To the Ends of the Earth!
Acts 13:47 – August 16, 2015
Every month, St. Luke’s Church has a Church Council meeting to deal with the everyday business of running the church. We are going to have our August meeting this coming Friday. This being a congregational church, any member is more than welcome at our council meetings.
Let me ask: what would you think if someone from the Church Council were to get up in front of the congregation next Sunday morning, and say something like, “This past Friday at the Council meeting, the Holy Spirit told us to send two of our church leaders—two Council members—off to the mission field full time. We prayed over them, and we sent them off. They’re gone, and we’re not really sure where they’ll end up”? What would your reaction be to such a statement?
That’s just what happened. That’s just the situation, here at the beginning of Acts chapter 13. Except, I suspect the whole congregation gathered around Paul and Barnabas, as well as several others who intended to travel with them. Dr. Luke doesn’t specifically say, but I think the whole congregation prayed over them before they sent them out.
Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Holy Spirit to go out. To tell others about the Good News of the risen Jesus. They, and several of their friends, left for parts unknown.
It’s a wonderful thing, to be noticed, recognized. Chosen as a messenger, a missionary for God. In the several churches I have attended over the years, I have seen dozens of people go on both short- and long-term mission trips, just like Paul and Barnabas. I’ve been involved with mission committees, and led prayer teams and prayer efforts in support of many of those same missionaries. However, I—myself—have never gone anywhere on a mission trip. Nope. Not even a short-term one.
How many of us, here, can say the same thing? I am not asking for anyone to raise hands or otherwise identify themselves. But, in your hearts, how many of us know that we have never gone to the mission field? Either overseas, or in this country?
Let’s define terms. What is a mission field, anyhow? What does it mean to be a missionary?
A simple definition? A mission field is somewhere on the other side of a boundary or barrier. I know seminary professors and people who study the history of missions might quibble with the specifics of this definition. However, I think most everyone would agree that a mission field involves crossing some sort of a boundary. That can be a boundary or barrier of race, nationality, language or culture. Those are the easiest to see and recognize! But a mission field can also be on the other side of an economic boundary, or a societal barrier.
Take my friends, Jim and Amy. Both trained as doctors, they both worked here in the Chicago area for a long time. But, they were mission-minded. They intentionally went to the South side of Chicago regularly, for years, to work at a Christian medical clinic. An inner city mission, right here in Chicago. They are now in sub-Saharan Africa, working as missionary doctors. Still with that mission mindset. But, it was only recently that they went to Africa.
For years, before that, they were using the training they had to work for God—as medical doctors. To communicate the Good News that God loves everyone. Here in Chicago, but in a radically different community, with a different culture. Were they missionaries then, in Chicago? Are they missionaries now, in Africa? I say, in both cases, yes!
Let’s consider our scripture passage for today. Pretty new idea, for these early believers to preach the Good News to a multi-cultural audience! Take a look at the list of prophets and teachers from the beginning of Acts chapter 13. “1-2 Now there were in the Church at Antioch both prophets and teachers—Barnabas, Simeon surnamed Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen the foster-brother of the governor Herod, and Saul.”
Just looking at this list, off the top of my head, I might not notice anything particularly different. But, let’s dig a little deeper. My research tells me that this assembly of believers in Antioch was the first truly multi-ethnic local church. This church had Jews and Gentiles together in one local congregation, according to Acts 11:19–22.
We have Barnabas, a Jewish man, a Levite from the priestly class, born in Cyprus. Next, Simeon—he’s also called Niger. That’s a black man, from Africa. Then, Lucius, the North African from a large town called Cyrene. Then, there is the upper-class Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod—raised in the palace of the ruler Herod Antipas. And finally, we have Saul (or Paul), one of the most pre-eminent Pharisees of his day, born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, and educated in the equivalent of an Ivy League school.
We have some heavy hitters. Men of spiritual substance, described by Dr. Luke as both prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch. And, they are VIP’s. Very Important People, from many different regions and cultural backgrounds! It was these church leaders—the Church Council of the church in Antioch—who commissioned Paul and Barnabas and their friends. These missionaries left a multi-cultural local congregation to go to the multi-cultural world.
As we read further in the chapter, Paul, Barnabas and their friends traveled further. “13-15 They continued their journey through Perga to [another] town called Antioch. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and took their seats. After the reading of the Law and Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent to them with a message, “Men and brothers, if you have any message of encouragement for the people, by all means speak.”
We can see Paul goes first to the congregation at a synagogue. Dressed as a Pharisee (because they did wear distinctive clothing), the synagogue leaders knew he was learned in the Law and the Prophets. Paul gets up to speak. He gives them the Gospel, in a way they could understand.
Using the Hebrew Scriptures, he spoke about the coming Messiah, and about the death and resurrection of the risen Jesus. He spoke in a clear way that Jewish people could easily relate to. And, many of them came to faith in the risen Jesus, the Messiah.
However, Paul did not stop there! He spoke of the risen Jesus to God-fearing people who were not Jewish! He spoke of the resurrection to Gentiles, to Romans, to people without regard of their ethnic origin, or of the color of their skin.
Listen as chapter 13 continues: “44-47 On the next Sabbath almost the entire population of the city assembled to hear the message of God, but when the Jews saw the crowds they were filled with jealousy and contradicted what Paul was saying, covering him with abuse. At this Paul and Barnabas did not mince their words but said, “We felt it our duty to speak the message of God to you first, but since you spurn it and evidently do not think yourselves fit for eternal life, watch us now as we turn to the Gentiles! Indeed the Lord has commanded us to do so with the words: ‘I have set you to be a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
“48-50 When the Gentiles heard this they were delighted and thanked God for God’s message. All those who were destined for eternal life believed, and the Word of the Lord spread over the whole country.”
Did you hear? The Gentiles were delighted when they heard that they were welcomed by God, too! The Gentiles were—are as much God’s beloved children as are the Jews. All people are welcome to be saved. Salvation is for anyone, to the ends of the earth!
What about the rest of the church, where Paul and Barnabas came from? Were they just sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs, or hiding their heads in the sand like ostriches?
I think the other believers in the church at Antioch had an important job to do, too. True, they may not have been sent out, called by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries. To go far away, like Paul and Barnabas, to suffer hardship and travel and preach the Good News in a different town every few weeks. However, God called these believers who stayed in Antioch to follow God, too. The Lord wanted each of them to share their story to the people around them, to share the Good News of the risen Jesus, too.
And, what about us, today? Do we have to be sent out as missionaries to Africa, like my friends, Jim and Amy? Or, can we share our stories, here? Can we show others the Good News of the risen Jesus? Tell them what Jesus has done for us, lately? Or, show them God’s love? Or what God has done in the lives of people we know?
What can you say about what God has done for you, or for a loved one? People almost always listen to stories. So, tell a true story. Tell how God has worked in your life.
How can you share about God, today?
I’d like for everyone to think of one person you might talk to. And, think of something that God has done in your life. And, prayerfully, go and tell! Here in multi-cultural Morton Grove—and Niles, and Des Plaines, and Skokie, and Chicago—most people we meet are from different ethnic groups or various cultural backgrounds. Just like the church in Antioch, the first truly multi-ethnic local church. So, go forth! Go and tell! That’s our challenge today.
(The scripture readings of Acts 13 were taken from the excellent translation by J.B.Phillips; ; J. B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”, 1962 edition by HarperCollins.” And, thanks to the wonderful people who prepared the bible studies on Acts at http://www.intervarsity.org/bible-studies – The study on Acts 13 was quite helpful, and gave me some great jumping-off places from which to preach!)