I blame the time change this past weekend for why I’m a day off on posting my reflection on Sunday’s sermon. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
This past Sunday at Orchard Community Church we looked at Acts 11:19 – 14:28. It was a LOT of information to cover. In these chapters we get to know the church at Antioch and then read about how they send Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey. Chapter 14 ends with Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch and telling the church about the amazing things God has done.
On the surface these chapters seem to be about a lot of action. There is a lot of travel, a lot of people coming to know Christ, and a lot of churches being started. What struck me was what was behind this action. In the church at Antioch and in the churches that Paul and Barnabas start there is an emphasis on being rooted or grounded rather than just doing.
We see this first in Antioch before the missionary journey even begins. In Acts 11:19-21 we see that God has done a great work among the Gentiles in Antioch and a church is growing. The Christians in Jerusalem hear about this and send Barnabas to check it out and to help. (Just as a quick side note, I absolutely love this idea of one church helping another and working together for the Gospel Mission!) Barnabas arrives and sees “evidence of the grace of God” (Acts 11:23). Another possible translation is that he saw “evidence of what the grace of God had done.” Barnabas knows immediately that what is happening at Antioch is God’s doing, not just their own efforts. This view shapes his ministry there. He doesn’t challenge them to do more or to work harder, he encourages them “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” If what was happening was God’s doing, then the way to keep it going was to keep the people focused on God. The evangelistic and missionary activity of the church at Antioch came from their being grounded or rooted in God so that it was God working in and through them and not just their own clever ideas.
The ministry at Antioch is growing so Barnabas travels all the way to Tarsus (over 100 miles each way!) to get Paul. From earlier in Acts we know that when Paul first meets the risen Christ he is told that he will be sent to take the gospel to the Gentile world. For several years Paul has waited for God’s timing for this huge mission to begin. I think Barnabas saw something going on in Antioch that resonated with the mission Christ had given to Paul and so he brings Paul there to see what God does. For a whole year they work together in the church at Antioch.
Acts 12 is a snapshot of some things that were happening in Jerusalem around this time. The apostle James is put to death. Peter is arrested and by a miracle of God he escapes from prison. King Herod is getting a bit full of himself and some people start saying that he is a god to be worshiped. Herod doesn’t stop them and give glory to God so he is struck down and dies (see Acts 12:23).
Chapter 13 starts back in Antioch. There are “prophets and teachers” (which are probably leaders in the church since Barnabas and Paul are included in this list and these gifts/functions are listed in Ephesians 4:11-12 as people given to the church to “prepare God’s people for works of service”) who are “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2) As I read this, this means that these leaders were not sitting around discussing strategies and programs. They were focusing on who God is (worshiping the Lord) and what He wants them to do (often associated with fasting). They knew what Christ had called Paul to do. They could have been making charts and maps and filling three ring binders with ministry plans, but instead they were seeking God and waiting on Him! It is this groundedness in the gospel and in God that leads to the incredible missionary work found in the rest of Acts.
As Paul and Barnabas travel, share the gospel, and see churches start in various cities, they also encounter lots of opposition. They are chased out of cities. They are under threat of death. In one city, Paul is stoned and left for dead. This is no easy or comfortable mission. The gospel life to which we are called is difficult. This is why, when Paul and Barnabas start their return trip to Antioch, they go back to these baby churches and do two things. First, they challenge and encourage them to “remain true to the faith” (Acts 14:22) – stay grounded, rooted, in Christ. Paul and Barnabas knew that any effectiveness for the Gospel Mission in these cities would be the fruit of a strong and growing faith. The second thing Paul and Barnabas do is to appoint elders (Acts 14:23). In order for these churches to stay grounded in their faith, they need leadership that saw this ministry as their highest priority. It is no accident that one of the words often used in Scripture for godly leadership is “shepherds.” These churches were going to face difficulty from both inside and outside of the church and they needed godly leaders who led the church in such a way as to care for the people by helping them to continue being grounded and growing in their relationship with Christ.
I truly believe that churches and followers of Christ today are way too focused on DOING. We have lost a sense of being grounded, rooted, and completely dependent on God. All too often we see our relationship with Christ like being a rechargeable battery. We plug in for a short time each week or maybe even each day and then we go out and do our work (taking time along the way to ask for God’s blessing) and over time our “charge” starts running down. We come back to church, do our daily devotions, or go to a conference to recharge our batteries so that we can go out and do more for God again.
Leadership in churches reflects this understanding. Leaders set direction, make the decisions, and lay out strategies. In so many churches, the model of church leadership has slipped into the idea that the leaders “drive the bus” – do what they think is right – and the people can either get on board or get out (I have actually heard this!). Leaders push, pull, and even even hurt people all in the name of trying to get them to do the things that the leaders think they should be doing for God.
But God doesn’t need us to do anything for Him. This idea that we do things for God betrays the fact that we have too small of an idea of who God is! It is God who is at work. It is God who is moving and doing ministry. It is God who has all the power and all the grace. We need to quit trying to do things for God and focus instead on living lives rooted in what God is doing. Jesus says this so poignantly in John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” We are not batteries that have some capacity to store up God’s power for ourselves and let it out at our choosing. We are branches that are constantly and totally dependent on the vine for nourishment and it is the health of the vine that works through us to create the fruit. Since this is true, leadership in the church is not a matter of getting people to do the right things, but shepherding people to be more grounded and rooted in Jesus Christ so that God can do great things in and through them.
This is true for how we each “lead” ourselves as well. We often seek tips and techniques to make our lives better. We want the latest book or fad to tell us the secret of life. We want to do things that will make us feel better when it is the frantic doing that is keeping us from the One who created us to find our joy in Him.
OK, this is getting really long so if anyone is still reading at this point let me finish with two other observations from this missionary journey.
1. Difficulties are natural and should be expected on the Gospel Mission. This is all the more reason to focus on being grounded in the gospel and in relationship with God through Christ. If we are only focused on doing things then when difficulty comes we can easily think we must be doing something wrong. But if we are instead focused on staying grounded in God’s grace then the difficulties become an opportunity to see God at work.
2. Watch out for Pride. As Paul and Barnabas traveled and shared the gospel, it was the people who thought they had it all right that were the most resistant to the gospel. I believe this is just as true for those “inside” the church as those who are outside the church. When we focus on “doing” for Christ we will feed the pride in who we are and what we can accomplish. If instead we focus on being grounded and rooted in Christ then any effectiveness, any growth, is what God is doing in and through us and He gets the glory. The way to fight pride is to keep our focus on Christ and the gospel that says we are dead in our sins and risen to new life only in and through Jesus Christ. All our plans and strategies are filthy rags that amount to nothing, but God’s work is His glorious grace on display through us that can change people’s lives.