Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015
We continue our journey with the Apostles in Acts. There will only be two more sermons in this series. After Paul is commissioned (which happens at the beginning of Chapter 13), I will take a break from Acts. Perhaps we’ll come back and follow Paul around the Roman Empire and complete this book after Easter.
The focus of Acts changes greatly in our text as we are taken into Antioch, one of the great cities of the ancient world. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria). From now on, Antioch will become more prominent than Jerusalem and soon, Paul will eclipse the other Apostles as Luke continues to tell his story with the focus on the church moving throughout the known world.
In the early Church, Antioch and Alexandria became two of the great Christian centers and the faith thrived in both for centuries. The city is in what is known today as Syria, a little southeast of the city of Aleppo, which has been in the news a lot recently. There are still Christians there and they need our prayers and for us to speak out on their behalf.
Let me tell you a bit about Antioch. First of all, it was a common name for a city in the ancient world. There were many such cities created during the Hellenistic period following the conquest by Alexander the Great. And to make it even more confusing, two such cities play prominent roles in the New Testament, this city in Syria and another in what is south central Turkey.
This Antioch was a cosmopolitan city built along the banks of the Orontes River. Its location connected it to trade routes into Persia and on to the East. It was one of the ends of what would later be known as the Silk Road and they have even found Chinese pottery in the ruins at Antioch. There was a strong Jewish community there but also Romans, Greeks and Persians. During the New Testament era, a main thoroughfare cut through the city, lined with palaces, shops, temples and baths. The city was built in a beautiful location, but also on an active geological site with frequent earthquakes. The instability of the ground and the city’s conquest by Muslim armies led to its downfall.
Let’s read about the early church as it continues spreading across the ancient world. Charles Dicken description of Paris at the beginning of the Tale of Two Cities could apply here: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
It was the best of times. The church is growing, it’s spreading out throughout the empire; gentiles are becoming believers…
It was the worst of times. Persecution is driving Jewish Christians from their homes. There’s already been one martyr, Stephen, and now we hear of another, James the Brother of John. And the Apostle Peter is behind bars.
As I reflected on this passage this week and wondered what I was to say about it, I thought back to a favorite book of mine by Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts. Barnes begins his book with a discussion of losing our lives and finding them (remember, Jesus said something strangely similar). We can only leave behind a life that is “gone forever,” Barnes writes, by believing “in the ongoing creativity of God, who brings light and beauty to the dark chaos of our losses in life.”
Although our experiences can make things seem like it is the worst of times, those can also be the times when we grow closer to God, learn to depend on our Heavenly Father, and to feel his presence which can also make such occasions the best of times. Do we choose to believe this?
Essentially, this is what’s happening in the First Century. Endings occur as new beginnings sprout. Paul heads out to persecute Christians, and he’s converted and sent on a mission. Others flee their homes in fear of their lives, but end up taking the gospel of Jesus to new communities. All these people are having their lives thrown into chaos. This isn’t something you’d ask for. But it works out because our God who, at creation, ruled over the chaos of the waters and brought about calm and a new world, ruled over the chaos of the lives of the early believers and used their displacement and witness to spread the message. God can also use us in a way that will bring him glory.
Let’s look at our text. As I hope you remember from last week, the eleventh chapter begins with a pow-wow in Jerusalem where Peter has been called up before the Council to explain his hobnobbing with Gentiles. At first, those back in Jerusalem are skeptical, but they come around to understanding that God is doing something new and exciting. That section ends with those in Jerusalem giving thanks to God because they understand that the grace of Jesus Christ extends to everyone. Luke, our author, follows this up with a reminder of how people have been scattered over the known world because of persecution. But this is not a bad thing, because their testimony results in converts among Jews of the diaspora. However, that’s changing, as we see in Antioch. The first batch of believers were Jews, and more will come to accept Jesus as the gospel continues to spread, but in Antioch, the first widespread conversion of Gentiles occurs.
There is a method to this madness. Just as Pentecost occurred when Jerusalem was having a festival and Jews from all over the empire were present, the evangelistic breakout in Antioch, a city that connects the eastern world to the Mediterranean, allows people from all over to hear the gospel and then to take the good news back to their homes.
Of course, those in Jerusalem are skeptical and want to be sure that what’s happening is of God. They send Barnabas. We met him back in chapter four where he sold a field and gave the money to the Apostles. Although Jewish and a Levite, a background that allows him to serve as a priest in the temple, he was also a native of Cyprus. This mixed background allows him blend in with those who do not know Jewish history and customs. He finds an active group of Gentiles praising God in Antioch and he joins them in their praise.
Barnabas must have realized something special is happening and that he needs some help, for he goes off to find Saul (the guy who will soon be known as Paul) so he can bring him to Antioch. This city will become a launching pad for Paul and Barnabas as they use the city as a base for their missionary journeys. The city is also important for it is there that followers of Jesus are given the name Christian, a name that we all claim.
To show the faithfulness of the Gentile believers, Luke tells us about a prophecy of an upcoming famine and that these Gentiles respond to the news by sending money to those suffering in Judea. What the text doesn’t say is that many of those suffering would have been Jewish Christians. Like Barnabas, the faithful in Antioch, respond to their newly discovered grace by making a significant offering to help others. Barnabas sold his land to benefit the poor and the Christians in Antioch give to a famine relief effort for those whom they do not know.
Again, as we’ve seen throughout the book of Acts, good deeds are often followed by persecution. Our reading ends with James, the brother of John, being killed by Herod while Peter is thrown into prison. God sees to it that good things are happening, but the Devil is trying his best to get his due by persecuting those who believe.
We see in our text that although God is still directing what’s happening, there is a need for a response by those who believe. Such a response results in Christians, who live up to their name, telling their story to others and giving to the welfare of those in need. God directs, but we are the actors, the ones who give and participate in the scene in which we find ourselves.
Today is ministry Sunday and I want to encourage you to find a way to be involved in strengthening our ministry at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church. As followers of Jesus, we are to join with others by supporting mission and ministry opportunities with our gifts of money and time, skills and prayers. Take a few minutes today to talk to those involved in the ministries of our church and if you don’t already have a place or feel yourself being led to another ministry, seek out ways that you can become involved. God’s involvement in the church did not end in Acts 28. It continues on, even today. At times we may feel the church is not effective or that we are persecuted and are not able to do what we’d like. That’s nothing new! Look at the church in the first century and consider what they were able to do, empowered by God’s Spirit, in a much more difficult time. Imagine how much more God can do through us. Believe in God, trust in Jesus, and join with one another as we work for a better world. Amen.
 Frederick Norris, “Antioch of Syria,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992), I, 265-268
 Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life through Unwanted Change (Dower’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 13. See also Matthew 16:25 and Luke 17:33.