Joy in the City
In Acts 8:1-8 we get a glimpse into the marks of an effective gospel ministry. This word is at the very heart of the mission of DCC to build a great city, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God. This passage touches on why we are doing, what we are doing. If we do it well, there will be much joy in this city (vs.8)
This morning we find ourselves in Acts 8:1-8. This is a particularly helpful, clarifying and insightful section for us as a newly forming church in the heart of downtown Seattle. It was exactly one year ago today that we soft-launched in what we affectionately called the “underground bunker”. In reality, it was a 100+ year old vacated antique mall located half-way underground, next to the world-famous Seattle Underground Tour. We used that season to prepare for our official launch, marking our birth as a church, last April.
Now, we find ourselves in a new year, with many new people and many new opportunities. One of the dangers that we face (and this will always be the case) is vision drift, also known as mission creep. What is that? Vision drift is failing to keep the main thing, the main thing. Being in the city there are so many opportunities to do many great things it is easy to get distracted from the main thing: spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ for the glory of God. In God’s providence this morning we’re in a section that deals with the essence of why we’re doing what we’re doing. My prayer is that this will refocus our efforts and energies in this new year.
Last week we met Stephen, one of seven men (likely the first deacons) appointed by the Apostles to help sort out issues related to the daily distribution among the widows of the church community (Acts 6:1-7). It turns out he was a dynamic communicator of the gospel and worker of miracles in Jesus’ name. This eventually got him in trouble with the ruling Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. In short order, he was falsely accused, falsely arrested, falsely tried and ultimately killed by stoning. Stephen became the first martyr for Jesus.
We pick up the story this week. Stephen’s death sparked a city-wide persecution against the young Christian church, led by Saul (who will become the Apostle Paul in Acts 9). Saul tried to kill the church by killing and imprisoning those belonging to the church. The intense persecution forced the church to scatter (literally, thousands of people) into Judea and Samaria, thus also scattering the gospel. This is significant and marks a decisive turning point in Acts (cf Acts 1:8). The story then shifts from Stephen to Philip, another one of the seven (Acts 6:5) who takes the gospel to Samaria, likely the capital city, located 35 miles north of Jerusalem. There he proclaims the gospel, heals the sick, and casts out demonic spirits. The city, of course, is radically transformed and we’re told “there was much joy in that city.” (8:8)
What can we learn from all of this? Historians and sociologists have long debated how Christianity spread so rapidly, sweeping through the Roman empire without military force, power or coercion. We get insight into how that happened in this section. This is incredibly helpful for us as we seek to see the same thing happen in Seattle, and by God’s grace, many other cities of the world. Here we have five marks of effective gospel ministry. Let’s look at each one:
#1 Movement of Missionaries
After Pentecost, the early church exploded in Jerusalem going from 120 to well over 10,000. It was a big church, with lots of resources and (we can assume) great Apostolic teaching. Yet, persecution hits and the church – and the gospel – is scattered. Acts 8:4 says “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” The word of preaching here is not what we typically envision “preaching” to be. It literally means to be a “bringer of good news”. God used this trial to turn the church into a movement of missionaries, “bringers of good news”.
God is a personal, loving, gracious God who invites us to know him, experience His forgiveness and life as it was intended to be. But, God doesn’t just call us in – he also sends us out. To Abraham he said, “I will bless you and make your name great”…but, in the same sentence he says “so that you will be a blessing”. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. “God never calls you radically in w/out sending you radically out” (Keller).
God wants His people, the church, to be movement of missionaries, not a monument or museum. There is an inertia to stagnation and mediocrity in all of our lives, individually and collectively. It says, “I’m OK. You OK? Let’s take care of one another…forget world.” The result is inevitably an ingrown people that results in death. Unfortunately, some churches call this “Discipleship”. But, there is no godliness without God-likeness and our God is definitively a missional God.
One of the beautiful things here is that there is no Apostolic evangelism strategy; just ordinary believers sharing gospel wherever they went. Everyone owns the mission. Everyone is participating. Everyone is initiating. This is a HUGE part of what God is callingDCC to be in Seattle: a movement of missionaries.
Amidst the persecution, notice where Philip decides to go – to a city. He could easily have chosen to run to the desert or suburbs of Jerusalem, but he doesn’t. Did you know that almost everything in Acts happens in a city? Nearly the entire book is about Christians in cities. In fact, almost every Christian we meet in the New Testament is a city-dweller. The entire history of the early church unfolds in cities. God is an urban strategist who, throughout the Bible and history, repeatedly sends people to cities. Why such a focus on cities?
Let’s look at six reasons:
1. First, the best way to reach a nation/province/area was to reach the key cities in that nation/province/area.
2. Second, the best way to reach the culture was to reach the cities.
3. Third, country/village/town/suburb people tend to be more conservative and set in their ways, unwilling to move. City-people, on the other hand, are more open to new ideas, discussion and debating – allowing for the best, most radical hearing of the gospel.
4. Fourth, country/village/town/suburb people tend to stay put and don’t move. City-people, on the other hand, tend to move often, helping further spread the gospel.
5. Fifth, country/village/town/suburb people tend to live further apart. City-people tend to live closer together, allowing more opportunities for relationship and gospel-sharing.
6. Sixth, villages/towns/suburbs tend to be more homogenous (same type of people), while cities are more diverse – providing an opportunity to reach more people.
It would have been easy for Philip, and the rest of the scattered church, to keep the gospel to themselves in order to avoid further persecution. But, what did they do? They preached and proclaimed it. There are five references to this in chapter eight alone. Luke, the author of Acts, is careful to point out that what Philip proclaimed was not “be a good person” but “Christ” (vs5). This is significant. The Bible is not merely about various things to do and believe, but primarily about the person and work of Jesus Christ – and forgiveness of sin, salvation, and life with God forever.
Yet, Philip’s work was not restricted to words alone. His ministry also included many works. We’re told that “crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.” (vs6) This makes sense. Others will be more willing to listen to our words of God’s love in the gospel, if they see our works of love in the city. The old saying is true, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. God’s people give their local context tastes of the grace of God by demonstrating that grace in helpful, tangible ways.
The fifth mark of effective gospel ministry is reconciliation. The Jews and Samaritans hated one another. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as half-breeds, heretics, and unclean outsiders. Jews viewed them with deep suspicion and hostility. One of the most remarkable things we see in this short section is that Philip breaks right though hundreds of years of racial and social taboos for the sake of the gospel. True reconciliation is birthed from and empowered by the gospel. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2Cor5:18)
Cities attract those who feel inferior everywhere else (poor, destitute, minorities, marginalized, etc). Why? Because they don’t feel like a freak here because they’re surrounded by people just like them. At the same time, cities also attract those who feel superior to others because of the jobs, influence, wealth, and opportunities that cities provide. At DCC we talk about these groups as the “avenues” and “alleyways”.
Only the Gospel works on your inferiority and superiority, it is the ultimate reconciler. The gospel says to the “avenues” that “You are a sinner, a spiritual loser, spiritually homeless and lost…you can only be saved by the grace of God.” That message destroys any sense of superiority.
But, the gospel says to the “alley-ways”, that “Jesus – Son of GOD! – came and give himself for you…” That message destroys any sense of inferiority. When you’re superiority is crushed and your inferiority is removed – then, you can truly reach out in freedom. The Gospel says to Christians, “How dare you feel superior to anyone? When you were a spiritual freak, Jesus came for you.”
That is great news. It is crucial for Christian church, especially in cities where there is so much diversity (racial, social, cultural). The Gospel destroys our superiority and inferiority. In so doing it brings people together as family who, outside of Christ, would never even know one anothers names.
FIVE MARKS OF EFFECTIVE GOSPEL MINISTRY:
Missionary movement + City-focused + Gospel-declaring + Gospel-displaying + Reconciling people. This is at the very heart of the mission of DCC. If you’re new, you need to know that. This is why we are doing, what we are doing. Our mission is to build a great city, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God. If we do this well, do you know what the result will be? There will be much joy in this city (vs.8). This is not talking about a few happy people. No. Joy swept through the city like a tidal wave.
Our example and power behind all of this is Jesus himself. Jesus came as a MISSIONARYto seek and save the lost, He was the ultimate PROVIDER and anti-consumer, giving himself up to death. Though born in the country, his ministry met its climax in the CITY of Jerusalem. He came DECLARING the good news that forgiveness of sin and life w/ God is found in him. He DISPLAYED this good news thru healing, signs, wonders and ultimately – by his death on the cross.
Achieved the greatest act of RECONCILIATION the universe has ever known, reconciling God and man. TRUST HIM AFRESH TODAY for forgiveness, life, joy…and ENTER INTOhis unfolding story.