Sermon for May 29th, 2016
19Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
27At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
First Church: First Called Christians
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, so I'm reminded of the story about the little boy who was walking one Sunday morning from Sunday School to the worship service. As they were walking down the long hallway to the sanctuary, the young boy saw a giant plaque with a long list of names on it, and so he asked his father what it was, and what all those names meant.
The father told his son, "those are the names of people from our church who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country." Confused, the boy said, "Ultimate sacrifice? What does that mean?"
Choosing his words more carefully this time, the father tried again: "Well, son, they're the names of brave young men and women who gave up their lives in the last war." The boy's eyes grew wider, but still he was confused. "Gave up their lives? What does that mean?"
This time, deciding to be more blunt, the father said, "They're the names of church members who died in the service." At this, the boy froze in place, refusing to go any further. Fearfully, he looked up at his father and said, "Which service, Dad...the 9:00 or the 11:00?"
Much like those brave Americans we celebrate every year on Memorial day, who gave their lives in service to a higher ideal, so too were the earliest Christians familiar with sacrifice and martyrdom. Today's scripture passage begins with the first time of persecution in the life of the first church.
I think it's difficult today to put ourselves in their shoes, particularly because of the freedom we enjoy in our country to worship...or not to worship...in whatever way we like.
But although Churches and Christians in America are far from being "persecuted," we do face our share of troubles, challenges, and opportunities. So I think there's still much to learn from the example of the first church in Acts, and the first people (as we read to today) to be called "Christians."
So what's going on here? As I count it, there are about five different things happening, in sequential order, in today's passage. I know, some of you are thinking, "But Pastor Neal, you said last week that sermons should only have three points because that's about as high as you can count." No need to worry--We're still keeping it all on the fingers of one hand.
In verse 19, we read that "those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews." 20But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.
In times of trouble, we have a very human tendency to do one of two things: We can either dig in, buckle down, and circle the wagons--in other words, move to protect ourselves from what is threatening us. Or, we can spread out, diversify, and evolve, adapting to what is threatening us.
The first is what I call the turtle approach--a turtle pulls into his shell and shuts everything out. The second is what I call the cockroach approach--kill one and they just multiply. Try to eradicate them with a spray, and eventually they evolve an immunity to the spray.
When the disciples in the Book of Acts encounter persecution, their first instinct is to circle the wagons. They talk to no one except their fellow Jews. Some of them, as we've seen in previous passages, try the turtle approach of shutting out the gentiles and the hellentists. But eventually, they go the way of the cockroach, and they spread out across the mediterranean, evolving and adapting out of their native Jewish practices into something quite new and different. And in Antioch, that new thing finally gets a name. More on that later.
So the first thing we learn from today's passage is diversification. When the church and Christians are in danger, we're at our best not when we defend and protect, but rather when we diversify and adapt. When the church in Acts finally makes this move, we read in verse 21 that "The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord."
The next thing is collaboration. One of the greatest and most productive partnerships in the New Testament is born in this passage, in verses 22-25: News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.
Saul and Barnabas will go on many adventures, crossing many miles of land and sea in the book of Acts as they spread the gospel together. But who are they? Barnabas comes from Jerusalem. In fact, he is sent by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem to see what's going on in Antioch. This implies that he is a trusted part of the "old guard," the original Jewish followers of Jesus. Saul (also known as Paul), by contrast, is the rookie. Remember just a few weeks ago we heard his conversion story, how he went from persecuting the church to becoming its newest convert.
Barnabas is sent by Jerusalem to be the voice of experience and wisdom, but he immediately seeks out Paul, who is known for his passion and zeal, his energy and enthusiasm. This is a great example of collaboration, intergenerational partnership.
I've been part of churches where leadership is reserved solely for those who have been around for many years, and proved their loyalty to the church. Churches like this tend to have a fixed way of doing things; they lack the kind of innovation and experimentation required to grow.
But I've also been part of at least one church where pretty much everyone was new, and young. There weren't a lot of intergenerational relationships, because there weren't many older people. The problem with this kind of church is that it has no roots; it flits from idea to idea, from trend to trend, without the benefit of a broader perspective that can only come from history and heritage.
To be a balanced church--both rooted and thriving--takes collaboration. Jesus once told his disciples that everyone who is "trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." It takes both to be the church.
So...diversification...collaboration...and the third thing is branding. Branding?? Wait a minute--they had that in the first century? Sure. They probably didn't call it that, but in verse 25, we read that after Barnabas and Paul had been at work for "an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians."
They were first called Christians. They were first given a name and an identity. They didn't choose it for themselves, but it was given to them by others, who recognized what they were about. That's branding.
I know this, because our amazing and talented Director of Family Ministries, Hope Griffin, taught me about branding a few weeks ago. She's taking correspondence course from Cornell University on marketing and branding, and is quite busy putting all that she's learned to work for the benefit and ministry of First Presbyterian Church.
I'm going to loosely quote from Hope, who (I think) is quoting from one of her textbooks: "While many people equate brand with a logo or tagline, a brand actually encompasses much more. It is a set of perceptions and images that represent an organization, product, or service. Brand conveys the essence of the organization, and once established, provides value, allowing people to easily identify what the organization has to offer."
In Antioch, they were first called...Christians. What were they about? Christ. What did they have to offer? Christ. Who were they? Christ-ians. It's actually amazing to me that it took that long for their message, for their "brand" to be established. But it's worth noting how that happened: Paul and Barnabas met with people for an entire year. They taught people for an entire year. It takes time, effort, and consistency to establish a brand, to establish a reputation. And it's not done through clever advertising or slick graphics. It's done through relationships.
Today, some 2,000 years later, I think that brand--the label of "Christian"--has been somewhat tarnished. That may come as a shock to some of you, but if you don't believe me, find a group of young people somewhere outside the church, sit down with them, and ask them, first, what they think of Jesus? If they know anything about Jesus at all, they'll likely have positive things to say. They may or may not believe that Jesus is the literal son of God, but most will at least believe that he was a good person, a kind and moral teacher. That's not a bad place to start.
But ask that same group of young people what they think of Christians, and you will probably get an earful. Study after study shows that millenials associate Christians with traits like "close-minded, "judgmental," "mean-spirited," and "angry." There's a great book by Dan Kimball that talks more about this phenomenon. It's called, appropriately, "They like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations."
It would take another sermon entirely to explain how we got to this point, how our brand became so tarnished, but the nutshell version is this: People judge us by our actions and our words. And both have been lacking in recent years. But a more important question, I think, is this: What do we do about it? The easier approach is to leave the label "Christian" behind and move on. After all, people followed Jesus before they were called Christians, and could do so again. The harder approach is to restore the brand again. How? The same way it was established in the first place: Meeting with people. Teaching people. Building relationships and trust with people. And remembering that we don't have much control over what people call us. But we do have control over what we do, what we say, and who we strive to be like. If they like Jesus, maybe that would be a good start.
Diversification. Collaboration. Branding. And the final two... are Assessment and Action. From today's scripture passage: "At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul."
In the popular imagination, a prophet is someone who predicts the future. But in both the Old and New Testaments, it's actually a little bit more nuanced than that: A prophet is someone who, either through spiritual insight or wise observation, accurately assesses the situation at hand, and then stirs up God's people to appropriate action. That's what's going on here: Assessment and a call to Action.
These two things have to go hand in hand. Calling people to action without first making an accurate assessment creates a "mob mentality," and can have dangerous consequences. And of course, assessing the situation without calling for appropriate action results in...well, absolutely nothing.
In the case of our scripture passage, notice that when the assessment is made (there's going to be a famine in the land) that the appropriate action is both shared--"each would send relief according to their ability"--and it's specific: Paul and Barnabas are chosen to deliver the relief. Everyone has a part to play, but specific responsibility is also delegated where needed.
Diversification. Collaboration. Branding. Assessment and Action.
So how do we tie all that together? With a story, of course!
Once upon a time, there was a church. It wasn't the first church, but it was the First Presbyterian Church in El Paso. This church had seen some good times, but lately, for the past 20 years, it wasn't doing so great. In many ways, it was a church in trouble.
Many in the church thought the answer was to circle the wagons. Protect the building! Protect the money! Protect all the traditions, at all costs!
But other voices prevailed. Voices which said, Diversify! Adapt! Throw open the doors of the building, and let new traditions grow alongside the old ones! Go out, and spread out, and BE the church to people who have no church.
And so they did. They went out in pairs--old and young, enthusiastic new members with experienced long-time members, each bringing something special to their work, each appreciating and not resisting what the other had to offer, even when they didn't always agree or understand each other.
They met with people. They taught people, even though many of them did not see themselves as "teachers."
Some of the church members stood up among them and said, "There are great needs in our community. We have listened to the people, and we have heard their fears, their passions, their longings, and the desires of their heart. It will be hard, but think we have the resources, the strength, the gifts, to help them. Let us commit all of our resources, everything we have as a church, to help them, even if it's the last thing we ever do."
And so they did. They served the people, putting the needs of the community above even their own needs, even above the needs of the church itself. And the church...did not die. No, it grew, as the words and deeds and reputation of its members grew among the people of the community. And the people of the community (who had no interest in joining a church) were more than happy to join in the good work which the church was doing.
And in time (not months, but years!) when the people of the community realized it wasn't a gimmick, or a trick, or a shallow attempt to convert them in order to keep the church alive...when the people of the community realized that they were genuinely loved, accepted, listened to, and cared for...
Then, the people of the community gave this old church a new name.
I can't tell you what they named it. You'll have to experience that for yourselves.