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"Selfless Sending"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 9, 2024
By Pastor Jeff Cloeter, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3

I remember when our oldest two kids were a toddler and a baby. I sat down for dinner one evening, and I was starving. In my mind I thought, "I can eat first. I'll do it quickly, and then I'll help feed the kids." I got one bite into the meatloaf, and I caught the glare of my wife across the table. She was holding a baby in one hand and feeding the toddler with the other—and that was the last time that I ate first. I remember a baby crying at 2 a.m. My wife had already been awake with him. It was my turn, and I rolled over. I remember mumbling, "I will literally give you $1 million if you take him." And that was the last time that I said that.

As parents, you learn that you don't eat first; you don't sleep first; there is no room for self-interest. You learn what sacrifice is. And yet we all suffer from this magnetic pull towards self-interest. If we're honest with ourselves, every one of us, we can identify selfish actions, selfish thoughts in our lives. Even in the church as Christians, there is a pull towards self-first thinking. We're tempted to keep church life comfortable and convenient. Our decisions are often conformed to our preferences, over the command of Christ. Especially in a tumultuous world, we minimize risk. It's easy to retreat rather than accept the sacrificial call of Jesus to deny yourself. Those outside of the church, they often accuse Christians of living in a "holy huddle," only concerned with ourselves and our own narrow agenda. And we can't deny that what they perceive is too often true.

Today I want to show you a church that lived in stunning contrast. Antioch was an ancient city on the Eastern Mediterranean, in modern-day Turkey. By the first century, it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It sat along an important east-west trade route, and so it was diverse, multicultural; it was a cosmopolitan city like New York or Los Angeles. In the book of Acts, we see that Antioch was the hub and headquarters for the Gentile mission. It is sometimes called the "cradle of Christianity." In contrast to a spirit of self-interest, the spirit of Antioch could be described as one of selfless sending.

Let me show you. In Acts 11:29, we see the Christians in Antioch taking up a collection to send to Jerusalem because of a famine. It says in that verse, "The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea." So here's a young Christian church made up of a diverse collection of Gentiles, and they were sacrificing resources in order to bless Jewish Christians back in what we might call the capital, in Jerusalem, the mothership. That was the spirit of Antioch, one of selfless sending.

Then in Acts 13:3, the church of Antioch deployed their friends, Saul and Barnabas. And it says in that verse that, "They placed their hands on them and sent them off." Every one of Paul's great missionary journeys ran through Antioch. The spirit of Antioch meant giving up its best and beloved leaders like Paul and Barnabas to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Christianity would easily have remained a small Jewish sect. But the Holy Spirit launched a worldwide, multi-ethnic movement, and Antioch was the epicenter. As the Christian church today, and most of us probably Gentiles, we thank God for a Holy Spirit movement that started in Antioch. That's the spirit of Antioch, the spirit of selfless sending.

There is a legend—it's not in Scripture—but there's a legend that after the time of Paul and Barnabas, the Christians in Antioch would raise their sons and daughters to be missionaries in the spirit of St. Paul. Like going off to college, they would take their sons and daughters down the river to the harbor on the Mediterranean Sea. Young men and women would get on ships bound for lands that needed the Gospel: Greece and Rome, Spain, Africa. Mothers and fathers would weep at the harbor because they knew they would never see their sons and daughters again. It was selfless and sacrificial. For the Gospel of Jesus, they were willing to send sons and daughters, and that's the spirit of Antioch, the spirit of selfless sending.

In a world of self-interest, we have to ask, where did this spirit of selfless sending come from? What's its origin? Well, if we look at Acts 11 again, we see that for the first time, Christians were called Christians. In Acts 11:26 it says, "And in Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians." Christian, it means "little Christ." Non-Christians in Antioch observed a growing and diverse community in their city were claiming faith in Jesus of Nazareth. And it wasn't just one ethnic group. That was what was surprising to them. It was Persians and Greeks and Africans and Jews, and they had no label for this new group of people. And so they called them the Christ people, little Christs, Christians.

Interestingly in the book of Acts, Christians never use this label for each other. Only non-Christians use the term, "Christian." And so scholars think that it was probably a derogatory term initially. Christian, that label did not improve status. It did not earn respect. It did not increase your power or wealth or reputation. To be called a little Christ, it recalled the origin of the faith, a Nazarene carpenter, a Jew in the Roman territory in the Eastern Mediterranean, who claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ. But He was executed as a criminal by Roman crucifixion.

Clearly, they thought, this must be the end of His campaign. The criminal death of One who claimed to be the Chosen One—that must prove that, in fact, He was not. And it was thought that any leader executed in this way must be a fraud and a failure. And yet this foolishness of the cross, it was adopted by Christians as the center of Jesus' resume. They believed His gruesome death was actually a payment for the sins of the world, a sacrifice of blood for salvation. Many claimed to have seen Him alive after His crucifixion and the faith spread against all odds. And here now 2,000 years later, we are still called little Christs. We have adopted the cross as our logo. There are crosses on steeples, necklaces, tattoos, and upon walls in homes. For in the cross, we see the selflessness of God, the God who sends that the lost might be found, who gives that we might gain, who pays that we might be forgiven.

And so we ask again, in a world of self-interest, where did this spirit of selfless sending come from? Where is it today? Does it even exist today? And maybe more personally, how do I live selflessly and sacrificially? The answer is in our name, Christian, only in Christ. The spirit of Antioch still finds its origin in the God who loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. He is not a God of self-interest, but a God of selfless giving. He's a God of righteous risk, the great Sower who scatters seed on all kinds of soil, the God who risks everything that the lost might come home. Jesus' work on the cross was done selflessly that you might be His own. Now, because of an act of selfless sending, you too are called a Christian, a little Christ. It defines who you are: Christ is for you and with you and in you.

The spirit of Antioch continues in the church today because Christ Himself is with us. The spirit of Antioch is in a man from Ethiopia who heard about his church sending a missionary to the Middle East. He already lived in poverty, he struggles to grow his own food, but still he was determined to forego two meals a day. That means he only eats one meal a day in order to save that money for missionary support. This is the spirit of Antioch. It's the spirit of selfless sending.

The spirit of Antioch is in a congregation who sent its best leaders, its most beloved members, to plant a church on the other side of town. Now, maybe in your church you might be willing to send the people that you don't like very much. That would be easy to do. But send your best friends, send your brothers and sisters who you've walked with for years? This is the spirit of Antioch, the spirit of selfless sending.

The spirit of Antioch is in a law professor who chose to advance his career in a secular university in order to be a light in the academy. He lives as a hopeful minority in the school of law in order that his students and colleagues might witness a hopeful Christian. This is the spirit of Antioch. It's the spirit of selfless sending.

The spirit of Antioch is in a sixth-grader who chose to leave her private Christian school in order to attend a public middle school in her city. She said, "At my Christian school, my whole class knows Jesus. I want to be with my friends who don't know Him." And three classmates from her new school were baptized the following year. This is the spirit of Antioch. It's the spirit of selfless sending.

In a world of self-interest, selfless sacrifice looks foreign. But the spirit of Antioch still exists today, and it's in you. Your Savior has given you great things, and now something great is asked of you. What will you sacrifice as you are sent in Jesus' Name? Will you pray for a neighbor? Will you support a missionary with your resources? Will you move to a new town? Will you invite neighbors over for dinner to share your home and your faith? Will you walk with a friend through suffering?

The road of selfless sending requires sacrifice. Remember that your Savior goes before you. Jesus asks nothing of you that He has not already done Himself. This is the spirit of Antioch. This is the spirit of your selfless, sacrificial, sending God. Amen.

Reflections for June 9, 2024
Title: Selfless Sending

Mark Eischer: Joining us now, here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Today we are visiting again with our friend, a familiar voice on the program, Dr. Jeff Gibbs. He's an emeritus professor of New Testament at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and still teaches Bible class for his local church. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.

Jeff Gibbs: Thanks, Mike, for the invitation.

Mike Zeigler: We are still in the book of Acts, and about a third of the way into this book we're introduced to a man named Saul. We hear about him and his conversion experience in Acts 9 and then we hear about him a lot for the rest of the book.

Jeff Gibbs: He's one of the main characters, yes.

Mike Zeigler: For someone who's new to the Bible, Jeff, what are two or three things that they should keep in mind or know about Saul (Paul)?

Jeff Gibbs: Well, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the fact that God had done a new thing in Jesus, right? He bore all of our sins on the cross, and it killed Him, and then God raised Him from the dead and vindicated Him. One writer actually says that, "First, He put the sins on Jesus on Good Friday, and then He wiped them off on Easter." That's actually a quote from our famous dogmatician, Franz Pieper.

So, anyway, a new thing. Paul is an example of a guy who in Acts 9 was living in the old and then he gets dragged into the new. In a sense, his personal experience was an illustration of the old way is gone; it's gone, and now there's a new reality. On a personal level, I think that his story actually is an illustration of what we mean when we're saved or forgiven or justified or whatever word we use, by grace alone. He didn't volunteer for this. In fact, he was smacked down by Jesus on his way to persecute Jesus' own people. Did he contribute to his salvation? Nope. Did he even see it coming? I like that aspect of Paul's story. And this is why he can say at least once or twice in his letters, he says, "You know those sinners? I'm the best one." He says, "I'm the chief of sinners because I persecuted the church." Could it get any worse than that? But then he goes on to say, "Look, but I'm an example of God's mercy." See, and so I think he says that so that we can all say, "Oh well, God had mercy on him. I guess He can have mercy on me, too."

Mike Zeigler: He's the representative Israelite and the representative Everyman.

Jeff Gibbs: Exactly. Then even more personally, I just think we underestimate just how hard this was for him. We cheerfully read Philippians 3. He says, "Look, I had all these credentials. I was a Pharisee. I was religious. I was zealous. I was the top dog in my religion." He says, "But you know what? I have come to the point where I had to count that all as loss." Then of course, as you know, he gets stronger. He actually uses the word for excrement. He had a center which was kind of himself, and now there's a new center. It's Jesus.

Mike Zeigler: Years ago, I was a student of yours in a class called "Paul and Acts."

Jeff Gibbs: Oh, yes.

Mike Zeigler: You talked about how important it was to read these two together, the letters of Paul and the account of Acts. You've mentioned Philippians. What about in a letter like Ephesians where it's clear that that difficulty of going from the old to the new, of Jews, Israel, being separate from the nations—and this is God's command—and then in Ephesians 2, this is all done away with, and something new has happened. How does Acts help us understand a letter like Ephesians?

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, no, I think that's right. Acts embodies the problem. You see it when, as you said a couple of weeks ago, I think it was, when Peter reports his going to the house of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10, he takes a lot of hits for that. Then he says, "Look what happened." And they say, "Well, I guess we can't argue with that." But then it comes up again in Acts 15, and you see it in sort of many and various ways.

So Acts is the story of how that was hard. Then Paul's letters give us, okay, the rationale for how this change has happened and how there is no longer any "dividing wall of hostility." It's a phrase from Ephesians. That's probably a reference to a structure in the Jerusalem temple where there was this—we call it the "court of the Gentiles"—they didn't call it that; that's what we call it. There's a big plaza area, and then we don't exactly know where it was, but part way in there and kind of surrounding the temple proper, the building, was a dividing wall, and it was about hip-high, apparently. The historian Josephus tells us it was about hip-high. Archeologists have actually literally found one of the signs that was there when the temple was destroyed in the year AD 70. It says, the paraphrase is something like, "Any Gentile that goes beyond this point will only have himself to blame for his rapidly ensuing death. You are not allowed past this wall."

Mike Zeigler: Now that's a little hostile.

Jeff Gibbs: It is, yeah, but Paul actually says that Jesus, through His blood, it's interesting, he says that "through His blood He has knocked down, taken away, the dividing wall of hostility." I don't exactly know if this is right, but I've thought about it this way: that it happened through His blood because all of our hostility, not only toward God, but toward one another, is what killed Jesus. He took it all and because He took it, it's gone. Ephesians 2:1-10, as you know, is a very favorite passage: "By grace are you saved through faith." So, that's salvation. Then it goes immediately to "Oh, you know what? And now there's no more division between Jew and Gentile. It's one new Person, capital P, in the one new Person, Jesus."

Yeah, this was a big ticket item for the early church, Jew and Gentile. It remains a big ticket item for us because we ... it's not as hard in a way, because a lot of the barriers that we erect between people are man-made barriers. Again, this is not the difficulty of, okay, God is doing something new so now circumcision, which He had commanded, doesn't matter anymore. See, that's harder. But for us, we can use all kinds of criteria: skin color, economics, heritage. We can create a barrier out of anything. In Jesus, because He is for all and all who trust in Him, all are baptized into Him, there is no dividing wall anymore. Again, it's not because everything's groovy, and we're just supposed to tolerate everything. No, no. It's centered in Jesus.

Mike Zeigler: Our challenge today is, continue to let that work of Jesus work in both directions and bringing us union with God and union with each other.

Jeff Gibbs: Absolutely right. Yeah, yeah. In the everyday congregation, of course, the barriers get erected because somebody hurt my feelings, they sinned against me. Oh, well, there's a remedy for that, actually. It's confession and absolution. Or because somebody wants to do things in a way that's different than the way I want to do them. Or I think they've misspent—not criminally—but I think it wasn't the best use of the church's money. See? Then we get mad and we create walls, and those walls have no place.

When you think about it, when you go to the Lord's Supper ... I preached the sermon long time ago that said there were two directions in the Lord's Supper. One is as we come up to the altar rail, we draw close to God. But then we also draw closer to one another, literally. You might be touching shoulders to your family member, your friend that you're sitting next to, or something, But now you're kneeling next to someone that you're not related to or maybe has a very different life experience. But it's precisely in that drawing close to Jesus as He draws close to us, we actually draw close to one another, and we're sinners, so we tend to forget that. But it's all Jesus, Mike.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah, so that we, how does he say in Ephesians? "So that we both have access to one Father."

Jeff Gibbs: In one spirit.

Mike Zeigler: One spirit.

Jeff Gibbs: There's Pentecost again, right.

Mike Zeigler: Yeah.

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, that's right. That's right.

Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you for joining us. We'll talk more about Paul's letters next time.

Jeff Gibbs: That sounds great. Thanks, Mike.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Listen, God Is Calling" tr. Howard S. Olson, sung by the Kammerchor, Concordia University-Wisconsin (© Lutheran Theological College, Makumira, Tanzania)

"Rise! To Arms, with Prayer Employ You" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

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