In our Sunday morning services at the moment we are considering how the Holy Spirit guided the early Church. Last week, I spoke from the second half of the 11th chapter in Acts, a passage about the beginnings of the Church in Syrian Antioch. I’m recording some of my thoughts here as I think they relate to the situation we find ourselves in today, not that a Jewish church is figuring out how to relate to a gentile one, but that the established church is having to work out how to respond to an emerging one. This is going to be the first of many posts on this passage.
There is a danger of making a grave mistake when we read the Bible. We can fall into the trap of thinking that just as we can see what God was up to, how things worked out so that His kingdom is established, strengthened and extended, so too the participants at the time knew.
We can create in our minds an image that those whose journeys of faith are recorded in the Bible somehow had got hold of a map, and knew exactly where they were going, and what they were doing, It’s not true.
Of course, some of them did have a greater sense of the direction, and many of them had great clarity on their calling, but in terms of working that out, what to actually do, well, they had to make those decisions on the spot, reacting to the changing situation they found themselves in. They were, as uncomfortable as the phrase might be, shoved by the Spirit.
Acts 11:19-30 is a good example of this theme. The beginnings of the Christian church are a rapid succession of decisions and events, made on the hoof, in reaction to events, people and crises.
This passage comes immediately after Peter’s experiences at Cornelius’ house, and deals with a similar theme, that is the gospel and the Gentile’s response to it. Let’s be clear. The apostles of the church didn’t wake up one morning, have a planning meeting and decide that they would now advance the kingdom into the gentile lands! It wasn’t in the plan, it wasn’t on the radar. Peter had to have several visions and messages before he went to Cornelius’ house.
So following Peter’s experience, and his relaying of it to the Jerusalem church leaders, we get to this story, of a new community of Jesus followers, not primarily Jews, in Antioch. This hadn’t been as a result of missionaries sent from Jerusalem, but the result of preaching of others, probably people who heard and responded to the gospel on the day of Pentecost. And this is a key passage, not just in Acts, but for the whole church, who now have to grapple with the Jewishness of Jesus, in a world that is largely gentile.
We’ve seen a gentile household come to faith in chapter 10, was that an isolated event? Up until now, Jesus followers have been primarily Jewish. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus lived as a Jew. Jesus did what Jewish people did, and spent the majority of his time with Jews, speaking like them, acting like them. His message was addressed to them, and when He taught, He did so like on of thier teachers.
When the last supper happened, how many non-Jews there? When the resurrection happened – how many non-Jews were told? On the day of Pentecost, how many non-Jews were there in the upper room? In the need to elect deacons to serve the practical needs of the church, the dispute was between two sets of Jewish Jesus-followers, how many non-Jews ended up on the on the diaconate?
I’ve made my point. But was Jesus for the Jews alone? And, would all Jesus followers need to become Jewish? (But that’s for another time, and is covered very very well by Simon Jones’ latest book, Discovering Galatians) Indeed the background to the letter to the Galatians stems in a huge way from the events in chapter 11.
Following Jesus is not limited to one ethnic group. And, almost as proof of this, Antioch goes on to become the hotbed of missions to the whole region and further afield.
There’s a mindset we must guard against, and it’s the mindset that would claim Jesus for them alone. It’s a mindset that would see the church that we have now as the model for all churches everywhere.
On a trip to Uganda 4 years ago, my wife and I were incredibly saddened to find churches that were mimicking the formats of worship used by conservative American missionaries. These folks had been told that their drums were demonic, that they had to do things in a certain way for them to be proper churches. It was grieving to see and hear, and to watch as what could have been a vibrant, authentic expression of faith turned into an almost meaningless ritual.
I wonder now, in the light of just these introductory thoughts on the passage, what meaningless junk we’re perpetuating, and I wonder if the established church will be able to healthily bridge the gap between where we are, and where God wants us to be anywhere near as well as the folks 2,000 years ago.