Break Down Barriers
Series: Now Is The Time
“Now is the Time… For Breaking Down Barriers”
Message @ Jericho Ridge Community Church – Sunday, January 8, 2012
Text: Acts 15:1-35 // Series: “Now Is the Time”
I have a confession to make this morning – and many of you who know me well will already know this about me… I am not always great a finishing what I start! I know, it’s hard to believe. But ask my wife, Meg. I start cooking something, but I get distracted and then the kitchen is a mess. I start watching a show, get enamored with what might be on another channel and then never end up watching the whole 30 minutes of anything. And sometimes, that same kind of function can happen in preaching as well. For example, in 2009, we started teaching through the book of Acts with a series entitled “We Are All Witnesses”. But did we finish it? No. We got halfway through and then we moved on to a series in Philippians that fall. But you should all be very thankful for Pastor Keith. Because when Keith gets into a project, he is tenacious and focused and he writes it down so that he can remember it later. So I was not surprised when we were at one of our times away for prayer and planning, and he pulled out a sheet of paper and asked very casually “so, when are we going to finish the book of Acts?” Now, the first half of the book of Acts focuses on mission in a mainly mono-cultural environment: Jewish Jerusalem in the early first century AD. But God’s intent, His heart was always for multi-cultural mission. This week I was reading in Matthew and Psalms in our Momentum Journal reading as I was struck but how frequently God talks about what he is doing among the nations of the world.
That’s why one of our core values here at JRCC is Glocal Service. It’s why we have a team going to Guatemala in March to distribute wheelchairs. It’s why the Andrew & Colleen are flying back to Nepal this month. It’s why Steph is working with a team in South Asia. It’s why we have Junghoon and Pearl working at Bible translation and literacy development in South East Asia. That’s why the Lungs are headed to Asia in February for a vision trip to see where God is leading them to serve as long term workers with MB Mission. It’s why Lindsey Schacter is in Haiti right now leading a team ministering to victims of the earthquake 2 years ago. It’s why Gary is in India right now leading a team working among Muslims. It’s why Peter Ash is working in Tanzania for justice for children and people with Albinism… Because this is a place and we are people that share God’s heart for global mission. There is a collective sense that this is a strategic time for us to partner with God in His work in the world, hence the title of the January and February teaching series: “Now is the Time”. You can see the fishing imagery associated with Jesus’ words to his first followers in Mark 1:17 "Come with me. I'll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I'll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.".
But as we celebrate all of the global casting of the net of the gospel out, what we can fail to remember sometimes is that our culture, too, is in desperate need of gospel witness. We too are called to be actively fishing for people. The principles we apply for cross cultural work in all of these places are very pertinent to our work, to your life and your mission, right here in Surrey-Langley. Because I would suggest to you that in our day and time, any conversation about the gospel and the saving message of Jesus, is a cross-cultural conversation! In our world today, when Danny Ferguson and the team from Youth For Christ speaks to a student up at RE Mountain High School and offers them hot chocolate and a listening ear, that is a cross cultural foray! When we budget for staff dollars for Mike Olynyk and he spends time not merely with church kids but up at Walnut Grove High School, that is a cross cultural encounter. In the small neighbourhood where we live, we are aware of 9 different languages spoken as month tongues. So right here in Willoughby when we talk to people about Jesus or church or faith, it is a cross-cultural encounter. And this is why I am excited about the second half of the book of Acts. Because it is FULL of examples and opportunities for us to learn about the dynamics of cross-cultural mission not only globally, but also right here in our families and workplaces and schools and backyards.
So, let me give you a little preview of what we are going to learn as we move through the second half of the book of Acts in January & February:
- The challenges & joys of cross cultural mission – the people- reaching business is tough. It is in our day, it was in the first century. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But when your life has been transformed by Jesus, there is a joy and sweetness that can’t be replicated but certainly needs to be shared. Challenges & joys.
- The urgency of mission – can I share with you that some of what drives this series and what keeps me up at night is a nagging sense that we have lost some of the passion and urgency and laser-sharp focus on reaching lost people for Jesus that I felt characterized us as a church when we started in the high school cafeteria 7.5 years ago. Now is the time to take a blow-torch to this value and re-heat it.
- A focus on declaration, not solely on decision – I’ll explain more about this as we go through the series but for now, don’t hear what I am not saying. This certainly doesn’t minimize the importance of decision, when it comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ, but it shifts the nature of our role & metrics. We are declarers and embodiers of Jesus’ message, not arm-twisters or technique masters. The focus in Acts in on Spirit-led conversations not dumping pre-fabricated content on people. That’s why this next one is important. We’ll see:
- How to share your story – I have to be honest with you, this one scares me a bit, but our dream is for everyone vitally connected with JRCC to share a short story of what God is doing in your life at least 3 times in 2012. We’re going to help you with this one – there will be training and support and story-telling and success parties but be thinking and praying even now for the opportunities that God will give you this year!
OK, I’m amped up and we haven’t gotten to our text yet! Turn with me in your Bibles, which you now all have on our phones, to Acts 15. Now, one thing to remember is that the structure of Acts is basically a travel-log interspersed with speeches. We’re going to focus more on the speeches but it does help to understand the travel log as an integrated part of the story of the spread of the Gospel. So, if you’ll bear with me for a minute or two, we’ll rewind the tape to Acts chapter 8 where we first meet a guy by the name of Saul, or Paul, as he becomes known later. He is a highly trained expert in Jewish culture and religious practices and the whole rest of the book of Acts revolves around his adventures. So who is this guy anyway? Well, we know of his job description - his mission in life is to chase down Christians and drag them off to jail for believing in Jesus. But God has other plans for his life. An amazing thing happens to him on one of his road trips – he has this dramatic and supernatural conversion experience and he begins the process of unlearning some of the things that he thought he knew to be true. This is tough road for him and it takes him a couple of years to figure it out. Some of you might be in that process right now, and that’s OK. So when we get to the start of Acts chapter 13, which is where Keith’s notes say we left off in the summer of 2009, we find Paul is Syrian Antioch, which will become the centre of the first century missional Christianity. And so as the chapter opens, the church is gathered together for fasting and prayer and God speaks and says “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to”. And this is mission work. So off they go! They travel by boat to the island of Cyrus, then onto Antioch of Pisidia and various places you can see on this map. And they experience opposition to their message from predicative places: sorcerers, pious but jealous religious people, Jewish leaders who in ch. 13:50 stir up the real power brokers: the influential women of the city! So eventually they have shared the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection all over this region and they return to Antioch of Syria for like, Missionsfest. And there’s a big celebration; lots of high fives! They report that God is working powerfully among non-Jews to draw people into His family and so the church is psyched and then, BOOM, a massive barrier gets thrown up in their way. Look with me at Acts 15 starting in Verse 1…
Acts 15:1 Slide
Acts 15:2 slide
So Paul and Barny, freshly back from their cross-cultural mission encounter hear about this business of requiring new believers to follow old rules and customs and they say ‘no way!’ But this becomes, as they say in American politics, a wedge issue. It actually is so significant that it defines the conversational backdrop and the theological landscape of much of the New Testament. Which, frankly, in our day and time is a tad hard for us to understand the significance of this issue. But lest you think this is no big deal, let me ask rephrase the question: How many cultural barriers should a person have to cross in order to come to saving faith? We might be more familiar with seeing this question played out in international or historical contexts. For example, we can think of colonial missionary endeavours even grievous ones here in our own country’s history with First Nations that required people to become “western” or “British” or “white” or “suburban middle class” in order to be a Christians. And it can be easy to look at those instances with moral superiority and say “that’s outrageous!”. Those access barriers should not exist! But let’s not kid ourselves, friends. It still happens today. There are still barriers to people coming to faith.
I can remember two years ago, we were on holidays in Florida and I went to go to one of the more prominent churches in a particular city. It was hot so I was wearing shorts but I thought, you know, the crowd in this city is a bit older and so I put on a polo shirt with a collar. Which, for me and Florida, was pretty dressy. I even put on my good sandals, not the beach ones. So up I drive to this church and it is right out of a postcard. Massive white steeple. Red brick building. Stained glass. And I get inside and I see the choir, all up in robes and then I notice about this point that people are looking at me. So I settle into my seat and people start to file in and I realize that everybody has a suit and tie on and the ladies have fancy dresses. The kids are all in sweater vests – before sweater vests were cool. And everyone’s hair is all done up and I begin to feel a bit uncomfortable. Think about it. I’m a pastor, and I felt out of place in a church! Because I didn’t know about the sub-cultural norms that existed in that place. And I was getting the unspoken message “if you want to come here, young man, you better dress up a little better next time.” If I wanted to be a part of that faith community, there was a barrier I would have had to cross. Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that. Where suddenly, and sometimes without warning, you find yourself up against a barrier that you perceive you will need to cross in order to find a place of belonging in that particular faith community.
That’s what was going on here in the early church. Because of the Jewish roots and history and ethos, there were those who were saying very strongly “if you want to get to Jesus, you have to become Jewish. Follow Jewish customs, ancient Jewish religious practices as laid out in the Law of Moses and then, and only then, we’ll let you into God’s family.”
But Paul and Barnabas are so ticked off by this, they argue with them. It gets so heated that they decide they need to go down to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to discuss the matter further. So let’s keep reading… These verses won’t come up on the side screens so follow in your Bible or phone. READ Acts 15:4-6
So the core issue here is that this group wants to put a historical / cultural overlay onto the gospel. The sign of the covenant, which is if I can be blunt and frank but not gory, the sign of circumcision. So not to be glib, but if I was Paul, I would say to these guys “do you want people to become followers of Jesus or NOT? I mean it hurts enough to get circumcised as a baby, you really want to make this the entrance ticket for grown adults? You really want to limit your conversion rate, don’t you?” But for these Jewish Pharisees, it was all they could picture. They couldn’t imagine people coming to God who were not Jewish or who didn’t have to become Jewish in their lifestyle in order to get into the club.
BUT, just so we don’t get all smug thinking to ourselves, “phew, I’m glad we don’t do anything as stupid as that at Jericho!” Let’s do some brainstorming together, shall we. Let’s think of What barriers might potentially exist to a person coming to saving faith at JRCC?
- History of Christianity
- Perception of / experience with Christians
- JRCC’s ethos (style, language, cultural composition, etc.)
- Past or present hurts
- Feel like they don’t belong
- Other barriers?
So here the question that strikes me about Acts 15. Who’s job is it to work at breaking down those barriers? What should you do when you come across these barriers? I want to suggest to you, and some of you were wondering when in the world we would get to the title of the message today… When you come across any cultural barrier to someone coming to saving faith, you Break It Down. Listen to Peter in Acts 15:7-11
Verse 8 – Do you know how I know that God is in this? Because that is His business. Changing hearts and lives. God knows people’s hearts. And furthermore, once these non-Jews came to faith, God ratified it by giving them the most precious and powerful gift a person can receive: the indwelling presence of God Himself in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. I love Peter’s closing argument 2 Slides: Acts 15:9 // 15:10-11
What are we arguing about? The real issue, Peter suggests, isn’t cultural, it’s spiritual. Does God want people to come into His family or not? God is at work doing something supernatural and he’s got His critics trying to out-god God. “Nah, I don’t think so. I’m not excited about that” But friends, don’t miss the central and liberating truth of the Gospel: Everyone comes into God’s family though the same door. And the sign above that door is GRACE. You don’t get in any other way. There are no other entrance barriers or requirements because Jesus paid it all for you when He died on the cross and when He rose again from the dead breaking the power and the hold of sin on your life and mine. And to imagine that you are going to approach God by any other means other than His grace, to think that you have to do stuff or to become culturally who you are not in order to get God to like you is preposterous. Peter reminds everyone that “we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11)
This is such a big shift for those who have grown up in a unique culture that they have to keep working this out. So Paul & Barny recount their experiences of God at work in the lives of non-Jews, Peter does the same. James roots it in the Old Testament scriptures remind them of God’s heart for all peoples and all nations. Quoting from the prophets Amos and Isaiah In verse 17 he reminds them that God is calling the rest of humanity, including the Gentiles, to seek after Him. And friends, this is still happening today. All around us people are seeking after God. God is at work all around us calling people to himself. And friends, my heart is stirred, and the hearts of our leadership team here is stirring to stand up and say “friends, NOW is the time!” It’s a new year, this is game time. Salvation is near. Salvation is here. God is still turning hearts and lives toward Himself and inviting you and me to partner with Him in that process of redemption. And so our role, just like the role of the people in Acts 15, is very simple. James says it outright in verse 19: Our role is NOT to make it difficult for people who are seeking God to turn towards Him! In other words, our role is to be barrier-busters.
As you read through the conclusion of this story, the decision that comes out in the letter that they write is to remove as many barriers as possible so that as many people can come to saving faith as possible. Their decision is to instruct both Jews and Gentiles alike in this new family no to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. This is an allegiance issue: do you worship the one true God or something else? To abstain from sex outside of the boundaries of marriage. This is an ethics issue. And then to not eat blood or the meat of animals that have been strangled. So we begin the chapter with the barriers really high – circumcision and obedience to Mosaic law. And we end with it really low and sensible. The barriers of cultural preference have been removed in order that those who are actively seeking God can turn toward Him. And the result? JOY! There is an increased passion for mission, an increased faith and a sense from those far off that newcomers and welcome and that Now is their time for saving faith. Perhaps today, that describes you. You are seeking. Asking questions about God and what it means to be a part of His family. I remind you of Peter’s words in Acts 15:11 We are all saved in the same way: by receiving the grace of Jesus. This means that you say ‘yes’ to God and to the work of His Son Jesus on the cross. Don’t leave here today without making that decision. During our response time, come talk to me and we’ll pray together or talk with the friend who brought you.
For those who are a part of God’s family, His church, the response for us is also clear:
?) What personal barrier(s) need to be torn down in 2012?
It might be that we have to unlearn some of our personal preferences or make some adjustments to our mental perceptions of people who are seeking God. It might be that we have to put ourselves in new environments in 2012 in order to push us beyond or outside of our comfort zones. It might be that fear is a huge barrier holding you back from sharing your story… Spend some time this week with God in solitude and silence asking Him what barriers exist that He wasn’t to address. It’s time!
And then part of our response is also corporate:
?) What barrier(s) is God calling us to tear down as a church?
Are there things that we say or do or don’t say or don’t do that need to be dismantled in order for people who are seeking God in Willoughby and Clayton to find Him? If there are things we need to repent of corporately, church, now is the time. If we have lost our first love and our mission and begun to emphasize other things, Now is the Time to come back. To tear down that wall and to remind ourselves that our primary role is to participate with God is His mission of changing hearts and lives. I’m going to pray through our mission as the worship team comes to close in song.
We aspire to be a loving and listening people,
Extending God’s hope
To our community
In all of life,
all of the time