Sunday, 22 September 2013

Acts 11 - Open to all - an epoch-making moment

The frist rocket into space, the first satellite, the first dog, the first man, the first man on the moon.  There are sometimes remarkable moments in history – maybe it was because Voyager 1 was launched the month we got married – 36 years on in the last couple of weeks it has become the first human creation to reach beyond the solar system.  A moment in history.

Then there are groundbreaking moments in history – the coming down of the Berlin wall, Nelson Mandela stepping free from prison.

Is this a groundbreaking moment we are seeing now in the Middle East – you have to hold your breath.  Taking an alternative to bombing Syria – The Russian and Iranian initiative – we hold our breath – will the Syrian regime ensure it happens?  Will they move to a cease fire.  Massive complexities in the Middle East – but things do change.  The Iranian President to attend the United Nations.  This week the announcement of 12 political prisoners to be released.   Two of the twelve were imprisoned as Christian believers – people Middle East Concern had been supporting in prayer and continue to support now – an email of hope amongst so many that are devastating.

Could it be a turning point?

It is difficult to appreciate how groundbreaking events were that are described in the Book of Acts.  Peter’s vision of all those animals that the Book of Leviticus makes it quite clear are unclean and not to be eaten.

Three times he hears that voice, Peter, rise up, kill and eat.

And then he goes to the very seat of the Roman occupying power in Caesarea and it is a Roman  Centurion of the Italian Cohort who comes to faith in Jesus, is baptised and receives the Holy Spirit.  This is remarkable.  And the story is told powerfully in Acts 10.

We turn to Acts 11 and we cannot help but notice how significant this story is.   Massive change like this immediately meets with significant opposition.

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’

How Peter responds to the criticism is striking.

4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step,

I love that phrase he explains it to them ‘step by step’.

What is then remarkable is that Luke who is recording the story considers this story to be of such significance that he repeats the whole story in Acts 11:5-18.   Peter tells the whole story again.

This is brilliant story telling in its own right.  But it is brilliant story telling in Luke’s book of Acts as well.

This is groundbreaking stuff.   And it has to do with how you read the Bible.

The Bible says categorically, there can be no equivocation.  It is there in Leviticus.  What Peter has come to realise is the full significance of the way Jesus opened up the Scriptures to his followers – he had lived out a different way of reading the Bible –  The Bible says no work on the Sabbath – but Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and was categorical the Sabbath is made for us  we are not made to fit into the rigid letter of the Sabbath.  It is absolutely clear ou shall not touch a leprosy sufferer – they must stay outside the camp.  And Jesus touches them and brings healing to them.   A Woman in the period of her menstruation – unclean.  And Jesus istouched by the woman with the issue of blood and simply brings healing to her – and goes on to Jairus’s daughter – a president of the Synagogue without going through the purification ceremonies laid down in the Bible.   This is groundbreaking stuff.  It is not that he rejects the Bible – he sees it as reaching a point of fulfilment in him such that he is able to say – you have heard it said, but now I say to you.

And the Bible in Leviticus says absolutely categorically this food is unclean you shall not eat it.

This is groundbreakgin stuff.

This is a moment of breakthrough.

And the whole story is told a second time.

THer’s a wonderful moment in what Peter says … the way the gift of God’s very presence in the Holy Spirit in all its strength was given to Gentiles as well …

7If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

This is the breakthrough moment.

 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

A remarkable insight.

So how does this play out in what’s going on in the world at that time.

Back to the consequences of persecution –

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.

There is a clear marking line.

But then others from Cyprus and from Cyrene – that’s North East Libya – still a region known by that name in Libya in North Africa.  Simon of Cyrene had carried the cross for Jesus.

They came to Antioch – a major city in Syria.

And they preached to Gentiles as well.

But 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.

News of this reaches the church in Jerusalem.  And what do they do?

They send a particular individual to help.

Barnabas is someone we have already been introduced to back in Acts 4:36.

There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’).

I always think of Barnabas as the ‘son of encouragement’.

But it is also significant that he was a Levite.  From the priestly family.  One very involved in the temple.

Signifcant that he is chosen from Jerusalem to go – this really is ground breaking stuff.

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.

What he saw was the grace of God.

Wonderful model here.

Who are the encouragers?   Are we on the look out for the grace of God?

Our task is to remain faithful to the Lord, with steadfast devotion.

A great many people were brought to the Lord.

The task to share our faith so that others can come to follow the Lord in a very real way.

He cannot do it alone … and so he sees the value of getting someone in.

Again someone who has come from being ardently Jewish and has discovered the gospel for the gentiles.

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 associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.

A year of teaching.  Borne out by action.  Recognising the needs of others.

Prophet predicts famine.  Claudius – comes to the throne.  There are difficult days ahead.  One of the first things Claudius does is to initiate military campaigns – and he launches an attach on the islands that had defied the Roman legions.  – it is AD 43 that he launches an attack on these islands that is successful in the way the previous century Julius Caesar had failed.

There is a brutality in the air.  And that means there will be severe hardship.  Especially in Judea.

Agabus a prophet reads the signs of the times …

At 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.

We often think of Paul as a theologian, a thinker, a preacher, a missionary in that sense.   But from the outset we encounter Paul as a teacher – and with a determination to help people practically.

At the very first we find him organising collections – around a fundamental principle.

From each according to their ability to each according to their need.

A principle that underlies giving to people in need – and has come into western society.

And in church this coming week – we shall at Harvest be having our special harvest collection – shared between our own work of mission through our Children’s worker project and then with the wider work of Middle East Concern.  Do join us at our supper to hear more about Middle East Concern and the very real help it gives to Christians facing persecution.

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