Soon after his arrival as the new United Methodist bishop of South Carolina, Joseph Bethea was attending a welcoming service at a local church. After making some brief remarks, he began answering questions from the floor.
A woman in the choir raised her hand. Saying she was new to the United Methodist Church, she asked, “What does a bishop do?” He gave her a thoughtful answer about the differences among denominations that have an episcopal system which appoints ministers to churches and those where local congregations are self-governing and call their ministers. Afterwards, she politely asked, “Yes, but what do you do?
“What do you do?” How often do we begin conversations with strangers with that question? How much of a person’s self-identity is wrapped up in what he or she does for a living? When looking at an unfamiliar object, the question that pops to mind is, “What does it do?” Surveys indicate that many college students determine their course selection solely on the pragmatic principle of “What will it do for my chances of getting a job?” It’s as if “function” is the criteria for determining the value of a person or thing.
If function is how we determine the value of persons, objects, and courses, perhaps it is not surprising that many people ask the same question of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Luke’s account of Paul’s second missionary journey that is found in our text gives a clear and forceful answer to the question, “What does the gospel do?
Paul and his co-workers are in Troas, planning to travel east to carry the gospel to Asia. Instead, a vision tells Paul to go west, to Macedonia, which is what we know today as northern Greece. For the first time, the gospel is moving into the area of Europe. This is a major turning point in Acts’ story of the expanding Christian mission. Like Peter’s move to the Gentiles in Acts 10, Paul’s entry into Europe results from a divine vision. In both cases, missionary outreach is due not to human desire but to God’s gracious initiative.
What happened when Paul abandoned his plans and went instead to Macedonia? Even with God’s intervention and direction, when Paul arrived in Philippi there was no brass band, no visit from the Welcome Wagon, no “pounding” by eager church-goers for their new minister. Paul discovered that when God closes a door, it is because God has opened another one through which to pass. Paul learned, as should we, that the door of service which it is right to enter does not necessarily guarantee the comfort of the Christian but rather the success of the mission.
What was the result of Paul’s faithfulness in going to Philippi instead of Asia? One result was the first Christian congregation which we know of was started in Europe. The rest of Acts 15 tells of a rich businesswoman named Lydia who was transformed by the gospel. She was baptized and opened her home to the fledgling congregation. And a slave girl was redeemed by the gospel when Paul drove the spirit of divination out of her. This led to Paul and Silas being beaten and thrown into jail. Undaunted, they used their imprisonment as an opportunity to continue spreading the gospel. As a result, the jailer was converted and baptized.
To change the world, our nation, our community, it is necessary to begin with changed persons. We cannot share the transforming power of the gospel unless we too are transformed. The jailer at Philippi asked Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul answered: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
Belief in Jesus Christ is not a creed or a philosophy or a socially acceptable habit. It is a personal commitment to Christ. It is an encounter and a continuing relationship with the risen, living Christ who died for your sin. A relationship with Christ is the distinguishing mark of a Christian.
John Wesley learned this truth the hard way. Early in his ministry, he went to Georgia as a missionary. Soon after reaching Savannah, he met Spangenberg, the Moravian bishop, who asked him: “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley answered: “I know He is the Savior of the world.” Spangenberg responded: “True, but do you know he has saved you?”
After three years, a discouraged and disappointed Wesley was back in England feeling that he was a failure. Spangenberg’s question still haunted him. It was not until that fateful evening at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738, that Wesley had a deep, life-changing experience. Afterwards he wrote: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ. Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” The transforming power of the gospel gave John Wesley new energy, new meaning, and new direction in his ministry.
What does the gospel do? It changes lives!
Are lives being changed in this church and community? Has your life been changed? Do you want your life to change? If so, open yourself to the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit, as Paul did at Troas. Share with others the life-changing love of Christ, as Paul and Silas did at Philippi. Accept the transforming lordship of Jesus Christ, as Lydia and the others did. Then you too will begin to receive the benefits of knowing Christ.
Paul and Silas were released from prison but they were asked to leave town. After final advice to Lydia and the other Christians, they left behind a small but growing fellowship of believers who would always hold a special place in Paul’s heart. This new church in Philippi survived in spite of persecution, indifference, competing cults, and the exotic distractions of an urban center of commerce.
In this brief story of Paul’s visit to Philippi, we find an answer to the question, “What does the gospel do?” What the gospel does is change lives. Lydia, the slave girl, the jailer — they were all changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rich, poor, middle class, free, slave, business person, civil servant — all walks of life were affected by the gospel. And those who were changed by the power of the gospel were drawn together into a fellowship that was able to survive and grow in spite of the many obstacles facing it.
Acts 16 tells us what the gospel did in Philippi. But it also forces us to ask ourselves, “What does the gospel do today?” A prominent TV evangelist was ranting and raving one day about mainline denominations. He said that “most organized religion is rotten to the core.” Then he became even more specific: “Millions who belong to the church are not saved.” I was curious about how he knew this. He answered: “Because their lives are not different.”
Are your lives different? Melanchthon’s famous quote echoes from the sixteenth century: “To know Christ is to know His benefits.” Do you benefit from your faith? Are your lives changed because you know the gracious work of Christ in your hearts? Are the lives of people in your community being changed because you offer them the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection? The result of the gospel faithfully proclaimed and practiced will always be changed lives!
What is our church doing with the gospel today? Are lives being changed? Does the power of the gospel make a difference in our lives; or are we like cut flowers, beautifully arranged in a vase but severed from the roots of our faith and no longer nourished by the amazing grace that caused us to bloom in the first place?
John Wesley wrote in 1786: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
If lives are not being changed, we must ask why not? If long-time Christians are not being renewed and empowered for ministry, we must ask why not? If new Christians are not being raised in the faith and recruited from the unchurched, we must ask why not? If the gospel of God’s great love for us as revealed in Jesus Christ is not being shared in our community so that lives are changed and brought into fellowship with kindred souls, we must ask why not? Why Philippi but not here? Why then but not now?
The sad answer to why then but not now is suggested by C. S. Lewis’ little book, The Screwtape Letters. In this collection of letters between the head devil Screwtape and his neophyte nephew Wormwood, the veteran tells the apprentice not to worry about the immediate lack of success in undermining Christians. He tells him that in spite of everything they have going for them, he still has the advantage. This edge, says Screwtape, is the complacency of contemporary Christians.

Share This On: