Acts 13:1-5; John 14:1-6
5th Sunday after Easter
7.5.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Sequels can be a bit of a challenge. Pop stars often talk about the difficult “second album”. All their creativity, all their inspiration, has been poured into their first album. Is there anything left for a second one? Or film makers may struggle to capture the heights, the originality, the dramatic tension of the first film. Even monarchs may struggle to capture the majesty and the splendour, or the glory and respect, of those who went before.
Well, it can be helpful to think of the book of the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel. Luke’s first book, his gospel, told the extraordinary story of Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection. Its the most dramatic and remarkable story that has ever been told. Let’s be honest – nothing can really top that. So there is the danger that Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, may be a bit of a let-down, that the remarkable impact of his first book will just fritter away.
And indeed the book of Acts can’t match it. Nothing can match the story-line of God making himself known to the world through his Son and enabling us to come home to him and experience his love. But what Luke’s sequel is brilliant for is helping us answer the question that we are left with at the end of his gospel: “what does this amazing story mean for me? how should I respond, how should I live, in response to the greatest story ever told?”
The Book of Acts begins to answer that question by showing us how the first Christians answered that question. We read in its early chapters of how Jesus’ disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, began to tell everyone in Jerusalem about Christ’s death and resurrection; how they continued to do so despite opposition and persecution; how they lived as a community that supported and loved one another and that cared for the poor. And we’ve read in recent weeks how even former persecutors like Saul were welcomed into their midst, how Christ’s gift of love and grace was opened up to all people, not just Jews.
Well for the next few weeks we are going to focus on the next part of the story, as Luke tells us about Paul’s journeys around the mediterranean world preaching to non-Jewish communities. Those of you who remember Sunday school lessons or who have maps in the back of your bibles may recall the missionary journeys of Paul. Well today, we start at the beginning of his first journey, and as we do so, we get insights into those questions: “What does the story of Christ’s death and resurrection mean for me? how shall I live?”
We begin in Antioch. Antioch was an important city of trade, connecting the Roman Empire to the West with the vast riches of the Persian and Indian empires to the east. Like all cities of trade, it was a city with a diverse population, and significantly, the church in Antioch reflected that. Just from the five named church leaders we see that diversity. Barnabas came from Cyprus; Lucius, and quite possibly Simeon, came from North Africa; Manaen from Palestine; and Saul from southern Turkey. It wasn’t just their nationalities that made them diverse. Manaen grew up in Herod’s court, which makes him someone used to being close to the centres of political power and wealth, and in consequence, someone with a questionable religious background; whilst Saul grew up a strictly observant Jew. This was a church that welcomed people of all different nationalities and backgrounds.
It sets a model for us to follow. We as a church should be likewise, a place that reflects the wonderful diversity of our city – a place of love and welcome to all. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, UK or foreign citizen, retired, unemployed or employed, single or with family, all should feel welcomed, loved and valued among us. And as next week we elect new PCC members, maybe we want to think about that then. Do those who help to guide the direction of the church reflect the richness of our diversity?
The church in Antioch welcomed diversity. It was also a place where worship and prayer was at its heart. Luke tells us that “while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Lord said to them: “Set apart Barnabas and Saul””. There is a sense here of worship and prayer being a two-way communication: not just us speaking to God, but of God speaking to us. The church in Antioch clearly believed that God could and would speak to them through his Holy Spirit, guiding decisions. Maybe we have experienced that in our lives too. Those moments when we have heard God’s still, quiet voice speaking into our lives: maybe offering comfort at a time of difficulty; maybe giving a sense of rightness about a decision to be taken; maybe stirring us up and causing discomfort until we take action to put right a relationship that has gone wrong.
The church of the first Christians discovered that God had not departed at the ascension, that he was still present, through his Holy Spirit, still longing to communicate with us, to speak to us. The question for me, and maybe for you too, is: Are we open to God speaking to us? In our times of prayer and worship, do we pause to listen, to be still, to allow God to prompt us and nudge us through his Holy Spirit?
And those nudgings, those promptings of the Holy Spirit, may be about our calling, what we do and how we live. If Luke’s gospel leaves us with the question “what difference does Christ’s death and resurrection make to how I live”, here in his second book we find some of the answers. We find in Barnabas and Paul people willing to answer God’s call on their lives.
A first view of Paul and Barnabas may be to assume that they were willing to sacrifice everything, to put all their personal desires and needs to one aside, and go and be missionaries to far and distant lands, despite their personal inclinations. But looking at the backgrounds of Barnabas and Paul a little closer, we see that they were people who loved to travel, people who had not been rooted in one community, or even one country, all their lives, but instead had lived in different places. They were people too for whom telling people about Jesus was the thing that made them most fully alive. The prompting of the Holy Spirit was confirming what was already perhaps obvious – if the church was to spread the message of Christ’s love in the world, who could be more obvious candidates than Barnabas and Paul. Undoubtedly the task will be hard, but they will love it!
God rarely, it seems to me, calls people to do things they are unsuited for, unprepared for, unwilling to do. Our life experiences, our passions, our joys, all feed into that sense of calling, to do that which we are called to do. For Barnabas and Paul, that was to travel to new places and tell people about Christ. For us, it may be something different. It may be the joy and purpose we find in caring for others, whether family members, neighbours or through our paid employment. It may be that sense of fulfilment we find in helping solve problems for people, whether in engineering or IT or in helping someone out in knowing how to use their phone or access benefits. It may be that excitement when we help someone to discover something new or learn a new skill – whether in the classroom, or the netball court, or a choir. It may be that calling to “be”, to be a place of calm and stillness in the midst of all the rush and busyness around us.
I wonder what areas of life for you, at this time, are your calling? Those life-giving, life-affirming places where you know you are making a difference, even if small, even if unnoticed or unrecognised by others. Ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit that those moments may be all the more to his glory and praise. And as the church in Antioch did, let us pray for one another too. God calls each one of us to serve him. Let us pray for one another.
And let us encourage one another. Let us affirm the gifts, the callings, we see in each other. I think Barnabas is one of the most appealing characters in the whole of the early church. Although his name was Joseph, he was given the name Barnabas because it meant “son of encouragement”, something that he was brilliant at doing. He was one of the first to welcome Saul into the Jerusalem church and encourage him in his ministry. When later he was sent by the Jerusalem church to check out whether the Antioch church were legitimate, his response was to rejoice in what he found there and to encourage their ongoing growth. And in the future, we’ll find him taking John Mark under his wing, someone that Paul dismisses as a failure, and encouraging him in his ministry.
This is someone who believes in people, that sees their goodness, their gifts, and does all they can to encourage them. They are the kind of person that is a delight to have around. I wonder, who can you be a Barnabas to today? Who can you encourage and affirm? Is there someone that you can thank for what they are doing?
The Gospel of Luke begs the question, “in the light of the most extraordinary story ever told, how are we to respond? how are we to live?” Part of the answer we find here: to be a welcoming, inclusive, diverse community, where prayer and worship is at our heart, and where we live out our callings and encourage others to do the same.
May God empower us by his Holy Spirit as we do so.