Thursday, April 14, 2016

Built by the Word of God's Grace

Acts 20:17-35 Last week we heard about a man who was going “from house to house”, persecuting Christians, dragging them off in chains, and putting them in prison.  This week he hear about a man who was going “from house to house” teaching the word of God, calling people to turn from their sins and to put their faith in Jesus Christ.
The great miracle of these two stories is that the man who went from “house to house” persecuting Christians-- and the man who went from “house to house” preaching Christ--are the same man!  Saul of Tarsus—Paul the Apostle:  redeemed and sanctified by the grace of God in the risen Christ.
The words “from house to house” serves as the bookends of Paul’s life:  what he was before he met the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus-- and what he became afterwards.  And so what accounted for this profound change in his life?  He tells the Ephesian elders that it was the Word of God’s grace which built him up and gave him an eternal inheritance. 
This is the best possible news for us!  All of us want to grow in our Christian faith.  All of us want to become more faithful disciples in the days to come than we have been in the past. 
But we have a tendency to look at Paul’s life and say to ourselves, “Well sure, if the risen Christ met me on the road I might have a dramatic change in my life too!”  “If my pastor was a man like Ananias that the angels talked to too I might become a great saint like Paul.
But when Paul meets with the pastors from Ephesus, the last time on this earth that he would ever meet with them, what he entrusts into their hands is not an experience, what he points them too s not a remarkably gifted pastor, but the word of God’s grace which is able to build them up in the faith and give them the inheritance of eternal life.
Brothers and sisters in Christ that exact same Word of Grace has been given to us too.  What built Paul up, what strengthened him, what accounted for his remarkable growth in the faith is ours too:  the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ that is found in God’s Word when it is preached and taught and read and in the Sacraments when we receive them in faith.
And so what we are going to do this morning is look at the difference God’s Word made in Paul’s life of faith and reflect on our own life of faith and our own growth in Christian living.  Paul said, “You yourselves know how I lived.”
Without hesitation, without embarrassment, Paul holds out his own life as a testimony to the power of God’s word of grace to build up the child of God in their faith.  What about us?
Are we willing to hold up our own life as an example of what the power of God’s grace can accomplish in our life?  We ought to be!  Growth in faith and fruitfulness of life is expected of the child of God after they come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, none of us are where we want to be.  Often times our Christian walk is two steps forward and three steps back.  Paul said of himself that the good he wanted to do he didn’t do and the evil he didn’t want to do, that is what he did.  But what was true for Paul over the course of his life is true for us too:  the Word of God’s grace is able to build us up.  The word of God’s grace is able to give us an eternal inheritance. 
That is exactly what Paul experienced in his ow n life.  He may not have seen it day to day.  But over twenty years of walking with Jesus as his disciple, his growth in faith and life through the power of God’s gracious Word was evident and he could point to himself (not to lift himself up, but humbly) as someone who had experienced the power of the risen Christ to transform his people into his own likeness.  Paul said:
“The Holy Spirit testifies to me that imprisonment and affliction waits for me but I do not count my life of any value or precious except to the extent that I may finish my course and the ministry I received form Jesus to testify to his grace.” 
Before his conversion Paul was a proud man.  He was proud of his intellect and learning.  He was proud of his heritage.  He was proud of his social position. 
But over the years the word of God’s grace had changed him.  Twenty years after his conversion, his own life had NO value to him except to the degree that he was able to serve Jesus.  He so identified his own life with that of Jesus that he was ready to face any kind of persecution so long as he could finish the course that Jesus had laid out for him.
What about us?  As we hear and study God’s Word, are we being transformed by the renewing of our mind?  Is the image of God being renewed in us day by day?  Are we growing in Christ-likeness?  That is the work that the Spirit wants to accomplish in us through God’s gracious Word so that we might do the work that Jesus has given us to do.
None of us here has been called to be an apostle.  But all of us have a course that the Lord has laid out for us.  All of us have a ministry—a service—that we are to perform as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
That course the Lord has laid out for us —that ministry the Lord has given us—is our mission in life and we find meaning and value and purpose as we pursue it just as Paul did.
Because it is given to us by the Lord, what we discover as we grow in God’s grace is that everything else begins to pale in comparison- and fall away in importance- as we focus on the Lord’s calling and claim upon our lives. 
What we discover about ourselves as we are built up by the Word of God’s grace is that we become much more courageous in our faith and much more willing to suffer the hardships of being a Christian because we know that our value and worth is found in Christ and his mission rather than what people think about us or say about us. 
And we need that growth in courage and conviction and clarity regarding the things of God because there are those who desire the destruction of our faith.  Paul says:  Be alert because there will be fierce wolves will come, not sparing the flock, speaking twisted things to draw away disciples.
When you read his words you discover that Paul never forgot what he had been.  He said about himself that he was the least of the apostles because he had persecuted the church of God.  He never forgot that.  But neither did he let his past dictate his future because that belonged to Jesus. 
He had been converted by the risen Christ.  He had been sanctified by the Holy Spirit working in his life through the word of God’s grace.  And after two decades of growth in the faith, he knew better than anyone the danger posed to the flock of the Good Shepherd by the wolves who would come, perverting the Word of God. 
And so he warned the Ephesian pastors that they had to be on guard and protect the flock and warn those entrusted to their care about the dangers of twisting the Word of God’s grace.  But his words of warning are for us too.
Over 150 years ago C.F.W. Walther preached a sermon entitled, “The Sheep Judge Their Shepherds.”  He wasn’t contradicting what Paul says about the responsibility of pastors to guard their flocks and warn them of spiritual danger, but he said it was the responsibility of the sheep to recognize these fierce wolves who are bent on destroying God’s flock—that the sheep have to be able to understand when the word of God’s grace is being twisted—that the sheep have to insist on hearing the whole counsel of God.
What about us?  Are we able to do that?  Paul did.  Even though he was taught by the greatest rabbi of the day before his conversion, his knowledge of the Word of God grew dramatically over the 20 years after his conversion because he knew Jesus.
Have we grown in our knowledge of the things of God over the years?  Is our understanding of the Bible deeper and broader today than it was in the past?  Do we measure what we hear in church by the standard of the whole counsel of God’s Word?  Have we allowed Jesus—through our worship and study of God’s Word—to instruct us in the Word of God?
I hope so!  Our congregation and our church body are not magically immune from the very dangers that Paul talks about.  We are no different by nature than the people who attend and serve churches where the very words of God have been turned upside down to fit the agenda of the dark and dying culture around us. 
And the only hope of remaining steadfast in the Word of God is for each and every one of us to grow in our knowledge of the word of God’s grace-- for to lose that is to lose the very thing that gives and grows faith in Jesus.  Paul says that “the word of God’s grace is able to build us up and give us an inheritance with all those who are sanctified.”
As we consider our growth in faith we may be discouraged by how far we have come.  But we have to remember where we began.  All of us began our journey of faith where Paul did:  as enemies of God.  But the Word of grace was spoken to us—for many of us when we were baptized as babies—for others of us later in life as we heard about Jesus through preaching or the testimony of a friend--and the Holy Spirit gave us the inheritance of eternal life through God’s gracious words. 
That same word of grace—which is nothing other than the Good News of Jesus—is still being spoken in this place to build us up in faith and in our life of discipleship.  And as we hear and study that Word—as we receive it in the sacraments—we can be certain that our risen Savior is helping us grow in Christ-likeness just like he did in Paul’s life.  Amen.

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