The fruitful church

Scriptures: Acts 17:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Before we get into my sermon proper, I want to bring to your attention two things. One, and it plays a role in my sermon, is it talks here, the language that was used in this translation, it says that Paul would argue in the synagogue. The word that is used is reason or debate.

I like to say when I’m doing counseling people that debate is okay. You can get passionate in debate. An argument is when someone has to win, regardless of the cost, and that’s never productive.

Also, the word apologist comes to mind. The word apology didn’t used to mean “I’m sorry.” It meant to defend yourself, or to defend your faith, and that’s what Paul was doing.

Secondly, again I couldn’t help but note – after all, it’s tax weekend – that the city officials, at the end of this story, not knowing what to do, slap a fine on them. “If we can’t do anything else we’ll collect some money.”

One of the most frequently asked questions I have heard over the years, as both an elder and a minister, is a variation on “How can I tell I/we/the church are being fruitful?” People might use terms like “successful’, or “making an impact”, or “changing lives”; but it all boils down to the same thing. “Am I bearing fruit”?

Some may look at numbers of people, or sizes and number of programs; some at the number of baptisms, or the number attending, or “membership growth” for churches. But it’s all the same thing. We’re trying to measure our success in being faithful and being fruitful.

I want to look at the ways in which the church founded by Paul in Thessalonica was fruitful, and at Paul himself, in brief. It may not be quite what you think.

To set a context for this a little bit, it’s mentioned in there, we know that Paul was only in Thessalonica for three to four weeks. Three Sabbaths, before he had to run, because they drove him out of town.

And yet he founded a great New Testament church during that time, that was one of the best-known churches throughout the world, both for its faithfulness under persecution, and also, though it’s not in this passage, for its generosity.

At one point Paul takes up a collection for the Jerusalem church, because they’re really bad off, and even though the Thessalonians are not known to be a wealthy church, they manage to give more generously than many churches larger than them and more wealthy than them. Paul commended them for that, in terms of understanding their faithfulness.

The church in Thessalonica was a key church. Thessalonica was located on the main highway of the ancient world. It was called the Ignatian Way. It connected the eastern and western portions of the Roman Empire, and it was a strategic city for the work of God.

It was also the capital city of Macedonia, and the center of commerce in that area. Paul knew that if he could reach this city, he could reach anywhere. But it also provided some real challenges, because in that city you had the power of Rome, centralized. You had sophisticated people who were educated and wealthy.

You had a number of the pagan gods and the rituals that were there, all through the city and well-celebrated, well-attended. It was a tough sell. Some would say it’s surprising he lasted three weeks. But he managed to do it. And the church that resulted was a fruitful church.

I’d like to give you what I think are four traits of a fruitful church, and show how the church in Thessalonica exhibited those traits. The traits are welcoming, worshiping, witnessing, and working. Not being Baptist, I can’t tell you how hard it was to get that alliteration.

Welcoming, worshiping, witnessing, and working. First, the church in Thessalonica was welcoming.

The world has status rankings – economic, social, etc. Invitations and welcomes into some circles depends on that status. We see that all the time, when we discuss the politics today. And it’s even here in Wapello – someone who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” (or in this town, as I’ve heard, the wrong side of 2nd street).

Since its earliest days, the fruitful church, bearing the signs of the love of God in Christ Jesus, seeks out and invites people regardless of their status. If we look at the parts of Paul’s crowd that were there in the synagogue that became members, we see that there were Jews. The Jews, you might consider the elite, the ones who were educated, the ones who were in the know, the wealthy ones.

Then there were the God-fearers. They were Gentiles who lived kosher lives and believed in God. But they didn’t want to go that final step to become a Jew where you had to have an adult circumcision, which is very painful, and a baptism, where you were basically declared a new person.

While all debts and such things might have been wiped away, so was a lot of other stuff – your family ties and things like that. And they didn’t want to do that. But they were God-fearers. They were second in rank, if you will.

It even says “and prominent women.” I want to point that out because, I’ve said it before, but in the society of Paul’s day, women were second-class citizens. To be a prominent woman meant that somehow these women were very successful.

They had fought the odds. They were wealthy. They might have owned land, or owned businesses, etc. But they were still despised by a majority of the establishment, if you will.

And unspoken in there, but certainly part of it, as noted elsewhere in Scripture, were slaves, the most unwanted of all.

All of the pieces, in fact, that a Jew, every morning, a Jewish male got out of bed and said, “Thank you, God, that I am not a woman, a Gentile, or a slave.” I think “or a dog” was in there too.

The church was inviting people regardless of their status. The fruitful church seeks to touch the lives of all with the Gospel, and to invite them to both life in Christ (which is salvation), and life in the faith community (which is worship and work of the church). It makes a point of asking folks that the world and community often leave out or behind – like the exceedingly poor, the homeless, the disabled.

Friday I had the enjoyment of going to Davenport – that wasn’t the enjoyment part – and listening to Tony Campolo. Have any of you ever heard Tony Campolo speak before? I know that when I saw him, my first thought was “Man, he’s getting old.” It’s hard, sometimes, to remember that someone who was an adult when I was a teenager would have aged, just like I’ve aged. But he still speaks powerfully. He told a story that just hit me enough that I want to share it with you.

One day, about the noon hour, I was walking down Chestnut Street when I noticed a bum walking toward me. He was covered with dirt and soot from head to toe. There was filthy stuff caked on his skin. But the most noticeable thing about him was his beard. It hung down almost to his waist and there was rotted food stuck in it. The man was holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee and the lip of the cup was already smudged from his dirty mouth. As he staggered toward me, he seemed to be staring into his cup of coffee. Then, suddenly, he looked up and he yelled, “Hey, mister! Ya want some of my coffee?”

I have to admit that I really didn’t. But I knew that the right thing to do was accept his generosity, and so I said, “I’ll take a sip.”

As I handed the cup back to him I said, “You’re getting pretty generous, aren’t you, giving away your coffee? What’s gotten into you today that’s made you so generous?”

The old derelict looked straight into my eyes and said, “Well…the coffee was especially delicious today, and I figure if God gives you something good, you ought to share it with people!”

I thought to myself, Oh man. He has really set me up. This is going to cost me five dollars. I asked him, “I suppose there’s something I can do for you in return, isn’t there?”

The bum answered, “Yeah! You can give me a hug!” (To tell the truth, I was hoping for the five dollars.)

He put his arms around me and I put my arms around him. Then suddenly I realized something. He wasn’t going to let me go! People were passing us on the sidewalk. They were staring at me. There I was, dressed in establishment garb, hugging this dirty, filthy bum! I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do. Then, little by little, my embarrassment changed to awe and reverence. I heard a voice echoing down the corridors of time saying “I was hungry; did you feed Me? I was naked; did you clothe Me? I was sick; did you care for Me? I was the bum you met in Chestnut Street…did you hug Me? For if you did it to the least of these, you did it unto Me.

from Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People

It was a God-moment, with someone that the world would have shunned. Most people probably would have gone to the other side of the street, like the priest or the Levite, with the man who was injured on the roadside in the story of the good Samaritan. But God ministered to Tony through that man.

That’s what Christian faith does. It said in your translation of the Scripture today, the people went and brought Jason – and we didn’t have any idea who he was before they just throw his name in, but apparently he was hosting Paul – they brought Jason before the magistrate and they said this guy is part of the believers that are turning the world upside-down.

That’s what Christian faith does – it turns the world’s expectations upside-down. I would note, between you and me, that since the world is fallen and backwards already, it actually turns the world right-side up, aligning it with God; but the world won’t see it that way. They see us as disrupting things and turning things upside-down, because our welcome is one that the world won’t do.

And note that it is not just a welcome where, as somebody comes through the door of the church, we say “Welcome, we’re glad to see you. We’re a friendly church and we love you.” But they sought out, they went out and invited people to come, to be welcomed in the family of God and the community of faith. Black sheep all.

The second thing is the worshiping. Note in verse 2 it says “as his manner was” – it was his habit to go into the synagogue, the church of his day. It remind me of Jesus, who in Luke 4, it says “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read..”

So, in Acts 17, Paul is exemplifying the Savior in his worship. He knew that on God’s day he was to be in God’s house with God’s people, studying God’s Word.

I want you to think about this: Jesus went to church Sabbath day after Sabbath day his whole life, and the Bible says that in those days the Jewish religion had essentially become a dead faith. It talks about the Pharisees being whitewashed sepulchers.

They had substituted ritual for relationship. They had religion without reality, sacraments without spirituality. On one occasion Jesus even said, “This is supposed to be a house of prayer, but you’ve made it into a den of thieves,” as he drove the money-changers out of the temple right before his crucifixion.

Think about it. This means that for all of his life, the Lord Jesus attended a “dead church”! And yet he was faithful! How much more faithful should we be in attending the church of the living God! We have the truth. We have youth. We have, for some folks, excitement and vitality.

There are folks whose lives have been changed and saved. Babies that are born and diapers changed. Kids on Wednesdays, that we see coming in here, tracking in all kinds of dirt, but having fun. A youth group that’s very active. What a place! We should be habitually faithful whenever the doors are open. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Maybe you should ask yourself, how do you feel about it?

This is not a little thing or a minor concern, this casual Christianity. It is a matter of faithfulness. So many Christians today, people who call themselves Christians, treat the holy day as a holiday. The average church in America, in about 2007 – which is the last time I looked, I didn’t do an extensive search – it was about sixty people.

I do know that in mainline denominations, they say that if you have thirty percent of your membership of your church worshiping on a Sunday, then you’re doing well. And it breaks my heart. Worship is a sign of a fruitful church

Witnessing. This Thessalonian church started out of a riot. Paul was debating and winning people to Lord, and suddenly, then, those who were against him set up a riot to occur. Because when you preach the gospel, not everybody is gonna like it. The devil is constantly battling any Bible-preaching church—from without or from within, or both. Satan doesn’t yield an inch without putting up a fight. In this case it was the unbelieving Jews that he used.

The devil rarely intervenes directly. He uses people to do his dirty work. We need to be aware that he will use any of us, even unwittingly, to do some of his tasks, and to hurt the witness of the church. The Bible said for us not to be ignorant of the fact that he works that way. He can use any of us, and seeks to regularly.

Don’t let the devil use you to become a part of trouble in a church and hurting its witness. And that goes double for leaders of the church, and myself. I’m not exempt – he can use me as well, and I just pray, and hope that you pray for me on a regular basis, that I would not be a stumbling block to people, because of who I am.

It’s not what Paul was doing that was wrong. He was doing what was right. But he was impeding the work of the devil and the way of the world. Paul was trying to fix things and turn things right side up, and the world stood against it.

The final sign of fruitfulness of a church is working. Whether the work of the church is fruitful is not necessarily linked to how many programs a church runs that serve a community; but it is linked to both quality and impact. Is the program well run? Is it well supported by volunteers? Are the people who attend it and are targets impacted by it in a positive manner? We may not see the full result, mind you. That could be years down the road.

There’s another story that Tony Campolo told, about a friend of his who is an English teacher. He won the national teacher of the year award, the big one. His friend told this story of why he became an English teacher.

He talks about when he was in the 8th grade. He hated himself. He was significantly overweight. And the thing that he hated most was phys ed on Friday’s when they would all get naked in the dressing room and the other boys would laugh at him. He sat in the back of the room; he hurt every moment of every day that he was in school.

Guy said, one day, one day his class was dismissed, my teacher said, Guy, I want you to remain behind. He handed me a book. He said I want you to read this poem. Guy said I’ll never forget the poem. It was the poem Casey at the Bat. Said now go back to the back of the room and read it. And Guy Doud read the poem Casey at the Bat.

And when he finished, he said the teacher just sat there for a long moment, stroking his chin and said Guy, I knew it. I knew it. You are a poet. Guy Doud said I walked out of that classroom and leaned against the wall and with tears streaming down my cheeks I said, I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an English teacher. A boy’s life was changed because a teacher did for a boy what Jesus would do if Jesus had been in that teacher’s place.

At that point a man’s life was changed, when someone gave him a positive, encouraging assessment, not only of himself now but in the future. It took a lot of years. He had to finish school. He had to get a degree. He had to find a school to teach in. And he had to teach long enough to win this award. But his English teacher, who remains unnamed in the story, made an impact that changed the life and direction of another person.

We can do that, each and every day, as we share our faith in Jesus Christ, through what we do, here and in the world around us, with the church and the family of God. My hope and prayer for you is that you would be fruitful disciples, that you would be a fruitful church, that your witness would be one of faithfulness.

Even when undergoing persecution and resistance, like the church in Thessalonica did – they suffered great persecution. Even when struggling with finances, like the church in Thessalonica did, and yet they found a way to be generous.

Even when having limited experience, perhaps, with the gospel. Three weeks! Three weeks, and the core or kernel was set, to make a church whose name lasted generations. Because of their welcome to those the world would leave behind; their worship and vigor and praise of God; their witness of faithfulness in their lives – not just in the church but outside, everywhere they went; and their work in the communities, serving the people in the name of God, and sharing the love of Jesus with others.

May you be as fruitful as they, that you might bring praise to God and glory to His name. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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