God Establishes the Church - Fifth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1, John 15:5
May 02, 2021

In our reading from Acts 8 this morning, we see God working to establish the Gospel and the church in Ethiopia. How does God do this? He sends an angel to tell Philipp to get up and go on a journey to the south. God wants Philipp to get on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. That was a road a person could use to travel from Jerusalem across the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and then south from Egypt to Ethiopia and that part of Africa. God is taking geography and roadways into account in bringing the good news of Jesus to the Ethiopians.

God had a purpose in wanting Philipp to get on that road. God’s purpose was so Philipp could meet a chariot occupied by an official at the court of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. This official had been worshipping in Jerusalem and was heading back to Ethiopia. When Philipp was close to that chariot, the Spirit told Philipp to meet it. He did so. He heard the official reading from the prophet Isaiah. He was reading that portion of Isaiah that we know as chapter 53 concerning the suffering of Christ. We read this passage on Good Friday every year.

This official was wanting to know whether Isaiah was talking about himself or someone else. Philipp told him that this passage speaks about the suffering and resurrection of the Christ. So beginning with this passage from the Scriptures, Philipp spoke the good news of Jesus to him. Then the Ethiopian official asked to be baptized. He was. Then the Holy Spirit took Philipp away and placed him at a place called Azotus. Presumably, the Ethiopian official took the Christian faith with him to his homeland.

One of the things about this story that makes an impression is the miraculous activity going on. There is an angel that gives instructions from God to Philipp. Then the Spirit of God Himself tells Philipp to meet that chariot. And then after Philipp speaks the Gospel of Jesus to the Ethiopian, the Spirit takes Philipp away and lands him at Azotus. Azotus was a town north of Gaza along the Mediterranean coast.

What is the point of this miraculous activity? The point is that God works to establish the Gospel of Christ and the church. God does this because Christians cannot do it in their own strength.

There are two reasons why Christians cannot establish the Gospel and the church in their own strength. The first reason has to do with Christians themselves. The second reason has to do with Jesus and the Gospel in relation to human society and its rulers. We see both things operating in the book of Acts. Acts teaches us that God Himself establishes the Gospel of Christ and the Christian church in the world; that we do not. We are effects of God’s working and then instruments for God’s further working.

How do we see this with respect to Christians themselves? We could start with the Apostles. Jesus gathered them around Himself in His ministry up until Holy Week. But then what happened? Jesus got arrested. The disciples, except for John, scattered. Peter tried to hang in there, but he ultimately ended up denying that he knew Jesus to preserve his life.

Then Jesus rose from the dead and told the disciples that they would be His witnesses. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high, that is, given the Holy Spirit.

Let’s fast forward a little. Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. The Holy Spirit was poured out. The frightened and once Jesus-denying disciples are now apostles. They are bold to preach Jesus and His resurrection from the dead, declaring that God has made Jesus Lord and Christ by the resurrection (Acts 2:36). They themselves are now living in faith. And they preach without fear.

And then what happens? Many in Jerusalem come to believe in Jesus as the Christ and Savior of the world through their Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching. It is the Holy Spirit, causing the preaching of Jesus as the Christ, that works faith in Jesus and establishes the church in Jerusalem.

The Holy Spirit was establishing the preaching of Jesus in spite of the weakness of the Apostles. And people were believing in the Gospel of Jesus through the preaching of the Apostles in spite of themselves.

Jesus Himself says this in the Gospel reading today. I am the grape vine. You are the branches. Apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:50). As branches, He feeds us with the “sap,” so to speak. This sap is His own death and resurrection for us and the good news of forgiveness of sins and everlasting life He has won for us. This sap is then the Holy Spirit causing this preaching to happen and causing people to believe it, as He works in it and through it in the depth of your soul to believe it and change your outlook and your life. You cannot be a Christian by your own doing. It is Christ’s work; it is the Holy Spirit’s work; it is their work together through the word.

But even then, there can be trouble. There was trouble in the apostolic church. A quarrel broke out. There was a dispute between the Christians of Hebrew background against the Christians of Geek background about how the daily distribution of food and goods was taking place. The Greeks thought that they were being neglected in the daily distribution. This problem was addressed by appointing Stephen and Philipp and five others to the task.

And then there was the big and vitally important doctrinal controversy that threatened the Gospel itself right at the beginning. This controversy was about whether Christians had to adopt the law of Moses and essentially become Jews before they could become Christians and enter the kingdom of God (Acts 15). The council of apostles gathered at Jerusalem determined that they did not.

The point is that the church goes through struggle and sometimes turmoil within itself. It needs pruning. And the Devil, the ancient adversary, tries to do this. But though the church struggles, and we Christians struggle with ourselves, the Spirit keeps bringing the Gospel, and working repentance, and working faith. God maintains Christians and the church, through it all.

God does some pruning along the way, Jesus says (John 15:2). Christians and churches that refuse the pruning are in danger of becoming irreparably lost. Nonetheless, God continues His work of establishing and maintaining the Gospel and the church.

And then what do we see when we look at Jesus, the Gospel, Christians, and the church in relation to society and its rulers? We see how society and its rulers cannot accept the gospel of Jesus. We see how they can often view the word of God and the Gospel as a threat, or a problem, that must be dealt with. Chapter 7 of Acts ends with the stoning of Stephen, as, in the Spirit, “he saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Acts chapter 8 opens with these words: “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem . . . Saul was ravaging the church. And entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1, 3).

The world just does not like the Scriptures, Jesus, humanity, and God as taught in the Christian faith. And, therefore, the world often does not like Christians; unless they will get with the program and recant their Christian faith. And so the world really would rather get rid of the whole Christian thing.

This is always its basic attitude, even if there is not active persecution going on. Active persecution has happened at many times and different places. It is happening today in certain parts of the world. How can the Christian faith and the church be established within the world that has the basic attitude of being antagonistic to it? This is one of the big questions of the book of Acts. How could it survive through all these centuries? This is a big question of Christian history.

The answer is: It is God’s will to establish it. It is God’s will to cause it to survive. This is because Jesus is God’s Son. And God gave Jesus as the sacrifice of atonement, the propitiation, for all mankind. And though His son was rejected by the rulers and the people of that day and put to death; God raised Him from the dead and made Him Lord and Christ and the Name that is above every name (Phil. 2:11).

So, in the book of Acts, we see God doing this through outward stupendous miracles, like we see in Acts 8. He worked these miracles through the Apostles, and then in association with guys like Stephen and Philipp, and then Paul, who was once the Saul; the guy who was persecuting the church. But Jesus turned Paul around. God established the Gospel and the church in a hostile world against all odds. The Christians certainly weren’t powerful enough to do this.

I wonder if Christians today long for the glory days of the apostles with the stupendous miracles. But we should understand something here. We Christians are living everyday in a miracle. We can think of this as a miracle that is operating beneath the surface, not necessarily seen as such, but there and real nonetheless. Jesus talks about this in the parable of the man who scattered seed on the ground. And then he went to bed. In the morning he saw that the seed sprouted and grew, but he himself did not know how (Mark 4:26-29).

You can see the miracle in these simple ways. You all, both individually and together, believe in Jesus as your Savior and the Gospel that he brings to you. And we can say that you believe this in spite of the weakness of your natural self, corrupted by sin. If you say, yes I believe this Christian faith, and recognize that you are among a group of people that also say, Yes I believe this Christian faith, you are recognizing a profound miracle, because you cannot believe this in your own strength.

And as you recognize that here we are, gathered around Christ’s Word and Sacrament, Christ himself present with us according to His promise (Matthew 18:20), you recognize that you are witnessing a miracle. For the gathering of the church continues to happen right here in your lives, in your sight, within a world that would really rather this whole Christian thing go away. God needed to use stupendous outward miracles at the beginning because of the hostility of the world in which He was establishing the Gospel and the community of those who believe it. But let us not think that the absence of those kinds of miracles suggests that God is not now working miraculously, that is, by His power, to establish the Gospel and the church, even now. For you are here, we are here as church, precisely because of such working of God.

Dear friends, God establishes the Gospel and the gathering of Christ’s people around it. Take comfort in this. God establishes us in the faith in spite of ourselves and will continue to do so by His Spirit and grace in the Gospel, though we will need some pruning along the way. And God establishes us and the church in spite of the world. For Jesus has overcome the world; He has died and risen and has overcome all things. He is our strength and never fails us. To God alone be the glory. Amen.


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