Charles Bobertz Convivium Reflection

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February 15, 2018

Charles Bobertz Reflects on Acts 13:1-5 at Convivium on Thursday February 1st 2018

Acts 13:1-5 "Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Symeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who was a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off. So they, sent forth by the holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus. When they arrived in Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.They had John also as their assistant".

We begin today with a quick recap of the Book of Acts in the chapters that surround today’s reading.

Missionaries from Jerusalem who have witnessed the stoning of Stephen, the first Deacon martyr of the Church, bring the Word of God to the Jewish synagogues of Antioch in Syria. Some Gentiles also hear the Word and are converted to the Christian faith. The Jerusalem Church sends Barnabas to minister to these new disciples in Antioch. Barnabas recruits Saul – later called Paul – to help minister to these disciples. This group of Jews and Gentiles who worship together now come to be called Christians for the first time.

There is a famine in Jerusalem. The Christian Church in Antioch takes up a collection for famine relief and sends Barnabas and Saul with these funds for the Church in Jerusalem. The Church in Jerusalem accepts the charity of the Jewish-Gentile Church of Antioch.  Paul and Barnabas return to the Christian Church in Antioch and, in the course of fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit tells the Church in Antioch to set Paul and Barnabas on a new mission which will include bringing in Gentiles to the churches of God. After their own fasting and prayer Barnabas and Paul and John Mark set out on mission. From here on the missionaries will always go first to Jewish synagogues, yet Gentiles will become an ever larger part of the newly born Christian churches.

At the center of this story, indeed at the center of the entire book of Acts, is the work of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the early Church.  And so our Scripture today invites us to consider how the Spirit is still at work among us and how we might be called to respond to that Spirit.  And of course, as you have heard in countless sermons before this,  there are three points we might ponder here.

First, we learn from Acts that the Spirit of God will always lead the Church in unexpected ways. The Church in Antioch – Gentiles being unexpectedly drawn to the Church - is the real beginning of the Christian Church. These Gentiles are people whom many Jewish people at the time would have disparaged as idol worshippers and sexual deviants. Yet these undesirables have heard the Word of God and have been filled with the Holy Spirit. So also today the Holy Spirit may change how we see other people and accept them into our communities. The churches you may be called to serve or to be a part of are changing all around us: Hispanic ministry, ministry to the gay and lesbian community, women in vital roles of leadership and ministry – just to name a few.  In our studies here we learn that while tradition is powerful and stable it has, ironically, always been open to change. The Spirit of God is not static. The Spirit of God does not put a box around the faith. Rather this Spirit draws us forward to an unexpected and ever deeper relationship with God.

Second we learn from this story that there is real importance to the Christian practices of fasting and prayer (maybe not just for Lent anymore!). In the ancient Church this was not some sort of spiritual training wherein the body was subdued so as to produce some sort of spiritual athlete. Rather at the heart of the ancient practice of fasting and prayer was the emptying of the self. As we calm ourselves and take away distraction – in the silence of worship and in the silence of our own daily prayer - we make room for the Spirit of God to enter our hearts and our lives.  To be at peace with what we are called to in this life – whether it be hospice ministry, chaplaincy, or Ph.D. studies or teaching – is to know we have cleared a space and are attentive to the Spirit of God. This is the Spirit who gives us life and guides us to the joy – even ecstasy - of truly knowing we are loved by God in all that we do and all that we strive for.  

Third and finally there is Jerusalem connection. The Church of Antioch with these newly accepted Gentiles was led by the Spirit to take up a collection in the midst of a famine and send the funds with Barnabas and Paul to the Jewish Church in Jerusalem. The Jews of the Jerusalem Church were led by the Spirit to accept the gift.  The bond with the Jewish tradition, anchored in the Jewish Christian Church of Jerusalem, was forever secured.  It is at that moment we know that the Christian Scriptures will begin with the Bible of the Jews. More important, the Church will always uphold the promise of God in that Bible to redeem and restore all humanity and all creation to right relationship with God. Christianity will not be about some sort of escape from an often difficult life in the world, but an embrace of the world and all the people of the world. The Jewish understanding of God’s preference for the poor and the marginal; the Jewish understanding of the wealthy and powerful being commanded by God to not take advantage of the poor and the weak; the Jewish understanding that our prayer to the One God binds us together in the worship of that God. Yes all of this and so much more was bound together in that gift that Paul and Barnabas brought to Jerusalem. In that simple gesture of charity the Spirit made certain that God’s revelation to the Jewish people would always be at the center of Christian life and faith.

So there it is, the traditional three point sermon: the unexpected work of the Spirit, the practice of fasting and prayer to receive that Spirit, and the Spirit’s binding us to the Jewish Bible and God’s revelation to Israel.

It was indeed the Spirit of God that led Barnabas and Saul and John who was also called Mark on their new mission. It is that same Spirit that leads us in this place and in this time.  Amen.