Archives For October 2004

Our Judean Ministry

October 24, 2004 — Leave a comment

Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 11:19-30
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 10/24/2004

The early church was growing. They’d just suffered their first martyr, Stephen, and their resolve was higher than ever. The story of Jesus was being spread, as he had instructed in Acts 1:8, just prior to his ascension, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. Notice the progression of the spread of the gospel. It started in Jerusalem, then spread to the surrounding area of Judea, then spread further out to Samaria, and then spread beyond Samaria to the ends of the known world. Each move of the gospel was dependant upon the groundwork that had been laid before.

The church was growing. Peter and some of the Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene had begun taking the story of Christ beyond the Jewish community to the Gentile Greeks. The church was beginning to separate it’s ties as a sect of Judaism and starting to establish itself as an independent faith system. Critics of this movement were beginning to identify it’s followers as “Christ-followers” or “Christians”. At this critical juncture, certainly the church should focus it’s effort on mobilizing more missionaries to spread the word farther and faster, right?

Maybe that would have been their focus if not for the news brought by the prophet Agabus. He prophesied a great famine for Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean area. With distant memories of the Egyptian famine suffered by their forefathers, the young Antiochian church took up a collection to help the mother church in Jerusalem, and sent it by way of Barnabas and Saul. They saw this famine as a threat towards the viability of the church in Jerusalem.

The leaders of the early church recognized that they must keep their home base strong if they desired to keep growing. Think of how a tree grows. It does not spread it’s branches until an ample root system and trunk have been established. The same is true for the church today. We must keep our root base strong.

This paradigm was impressed upon Paul early in his missionary travels. By the end of his third missionary journey, he was taking another voluntary collection for the struggling Jerusalem church. This time he was counting on the young church plants in Asia, Macedonia, Galatia, and Achaia to provide help to the mother church in Jerusalem to whom they literally owed their existence. In his letters to the Galatians, the Corinthians, and the Romans, Paul exhorts these churches to help the church in Jerusalem. Paul understood the importance of a strong base, a viable root system.

Olivet has many branches. We support almost a dozen missionaries, both foreign and domestic. But what condition is our root system in? Our plight is not so different than that of the early church in Jerusalem. There is a famine in this neighborhood… a spiritual famine. It used to be that people came to church simply because it was there. Not so any more. Scores of people walk by this building every week and seldom do they enter. The demographic of the congregation no longer accurately represents the demographic of the neighborhood in which it is located. The soil around our roots has changed.

We can learn a lot about changing soil conditions from the hydrangea. The hydrangea is a tall shrub that blooms in the summer. The interesting thing is that the color of the blooms varies depending on the condition of the soil. If the acidity of the soil is below a pH of 6.5, then you will get blue blooms. If the acidity of the soil rises above 6.5, then you will get pink and red blooms. The hydrangea changes in response to the changing conditions of the soil in which it grows.

Lately you and I have noticed changes in our soil. More and more young people are moving into the neighborhood and some of them are finding their way to our pews on Sunday mornings. People are searching for spiritual food, because there is a famine in the neighborhood. But are we able to feed them?

To those who are hungry, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). To those who thirst, he said “Come to me and drink” (John 7:37). We know this to be true, yet still people are spiritually starving. We pass them every day on the streets in the neighborhood. People who look like you and me. Yet inside, they are famished.

So what are we to do? What is the response of the church to those it serves? Let’s look at what those in the early church did:

First, they saw the need. Agabus saw the famine approaching and through his prophecy, the disciples saw it too. Paul brought news of the famine to the churches in Asia and Macedonia, and they saw the need. Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians that “at the present time your surplus fills their (the church in Jerusalem’s) need…” (2 Cor. 8:14). Do we see the need? Do we see the spiritual hunger in our streets? What is our surplus that we have to offer to this neighborhood?

The second thing they did was search their hearts. They were aware of the need to keep the church in Jerusalem strong. But to what extent were they to be involved? The disciples decided to give based on “each (one’s) own ability” (Acts 11:29). Paul urged the churches to give “what you have decided in your heart, not with regret or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). Have you searched your heart to see what God might be calling you to do in response to the spiritual famine in this neighborhood? Does it pain you to see so many people searching for the answers to questions they’re not even aware they’re asking? What is your heart’s reaction to the need?

Once they saw the need and they had searched their hearts, they sacrificed with gratitude. Most, if not all, of these people were of the working class. They did not have a lot of money sitting around in bank accounts and investments that they could reallocate without feeling a pinch. This took some amount of sacrifice on their part. However, it was a willing sacrifice. Those who gave did not do so begrudgingly, rather they were eager to give (Rom. 15:26), their enthusiasm even stimulating others to give (2 Cor. 9:2). There was a clearly identified need, there was a clear ability to respond, and there was an eagerness to meet the need. What is it that you have to sacrifice? What will your attitude toward that sacrifice be?

I believe that we see the need present in our neighborhood. You need only walk down the street to feel it yourself. There is a quiet desperation that resonates through Fairmount. Something is missing. But we have the bread of life and living water to offer! We can meet the need! It takes action on your part. You must allow God to search your heart. Ask him to show you how you, personally, are able to meet this need. What is it that he is calling you to do in response? Then act! In the coming year there are going to be more and more opportunities for you to get involved in new outreach initiatives offered through our church. From hosting small groups in your homes, to working alongside neighborhood charities, to attending art shows, to simply showing hospitality to the new faces that appear each Sunday morning. Some of you will even be called to share in the financial responsibility by giving above and beyond your regular tithes and offerings. God knows your heart and he will show you opportunities to become involved. Seize those opportunities with both hands!

One immediate opportunity that I encourage all of you to seize is tonight’s commissioning service for our resident artists. Come out tonight and join with us as we ask God’s blessing on the work that these artists produce upstairs. The community will be watching tonight. Out of sheer curiosity some will come to see we’re all about. Will you be here to show them? I hope you will.

We need to make sure our root system is strong and adaptable here at Olivet Covenant. We can make our church stronger, and help our branches to reach further, by rising to the challenge of meeting this neighborhood’s needs. We can make our church more adaptable by changing in response to the changes we see taking place around us. See the need, search your heart, and make a willing sacrifice. We need to fill these pews with the spiritually hungry who walk these streets. We need to end the famine.