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Lectionary Sermons: Easter

The Struggle of the Early Church

By David Bennett

Six Easter Year B:
Acts 11:19-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17

Nothing fascinates me more than the amazing struggle and structure of the very early church. In one of the apostle Peter's speeches he said that if the Christian movement were of human origin it would fail, but if it were of God it could never be stopped. We can safely say that the Christian "movement," founded on the firm belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, did not fail. The fact that we are worshipping here is a testament to this. Today I want to look at the Acts text and analyze a few characteristics of the early Church that are still around today.

The first observation I made was that the early church became scattered because of persecution, yet they still pressed on, and remained one despite all their hardships. Persecutions were a fact of life for the church since its inception at Pentecost. One saint, Polycarp, faced the ultimate persecution: death. At his trial on the charge of Atheism, the proconsul said, "Swear by the fortune of Caesar, reproach Christ, and I will set thee at liberty"; Polycarp responded, "Eighty-Six years have I served Him, and He never let me down: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?" He was then led away to his death, but persecutions and executions could not destroy the hope they had in Christ. The lesson for us today is that nothing, whether it is death or persecution, can stop the hope we have in Christ through his church.

In today's reading we also find a reference to the worldwide mission of the church. Both Jew and Greek were included in the evangelism mission. Christianity is not a religion based on race or national ties. It is based on the belief in the Kingdom of God, which is made up of all races and has no national or planetary borders.

We notice when reading this text that it says God's hand directed the church, which reminds me of Peter's speech about the Christian mission being divinely guided. I firmly believe God's hand still guides the Church to this day, not just the Anglican communion, but the worldwide church consisting of, to name a few, Catholics, Methodists, and Baptist. The church is more than just a conglomerate of congregations. As Irenaeus said some 1800 years ago: "For the illustrious Church is everywhere, and everywhere is the winepress dug: because those who receive the Spirit are everywhere." Irenaeus was trying to illustrate that despite the persecutions and scatterings, the church still remained the body of Christ, because wherever Christ was recognized as Risen Lord, the Holy Spirit was there among them.

And speaking of the Holy Spirit, we find that Barnabas was "filled with the Holy Spirit and Faith." Imagine the immense faith it would have taken to be a member of a small religious sect within the Jewish territory, which was within the Roman Empire. Many times we as Christians find our faith wavering because of the hardship of the world. We look around and see evil, poverty, and trials in the world, and we wonder how there can be a good God who is in charge of all of this. But it is by both faith and the power of the Holy Spirit that we, the aliens in the world, await the coming glory of Christ.

Notice that once Barnabas arrived he both rejoiced and encouraged the other Christians. Sadly there is much hostility to Christianity in the world today, namely in our own town of Athens, Ohio. We are often labeled uneducated or narrow minded because of our beliefs, when in reality if people got to know us they would find we're pretty nice really! But I guess my point is that Christian fellowship and encouragement are just as important today as they were when Christianity was young. Just like Barnabas, we too can rejoice with and encourage one another.

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The final point I noticed is that during times of crisis, Christians helped one another both spiritually and physically. When believers in Judea were under a famine, the other Christians came to their aid. There was no division in the early church between the "social gospel" and the "spiritual gospel." There were no liberals and conservatives, just Christians, who while believing in the spiritual power of Christ's resurrection and His Deity, led lives reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact many often say that the Christians were communists or socialists. To that I say that they were just "Christians," following the commands God revealed in Jesus, who told them to be poor, humble, and peacemakers.

The church since its inception has been a solid body of believers encouraging one another in all ways. She is under Christ who is her head, and led by the Holy Sprit, to fulfill the great commission, and to selflessly serve others. Theophilus, the 2nd century apologist, described the church as such, "God has given to the world which is driven and tempest-tossed by sins, assemblies, holy churches, in which survive the doctrines of the truth." I believe that we have the same hope today as the early Church had, and we continue in that same great legacy.

This sermon was originally delivered to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio on 6 Easter, 2000, at an evening Canterbury service. The Church of the Good Shepherd is not associated with Ancient and Future Catholics or Ancient-Future.Net. The author has since joined the Catholic Church.

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