Sermon: Acts 11:19-26
Easter 6 - May 6, 2018 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
German Lutheran pastors in Milwaukee who served congregations from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s told stories that indicate the large number of people who were immigrating to this country. They said that following their worship services on Sunday they would sign up sometimes a long line of people as new members of their congregations. German Lutheran immigrants were coming by the boatload to the United States. One of the first things they did was find a Lutheran church where they could worship.
Many of these Lutheran churches today have closed. Some are hanging on with dwindling memberships. Some have tried with varying success to make the transition to people of new languages and cultures that surround their churches.
Whether we’re talking about German Lutheran churches in large urban areas or churches of any denomination in smaller cities or rural areas, the people are not streaming into them anymore. People are not lining up after a Sunday service to become members. Today we might ask the question, “Where are all the Christians?”
As I read this text from Acts I particularly noted that Luke the writer in the space of eight verses mentions three times “the great number of people who believed and turned to the Lord.” We might get discouraged today that our churches are not full, that great numbers of people are not lining up to enter our churches and hear the gospel. We might ask in frustration, “Where are all the Christians?” Or to use Luke’s expression about the great number of people who believed
WHERE IS THAT “GREAT NUMBER” OF CHRISTIANS?
In the book of Acts Luke is telling the history of the early New Testament Church beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The verses that are before us today are a short narrative about a very important juncture in the church. Luke writes that believers began to bring the gospel message well outside of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. But that’s not all. In these new areas Gentiles were hearing the message of Jesus Christ as well. And what was also truly remarkable was that many, great numbers, were believing the message.
Luke writes, “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, . . .” These words are a reminder to us no one can defeat God and his kingdom. Like Psalm 2 tells us, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at [those who take their stand against the LORD and against his Anointed One.]”
Luke is making reference to Stephen whom we sometimes call the first Christian martyr, the first Christian to die for his faith in Jesus. You may remember that account. Stephen boldly proclaimed the gospel message in Jerusalem. The same people who condemned Jesus now condemned Stephen too. They dragged him outside the city and stoned him to death.
Luke takes the time to inform us that the one in authority overlooking this horrible miscarriage of justice was a young man named Saul. And on that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. Many believers fled. But God sat in heaven and scoffed at those who would persecute his people. God’s people did scatter to many other places, but they took the message of the gospel with them, preached it to many people, and God’s kingdom grew even larger.
About a dozen years had passed since Jesus had ascended into heaven, and Luke tells us that some of those people who scattered from Jerusalem traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Phoenicia was located just north of Israel. Today it’s called Lebanon. Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Turkey. Antioch was a major city in Syria also north of Israel. At the most these locations were about 300 miles from Jerusalem. For us today it would be maybe a day’s trip. For people in Luke’s day these were long distances, and it was amazing that the gospel message was spreading that far into Gentile territory.
But Luke notes that even though it was Gentile territory the believers were only preaching the gospel to Jews. But then something wonderful happened. There were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene, a city on the north coast of Africa in present day Libya, probably Gentile men, who began to preach the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles in these new areas. And the Gentiles believed. Lots of them. Luke writes, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
And why was the gospel spreading so far? Why were so many listening and believing? Why did a great number of people turn to the Lord? Look at what Luke says: “The Lord’s hand was with them.” Don’t leave God out of the picture. There’s one reason the gospel was spreading. There’s one reason that great numbers of people believed. God. God the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit using the power of the gospel. God who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
But where’s God’s hand today? Where are all the Christians today? Where is that “great number” of Christians today? We might be tempted to say this account is really heartwarming. It’s good to hear that the gospel spread to so many new areas. And it’s good to hear that great numbers believed, even Gentiles. It’s good to hear that God’s hand was with them. But that doesn’t happen anymore. The gospel is hardly preached today, and people don’t believe.
But that’s what the devil wants us to believe. Quite the opposite is true. We Americans have a tendency to see just what’s happening in our own nation for the Christian church. And what we see is not always so good or encouraging. The truth is that Christians are proclaiming the gospel in almost every nation on earth. They’re proclaiming it in nations where many of us never imagined the gospel would be proclaimed.
Just like Luke and believers of his day were amazed when the gospel went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Syria, we today can be amazed that believers are proclaiming the gospel in mideastern nations where Islam is dominant. Christians are proclaiming the gospel with wonderful success in Asian nations like Nepal, Bhutan, India, China, Korea, the Philippians, and Indonesia. Great numbers of people in these nations, especially China, are coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. I can’t prove it, but my educated guess is that there are more Christians in China today than in the United States.
An old missionary hymn states that from nations around the world “They call us to deliver Their land from error’s chain.” That literally is the truth. Groups of believers from around the world who have had contact with Lutheran theology are finding us on our WELS website and contacting us. Recently the WELS Mission Board was contacted by believers in Vietnam, actually in the old North Vietnam, who need our help in teaching and training them to know and proclaim the gospel.
Luke tells us that the believers in Jerusalem were excited to hear how far the gospel was spreading, and even to Gentiles. They contacted a man named Barnabas who was a faithful believer and generous supporter of the church. They sent him to Antioch to see what was happening. Indeed it was true. Gentiles were coming to faith. Lots of them. Barnabas preached the gospel, encouraged them, and even more, great numbers of people, were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas did something quite momentous. He went to the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, southern Turkey, and made contact with Saul. Remember Saul. He was the one who stood by and gave approval to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul was violently opposed to Jesus and all who followed him. But God always has the final say. He actually converted Saul to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Eventually he changed his name to Paul. We know him as the Apostle Paul. He wrote thirteen letters in the New Testament. He was the greatest missionary ever. In a day when you walked or rode a horse or sat in chariot to travel he brought the gospel way beyond Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and Galilee. He brought it way beyond Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Syria. He brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to synagogues in Turkey. He answered the call from the man from Macedonia and brought the gospel to Greece. And when Jews tired of listening to the gospel, Paul went to the Gentiles.
For a whole year Barnabas and Saul, or Paul, preached the name of Jesus Christ in Antioch. Luke says they taught great numbers of people.
And then Luke adds an interesting historical fact. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” We don’t know who began calling them Christians. They probably didn’t call themselves Christians first of all. It might have been the enemies of Christians, calling them followers of Christ in a sarcastic way. But the name stuck. And it’s a good one. Christians believe in Christ.
So what does this all have to do with you and me? What do this little account of Luke and the growth of the New Testament church into Gentile areas have to do with us? Don’t miss the fact that we are just the continuation of this story that has been going on for 2000 years. Believers have brought the gospel to one new nation after another. The Lord’s hand was always with them. And you and I are part of that great number of people who believe.
We are sitting here today because believers took the gospel from Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and Galilee to Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Syria, and then to Turkey and Greece and Europe and Asia and Africa, and then to South America and North America, and one day to you and me. And some faithful believer told you and me, “Jesus died for your sins. Jesus has risen from the dead to prove that your sins are forgiven. Jesus will come again to take you to be in heaven with him.”
Jesus will come again to take you and me and great numbers of people with him to heaven, millions and millions of people.
So don’t ask, “Where are all the Christians today?” Don’t ask, “Where is that great number of Christians today?” They’re out there in the world, in all the nations of the earth. And you and I are part of that great number. Amen.