A Christian's Ability from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
1To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
3Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth. Selah
5Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the people praise you.
6The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
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.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
When folks find out that I'm a pastor, the first thing they ask is "how big is your church." The second most common question I get is "how're the church's finances." My favorite answer for that one (so far) is "We are living off the generosity of previous generations."
We're running a deficit budget, and have been since 2004. That was the last time contributions exceeded our budget. And yet the saints who formed and formatted this church have left us with resources to bridge this time of famine. We are living off the generosity of previous generations. Our own history helps us to bridge the gap between our ability and our calling. The ways we will build up and reach out to the world, the ways we proclaim the gospel, will also be shaped by our history. Each generation of the faithful find new ways to express the ancient truths we have inherited since the infancy of the Church.
In the days and weeks that followed the church's birth at Pentecost, the group of joyful worshippers began to look like a threat to those who insisted on the old ways. So they took one of the early leaders, Stephen, and executed him. People fled the persecution, and some of them ended up, as our Acts story tells us, in Antioch.
The church starts to grow there too, but not only among the Jews. "...among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming to them the Lord Jesus." The gospel begins to spread to people with a different cultural background, trained in Greek Philosophy instead of the law and the prophets. The church begins to grow and flourish there too!
"News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabus to Antioch." When I read this, I imagine rumors getting back to the establish church, and they have got to find out what these crazy Hellenist converts are up to.
I wonder how our 21st century American Church would fall on the ears of the church in Jerusalem. I wonder what that would think of the ways we express the truths we've inherited. How would rumors about the infant church in Antioch compare to the testimonies and news reports about American Christians in 2016? What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?
A week and a half ago, a black church in Mississippi was burned and vandalized with a message connecting the action with a particular candidate. That candidate's campaign condemned the arson and vandalism. Yet around the country for the past four days there have been thousands of similar acts, mostly on a smaller scale but no less motivated by hate. What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?
The stories I see tell me about swastikas painted and drawn on people's doors and walls. The stories I read show me 4th grade latinos in a school cafeteria backed into a corner by threats from their classmates. The stories I hear relate threats of sexual assault towards women, as though that has ever been okay. One woman was told to remove her head covering or she would be set on fire. What would Barnabus find if Jerusalem had sent him here?
For the record, I don't think any of this is about party affiliation. Hate is not a conservative value any more than it is a progressive position. Romans 3 tells me that I, just like everybody else, "sin [and] fall short of the glory of God." But these things are happening all around our country, even in our own state. So if Barnabus had come here, with all these hateful things spinning out, what would he see?
I believe he would still find the grace of God. I believe he would see Christians take up their crosses to stand next to those who are most vulnerable. I believe he would see expressions of love for our neighbors who are different than us. I believe he would see a Church that is re-energized for its mission, having slumbered so long in its privilege.
After all, "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians." It was when the church expanded beyond its comfort zone that it was identified with Christ. It was when the gospel started to spread to other cultures that we were seen as originating from and belonging to Christ Jesus.
When we begin with, and belong to Christ, then a Christian’s ability is rooted in who Jesus is. Scripture tells us that though he was of the form of God, he didn’t regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. When we call ourselves Christians, that our source material. Our Christian ability is a reflection of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who stood with the meek, with the poor, with the outcast and with sinners.
A Christian’s ability shows the grace of God by standing with the vulnerable, by loving those who are hated, by preaching good news in opposition to bad ________. A Christian’s ability is to worship God, when idols are thrust in our faces. A Christian’s ability is to grow in faith when we are told we are powerless. A Christian’s ability is to show God’s love to everyone, especially to those who have been shown hate.
It was in Antioch where we were first called Christians. We still belong to Jesus, our beginning is in the Lord. We are called to share the grace we have been given with those who need it most.
If Barnabus had come here, he would see the grace of God in the ways the church opposes the resurgent racism and misogyny that has been exposed in recent days. He would see the ways that the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have loved and supported one another even though not everyone agrees on every issue.
I believe, if Barnabas had come here, he would see that our history positions us to proclaim the gospel in a divisive world. We were born in reconciliation of two split churches. We engaged with the challenges that formed us, and we wrestle with tough stuff even now. We are living of the generosity of previous generations, but we are also following their example every time we choose to work together in building up and reaching out. If Barnabas had come to the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, he would see the grace of God, and rejoice.
But Barnabas wouldn't stop with "Good job, I’ll leave you alone now.”
When he saw the grace of God in the community that was beginning at Antioch, "he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion." Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion. That is the charge that we have inherited from previous generations, and it will carry us much farther than any funding. "Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion."
A Christian's ability to remain generous in the face of famine is the test of their faith. A Christian's ability to show love when all we see is hate is the test of their faith. A Christian's ability to see the grace of God without ignoring the injustice around them, that's a prophetic faith.
This community of faith has the ability to show what it means to be Christian by every movement of our lives. We have the Christian ability to put our faith into action, to be transformed by the good news of God that set us free from bondage to sin and death. We have the ability to be a prophetic community already built into our history, bringing reconciliation by means of the grace of God.
Last Sunday, I talked about tithing, how it's a celebratory feast meant to teach us to be in awe of God's holiness. Next Sunday, we will offer our pledge cards during the service as a challenge to ourselves in building up and reaching out. As for today, I exhort you with the words of Barnabus: "Remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion." God has given us what we need to keep building up and reaching out during this famine. We have inherited ancient truths which are woven into the fabric of our identity.
It is not for us to wait out the famine, each of us, according to our Christian ability, are going to put our faith into action, and with the gifts God has given us and the generosity we have inherited, we will answer God’s call, we will worship God, grow in faith, and show God’s love to everyone. We will act our our faith by building up and reaching out.
And God’s call is extended now. So why wait? Our hope, after all, is built on Jesus. So let our Christian ability stand on the rock of our salvation, answer God’s call no matter where the Lord has put us, remaining faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, until we stand before God’s throne at last. Amen