The Courageous Church

Acts 20:17-32

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / June 4, 2006


            Have you ever considered the need for the Christian Church to be marked by courage? I suspect that if we were asked to name some of the key characteristics of the Christian Church, courage might not be listed among them. Instead, we might talk about love, faith, mercy, holiness, and truth.


            In one sense, I think it would be right not to list courage as a primary mark of the church. But, on the other hand, it seems to me that if there are occasions when we find it difficult to love as we ought, if there are times when we find it daunting to testify to our faith in Christ, if there are seasons when the pursuit of what is right may cause conflict, then what is fundamentally required is that we first be marked by courage.


            One dictionary describes courage as the state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger or fear with confidence and resolution.


            No doubt, each of us can think of times when we needed to be courageous. It is likely that you can bring to mind examples from history—recent and otherwise—when individuals succeeded in overcoming great obstacles because of their courage.


            Courage certainly comes in different forms—it comes in different shapes and sizes, depending on the context. My observation is that courage impresses us. Rightly applied, demonstrations of courage—whether big or small—never fail to grab our attention.


            On this note, I would like to share with you what, at first glance, appears to be a strange account from the world of professional baseball. On the CBS Sportsline website, one of the regular features is the most popular video footage of the week.  I visit the website daily and was struck that, for many consecutive days, the most popular video footage was a post-game interview with Washington Nationals manager, Frank Robinson. This struck me as odd because I expected the top video to be Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth in career homeruns.


I could not conceive of a scenario that would place the press conference of a manager from a mediocre ball club ahead of the historical Babe Ruth record being passed. Before watching the video I began to speculate—Did Robinson win the New York State Lottery? Did he admit to some heinous crime? What could be so important that Barry Bonds would become the 2nd most popular video of the week?


            For the benefit of those who might not follow baseball, Frank Robinson is seventy years old—he is an experienced and highly respected baseball manager. He is also in the Hall of Fame as a player. Robinson is what some might call ‘old school’—a ‘tough as leather’ and ‘spikes high’ kind of baseball guy. And what the video reveals is Robinson overcome by emotion, literally weeping, when asked about pulling his 3rd string catcher from the game in the middle of an inning.


            The substitution of catcher, Matt Lecroy, was newsworthy because it is rare for a non-pitcher to be replaced on the field in the middle of an inning. To be replaced mid-inning is embarrassing for a fielder and so managers make their defensive changes in advance of a new inning. In this instance, catcher Matt Lecroy had just allowed his seventh stolen base. The pressure of the unwritten baseball ‘code’ says ride out the inning and then make the change. But Frank Robinson knew that Lecroy’s poor play necessitated a change that could not wait. Baseball code or not, the right course of action for the team was to get a new catcher in there ASAP.


            So the game ends and Frank Robinson breaks into tears before the assembled media. Robinson is not crying for himself—the Nationals actually won the game 8-5. Robinson was weeping because he knew that ‘doing the right thing’ would come at the expense of hurting the feelings of one of his players.


            Why was this peculiar video watched more often than the Barry Bonds video? I think the reason is this: We are far less impressed by the strut of a muscle-bound, baseball ‘superstar’ than we are with a man who is able to couple courage with compassion. Or, to say it another way, it appears that a great majority are more impressed by compassionate courage than with red-carpet success.


            That is an important message for the church to hear. The Bible does not demand from the local church ‘success’, but rather, the Bible compels you and I and this congregation to be marked by, what I would term, ‘compassionate courage’.


            This is the example we find in the apostle Paul in Acts chapter 20. While stationed in the city of Miletus, Paul calls for the elders from Ephesus to come to him, and one could say that he holds the ancient version of a post-game press conference. Paul recounts his ministry with them:


You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia Minor, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (20:18-21).


            How did Paul lead? With an iron hammer? No. With his chest puffed out and his muscles flexed? No. Paul served the Lord and the Lord’s people with “humility and tears”. Was Paul then, what we would call ‘A wimp’? No. Was he overly sensitive, a kind of ‘touchy-feely’ kind of guy? No—every indication is that Paul was a ‘tough as leather’, ‘spikes high’ kind of guy.


            Paul was not afraid to do the right thing. Paul was willing to say that which was unpopular. He was willing to tell the truth even if it got him arrested, or killed. “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable”, he reminded the Ephesian elders. And a little further on he says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (20:27).


            Paul held nothing back. Paul was courageous in his proclamation of the gospel, but we must also note that Paul’s courage was coupled with humility and tears. This approach made a profound impression upon the people of Ephesus.


            Paul’s courage is further evidenced in his testimony when he says,  I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself” (20:24)—as what Paul? What is dearer to you than staying alive on this earth?


            Verse 24: “the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (20:24). Paul is saying that the gospel of Christ is the most important thing in the world to him.


            More than that, Paul communicates to the Ephesian elders that they should share his concern for the gospel. After recounting his own ministry approach, he turns to them saying, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace” (20:32).


You see, Paul’s exhortation isn’t merely to the Ephesians. It seems to me that we share similar ground with Paul. Collectively, as a congregation,  St. Giles Kingsway has received a ministry from the Lord Jesus, and I reckon that it is the same ministry Paul received almost two thousand years ago. We are charged with the task of testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. And because of the existing dangers, within the church, and without, proclaiming the gospel faithfully in our day will require significant courage.


            For us, for St. Giles Kingsway, the gospel of Jesus Christ must be the primary thing. I have observed that within many Canadian congregations a ‘survival mindset’ has set in. Part of me understands this. Many of us have noted the alarming rate at which Presbyteries are having to ‘close’ local congregations. For us to consider institutional survival is quite natural. And yet, I see no hint of this in Paul’s ministry.


            Paul isn’t preaching the gospel in order to add more workers for church committees and social functions. Paul isn’t proclaiming the Word because he wants to enhance the financial status of local congregations. And Paul isn’t evangelizing because he wants to create an impressive statistical account of his work. No! Paul is preaching the gospel because it is true. Paul is preaching the gospel because it glorifies Jesus Christ. Paul is spreading the gospel because it is the right thing to do.


            My limited experience tells me that it is very easy to get distracted by a myriad of worthy endeavours that are not the gospel. Things such as planning social events and seeking to balance the budget may indeed be worthwhile pursuits, but they are not to be our primary pursuit or preoccupation.


            I think it takes a great deal of courage to stand up and say, ‘We are doing wonderful things, but we are missing the main thing.’


            No doubt, when congregations close, it is for a variety of reasons—perhaps very complex reasons. But I can’t help but wonder if congregations are diminishing, due to a lack of courage. We lack someone who will call us to the main thing in the face of our doing reasonable things.


            Let it be said here today—not by me—but through the inspiration of the apostle Paul, “now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace.” Paul is calling you and I to the proclamation of God’s Word—the gospel of Jesus Christ. If something other than the gospel is our current focus, a shift is required, a change, an amendment to how we portion our time and energy.


            I’d like to think that Paul’s imperative would sufficiently motivate a congregation to courageously proclaim the gospel, but in the spirit of piling on additional motivation, I would like to draw to your attention the reward given to those whose emphasis is the gospel of Jesus Christ.


            Paul says, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish the course” (20:24). When Paul speaks of “finishing the course” he is not talking about a course you would take at school—he is talking about a racecourse. Paul is comparing his attentiveness to the ministry of Jesus Christ with an athlete’s dedication to finishing a race.


            There is one other place in the Bible where Paul employs this phrase, it is in Paul’s second letter to Timothy chapter 4, verse 7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2Tim. 4:7, 8).


            What I hear in this is additional motivation for making the gospel of Christ the main thing. When our focus, when the focus of St. Giles Kingsway is the main thing, we gain something greater than temporal benefits. When our focus is on the advancement of the gospel of Christ, we are told that eternal rewards of infinite value await us.


            As Jesus has said “No one has left anything for My sake and the gospel's who will not receive back a hundred fold” (Mt. 19:29).


            The unwritten code for Presbyterian congregations says, ‘Seek first a balanced budget and all these things will be added unto you.’ The unwritten code says, ‘Run as many church programs and have as many social events as possible and you will succeed.’


            If we are to elevate the place of the gospel beyond the things called for in the unwritten code, tremendous courage will be required. God will give us such courage if we ask Him. And the God who gives courage for our proclamation of the gospel will also give us our eternal reward. Amen.