Sermon from Bishop Guernsey: The Lord Uses Hardship to Bring Forth His Good Purposes
The final day of Assembly 2012 in Ridgecrest, N.C., was marked by a closing Eucharist and a continued focus on the theme of “Captivating Disciples, Multiplying Congregations and Transforming Communities.”
Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, Primate of the Anglican Church of Kenya and Chairman of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans Primates’ Council, served as celebrant and The Rt. Rev. John A.M. Guernsey, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, served as preacher.
As the service began, those in attendance joined together in the processional hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” before saying the familiar Collect for Purity. Bishop Guernsey delivered a moving sermon reminding us that “often the Lord will use a crisis to get us refocused, reoriented, back in line with His priorities.”
“Our heavenly Father wants to use our suffering for Jesus to forge in us true holiness, a godly humility, a merciful and forgiving spirit, an unquenchable joy,” said Bishop Guernsey. “Adversity, crisis and especially persecution can stir the Church to obedience to the Great Commission and to bring many to salvation,” he said.
Full text of the sermon delivered by Bishop John Guernsey on June 9, 2012 at the closing Eucharist for Provincial Assembly:
From Jesus’ high priestly prayer on the night before He went to the Cross, we see clearly that the mission of the Church will be costly and hotly contested by the forces of darkness.
“I have given them your word,” Jesus prayed, “and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:14-15)
As the story of the early Church unfolds in the Book of Acts, we see Satan’s attacks come upon the Body of Christ again and again in order to hinder its mission. But we also see how the Lord used those attacks for His good purposes.
You see, it took persecution to get the disciples of the early Church to go out as the Lord had commanded them.
Jesus had told them, of course, just before His Ascension, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
But there’s no evidence that they went out beyond Jerusalem until they were forced out by the persecution that broke out after the deacon, Stephen, was stoned to death.
We read in Acts chapter 8, verse 1, that “Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Verse 4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.”
They had been sent by Jesus, but they didn’t go until they had to. We might say that their missionary strategy was initially motivated more by circumstances than by obedience.
I’m reminded of what President John Kennedy said when he was asked, “How did you become a war hero?” He replied, “It was involuntary; they sank my boat.”
I suspect the same could be said for a lot of us in our movement. “How did you get involved in church planting?” “I was deposed. I was sued. I was fired.”
Isn’t it fascinating how the Lord uses hardship and adversity for His good purposes? How often the Lord will use a crisis to get us refocused, reoriented, back in line with His priorities!
There are six passages in the Book of Acts in which Luke offers a summary of the growth of the Church in its mission. And each of the six statements about the growth of the Church follows a crisis, a crisis that threatened to divide the Church or undermine its witness or even destroy it.
I want to look at these six summaries of growth and the crisis that preceded them. And I want to highlight four key learnings for us in our mission to share Jesus Christ.
The first summary of growth is found in Acts chapter 5, verse 14. I’ll read beginning at verse 12:
“The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”
This follows the crisis over Ananias and Sapphira, a crisis involving corruption and dishonesty which threatened to undermine order in the Church and the leadership of the Apostles. The result? Growth in numbers and greater release of supernatural power of the Lord for healing and deliverance.
The second summary of growth is found in Acts chapter 6, verse 7: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
This follows the crisis over the conflict over the distribution of food to the Greek Jewish widows and the Hebraic Jewish widows, a crisis that threatened not only to divide the Church but to divert the Apostles from their calling to prayer and the Word of God.
The third summary of growth is in Acts 9:31: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”
This follows the crisis over Saul, as the great persecutor of the Church is converted and then introduced to the leaders in Jerusalem, where he speaks boldly in the Name of the Lord.
The fourth summary of growth is in Acts chapter 11, verse 21. I’ll read from verse 19:
“Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
This follows the crisis over Peter’s preaching to Cornelius and the other Gentiles at Caesarea in chapters 10 and 11, but this proclamation of the Gospel to Gentiles is also directly linked with the persecution that arose over Stephen back at the start of chapter 8.
The fifth summary of growth is Acts chapter 12, verse 24: “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.”
This follows the crisis over the persecution by Herod, including his execution of James and near execution of Peter.
And the final summary of growth, number six, is found in Acts chapter 16, verses 4 and 5:
“As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”
This follows the crisis over the status of Gentile believers, addressed by the Council of Jerusalem in chapter 15.
In these accounts, I see four key learnings:
First, the Lord desires to use hardship to bring forth the fruit of Christ-like character in us. Our heavenly Father wants to use our suffering for Jesus to forge in us true holiness, a godly humility, a merciful and forgiving spirit, an unquenchable joy.
Paul put it this way in his Letter to the Romans: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
This past January, on the Sunday following the adverse court ruling against seven of our churches in Virginia, by God’s arrangement Truro Church in Fairfax had a guest preacher, Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad.
Canon White pastors the largest church in Iraq, which is thriving in its ministries as it proclaims the Gospel of Christ and every week feeds the hungry, and provides education and medical care to hundreds and hundreds of people.
Canon White explained that he himself has been kidnapped and held at gunpoint. In the last 16 months 273 members of his church have been killed. He shared that his Vestry had attended an Alpha conference; as they were returning from the conference, all 11 Vestry members were kidnapped and they were never heard from again.
Yet Canon White said St. George’s is the happiest, most joy-filled church he has ever served.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find stories of how the Lord has used a crisis in someone else’s life to be encouraging and uplifting. But I don’t find the crises I face to be nearly so inspiring. Instead of recognizing that the Lord is at work, I’m apt to moan and groan about what has befallen me. But what the Lord desires is for me to allow Him to use pain and hardship to drive me to a renewed passion for Him, that in seeking Him with all my heart, I might be more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ.
Learning number two: Adversity, crisis and especially persecution can stir the Church to obedience to the Great Commission and to bring many to salvation.
I praise God for the missionary zeal and faithfulness of so many in our movement. Let me highlight one example, because I am so very thankful for the witness and leadership of The Falls Church in Northern Virginia.
When the crisis hit The Episcopal Church in 2003, The Falls Church responded by planting a church among the poor in Washington, D.C. When The Falls Church left The Episcopal Church in 2006 and was sued, they responded by…planting another church. Millions of dollars were drained away in litigation before they received a first round victory in court. Their response…was to plant two more churches. Then the positive ruling was reversed on appeal and they were sent back for another trial. They responded by planting another church. This time they lost at trial and they were forced out of their buildings this spring. Their response—you guessed it—has been to prepare to plant another church this summer.
After sending out clergy and parishioners to plant six churches, The Falls Church has grown by over a third in nine years, and the combined Average Sunday Attendance of The Falls Church and these six church plants is more than double what The Falls Church’s was in 2003.
May the Lord use the crises we face to stir us to greater faithfulness to the Great Commission.
Learning number three: You don’t get to experience just one crisis or period of suffering for Jesus. The Book of Acts details six crises and in doing so underscores for us that we should expect to continue to pay a price for our obedience to Christ.
We are called to preach Jesus in an increasingly hostile culture and we see the growing threats to religious freedom in the Western societies.
Of gravest concern to us in the U.S. is the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandate to require health care plans to include abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization. Exemptions would be permitted only for religious organizations that hire and serve their own people, in sharp contrast to all previous state and federal mandates which have offered broad religious exemptions. It’s been pointed out that Jesus and the Twelve wouldn’t qualify because they fed 5,000 others.
The trajectory of intolerance of the Gospel is such that Christians in the U.S. and Canada may well come to face the threat of sanctions, even imprisonment, for proclaiming and obeying the Word of God.
As Martin Niemoller, pastor in the German Confessing Church, famously said of Hitler’s regime, “First, they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then the came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me—but no one was left to speak up for me.”
We must make a costly and public stand with the Roman Catholic Church and with all others whose religious freedoms are under attack, here and in the persecuted Church around the world.
I think all too many Christians in America have somehow gotten the idea that we really ought to be exempt from the cost of discipleship, that suffering for our faith is something Christians experience in other cultures or other centuries.
But the consistent message of the New Testament is that all committed believers should expect to pay a price for following Jesus.
The Apostle Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
Perhaps, by God’s grace, we’ll one day look back and describe the crisis in our former denomination as the last major struggle we had to endure. But far more likely is that we will see it as merely boot camp to prepare us for greater battles.
And learning number four: Prayer is central to the work of the Kingdom and to the accomplishment of God’s purposes in adversity. In each of the six crises in the Book of Acts, prayer figures in a significant way:
• In the crisis over Ananias and Sapphira, it was the infilling and empowering of the Holy Spirit through prayer that resulted in a Church leadership that could hear and act on a word of knowledge about Ananias’s fraud. (4:31)
• In the crisis over the distribution of food to the widows, the priority was for the apostles to spend time in prayer, and they then pray for the deacons before laying hands on them. (6:4, 6)
• In the crisis over Saul, Ananias is praying and hears from the Lord in a vision. He is told to go to a man named Saul “for he is praying,” and he lays his hands on Saul and prays for his sight to be restored. (9:10, 11, 17)
• In the crisis over the Gospel to Gentiles, Peter begins his account of the incident by saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying…” (11:5)
• In the crisis over persecution under Herod the church is praying and praying all night for Peter to be delivered. (12:5, 12)
• And the crisis over the status of Gentile believers is resolved by a decision reached in prayer, as James declared, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (15:28)
God once taught me a painful and rather public lesson to show me how very seriously He takes our prayer lives, particularly our prayer lives as Christian leaders.
A number of years ago, in a sermon, I challenged people of the parish where I was then rector to commit to an intensive period of prayer and repentance. I called for 100 people to join in, and I told them that I would pray each day for those who committed to this season of prayer, as I hoped they would pray for me. I had a long list of people who gave me their names.
The summer went on and I went on vacation and came back in the fall. I was praying early one Sunday morning, when God spoke to me very clearly and convicted me that though I had prayed for those people, on a couple of days I had not prayed by name for each and every person. I’d gotten interrupted in my prayer time and meant to get back to it, but I’d simply forgotten to do so. I was deeply grieved that I had failed to keep my promise and I promptly repented and God said, “You’re forgiven by me, but that’s not enough.” So I thought for a moment and then I told God that I would write a letter to the people on the list and confess to them that I had not prayed for them by name every day as I had promised. God didn’t have to think about that for very long. He came right back and said, “The promise was public, the repentance must be public.”
I felt I couldn’t just do that during the announcements—“The church picnic is coming up and, oh, by the way, I repent”—I felt I needed to put my repentance in the context of a sermon and, since I wasn’t preaching that morning, I was off the hook for a week. But I committed myself before God that in the sermon the following Sunday I would tell the whole story and ask for their forgiveness. Well, the next afternoon at 5:00 I was alone in the office and the phone rang. The voice said, “My name is so and so. I’m a producer with the Christian Broadcasting Network and we’ve been given your name. We’re doing a series on renewal in the mainline churches and we want to feature your church. We want to bring a camera crew to your church next Sunday and record your service and your message and put it on the 700 Club and send it to 14 million homes.”
CBN did indeed come and film it and they broadcast the story, but they graciously edited out my public confession.
But I got the point: our prayer lives are so very important, aren’t they?
In John 17, it’s not just what Jesus prayed for that’s important, but the fact that He prayed! As He was facing arrest and crucifixion, Jesus’ priority was to pray for us and for our mission.
And that must be our overriding concern, as well: to let crisis drive us to be more faithful in prayer.
The Lord calls us in times of crisis to turn afresh to Him, that He might use the pressure we are under…
• to forge in us Christ-like character,
• to propel us out with new zeal for mission and with greater effectiveness in sharing Jesus with a world that needs him so much,
• to build confident faith as we face still more challenges,
• to make us more and more to be people of prayer.
I praise the Lord Jesus Christ for how He is at work in our movement, using all that we are experiencing to draw us into deeper intimacy with Him and to send us out for the spread of His Kingdom. To Him be all the glory. Amen.