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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Spirit-Filled Church: Bold (Acts 17:22-31)

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the place where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are his offspring.’

Since we too are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius and Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Throughout this Easter season, which stretches all the way from Easter Sunday until Pentecost Sunday, we are in a worship series on “The Spirit-Filled Church.” Each week, we are looking at a different glimpse of the early Church as recorded in the book of Acts, noticing how the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit, and realizing that, in our day and time, we are called to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as well.

It is imperative that the Church be filled with the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, we can never fully live into God’s intended desire for the kind of community we can be and the kinds of things we can do. We human beings are clever and hard-working, and we can do an awful lot, but without the Holy Spirit, we will always fall short. Every time you walk in this sanctuary, you are greeted by a visual reminder of the enduring presence and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit; do you remember where it is? The red banner on the east wall. The dove is one of the most universally recognized symbols of the Holy Spirit; and red reminds us of fire, another way the Holy Spirit has shown up.

Each week, we have looked at a different aspect of the Spirit-filled church. Two weeks ago, from Acts 2, we understood this: In the Spirit-filled Church, we are unified. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, all of Christ’s followers are made one with each other. Last week, from Acts 7, we understood that the Spirit-filled Church is called to be prophetic: to see things as they are, see things as God intends, and draw attention to the distance between the two. Today, we build on that: the Spirit-filled Church is called to be bold. May we pray.

I have a confession to make to you this morning. I’m not exactly sure how to tell you this, but figured you all probably need to know. Are you ready? All right, here goes. I enjoy watching Star Trek. There, I said it! I’ll give you just a moment to let that sink in. I enjoy watching Star Trek. Now, I’m not a trekkie. I’ve never been to a convention, I’ve never dressed up in a Starfleet uniform, I don’t know the name and production date of episodes, but if it’s late at night and I’m flipping through the channels, I may just watch Star Trek. Anyone else here want to own up to that?

During the opening credits of every show, you will hear these words: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, it’s continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

To boldly go where no one has gone before – that’s the part that hooks me. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Boldly going, setting out on a new journey, following the adventure wherever it leads us, not knowing what we’ll encounter, who we’ll meet, or what will ultimately happen to us, but trusting that the journey is good because the mission is right, trusting that the journey will take us, because the mission will lead us there.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Doesn’t that sound like what church should really be about? Boldly going, setting out on a new journey, following the Holy Spirit wherever it leads us, not knowing what we’ll encounter, who we’ll meet, but trusting that the journey is good because the Holy Spirit is leading us.

If all that could happen on a TV show, why not in real life? If they could boldly go where no one has gone before, why can’t the church? If they were so clear and excited about boldness being a part of their mission, why can’t we be excited and clear and bold about God’s mission? And then it occurred to me – that’s nothing new for the church. That’s part of who we’ve been from the very beginning.

In our today’s Scripture, we catch up with St. Paul on his mission. He has been all over the Mediterranean world, preaching, establishing churches, constantly, boldly sharing the good news of God in Christ.

Some religious folks in every town disliked him. He was changing old customs and teaching new things. He told them their made-up rules didn’t really matter to God! Nearly every town Paul went to, he was run out. Religious leaders in the cities of Thessalonica and Beroea stirred up the people and incited a riot, and Paul was forced to leave. He sent word for his friends, Silas and Timothy to meet him in Athens, and there, he waited.

His time in Athens was supposed to be a little downtime, a little R&R. His first morning there, he slept late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, and then was off with his Lonely Planet travel guide to see the sights and take in all the cultural and historical richness of this great city.

Everywhere he went, he saw altars and shrines to many gods. We know the Greeks & Romans worshipped a variety of gods, but they also picked up gods everywhere they went. They were deeply respectful of the gods worshiped in other places by other people, and would set up altars and shrines to them, as well. In fact, not wanting to leave anyone out, they even set up an altar to “an unknown god.” Just in case there was some god out there, somewhere, whose name they had never heard, they wanted to show respect to that god, too.

Like any good preacher, Paul saw the opportunity for a sermon and took it. When Paul, the apostle, the missionary, the evangelist, shared the Gospel with the people of Athens, he began with a compliment. He was sharing the Gospel with nonbelievers – he didn’t begin with an insult, by assuming they were stupid, by assuming they were somehow broken and in need of fixing. Paul starts by establishing common ground. Looking around at all the altars, he realizes that people are searching. They haven’t built these altars just for grins; they’ve built them because they’re trying to connect with the divine. And so many altars, so many shrines in one city – these people are definitely trying to connect with something beyond themselves!

And I’d argue that people today aren’t so different. People are searching for a connection with something larger than themselves. People are reaching for an experience of the divine, but we continue to reach for gods made with human hands. Some express their search in their automobile shrine, others in their excessive home, some in their bank accounts, some in experiences, some in drugs, some in sports teams – there are still lots of false gods out there vying for our attention, but their very existence and our religious devotion to them indicates that the search for the divine, the search for something beyond ourselves, is still alive and well.

Philosophers and theologians have had various ways of expressing this concept, often referred to as the God-shaped hole in every person’s heart. I think of it like the little shape ball I played with as a kid, trying to fit those yellow shapes into the various holes. You can try to cram all sorts of things in there, but there is only one thing that can fill the God-shaped hole in each of us – God. None of the false gods will do. As long as we keep trying to put the wrong thing in there, we remain empty inside.

Paul knew that the people were searching. He could tell, just from the prolific number of altars and shrines that peppered the city, that they were devout, religious, seeking people – people who were looking for a connection with the divine, people who were looking to be part of something that much larger than themselves. And Paul, rather than saying, “Hey idiots, that’s the wrong thing!” Patiently, Paul says, “You’ve been searching. You’ve been looking a long time – look at all these attempts you’ve made at connecting with the divine!” Referencing the altar to an unknown God, Paul says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Paul tells them what they’ve been looking for is the one, true God.

Slowly, patiently, Paul continues to build common ground with his audience. Knowing them to be intellectually curious, he quotes Greek philosophers and makes Aristotelian arguments, slowly building bridges, establishing common ground, helping folks to recognize that they are all searching for the same thing.

Some have said that Paul had the gift of gab. Did you know that I have sometimes been labeled as having the gift of gab? Hard to believe, but it’s true. When I was three, my dad’s district superintendent came to worship and then was coming to Sunday lunch at our house. At the age of three, I climbed into his passenger seat and gave him turn-by-turn directions for the five-mile trip from the church to the house, while having a conversation with him about the paint color of his car, why he chose that color paint, and letting him know about the process by which cars are painted, which I had watched that week on some educational show.

Even at that age, my mom knew I was going to be one of four things when I grew up – a lawyer, a salesman, a politician, or a preacher. Her reasoning is that all four professions rely on a pretty interchangeable skill set. The product may be different, but the same basic skills are required. Most basic? The gift of gab.

Some have said that Paul had the gift of gab, and that is what gave him the ability to share the Gospel with his audience in Athens. But, you know that it was more than that. Paul had the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is what enabled him to share so boldly. Yes, Paul understood his mission, he understood it with clarity and conviction, but that didn’t come from himself. It came from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave him boldness in sticking to his God-given mission, to share God’s good news in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Can I let you in on a secret? The mission hasn’t changed. When Star Trek: The Next Generation started, its mission was exactly the same as the original Star Trek. Likewise, the church’s mission is still the same today as it was in the day of the apostle Paul – with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to boldly go wherever there are people, to share God’s love and presence with them, to invite them to experience new life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

That’s the point of church. That’s why we exist. The apostle Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he was bold in sharing God’s good news. Likewise, when the church today is filled with the Holy Spirit, we are also bold in sharing that same good news.

We exist to be in mission. The church doesn’t do missions. The church doesn’t have a mission program. The church doesn’t give to missions. We don’t do any of that for one simple reason: the church is mission! The church is God’s gift to the world to boldly share the good news, to hear the message of a God who loved the world so much that he willingly took on human flesh, became one of us, and lived among us in order to reconcile us to God. Mission, sharing, reaching, giving, offering ourselves, that’s the whole point. We exist to be in mission. We exist as missions. Mission is to Church as combustion is to fire. Take away combustion, and you don’t have fire. Likewise, take away mission, and you don’t have church!

As we spend these weeks leading up to Mission Awareness Sunday on June 12, we are reminded that our sole reason for existence is to be in mission! I am so thankful to Rob Neill and our Mission team who constantly keep this in front of us and remind us what our primary purpose as a church is.

The church is on a mission. The Spirit-filled church is on a mission – to boldly go. To boldly get beyond ourselves, to boldly get beyond what is comfortable, to boldly get beyond what is familiar – to boldly go wherever the Spirit leads us to share God’s love. When that happens, that’s the church truly being the Church! It’s the church as God intends, it’s the Church as Jesus desires, it’s the Church the Holy Spirit inspires – it’s the Church of St. Paul in Athens so long ago, and it’s the Church of St. Paul in Sedgefield today.

The Spirit-filled Church is on a mission – to boldly go. Being the Church, authentically following Jesus, is supposed to be active! Church is not what happens in a building for an hour on Sunday morning. That’s called “going to church” not “being the church.” “Going to church” is a passive activity. You can “go to church” your whole life without ever knowing God, following Jesus, or having your heart filled with the Holy Spirit.

However, “being the church,” well, that’s active. “Going to church” is something you can do for an hour a week, passively sitting here. But “being the Church?” That’s something that will take the sacrificial commitment of your whole self, it will take courage, it will take bravery, it will take boldness. Being the Church requires us to boldly go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us, radically and sacrificially following in the way of Jesus, giving of ourselves to bring the world back to God. That’s what Jesus did! And for those who follow Jesus, we are called to nothing less. If you’re going to be a Christian, you’ve got to be bold.

God wants us to do more than simply “go to church.” Far too many Christians are settling for staying in the pew instead of getting into mission. You know what the pew is? It’s a bench! And if all we’re doing is warming the pew, then we’re simply warming the bench. That’s not standing on the promises, it’s simply sitting on the premises! Church is active – we are called to get off the bench and get in the game.

I don’t know about you, but I’m done “going to church.” I want to “be the church.” I don’t want to just take up space for an hour a week; I want to be part of the living, breathing, moving, body of Christ – a body with real hands and feet, a body who represents Christ in the world, a body who is serious and bold about doing the things God wants us to do.

Don’t get me wrong – what we do on Sunday when we gather for worship is still vitally important. I don’t want anyone, for one second, to think that what happens as we worship together is unimportant.

When we worship, we gather to give God the glory God is due, making God a priority and at the center of all we do. Worship is a celebration. A celebration of what God has done as told through Scripture and song, and in the lives of saints long ago and saints sitting next to us. Worship is a time to be equipped. It’s a time for disciples to gather, to be taught, to be nurtured, to be challenged, to be equipped for faithful living in the world. And, worship is a time to encourage each other in our never-ending, continually unfolding journey of becoming Christlike people in the world.

But for the church, for the Spirit-filled Church, sitting on the pew isn’t the main event. We are most fully the Church when we boldly go; just warming the bench for a hour a week won’t do it! The Church is most fully the Church when we can boldly say, “Jesus has left the building!” The Church is most fully the Church when we can boldly say, “Church has left the building!” Being the true, authentic, Spirit-filled Church requires us to be bold.

These are the voyages of the Spirit-filled Church: it’s continuing mission to share God’s presence and invite people into new life, to seek out and save the lost, to boldly go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us to go.

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