Sermon: How To Deal With The Problem Of Popularity

Sorry I haven’t (so far) been able to post last Sunday’s sermon, the first after my summer holiday. I have some computer problems. If I can post it when those issues are resolved, I will. In the meantime, here is the latest sermon in the series on Acts for this coming Sunday.

Acts 14:8-20

The desire for popularity starts young. Will you be picked first for a sports team at school, or will you be the one left at the end, who is unwanted by either captain? You fall in and fall out with the trendy girl.

In adulthood, you may want to be popular with the boss, or you may participate in cultural expressions of popularity, such as so-called TV talent shows. Either you vote for your favourite singer on The X Factor or you even enter for it.

And more widely, we have the irony that among the people most admired in society are often those who have loosened themselves from addiction to the approval of others. They say and do what they think and care about, regardless of whether people agree or support them, and strangely that is applauded. Perhaps when we laud those who are not addicted to approval, we realise deep down inside that our own desire to be endorsed by others is an unhealthy trait.

In our reading, Paul and Barnabas – who have just escaped possible death in Iconium – find themselves subject to an opposite manifestation of mass hysteria: huge acclaim. Not that they went looking for it, but if a lame man is healed through your words (verses 8-10), then maybe it isn’t surprising if you find yourself on the receiving end of adulation. Today, the TV crews would be there, experts would be pronouncing on the matter, and all this a few hours after it had been extensively dissected on Facebook and Twitter.

What goes right and what goes wrong in this story when it comes to the question of popularity?

Firstly, the crowd goes wrong, because they instantly lapse into idolatry. Granted, it is a spectacular deed, both unusual and miraculous, and you can’t blame them for thinking that God is at work somehow. The trouble is, they identify the human messengers with God. But it’s quite a leap to assume that Barnabas and Paul must be the Greek deities Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), and the priest of Zeus, who wants to offer a sacrifice of bulls and the honour of wreaths to the apostles (verse 13), doesn’t exactly show much discernment.

Now we may well find it hard to identify with the specific details in this part of the society. Probably very few of us have seen a verified miraculous healing, and it’s unlikely that any of us have been venerated as divine beings.

But perhaps we have known something like this on a more modest scale. God may have helped us to do something important. Perhaps we helped someone in need, and it all seemed rather ordinary to us, but then people began to praise us. How do we handle that?

I touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the death of Herod Agrippa, who failed to give glory to God when he was wrongly praised for being divine. You may recall that he didn’t pass the praise onto God. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to praise. Perhaps you remember me telling you the story of Corrie ten Boom, who said that when she received a compliment, she thought of it as being like a bunch of flowers that are not meant for her. So she enjoyed the smell of the praise, rather like she would a bouquet. But then she would pass the accolade on to Heaven, saying, “This is all for you, Lord.”

We can see here how very quickly the apostles reject the status accorded to them. They are deeply distressed, as the tearing of their clothes (verse 14) shows. But let’s be very careful, because although Barnabas and Paul are careful to direct all the praise to God, what they do is not an example of what some people call ‘worm theology’. That is, just because they want God to be praised rather than themselves, they do not say things such as, “I am only a worm.” All the elevating of God that they do is not done to project themselves as worthless wretches. This is not the Uriah Heep definition of ‘very ‘umble’.

The apostles know that God was the author of the lame man’s healing, and so they speak passionately about his goodness. They speak about his provision to all (verses 15 to 17), just as Jesus had said that God made the sun shine on both the just and the unjust (contrary to the misquote that ‘the sun shines on the righteous’). They spoke of God’s goodness to all in creation and provision, something that John Calvin was later to label as ‘common grace’. Even before anyone discovers the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for them, God has already shown ‘common grace’ in the way he has laid on good and necessary things for the sustaining of love, and has done so without favouring one group over another. It is not true that God only blesses the Christians: he starts by blessing all people.

And it is this kind of God who, the apostles say, calls people to repentance. We hear no description of a God whose severity is such you think he suffers from permanent indigestion. No: we hear the call to turn to him because everything else is so worthless in comparison to his goodness (verse 15).

Their concern is not to make fans for themselves, but disciples for Jesus Christ. I wonder whether that is our prime desire when someone praises us. If we too, believe in such a good God, a God of love, then should we not be more concerned for his popularity than ours?

And how might we respond if we do witness something out of the ordinary? Is it with adulation? Is it with some kind of ‘fan club’ mentality for the human beings at the centre of it? Isn’t it about time Christians stopped participating in the celebrity culture that obsesses our society? And isn’t it time that we stopped playing the same game in the church?

Some Christians today talk about ‘making Jesus famous’. To me that’s rather clumsy language, but it does make the point about the priorities we are to have when it comes to popularity. Whose fame are we concerned about? Do we want to burnish our own reputation, or do we want Jesus Christ to be promoted?

Secondly, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium also go wrong. Their problem is not idolatry – they knew their Ten Commandments – their problem is jealousy.

Now it’s all too easy today to take a misguided steer when it comes to the New Testament tales of Jewish people opposing Jesus and the early church. We know from the appalling legacy of history that the last thing we want to do is recreate what a Jewish friend of mine at work experienced as a child, when she was regularly called a ‘Christ killer’ in the street.

But neither can we simply take these stories in terms of the way Martin Luther and some of his successors interpreted them, namely that here was a group of people who had treated religion as a list of rules rather than as an experience of grace. The real situation was probably rather different. They were deeply devout, committed people, who wanted to know how God drew the boundary markers to denote who was ‘in’ when it came to faith and who was ‘out’. They understood that in their faith God had saved them by grace, but they saw good deeds not so much as saving them as proving they were members of the chosen people.

In other words, they weren’t that dissimilar to a lot of modern religious people. We may know that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ and his death upon the Cross, but we then have certain standards to determine who we think are real Christians. Those standards may have some connection with the Bible, or they may have a little more to do with our wider cultural. Sometimes they will be explicitly stated, and at other times they will implicit assumptions.

Why go through all this about the Jewish opponents of the Gospel, including those who stone Paul and leave him for dead here (verse 19)? Because I want us to understand that it’s quite dangerous when we look down on them. We can be uncomfortably like them. We too, in our desire to protect and honour the name of our God, can also fall into the same poisonous, lethal trap. In our zeal for God, we can, if we are not careful, unleash deadly energies as a result of our jealousy that can damage others.

I have seen it happen in churches when a new, young, enthusiastic Christian grasps something about the Gospel and runs with great energy and excitement with it. Many people are thrilled, but some others who are more experienced in the faith think that they should be the people receiving recognition. So they plot – usually quietly, behind the scenes. The young Christian is subject to whispers, questions, and ‘concerns’. Only if these don’t work does the game become more aggressive and public.

I have also seen it happen in churches when some people think that a certain area of church life belongs to them. They have a monopoly on it. Nobody else is allowed to enter their domain, or to make creative suggestions, because no-one can possibly do it better than the existing incumbent. So when someone else does come up with a good idea and people love it, they throw a tantrum and wreck relationships.

Oh, we may not try to stone someone physically, but if we have not guarded our hearts against having a jealous reaction when someone else achieves popularity, then we are capable of causing other forms of destruction.

What can we do about this? How can we avoid jealousy when someone else is in the limelight and not us? I believe the simple answer is to remember that everything in the Christian life is about grace – the undeserved favour of God. It is not simply that grace comes into play so that we initially receive forgiveness and a place in the family of God. Everything from there on in as well is about God’s grace. All the good things we receive are not because we have kept certain rules or standards that maintain a place within the ‘boundary markers’. No! It is always about grace. However much we change (and even that is by the grace of God), we are still not rewarded according to our perfection. God continues to bless and to use sinful, broken, frail people in the Church. And yes, that most certainly includes me.

In other words, let us pause to reflect upon the fact that we shall always be dependent upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are never so good that we can dispense with it. And if that is the case, then we must live like Jacob, with a limp, a limp that says we are sinners in permanent need of God’s mercy. And when we see ourselves like that, it is hard to keep up a sense that somehow I deserve something better than that upstart who has taken the spotlight off me.

Friends, we owe it to God, to the Church, to the world and to ourselves to guard our hearts with our perpetual need of grace.

And it is that same deep awareness of grace that will also make us see how ridiculous it is to promote ourselves instead of Christ. Once we recall how much we owe to him, we just look petty and silly when we think we should be elevating our own cause rather than his.

So – come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with a profound appreciation of grace. Convict us of sin where we have inflated our own self-importance in place of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and in leaving the tomb empty. Enable us to be unconcerned about our own place in the church or society. Instead, fill us with a passionate desire to see Jesus Christ gain the glory for all that is good.

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