Rev. Teri C Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Acts 11.19-30 (Common English Bible)
3 May 2020, Easter 4 (Easter theme: witness apprenticeship programme)
(you can watch the video of the reading and sermon here, if you prefer)
Now those who were scattered as a result of the trouble that occurred because of Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. They proclaimed the word only to Jews. Among them were some people from Cyprus and Cyrene. They entered Antioch and began to proclaim the good news about the Lord Jesus also to Gentiles. The Lord’s power was with them, and a large number came to believe and turned to the Lord.
When the church in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw evidence of God’s grace, he was overjoyed and encouraged everyone to remain fully committed to the Lord. Barnabas responded in this way because he was a good man, whom the Holy Spirit had endowed with exceptional faith. A considerable number of people were added to the Lord. Barnabas went to Tarsus in search of Saul. When he found him, he brought him to Antioch. They were there for a whole year, meeting with the church and teaching large numbers of people. It was in Antioch where the disciples were first labeled “Christians.”
About that time, some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, Agabus, stood up and, inspired by the Spirit, predicted that a severe famine would overtake the entire Roman world. (This occurred during Claudius’ rule.) The disciples decided they would send support to the brothers and sisters in Judea, with everyone contributing to this ministry according to each person’s abundance. They sent Barnabas and Saul to take this gift to the elders.
This week I read an article that was not meant to be a commentary on this story from Acts, but it was anyway. In the course of the article, the writer mentioned that the early church was able to spread so far and wide and so rapidly because they took advantage of the new technology of the time: Roman roads! This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, researching where and when and how the Romans built their famous network of amazingly straight and durable roads. But after I’d finished learning about how they built over mountains and how they surveyed to ensure they were building in a perfectly straight line even over hundreds of miles…I came back to this point: that the roads in the area that we would now call Israel, Palestine, and Syria were likely built about two decades before the birth of Jesus. These roads enabled people and goods to move much farther, and much faster, than before. And they had appeared during the lifetime of, say, Mary and Joseph, or their parents. The disciples may have grown up with their parents and grandparents talking about the time before roads, reminiscing about traveling on rough paths that meandered with flocks of sheep or that sometimes led off somewhere you weren’t expecting to go.
Those who were scattered because of the persecution that began with the stoning of Stephen and continued when Saul rampaged through the community used these straight, well-maintained roads to travel all over their known world. Some of those people were already immigrants to Jerusalem to begin with — they had come from all over and were living in the holy city, and now they were being forced to flee, pushed out, or perhaps sent out, to new places.
And wherever they went, they shared the good news of Jesus Christ. First they did as they had been taught by the leaders of the community in Jerusalem and focused on fellow Jews, but soon they began to see that God was at work elsewhere as well. Perhaps they heard about Peter’s experience with the sheet and the animals, and his revelation that no person is unclean, all are made in God’s image (see Acts 10 for the story). Those people from Cyprus and Cyrene, the people who had been immigrants and converts to this new way of life, started speaking to non-Jews in Antioch, and the result was so astonishing that the news traveled nearly 500 miles and reached the remnant in Jerusalem.
That remnant was basically just the council, the power structure that made decisions about things like whether or not Peter had done the right thing by baptising a Gentile family after his vision that no one is unclean. They were the keepers of the theology and order. So when they heard about what was happening in Antioch, they sent Barnabas — the disciple from Cyprus — to go and check on what the other people from Cyprus were doing and teaching in this new community that was springing up.
When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, it says “he saw evidence of God’s grace.” He didn’t bring grace with him from the powers that be in Jerusalem, he saw it already present where the people were, overflowing in good works and building up the kingdom of God.
Then Barnabas did something that may have made people nervous. He went to find Saul — the very man whose persecution had caused the disciples to flee Jerusalem and end up in Antioch in the first place. We don’t know if they knew about his conversion, about meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. When Saul arrived, I imagine some of them were distrustful at first, but like others Saul had encountered after literally seeing the light of Christ, they soon heard that his teaching was as Spirit-filled as any other.
Between Saul and Barnabas, they taught more and more people the stories of God’s faithfulness, of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the Holy Spirit’s call to new life. And over the course of the year they stayed in Antioch, people started to call the disciples Christians — the ones who belong to Christ. It was a word used by those who were outside the church, to describe those who followed Jesus as opposed to any of the other gods of the day. Somehow, in the process of learning and seeking and worshipping together, their lives began to reflect their faith in ways that everyone could see.
When prophets traveled through, and one of them said that a famine was coming, the whole church decided that they would help.
Despite all the other things I love about this story, this is where I think it gets really interesting! Not only because of the assumption that prophets were, and are, still speaking. Not only because of the historical note that Luke includes so we know that the prophecy was true. But because of this sentence: “everyone contributed to this ministry according to each person’s abundance.”
This church, where God’s grace was visibly evident to anyone who would look, where they had an abundance of people, an abundance of the Spirit, an abundance of encouragement and faith….they heard about a situation of scarcity, and their first reaction was to share their abundance.
Now, Antioch was a city like many others, with wide disparity in wealth and privilege. The church was no different, they were a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, language groups, and incomes — a mixed community in every way.
They were far from Jerusalem — nearly 500 miles.
And the prophecy said famine was coming to the whole Roman world — which included Antioch. They would need to think about their own needs and future.
And still, with all these factors, they gave out of their abundance.
Perhaps because Barnabas had been the first in the Jerusalem church to sell property and give the proceeds to the church to help those in need, he had shared this spiritual gift of generosity with them.
Or perhaps because the disciples who started this church came from all over, including Jerusalem, north Africa, and Cyprus, they had nurtured a sense of connection to the wider church and all God was doing to build the kingdom around the world.
Or…perhaps the church in Antioch had cultivated a mindset of abundance, rather than a mindset of scarcity.
Often we focus on what we still need, what we wish we had, what we used to have…and that can blind us to what God has already given.
Jesus said that he came that we may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10), and that abundant life was certainly a hallmark of the Antioch Christians. Anyone who saw them could see God’s grace. They were growing in faith and in number. And now they were demonstrating that abundance is for sharing…not just from what they have left over, not just according to what they thought they could afford, but out of their abundance, they contributed.
Obviously some of them had more, and some less. They didn’t all give the same amount. But it’s the mindset here that matters. When we talk about giving according to each one’s means, it becomes a calculation about budgets and deserving and excess….a mindset of scarcity, where there may not be enough. When we talk about giving according to our abundance, we think differently about what we have to offer, and we give it in a different spirit.
During the Easter season we have been thinking about how we prepare to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Today I think the most important thing to cultivate in ourselves as we learn to be witnesses is an abundance mindset. Especially in these times when it’s so easy to focus on what we’re missing, on what we don’t have, on what we wish we could do, on the places where we lack something, on the things we are worried about — these times when a scarcity mindset is even more prevalent than it normally is in our culture and economy, and when some truly are lacking in basic necessities, while others of us are still more than comfortable.
What if we, like Barnabas, could see evidence of God’s grace wherever we looked, wherever we went, wherever we are?
What if we, like the church in Antioch, spent time learning together, delving deep into God’s word and coming to know God’s faithfulness by heart?
What if we, like the disciples who fled Jerusalem using those shiny new Roman roads, and found themselves in Antioch, took the risk of sharing the good news with unexpected people, using the new technological tools available to us…even if we remember the days before those tools existed?
What if we thought of giving from our abundance, not only from what we have left, even if that means we’re giving only a few pounds, or a smile, or a prayer, or a note, or a trip to the chemist or picking up the paper?
An abundance mindset would change how we see ourselves, and the world.
We would see irresistible, uncontainable grace… everywhere.
And that might just change how we live, so that people see that grace in us, too.
May it be so. Amen.