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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ is never easy. After hearing a sermon on evangelism, one family felt so moved that they decided they would witness to Jesus and invite their non-churching going neighbors over for dinner. When it came to the meal, the committed family was keen to show their neighbors that they upheld Christian standards, so the mother asked their little 5-year-old son to say grace. The boy was a bit shy. Mumbling, he sighed, “I don’t know what to say.” There was an awkward pause, followed by a reassuring smile from the boy’s mother. “Well darling,” she said, “Just say what Daddy said at breakfast this morning.” And so the guests around the table bowed their heads and listened to the earnest words of the little boy echoing the thoughts of his father, “Dear Lord, why on earth did we invite these people to dinner?”
Even the late American evangelist Billy Graham had difficulty at times. Dr. Graham once told about the time while visiting in a small town when he asked a boy on the street how to get to the post office. After getting directions, Mr. Graham invited the boy to come to his Crusade that evening. “You can hear me telling everyone how to get to heaven,” he told the boy. The boy’s response? “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know your way to the post office.”
Lutherans are notorious for their faltering attempts at evangelism. Among pastors it is said, “What do you get when you cross the Lutheran evangelism committee with a door to door salesman?” A person who knocks on doors and hopes no one answers. So it’s hard for us to understand how Paul and Barnabas would take the mission of the church so seriously that they would risk life and limb for the sake of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. And yet it is this first missionary journey that continues to inspire and challenge the church today.
This morning let me share with you the qualities of healthy believers who do understand Paul and Barnabas’ commitment and the power of the gospel. First, they have a compassion for those around them and they feel their pain. They are not merely sympathizers: they are doers. And they believe that the good news of Jesus’ life and resurrection gives meaning and hope. Second, healthy followers of Christ have a sense of urgency to share the good news, and so they pray and support men and women who proclaim the gospel. And third, vital, healthy believers willingly become the workers who Jesus calls them to be- even when facing persecution.
One question often asked by Christians today is “Why do we need to share the gospel at all?” Or “Why should we send people out to preach the gospel to other nations and cultures?” More often than not, the question is asked in a slightly more negative way. “Do we have the right to go into other cultures and tell them they’re worshiping in the wrong way?” It’s easy to give in to these sorts of pressures. People will try to tone down the message and turn the gospel into nothing more than one’s personal opinion. Then they’ll try to make you feel guilty for foisting your opinions on others when others’ opinions are just as valid. But what we believe is that the gospel isn’t just our opinion. This is the message that God has sent to his people; to those whom he’s created, to give them life.
Paul and Barnabas were inspired by the life of Jesus. In Scripture, we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” When Jesus looked out on the crowds of the people around him, he was moved with pity; he was moved with empathy; he was moved with deep feelings for all those people around him. This should tell us something about the nature of God’s people, the church, as well. We are to be a people who look at the people around us, and our hearts are moved. If our hearts are not, there is something tragically wrong. Our response to such pain is to tell the story of the one who experienced similar pain himself-Jesus.
Paul and Barnabas knew that as they shared the good news in Antioch Psidia. “Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by Jesus everyone who believes is set free from their sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Paul and Barnabas were showing such compassion for their neighbor that they dared to share the good news. And they inspired others to do the same.
Unfortunately, not all of God’s followers recognize that need. Jesus taught his followers that there are many good attributes that we can admire in others – compassion, concern, wisdom, and understanding. But these attributes are meaningless if they are not coupled with dependability. In times of trouble when we really need a friend, what help is compassion and concern if the friend is not nearby or fails to honor a promise or commitment? It may often be dismissed in hiring interviews, but one of the greatest human qualities is dependability. If, when people think of you in later years, and they can say, “He was dependable or she was reliable,” they will be paying you a mighty compliment. Reliability and dependability go hand in hand with the saying of the stoic Norwegian workers of my childhood, “Say little and do much.” The same should be true of religious communities, especially the church.
My friends, you cannot grow in faith and commitment without seeing the precious potential and possibility of the crowds around you and showing compassion-in deeds. Not cynicism. Not indifference. Not now. “I’m too busy.” Or worse yet, the gospel of Jesus is just my opinion. Healthy believers have compassion for the crowds- and that means sharing the gospel.
The second characteristic of healthy believers is prayer and support for the men and women who proclaim the gospel. Compassionate believers are often people of deep prayer. Their faith moves them beyond words to actions, and there is an urgency to their work. Scripture says that Jesus saw the needs of the crowds. Paul and Barnabas recognized this need as well, but they also recognized that there was an urgency to the gospel. They lived in a time when people believed that Christ was coming soon, and that when he came he would draw all believers to himself to enjoy eternal life together. Those early believers might be surprised by Christ’s delay, but they would understand that it was God’s loving commitment to bringing every nation to him. For Paul and Barnabas, there was a true urgency. Sharing the gospel was a matter of eternal life and death.
Bishop Henry Whipple, the 19th century missionary to the Native Americans simply said, “As the grave grows near, my theology is growing strangely simple, and it begins and ends with Christ as the only refuge for the lost.” Friends, mission and evangelism is all about Jesus.
Jesus taught that God’s spirit lives in us and we live in him because at the heart of the Christian life is prayer. And so we pray. And specifically, we pray that God would lead us to other people who are in need. We pray for ourselves that we would be willing. You can’t do God’s work without prayer for others, yourself and your church. It won’t work. For a vibrant, growing believer, it all begins with prayer.
Finally, healthy believers trust that God sends them out as workers, but there may be persecution and ridicule along the way. As Paul and Barnabas travelled back to Antioch, they visited the fledgling Christian communities they had established, praying with them, and warning them, that, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.”
My friends, God’s harvest may be plentiful, but it isn’t easy, and it may be messy. There will always be storms. There will be wars and injustice. There will be divorces and families falling apart. There will always be poor families living down the street, with not enough money and emotional resources to make it. And what will be your response to this pain and devastation at the harvest, far and near?
Throughout history, churches have been blind to their own need to have a change of heart about doing his work and even telling the story of God’s love in Jesus. Paul and Barnabas modelled the life of workers in the kingdom of God for us. And yet, we too may need to experience a change of heart, and a change of perspective. Jesus comes time and again and invites you and me to experience that change so that we can be the willing workers he longs for to proclaim the good news to people in need.
Indira Gandhi, the assassinated leader of India, said, “My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was less competition there.” A change of heart, my friends, begins with you and your answer to God’s invitation to proclaim the name of Jesus. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.