Sunday, March 21, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Evangelist (Acts 16:1-10)

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen to vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focus has been on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. We have been looking at various chapters in his life, learning about the man for whom this church is named, and discovering what we can learn about our lives by examining his. Three weeks ago, we looked at St. Paul the persecutor – he was trying to destroy the church. Then, he was St. Paul the converted – he had a blinding encounter with God, and his life was changed. Then, he was St. Paul the ordained – he was set apart for a great and important task. Today, we conclude the series with St. Paul the evangelist. So a man of violence against God was transformed into a missionary for God, and the world was changed forever. May we pray.

Early in his ministry, Billy Graham arrived in a small town. He had several letters to mail, and asked a young boy where the post office was. The boy gave him clear directions, and Dr. Graham thanked him. He said, “If you come to the church tonight, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven.” The young boy thought for a moment and said, “No, offense, Mister, but you don’t even know how to get to the post office.”

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time in the car. I’m driving to meetings, to the hospitals, to your homes, to restaurants and coffee shops for more meetings. It’s not as bad as when I was living in Boone, in which I was averaging about 30,000 miles per year, but I drive a lot.

I like to know where I’m going. One thing I hate is being lost. Not to reinforce too much of a stereotype, I also don’t like to ask for directions. However, when I moved to Charlotte, I didn’t have the ins and outs of the city in my head yet. I felt like friends from out of town who got lost. You’ve all gotten this phone call: “I’m lost!” I’d say, “Where are you?” “I dunno, let’s see, Queens Road.” I start to laugh. “Where on Queens Road? And, which Queens Road?” The response: “Well, there are big trees, big houses, and a church.”

For Christmas, Ashley got me a GPS. A pleasant female voice directs me turn-by-turn from here to there. It tells me the Speed Limit, it shows a map with my car right in the middle of it, it estimates what time I will arrive, it alerts me to traffic situations ahead and suggests alternate routes – it’s great.

Now, here’s the funny thing – never before have I been so willing to take directions from someone else in the car. Garmin says, “In 500 feet, turn right on Elm Street,” and I find myself saying, “OK! I will!” I have developed a sense of trust in this device to get me from here to there, to lead me through unfamiliar and uncharted territory, and to show me the way to get where I want to go.

All this got me thinking. In his evangelistic journeys, St. Paul had to trust God the same way I trust my GPS.

When we meet St. Paul in today’s text, he has his entire journey mapped out. He has put together a pretty aggressive strategy to take the Gospel to the cities of lower Asia Minor – what we would know as southern Turkey. St. Paul has been set apart with prayers and laying on of hands, and now he is spreading the Good News of the kingdom of God. He is preaching and teaching the way of Jesus with great success. He is introducing people to Jesus, and their lives are being changed because of it.

Before we go any further, this is a pretty good place to get some definitions in order. Evangelism is, quite simply, introducing people to Jesus. The Greek root of this word simply means “good news.” For various reasons, the terms “evangelism” and “evangelical” have gotten quite tarnished in our society. Some of that has to do with the methods of evangelism used by different groups – methods that seem to have no good news in them but are based on fear and intimidation, methods that are more like a sales pitch than about the kingdom of God, methods that care more about the number of conversions ratcheted up by the presenter than about the person with whom the so-called Gospel is being shared.

When I use the term “evangelism,” I mean none of these usages. Evangelism is simply, as one person has put it, “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Evangelism is announcing the reign of God. Evangelism is, first and foremost, about introducing people to Jesus.

By its very definition, the church is evangelical. The church is not only charged with proclaiming the message of Jesus in the world, the church is the physical presence of Jesus in the world. Think about that! We are charged with being the presence of Christ in the world! We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world! Our very existence is evangelical! God has commissioned the church to be the presence of Christ in the world, and poured out the Holy Spirit on us so that we can. The only reason we exist is to tell the good news of Jesus Christ, and to be the good news of Jesus Christ! We have no purpose other than that!

Evangelism and mission are like two sides of the same coin, and both are absolutely essential to the church’s existence. Evangelism and mission are not something the church does, they are what the church is. Mission is to the church what combustion is to fire. Evangelism is the church what wet is to water.

A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be evangelical! A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be absolutely obsessed with missions! A church named St. Paul has no choice but to be consumed with those who are, as of yet, outside our walls!

As we look at today’s text, several things jump out. First, Paul invested in Timothy. Paul arrived in Lystra, and he made a personal investment in the life of Timothy. Though he was young, he showed great promise, he was well-regarded by others in the church, and Paul invested in him.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a young man named Rob Lee. Rob is 17, a junior at Statesville High School, and the youngest certified lay-speaker in the Western North Carolina Conference. He has been preaching since he was 15. I am one of his mentors – I have made a personal investment in his life. I see the promise in his life, and I am making an investment in him because of the impact I know he will leave on the church. I hope that he makes a bigger mark on the world than I ever will – that will be the greatest sign of good mentoring on my part. You will all get a chance to hear him preach here on April 18.

Every Paul needs to seek out a Timothy. Every person needs to seek out someone to mentor, to nurture, to train, and to invest in. I am who I am today because of people who invested in me along the way; it is incumbent upon all of us to find someone to whom we can pass that along.

One of the curious parts of this text is when Paul is prevented from preaching in Asia. “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

Really? God didn’t want them to go and spread the message in certain parts of the world? What was up with that? Some have offered theories that God deliberately chose to neglect some parts of the world, but that’s not accurate. Some have said that God was powerless in those parts of the world – also inaccurate.

What’s going on here is that this particular travel itinerary was Paul’s, but not necessarily God’s. Going to these cities at this particular time was part of Paul’s plan, but not God’s. This can be one of the greatest frustration points in church life everywhere. At times, it seems we work away on plans and projects, but we keep hitting walls. When this happens, it’s because we are following our own plans before seeking God’s.

What did we learn last week? What statement should be over the door of every church? “IT’S NOT ABOUT ME!” It’s about God! So often, what we do in church work is begin to put our plans together and then ask God to bless them. Instead, what we need to do is take a step back and seek God’s will together. Sometimes we have to discern the places God is already at work or desires us to be at work, and then align our resources to be a part of that. Yes, God gives us abilities and faculties, and God expects us to cultivate those things to God’s glory. But t’s not about what we can do on our own, it’s about what God can do in and through us. It involves dedicating ourselves to God, and then asking God to put us to work wherever and however God chooses. When our work is aligned with God’s will, there is no limit to what we can do. But how do we figure out God’s will? How do we discern that? We need to have some dreams and visions, of course.

Paul had a vision. Having been prevented from taking his work to certain cities in Asia, he has a vision of a man in Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” If we are going to discover the will of God and then align our time and resources with it, we need to have some time to dream and have visions. We need to seek the presence of God, and we need to listen for the things God is telling us to do.

If any church is going to reach its potential, there need to be some people having God-sized dreams. We need to be devoted to prayer, to humbling ourselves in God’s presence, and to being open to what God has to say.

When people say certain things, it’s a sure sign that their dreams aren’t God-size, and their dreams shouldn’t be the ones dictating the future of the church. Listen for some of these: “We don’t have that kind of money.” The God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills doesn’t have a cash flow problem! If God gives us the vision to do it, God will provide the resources to see it through.

“That could mess up the building.” The building is a tool for ministry – it is not a monument to ourselves or previous generations. It is not a museum of religious artifacts – it is the place we use as our staging ground for the work to which God has called us in the world.

Years ago, Christ United Methodist Church outside Hickory prepared to move into the $2 million first phase of a new building. The Sunday they moved in, Charles Kyker began his sermon by walking out into the middle of the floor with a cup of coffee in his hand. He turned the cup upside down and dumped it onto the brand new floor. He looked around and said, “We’re not going to worry about stains in the carpet around here. We’re going to worry about the impact of God on people’s lives. This building is a tool, and if we have to use it up because people have encountered God and experienced change in their lives, that’s the price we’re willing to pay.” Since then, the worship attendance at Christ Church has grown from 150 to over 2000.

We have to seek God’s will. We have to humble ourselves in God’s presence. We have to seek God’s vision and discern what God is calling us to do. But then, we actually have to do it.

Having received a vision, Paul acted. Paul went to Macedonia. He set foot in Europe for the first time because God had called him to go. He didn’t say, “I’ve never done that before,” or “I can’t do that because we’ve always done it this way.” God told him to go, and he went. He didn’t sit still. He didn’t put a sign out front, and hope people would come in. He went. Wherever the people were, he went. I have been brought in to consult with struggling churches. One of the first things I ask about is their evangelism strategy. They say, “Well, we have that nice sign out front, and that lets the community know we’re here.” Friends, that used to be true, but it’s not anymore. Up until about fifty years ago, you could put up a building, put a sign out front designating it as a church of some denomination, and the Christians of that flavor would just show up.

It stopped working that way, if it ever really did, about fifty years ago. We can’t just sit here and hope people will come to us. The best signage and egress will not bring people to know Jesus through the ministry of this church. We have to get outside the walls and go to where the people are.

When Jesus called the first disciples, what did he call them to do, but to be fishers of men! Jesus calls his followers – then and now – to fish for people. Everything hinges on this. The building, the money, the programs, the committees – it’s all about making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Yet, how many churches have you seen and perhaps even been a part of that get this backward. Jesus calls us to be fishers of men, yet how many churches operate as if they are keepers of the aquarium? If they engage in mission and evangelism at all, it’s simply to take care of the institution they have built called church. You know how these conversations go. “We need to bring in more members so we can meet the budget.” “We need to engage in more mission projects so we can fill out an increase in missions on our year-end paperwork.” “We need to bring in more members so we can have leaders to run these tired old programs that don’t matter and that no one is interested in, yet no one has the guts to shoot and put out of their misery.”

I even know of some churches that treat missions and evangelism like optional, lowest priority programs at the end of the budget – the sort of things that we’ll support after all the other expenses are taken care of, if there’s anything left over. Those two things are essential to our very existence, those are our first priority! God wants you to invest in the things that matter. God promises to take care of those temporal institutional sort of things when we are willing to put our time and resources into the places where they really matter?” Seek first the kingdom of God, and then all these things shall be added unto you.

Friends, we are not called to be keepers of the aquarium; we are called to be fishers of men, women, and children! And yes, I understand that there are all sorts of things that keep the church from doing just that.

Sometimes we fail to do this because of fear. Sometimes the church, as an institution, is set up to operate for maintenance and not mission. Sometimes we make church more about us than about God. Sometimes our feet are headed in the wrong direction. Sometimes we are prideful and lack concern for other people. Sometimes we love all the vain things that charm us most, and fail to discern God at work.

Yet, for a church named St. Paul, this is not an option. St. Paul was the early church’s greatest missionary and evangelist; the Spirit of God worked within him to move beyond himself out into the world. For a church named St. Paul, if we want to embody the spirit of the man for whom we are named, we have no choice but to reach beyond ourselves with the same missionary zeal. Jesus’ primary mission was to seek and save that which was lost, St. Paul’s primary mission was to spread the light of Jesus in the world; in light of this, our mission could not be clearer. We are not here for ourselves – we are here to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world around us.

We are called to evangelism. We are called to share the love of God in Christ with the world around us. So here’s your challenge. Two weeks from today is Easter Sunday. Easter is the central hope of our Christian faith, everything we do, everything we are hangs on Easter. Easter is the most important day in the church’s calendar. It is the day of our greatest hope, and on Easter Sunday, our worship service will proclaim the hope that we experience through Christ’s resurrection.

But, since we are called to evangelism and to share the good news with the world, on Easter Sunday, your challenge is to bring someone with you. Whatever the worship attendance is today, I expect it to be at least double on Easter Sunday. On Easter Sunday, every one bring one.

Think of one person you would like to bring with you on Easter Sunday. Begin praying for that person and then next week, we will have some invitation cards prepared for each of you to take to the person you’re inviting. The same cards will be mailed to homes in our immediate neighborhood. Begin praying for the person you will invite, take a card next week, hold that card, pray for the person’s heart to be open, and then hand deliver the invitation to them before Easter Sunday.

St. Paul experienced God, and his life was transformed. He was set apart for a great work, and became a great missionary and evangelist, making deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ wherever he went.

In 1948, a group of believers organized this congregation as St. Paul United Methodist Church. I pray that the same spirit of zeal for those outside ourselves will consume us, and we will be obsessed with spreading the love of God, being the hands and feet of Christ, and that we will continually see the Holy Spirit poured out upon us and upon the world in which we serve.

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