The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Text: Acts 17:16-31
Dear Friends in Christ,
We live at a time where there is a great deal of controversy about evangelism. We have great divisions, that pierce to the very heart of the faith, as to how we are supposed to proclaim Christ to a dying world. No place do we find a better exposition on the nature of evangelism and mission work than in the16th and 17th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Here we see how mission work is filled with success and failure, as well as conflict and violence. The thing that this chapter makes clear in no uncertain terms, is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an offense to our sin filled world.
Our story really begins in chapter 16: “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to 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. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:6-10) This passage tells us several things. Paul had one plan and God had another. He saw the mission field in the province of Asia being ripe for the harvest. But God said, no, not there. The other point is rather incidental, but I will point out nonetheless. Notice that the pronouns shift in the middle of the passage. From this we see that Luke, the author of Acts, joined Paul’s party in the city of Troas. From here they went to Philippi where they made some converts but also were at the center of riot and were thrown in jail. Then they went to Thessaoinica. The story repeats itself. The majority of the jew reject Paul’s message and stir up the crowds to run them out of town. About this time, one has to wonder what Paul and his companions are thinking. God, are you sure this was what you wanted us to do? Then they went to Berea where we read a most interesting passage, indeed: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) Ah, finally, success. Paul and his companions can get on to building up their megachurch. This must be what God had in mind. But no, Jews from Thessalonica came over and stirred up trouble. They were afraid for Paul’s life. So the church made a fateful decision. For his own safety, Paul had to go. So Silas and Timothy stayed behind to quickly finish the work that they had started. Some other men escorted Paul from Berea to Athens. You get the impression that this was almost like a kidnaping - that Paul wasn’t given much choice in the matter.
Paul was probably told to lay low in Athens until Timothy and Silas could join him. But no, Paul couldn’t shut his mouth. He immediately interrupts his vacation by telling people about Jesus. Soon he was preaching on Mars Hill to all the philosophers of Athens. But in the end he only made a few converts. From there he went to Corinth and once again was arrested. This time, however, he was brought before the provincial governor, one Lucius Junius Gallio - no relation to the wine makers. Gallio is the brother of the philosopher Annaeus Seneca. The reference to Gallio places Paul in Corinth in 52 A.D. about 18 years after his dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.
On the surface, Paul’s work in Macedonia and Greece appears to be a failure. He won few converts and was run out of nearly every town. This appeared to be hard soil indeed for planting the seed of the Gospel. But three very important things happened. First, Paul brought his message to the most learned men of Athens. Though many rejected it, the idea was planted among them. They would continue to discuss this new idea. Paul’s greatest success came in Corinth, though the congregation was plagued by internal troubles from the start. But Corinth was one of the busiest sea ports in the world at that time. Any idea that was present in Corinth would quickly spread throughout the Roman world and beyond. Finally, Paul, by speaking to Gallio, penetrated the highest circles of Roman society and government.
We have been entrusted by God with a great treasure. We have been given, as a free gift, the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the light and peace of heaven. This was done for us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ when He died on the cross. This gift was sealed and certified by the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so we too will we rise in our body to life with Christ. It is God’s desire that all men come to faith and be saved. God also tells us that many will reject that message. What seems most offensive to people is the “resurrection of the body.” Christianity is unique in this teaching. Most religions that teach an afterlife, teach that only the soul or spirit lives on. This is what offended the philosophers of Athens. Because, like many people today, they believed that all things physical are bad. We as Christians, assert with St. Paul that God made the entire material universe. In Christ, God saved all men from sin and death. And God, in Christ, raises us bodily from the dead. As we share this, probably ten people will reject it for every one that believes it. Many of those who reject God’s teaching of life will become angry that we teach this. They will speak against us, or in some cases perhaps even seek to harm us. We must remember what happened to St. Paul. The same will happen to us. And remember the ratio that I gave - ten to one. We must remember that the Gospel is the most offensive message in the history of the world. Far more people reject it than believe it. We have some in our synod who think that they can package and soft peddle the gospel in such a way that it does not offend. This is foolishness. Only a Gospel that offends can save. Because it is the very idea that we are sinners in need of a savior in the first place that the world rejects. It is the very idea that God would save us that the world rejects. It is the very idea that the dead rise that the world rejects. So it is the very heart of our message that offends the world. If you make the message unoffensive, you also gut it of all Christian content.
St. Paul probably would have had more earthly success and have worked more peacefully in Asia. God had other ideas. God wanted the Gospel proclaimed in Macedonia and Greece. For from there, and those handful of converts, the Word would travel all over the world. From the head in the clouds philosophers of Athens and the debauched sailors and merchants of Corinth, that offending Gospel would spread. Many would hear and reject God’s saving words. But others, would come to faith in Christ and be saved. So it was then, thus it is also today. We offend to save. There is no way around this. For the very idea of God dying for the sins of the world is the most terribly offensive message ever uttered - and the most beautiful.