The Provoked Church

Acts 17:15-20

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / April 30, 2006


            You often hear people within the Christian Church expressing an interest in seeing their particular congregation grow. This conversation often leads to speaking about local demographics and particular outreach strategies. Certainly, there is no shortage of books available under the heading, “Church Growth”.


            Does it surprise you to hear me say that I am not convinced that these conversations about church growth are entirely helpful? I hope you won’t misunderstand me—I am eager to see numerical growth in the number of folks attending services at St. Giles Kingsway—it’s just that I do not think that the formulas being presented by the so-called church growth experts is where our emphasis should be placed.


            What then, should our emphasis be? Now, I can hardly call myself an expert in biology, but it seems to me that healthy things grow.  If, over the next six months, my young daughter failed to grow a centimeter in stature, I would bring her to our doctor believing that something is wrong in terms of her health. I would do this because we have come to expect growth to be the indicator of good health.


            Bearing in mind that principle, I submit to you that the emphasis of a Christian congregation should be on buttressing our spiritual health. Again, the conviction here is that if we are healthy, we will make wise decisions; if we are healthy, we will engage in the right activities; if we are healthy, we will grow.


            Admittedly, the things that contribute to our spiritual health are myriad and varied. This sermon series will present but a sampling of the things that mark a healthy church.


            If this morning’s sermon title appears to be a curious beginning to this pursuit, may I offer an explanation for this by way of some analogies.


            It has been my experience that positive steps are often born from negative experiences. The search for satisfaction always emerges from the sea of dissatisfaction. I’m thinking of every weight loss program that I’ve ever engaged in. I don’t go on a diet when my clothes fit comfortably; I don’t diet if I am completely satisfied with my appearance. No, I diet when I can scarcely button my pants together. I diet when a particular glance in a mirror provokes in me a high level of dissatisfaction.


            Another example of this principle comes to mind as I think back to some holidays spent at my family cottage. I’m the kind of person who enjoys sitting on the back deck—either to read a book or simply to relax with a cold drink. I never liked the deck at the family cottage—it was painted in a tone of red that was displeasing to the eye; some of the boards were splintered, and some even had rusty nails protruding from them.


            Now, even though there were things about this deck that I did not like, I did not do anything about it. I was not sufficiently provoked to change anything . . . until one particular summer day when I fell through the deck. It was not a long fall, but I remember vividly as I stood there wearing the deck around my waist, thinking, ‘That’s enough. I’m going to build a new deck.’ That same summer I built a replacement deck for my cottage.


            The point is that being dissatisfied can be a good thing if our dissatisfaction sparks an earnest pursuit of that which will satisfy. Being provoked by something that displeases us is a good thing when it causes us to respond in a positive and productive way.


            Please pardon my overuse of hockey analogies, but another example that comes to mind is the play of Wendel Clark for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I was always excited when Wendel Clark was knocked down by an opposition body-check. Why did I enjoy this? Because Wendel was the kind of player who performed best when he was provoked. Once provoked, Wendel would seem to come to life—he would skate faster, check more often, and gain more scoring chances.


            I used to feel guilty when I recognized how certain aspects of church ministry provoked me. I felt badly if something that we were doing, or not doing as a congregation, bothered me. That is, until I returned to the apostle Paul’s example in Acts, chapter 17.


            Paul is in the city of Athens. Once the intellectual center of the ancient world, Athens boasted a rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Athens was world-renowned for its literature, art, and its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty (Stott, The Message of Acts, 276). You could have hardly blamed Paul if he was spellbound by the splendour of the city’s architecture and the mystique of the intellectual heritage. Yet, Paul was not spellbound by that which was distinguished, but rather, he was provoked by that which was distasteful to his Christian conscience.


            Luke explains that “while Paul was waiting for (his colleagues) at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols” (17:16).


            Paul was a church-planter. As Paul went from community to community, faithfully communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ, local congregations were established.            And Paul understood that if healthy congregations were to be established he would need to confront those elements that opposed the corporate health of the community.


            In other words, the fact that Paul was provoked by a city submerged in idolatry, should be regarded as a good thing. Moreover, the manner in which Paul responds to his own agitation provides us with an example worthy of emulation.


            Being provoked, being agitated, as you likely know, does not always lead to an appropriate response. Take, for instance, the simple example of seeing a piece of trash on the ground. Noticing garbage that has been left behind never fails to provoke my spirit. But do you know what? I have to be honest—I do not always pick up the litter. Sometimes I see the litter and am sufficiently stirred to go pick it up. On other occasions, however, I see the litter, and am provoked by it, but I do nothing in response to my agitation.


            One response to being provoked then, is indifference. Because you and I so often see litter on the ground, we run the risk of being accustomed to this sight. We’ve picked up litter so many times, but it doesn’t seem to eliminate the problem. This can happen within the local church. There was a time when we confronted gossip; there was a time when we confronted uncooperative spirits; there was a time when we were willing to confront spiritual lethargy, but as the shortcomings persisted we grew indifferent.


            No doubt the apostle Paul had seen his share of pagan worship and idolatry in his day. And yet, there is no sense that Paul would shrug it off and say, ‘You can’t change the way these people think and act. It’s not worth my time.’ No matter how familiar the dysfunctions of society were to Paul, he never ceased in his efforts to bring the person and work of Jesus Christ to bear on the situation. When Paul was provoked, he did not respond with indifference.


            A second possible response to being provoked is hostility. The examples of this response are many.  A driver is provoked by being cut off by another driver and responds by rolling down his window and shouting harsh words while making impolite hand gestures. A husband provokes a wife with a single comment about how the vegetables were prepared and an all-out argument ensues.


Could it ever be said of a local congregation, that certain members respond to being provoked with hostility?


A decision is rendered that you disagree with. A hymn is chosen that you dislike. The sermon that is preached is too long. The décor of the church building is not to your liking. There is insufficient outreach taking place. The children’s programming lacks volunteers. How do you respond?


Some lash out with hostility—spreading criticism to all who will listen. Others respond by shrugging with indifference—convinced that there is no hope for effecting change. And still others respond like the apostle Paul.


Paul was provoked to the core at the sight of the idols in Athens. He was immensely bothered by what he witnessed there. And yet, if you read the entire chapter you see that there is not even a hint of hostility in his response to the people of Athens. Paul is deeply offended by the presence of idols, but he refuses to lash out.


Nor does Paul retreat with indifference. He doesn’t say to himself, ‘I’m going to keep a low profile and when Silas and Timothy arrive, we’ll move on to a more Christian-friendly city.’


No, Paul responds to the being provoked by immersing himself in Christian service. Refusing indifference, and avoiding hostility, Paul enters the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing gentiles concerning Jesus Christ, risen from the dead (17:17). Not only in the synagogue, but Paul also went daily to the market place to speak with any who were there.


Indeed, it was good that Paul was provoked by that which was not God-honouring. And it was good that Paul responded so positively to the agitation of his spirit.


As I mentioned before, I know what it is like to be provoked with regard to the state of ministry within a local congregation. But thanks to Paul, I now realize that is not a bad thing—I realize that being provoked can actually begin a process of that leads to improving the health of a congregation.


The critical issue I see here is how you and I, as members of St. Giles Kingsway, respond to things that are not quite as they ought to be.


If there are occasions when you feel agitated by the state of affairs here, please do not feel badly.


The challenge for you, and for me, is to allow our agitation to carry us into productive Christian service. We must not yield to the temptation to lash out in a hostile manner, and we must not yield to the temptation to merely shrug with indifference.


We can make a difference.  And being provoked in our spirit may be the spark that motivates us to contribute to St. Giles Kingsway in a way that promotes her health and vibrancy.


So, be provoked, and let us raise the bar as we join together in serving Christ and His Church. Amen.