Acts 11:19-26 New International Version (NIV)
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Our text for this morning begins with persecution. Stephen was martyred for being a follower of Jesus, and if you recall, a man named Saul helped orchestrate Stephen’s killing. So for their own safety, these followers of Jesus spread throughout the land, traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch.
I’ll be straight forward with you here because you may not know where I stand on the subject: I’m against persecution. I’m against killing people because they follow Jesus. But some good comes out of this. As I often say, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but that doesn’t mean that God can’t work through a bad situation. Like Joseph says in Genesis 50 after his brothers sold him into slavery, what was intended for evil God has used for good.
The good thing that God did as a result of the persecution of the followers of Jesus was to spread the gospel and plant churches. One place that was receptive to the news of Jesus as the messiah was Antioch. So the church in Jerusalem commissioned a friend of ours to offer leadership in Antioch. The first pastor of the church in Antioch was Barnabas. In verse 23 we read: “When [Barnabas] arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”
Barnabas picks right up where he left off in chapter 9, encouraging people! In chapter 9 he was encouraging the disciples to allow a former enemy of the faith to become a part of their fellowship. Now he is encouraging the church to continue to follow Jesus.
Luke then continues to give some commentary on Barnabas in verse 27: “He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Barnabas is a good guy, a good Christian, and his ministry was highly effective because more people were coming to their church every week.
But notice what Barnabas wasn’t. He wasn’t the full package. He didn’t have all of the skills needed to make the church in Antioch work. Yes, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn’t mean that he had every gift that he might need for the ministry that he had been called to. So what does Barnabas do? He goes and recruits an old friend to help in the ministry at Antioch. And that old friend is Saul.
Barnabas and Saul lead the church in Antioch for a year as co-leaders, as co-pastors. I’m sure that their jobs overlapped quite a bit, but based on what we read about these two, I’m going to guess that Barnabas was the one who offered the pastoral care and Saul did a lot of the preaching and teaching. Barnabas is the gentle, caring, encouraging one. Saul is the public speaker with the sharp wit and quick tongue.
What I find amazing about this story is how obvious it should be to us all that we can’t do everything. I don’t think that Barnabas invites Saul to help him with the ministry at Antioch because the church is too big for Barnabas to do everything. We are probably looking at a house church of 20-30 people. Barnabas recognizes that he has some gifts, but lacks others. Barnabas knows that he is really good at caring for the people; his ministry of encouragement is firmly established. But he needs someone else to bring balance to the ministry at Antioch. Saul happens to be gifted in the areas that Barnabas is lacking, so they work together, and they work together well. It says in verse 26 that they taught a “great number of people.” And we shouldn’t overlook that little line at the end where it says that it was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.”
Up until this point, the followers of Jesus were called disciples, the church, or even the way. Christian was a title given to them by people outside of the church; a title which means “little Christ.” The church in Antioch was following the way of Jesus so well that those outside the church called them a bunch of little Christs.
I’ve been called a lot worse.
So we have Paul and Barnabas running this church in Antioch. They are a ministerial team. Now here is a tough question. How many people on the staff at First Church of Antioch were full-time, paid, professional ministers? Zero.
How many people here today are full-time, paid, professional ministers? The same number of people here are full-time, paid, professional ministers as there were at First Church of Antioch. And I think that has its advantages.
I’m not full-time, and I’m not even sure that I want to be. You know, because I’m lazy and don’t want to do that much. My other occupation is that of a father. It pays well in hugs and kisses! Yes, it would be nice to have more money coming in. But being bi-vocational allows a number of ministry opportunities that full-time ministry wouldn’t.
Here is a fun experiment to try sometime. If you go to the park and just walk around by yourself, you may make eye contact with one or two people. Someone may even say hello…if they already know you. We tent to keep to ourselves, and that is just a part of the culture in which we live. But if you were walking a dog or pushing a stroller, people who would never have made eye contact with you when you were walking by yourself will now come and start talking to you (or your pet/kid).
Being the primary care giver for our children has allowed me to have conversations with people at the library, in stores, and on the playground, especially with other parents. There is a natural connection, perhaps a shared understanding of each other’s problems. Oh, I only got four hours of sleep last night./Oh yeah?/Yeah, Ephraim was up all night with a cough./I’ve been there. I feel ya, man!
There is a ministry of caring that happens naturally and organically.
I met a woman at the YMCA a few years ago because her son had a “crush” on my daughter. She just came up to me and told me that our kids are so cute together and how Hadley had done the sweetest thing for her son. And I said, “That’s super. Who is your son? Who are you?”
We would casually talk over the next few months and I found out that she was going through a divorce and she was worried about her two-year-old son. She was worried that her ex-husband was moving back to Atlanta.
I eventually realized that I was counseling her through life as a divorced mom. Between sets right next to the dumbbell rack I was ministering to her, every Tuesday and Thursday. And it happened naturally, organically. I didn’t even realize it until one day she said that she was glad that I was her pastor.
I was her pastor? She had never set foot inside my church. She had never heard me preach or even pray. And she never put a dime in the offering plate. But yes, I was her pastor. And the reason she felt comfortable enough to let me walk with her through the most difficult time of her life was because we were both caring for our small children. We had that connection outside of the church.
I know that nobody in our congregation is a professional pastor, but I do believe that we are all called to care for one another and to pastor one another in some sense of the word. And you surely interact with people at work, in the market, or just on the street every day. Contractors are interacting with the flooring and electrical workers. Teachers are interacting with other teachers and students. I believe that as followers of Jesus we actually need to care for these people, to love them. Listen to their stories. And like my friend from the Y, you don’t just listen to them because you are trying to get them to come to church. You listen to them because you are being the church. You are bringing church and you are bringing Jesus to them. You are loving them just because they are beautiful people, created in God’s own image.
We don’t know what Barnabas did for money, but Saul/Paul made his living as a leather worker, or as we often assume, as a tentmaker. He worked with his hands and provided something for the broader community. Paul was probably a little more intentional in engaging people about their religious beliefs than I am, but I bet there were times when the conversation just happened naturally. He developed relationships with the leather tanner and the iron smith that made his leather-working tools. And through those relationships, I’m sure Paul made an impact in his community.
Being bi-vocational means that I’m not spending my entire day sitting in the office, typing on the keyboard of a laptop or reading another theology book. It means, like Paul and Barnabas, we are out in the community, working a real job like regular people. Sure, being bi-vocational has its problems, but it has its advantages as well.
I feel more and more like we as a church need to be ministering to the community. I sure hope that you don’t see ministry simply as something that I do as your pastor, but as something that we do as the church. And as churches across the country continue to decrease in size and power, it is going to become necessary for lay people to take care of certain ministry roles.
Let’s keep working with this idea of helping people outside of our church. Imagine you have some kind of skill, hopefully this isn’t too hard to imagine! Maybe you have some plumbing skills or a green thumb. What does it look like to use those skills to help a neighbor when their pipes are leaking or their flowers are dying? Even more so, what does it look like when you help your neighbor with their leaking pipes or their wilting flowers and don’t ask anything in return? It looks countercultural!
We live in a time when modern technology has made our lives more convenient than ever before. We can microwave a turkey while searching on our phones to find out Zachary Tyler’s wife’s name. But even though we have convenience available to us that our parents couldn’t have conceived of a generation or two ago, we are also much more busy. Isn’t that strange? The more conveniences we have the busier we become.
So when you use your gifts and skills, your helping hands or your listening ears, to help a neighbor in need, you are standing out from the rest of the world that doesn’t have time for anyone else.
Barnabas asked Saul to join him in ministry as bi-vocational pastors because Barnabas knew his weaknesses, and because Barnabas knew that they could do more together than they could alone.
You have probably heard the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall.” This phrase is often credited as one of Aesop’s fables. Aesop tells the story of a hungry lion in the savannah. This lion would like nothing more than to kill and eat one of the four oxen that he sees ever day down by the watering hole. But these oxen are smart. While one ox drinks from the water, the other three stand, rump to rump, watching for the lion, and butting him away with their horns if he gets too close.
These oxen have a falling out one day. Probably over a lady oxen, I can’t say for sure. So they decide to go their own way and go to the watering hole by their selves. One by one, the lion is able to sneak up and take down the mighty oxen. United they stand, but divided they fall.
This week we were left a nice gift at the front door of our church. Sometime between 3:30 pm Thursday and 7:30 am Friday, someone put a door hanger on the front door of the church. The hanger said, “Searching for a Dynamic Church for You and Your Family?” It then gave the contact information for a local church, some core values of the church, and the meeting times for the church. On the ground below the flyer were two religious tracts explaining how to get to heaven.
Explaining to me how to get to heaven?
Explaining to Mennonites how to get to heaven?
Inviting our church families to a dynamic church?
I didn’t know any other way to take this than to be offended. I called the pastor of this church and asked him about this practice, and he apologized over and over again. He assured me that he did not intend for anyone from their church to post those items at our church and that we were not singled out. They were trying to canvass the area and he offered a few suggestions for how these tracts and the door hanger ended up on our front door.
I don’t know why or how or by whom these were placed on our front door. But I ended my phone conversation with the pastor by saying, “I’m pretty sure that we are in this together.” In saying that, I was saying that even though we may disagree on a number of things, I don’t see our ministries as competing. We are working for the same larger goal, even if our steps along the way are different.
Saul and Barnabas were very different people, yet Barnabas knew that he could count on Saul to do the good things he had been called to do and use the gifts that he had been given. And in a few weeks we will see that they even went their own separate ways on different mission journeys. But even in their differences, they always knew that they were working together, as a part of the global church, to do the good things that God had called them to do.
As Saul will later say, after he changes his name to Paul, we are all a part of one body. Some of us are hands. Others are feet. And the body works best when all parts function together, no matter how different we may look.