A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente preached to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on May 8, 2022. Week three in the series “Eastertide & Acts.” This series explores the connection of the Resurrection to the mission of THE Church and OUR church.
The Reality of Desertion (vs.13, Bible in hand)
We move today from the conversion of St. Paul to the preaching and missionary work of St. Paul and his companions. We remember that our focus this Eastertide is on the Resurrection, the mission of the church, and the mission of our church. If you’re new today, you need to know that this is a particularly intense season of mission for us. We’re supporting new works in Frederick and Chambersburg, and seeking to expand our work here in Hagerstown. So all of that shapes the driving focus of our time today (get to Acts 13). Lastly, I happily give credit to author and pastor Rico Tice for some of the ideas in this sermon. He helped me in my reflection on this passage this week.
Verse 13 starts in an utterly realistic and awkward place – desertion. Before the first missionary journey even gets off the ground, one of the key team members, John Mark, has deserted the work. We’re not told why, just that it happened. Now, being a church planter for 10 years, I have some experience in this regard. Desertion in church planting happens for three reasons:
- People desert you personally.
- People desert the work itself.
- People desert Christ.
- Those are three different kinds of desertions, but they all sting. For you who are involved in raising up new works, I can confidently say this: the majority of people you’re working with now will not be the same people you are working with in two or three years.
The Certainty of God’s Faithfulness (vs.17-38)
And you have to be okay with that. St. Paul could continue the work he had been given because his confidence lay elsewhere – it was in the certainty of God’s faithfulness. Look at his preaching in the synagogue – it’s all about God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people up to and through Jesus (see verses 17 and 26 as a summary). This was the centerpiece of Paul’s life and message to the world. The certainty of God’s faithfulness is anchor for church planting and the Christian life. If you lack that anchor, you will be rudderless and unstable.
But if your certainty is in Jesus, that changes everything. In verses 26 to 38, Paul tells those gathered in the synagogue the story of their own God, who is so good, so sovereign, so in control, that he can take the crucifixion of his Son by his own people, and turn it around for the salvation of the world. That is where Paul pins his hope and where the power for his ministry comes from. In Psalm 143, the psalmist says to God, “I remember the time past; I muse upon all your works; indeed, I meditate on the works of your hands.” The psalmist is rooting his hope, not in what’s going on around him currently, or whether or not he is having a good hair day, but in who God is as a faithful deliverer and rescuer of his people. Paul does the same exact thing.
Now I want to go back to the issue of desertion again. If you aren’t solidly grounded as Paul was, you’ll be unrooted and so easy to move. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in a new work of mission or just an old faithful church. Can you imagine if Paul had responded that way to John Mark’s desertion? Ugh, I’m just not with the right people – I’ll have to go somewhere else!
If you go around making Christs out of the people you serve and worship and grow together with, you will not get very far. You won’t get very far in any church, let alone a baby church, because churches are notoriously full of people who aren’t Christ and who tend to fail!
Let’s also note here: chapter 13 of Acts begins with Paul and Barnabas being unequivocally called out to this work by the Holy Spirit. And yet as soon as they begin, problems begin. Not because God was no longer in it, but because humans now were!
- And lastly, I should mention that, if you’re not grounded in the certainty of God’s faithfulness, you also won’t be able to deal graciously with other people if they desert and then come back. Later, Paul tells us that he received John Mark back again “useful” and – don’t miss this – John Mark ends up writing the Gospel of Mark under St. Peter. Pretty extraordinary grace!
The Central Place of the Gospel (vs. 38-39, 48-49, 52)
What is central in Paul’s mission? What makes and keeps them joyful? What are they always talking about? The Gospel is what does it! The pure and free offer of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Read the above verses if you don’t believe me.
Here, Paul’s message is ultimately rejected in the synagogue. So he suffers not only desertion from within, but rejection without! He turns to the Gentiles, and they believe, but Paul and his companions are again driven out of the district by more opposition. But it still ends with joy! How powerful.
If the gospel is removed from the center of a life, a mission, or a church that’s been in existence for 150 years, watch out! It’s going to sour. Shipwreck is around the corner. But with the gospel at the center, so much can be sustained and accomplished in and for Christ.
- Fr. Clancy spoke at my ordination some years ago, and he gave me words that I’ll never forget. They’re especially appropriate for Good Shepherd Sunday, too. He said, “Stay close the Good Shepherd.” He said those words for my benefit, and the benefit of those I would and do minister to. And I say them to you for your benefit today. Would you start a work for the Lord? Stay close to the Good Shepherd. Would you endure in your love for and fellowship with the body of Christ, his bride whom he died for? Then stay close to the Good Shepherd. Would you grow in your love for other Christians, even when they fail you? Then stay close to the Good Shepherd. It’s all about him. Paul knew that, we must too.
Let me pray for you, giving St. Paul the last word from Ephesians 3:17-21:
[Now may] Christ … dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.