3rd Sunday after Easter
5.5.2019 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder whether any of you have seen the Marvel film: “Avengers: Endgame” which was released ten days ago. It is the fastest grossing film of all time, but I confess, if it hadn’t been for my children’s enthusiasm, it would have passed me by. We went to see it on the day it was released. But my children insisted before I went that I watched the earlier films in the series – fortunately not all 21 films in the series – but at least the main preceding one. They were right. Without an understanding of what had gone before, it would have been difficult to make sense of Endgame: who everyone was, why they all had special powers. Its much easier to start a story from the beginning, than from halfway through.
Well, Luke’s story of the work of God has two main volumes. During Lent, many of us put aside time to read the whole of the first volume, his Gospel on the life of Jesus. Well, now, over the next few weeks, our attention turns to the second volume, his book of the continuing work of God through the birth and growth of the church. Its a great story, that no doubt would make a fantastic film.
Last year you may remember that we spent some time looking at the early chapters of Acts – how the church was born at Pentecost, how the disciples, filled with the holy spirit, spoke about the risen Christ in Jerusalem, how they encountered severe opposition (Stephen was even stoned to death) and how the the early Christians were scattered beyond Jerusalem. But the opposition did not stop them – Philip converted an Ethiopian official; Peter a Roman centurion; Saul, the great persecutor of the Christian faith, was converted on the road to Damascus.
Well for the next few weeks we are going to focus on the next phase of growth for the church, as Luke focuses in on 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 the qualities of the early church, the nature of what it is to be called by God, and the value of encouragement.
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.
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.
The church in Antioch is also a place where worship and prayer are at its heart. That may seem obvious but its worth reflecting on that for a moment. Are those the qualities that describe us as a church, that describe us as individuals? Are we known as people that delight in offering worship to God, that are faithful in prayer? In a few weeks time we will be joining in “Thy Kingdom Come”, ten days of prayer involving thousands of churches from all over the world. What a wonderful opportunity to spend more time in prayer and worship.
The church also clearly believed that God could and would speak to them through his Holy Spirit, guiding decisions. Are we open to God speaking to us? In our times of prayer, do we pause to listen, to be still, to allow God to prompt us and nudge us through his Holy Spirit?
And the church clearly took its faith seriously. Fasting is not something that is done lightly – it shows a real earnestness and commitment to seek the guidance of God – and twice in just a couple of verses we read of the church fasting.
These qualities of the church in Antioch – inclusiveness, prayerfulness, openness to the Spirit, willingness to sacrifice – are surely reasons why the church there grew with such abundance, why after Jerusalem, Antioch became the main centre of faith in the early church, where it was where people started being called “Christians” for the first time. I wonder what of those qualities do we need to ask God’s help to develop in us, as a church and as individuals?
In the sending out of Barnabas and Paul we also get an insight into the nature of calling. During a time of worship the church receives a word from God to set Barnabas and Paul aside for a special work. The church then puts aside time to pray for them and discern further about this calling. And then they are blessed and commissioned for the work.
Today, calling is often associated with the call to ordination, becoming a vicar or priest, but although calling does include that, and maybe there are some here today for whom that calling may become apparent, calling is far, far wider than just that. Calling is about hearing and responding to what God may be asking us to do for him in whatever situation. That may be, how we serve him in our workplace; or how we minister to our families or neighbours; or how we contribute to the life of our community. Listening and responding to God may result in us changing jobs, or doing the same job with a different attitude. It may lead us to getting more involved in the life of the church, using our gifts and skills to serve. It may mean becoming a better friend or neighbour, making contact more regularly with those we live alongside. I wonder what God might be calling you to do?
And following the model of the church in Antioch, we should be praying for one another in our callings. In our church intercessions and in our private prayers lets pray more and more for the ministries of those in our church – for our teachers, health care workers, council workers, those in charities and businesses; lets pray for our ministries as neighbours, as family members. God calls each one of us in his service – lets support one another.
And finally, at the beginning of this first missionary journey, we get an insight into the value of encouragement, from one of the most appealing characters in the whole of the early church. Luke will mention Barnabas frequently over the next few chapters as the travelling companion and co-worker of Paul, but his back-story is a remarkable one. His real name was Joseph, but the early church soon began calling him Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement”, because of his actions. As part of the new-born church in Jerusalem, he sold a field he owned so that the apostles could distribute the proceeds to those in need. A bit later on, he took a huge risk and put his neck on the line by welcoming Saul to the Jerusalem church, even though the last time he had been in the city, he had overseen the stoning of Stephen. Barnabas chose to believe in Saul, to trust his integrity, and put aside his prejudices.
On another occasion, Barnabas is sent off by the Jerusalem church to check out the authenticity of the church in Antioch, which has been growing rapidly without any apostolic leadership. Barnabas’ response is to rejoice in what he finds, and to support and encourage them in their growth. He even goes and gets Paul and asks him to join with the task of teaching the church.
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 build up?
I’m sure we can all think of times when someone has said something encouraging to us, and how that made us feel. Encouragement is a wonderful gift to give to people and one that we can all give.
At the beginning of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary adventure we see inclusiveness, prayerfulness, service and encouragement all at work. I wonder which of those speaks most powerfully to you today? Just as God called Barnabas and Paul, I wonder, how might God be calling you?