritually speaking, we exist in a war zone. There is an ongoing struggle between good and evil – earlier I spoke about the sign outside the chapel that sign that appeared to advocate different paths for the spiritual quest– but what does Jesus say about this?  If we are to turn to the Gospel of Matthew (7:13 – 14) we can see that there are only two choices as Jesus said,

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.

Let us come back to our text again:

But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

We need to be clear about this – the leaders of the synagogue opposed Paul preaching Christ, for their own reasons, and stirred up the Gentiles against such preaching too.  It can be said then that they would rather maintain the status quo and the predominance of Judaism than allow others the freedom to come to Christ. The situation in the world is the same today – I mention Judaism, because Christianity grew out of Judaism and I mention Judaism to be faithful to the story and events recorded in the scriptures of the New Testament, but I think we do have to be clear, there is an exclusivity to Christianity, that today the inter-faith proponents have conveniently forgotten. It’s something that many Christians have forgotten. The broad gate and the broad path represent the world and all the other religions, the narrow gate and the narrow path represent Christ. And what did Jesus say?   

I am the door (gate): by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10:9)

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Well, you can’t get any more exclusive than that. We should know that the world cannot and will not accept the exclusive uniqueness of the Christian faith. Today they are so offended by they call it fundamentalism and they are offended by those who uphold the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. Jesus said:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. John 10:34.

Christians in many parts of the world today face conflict, persecution and even murder.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:11-13)

So, let us pray for the strength and courage to face conflict and persecution, and not for us to be discouraged but rather to let our faith be a continual source of joy to us: 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16). Amen