Sermon: Praying for Mission

Father, may your Word be our rule, your holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

This winter, we are fixing our focus on the call of God upon the congregation here at Bethel. We are called to “Share Christ in Community.” What does that look like? How are we to begin? We listened first to the story of Bethel – when Jacob saw the ladder, heard the promises of God, and set up standing stones. We heard our identity and our call in those words from the Lord. Last week and then this morning and next Sunday, we are listening to three of the many times in the life of the early church where Christ was shared. Three stories from the book of Acts to give us biblical clarity and conviction about our calling as a congregation and the Spirit’s work of empowering us to carry it out.

Last Sunday, we saw Peter and John, just after Pentecost be asked for coins from a man lame from birth, only to given him Jesus, see him walk, then proclaim Christ to the crowds that gathered in response. 5000 believed in Christ that day, but the authorities threw Peter and John in prison, interrogated them, but eventually let them go. When the church gathered to pray in response, they prayed for boldness and the Holy Spirit filled them and shook the place where they were gathered.

This morning, we will be listening together to Acts 13. Acts 13, beginning in verse 1. We will be reading through the story section by section this morning, so feel free to open your Bibles and read along with me. Acts is in the New Testament, about three quarters of the way through your Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. Acts 13, beginning in verse 1.

Acts 13 is a turning point in the history of the church. Before this, mission happened mostly in reaction to what has happening around them. The Apostles would be put into a situation by the Holy Spirit and they would then share Christ. But here after prayer and fasting, the church will begin intentionally sending out leaders to share Christ.

Just to catch us up on what has happened between the story we heard last week and the one we will hear this morning. The church began to settle in and continued to preach the gospel. They worked to care for the weak in their midst, including widows and orphans. But persecution broke out and Stephen was killed. Many fled Jerusalem in fear, but took the message of the gospel with them. One of the persecutors, Saul, was struck by God with blindness and was healed and brought to faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit continued to push the church, sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, to share the good news of Christ beyond the Jewish community to the Gentiles. A church sprung up in the large city of Antioch, far north of Israel. The Holy Spirit was coming upon the people there and the church was growing. The Church in Jerusalem sent a man named Barnabus up to see what was happening and he stayed to minister with them.

So let’s listen to the word of the Lord from Acts 13, beginning in verse 1:

1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Mission begins the with church on its knees in prayer. Antioch was the third or fourth largest city in the whole of the Roman Empire with about 500,000 people. It was just off the coast in modern day Turkey. The leadership of the church indicated that it was already an international church. Barnabus was originally from Crete, but was sent up to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem. Simeon was likely from Africa though we don’t know where, as Niger is a word for black. Lucius was from the North African coast in Cyrene, Manaen was originally a member of Herod’s court, and Saul was a Pharisee from Tarsus. It was an international church with strong leadership – five people identified as prophets and teachers.

Their ministry was flourishing, but they had begun to sense a particular and profound need. They were not just worshipping, but worshipping and fasting. “They” likely includes not just these five prophets and teachers, but the whole church. Together they were worshipping and fasting, seeking the Lord. Fasting means going without food or water at a certain time in order to devote yourself to prayer. At this time in church history, there were no regular days of fasting, but fasting was used, among other things, as a way of giving special focus and attention to something in prayer. This particular fast changed the course of history.

The church sensed the urgent need for God’s direction, so they fasted and prayed. Burdened by where they were to go next in obedience to the great commission, they sought the Lord in prayer. “The need of the lost drove the church to prayer, and prayer drove the church to missions. Prayerless churches will always have a poor vision of the needs of the lost and perishing. We will never see great advances in the cause of the gospel without first seeing the church on her knees in prayer before the Lord. Likewise, before the Lord begins to do a great work, he sets his people praying.” (Thomas 356).

As they sought the Lord’s guidance, the Holy Spirit called for Barnabus and Saul to be set apart for a particular calling. The church laid their hands on them, commissioning and sending them off to do what the Spirit called them to do.

The emphasis here is on the work of the Holy Spirit. God sets apart people for mission. He calls and equips them. He sends and sustains them.

The mission of the church is not the work of heroic individuals, but the power of God at work in the course of history. Barnabus and Saul do not leave Antioch with an optimistic view of human nature and the readiness of people to receive the gospel. Instead, they go out confident in the power of God to accomplish what he promised. God chose to use flesh and blood people to share his good news with others. And he chose flesh and blood people in the church to commission them for ministry. So the church laid hands on these brothers and sent them off. While we do recognize special callings within the church, we do not believe that the call to mission rests only on the few or those sent abroad. When we come to ordain elders, deacons, and ministers to the church, we are reminded of this when we hear, “By the Holy Spirit all who believe and are baptized receive a ministry to witness to Jesus as Savior and Lord, and to love and serve those with whom they live and work. We are ambassadors for Christ, who reconciles and makes whole. We are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world.”

While we have been set apart differently, with different callings and different stages in life, but all of us who bear the name of Christ have been set apart to witness to Christ. What that means for you, just as what it means for the church as a whole and the church in Antioch, begins in prayer. Mission begins with the church on its knees seeking the will of God for the lost and perishing. Saul and Barnabus’ mission began on their knees in prayer and it can begin the same way for us.

Let’s keep going. Verse 4:

4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them. 

Barnabus and Saul head sixteen miles down to the port city of Seleucia and sailed sixty miles west to the island of Cyprus, Barnabus’ home territory. 

Again, we see that they were sent out by the Holy Spirit. Sending is key here. They go. Where in the Old Testament, the mission of Israel was largely to live as a holy people and invite the nations to ‘come and see,’ by contrast, the mission of the church involves not only holy living, but the Spirit sending Christians to ‘go out and proclaim the good news.’ There is both a gathering of the people of God in worship and a scattering of them into the world in vocation and mission.

Also, Barnabus and Saul went together and they had John to assist them. When God sends out his people in mission, he sends them out together. God choses to accomplish his mission by sending out people in community into communities. We might think it would have been more effective if Saul had gone one place and Barnabus another, but that is not the way the Spirit worked. Mission is something we do together. God does not choose for us to go it alone. This is one of the many reasons it is important to be part of a local church. We are gathered together and sent together. God’s plan of mission is that we be sent out together.

Let’s keep going:

6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. 

Saul and Barnabus have landed on the island of Cyprus in the Aegean Sea and made their way to the city of Paphos. There they encounter two men: Bar-Jesus and Sergius Paulus.

Sergius Paulus is the proconsul of the region, one of the leading figures and most powerful men in the area. He is an intelligent man, a public figure and politician.  He summons Paul and Barnabus to speak with him. Sergius Paulus initiates the contact and invites Paul and Barnabus to share the word of God with him. But the other man, Bar-Jesus, has the proconsul’s ear is and seeking to turn him away from the faith.

This is a striking difference between their culture and ours. In the time of the Apostles, religion was not a private matter or something uncomfortable to display and talk about in public. There was nothing weird about the proconsul wanting to hear and understand the religious beliefs of Saul and Barnabus.

Saul and Barnabus are given an audience with Sergius Paulus. He invites them in to share the word of God.

In our Western culture, we are not so open. Many Christians feel uncomfortable talking about Jesus with our neighbors and our neighbors may feel uncomfortable with us talking about Jesus too. You go elsewhere in the world or even encounter those who have come here from non-Western countries and there is no social stigma or awkwardness around speaking of faith. But we struggle with this here in the West, because we have bought into a distinction between public and private, between sacred and secular, such that math and science are out in the public realm to be debated, but religious truth is closed off and considered mere private opinion.

Perhaps some of us have heard God’s word in the last couple weeks have been both excited and discouraged. Yes, share Christ. Yes, there is no other name. But I feel uncomfortable and now a little guilty for feeling uncomfortable. We are trained from birth to feel uncomfortable talking about faith in public, we are taught that it is a private thing. The fact that many people feel more comfortable talking openly about what happens in the bedroom than what happens in the sanctuary is an indicator of our cultural moment.

The Bible knows no such distinction between sacred and secular, between fact and values, between personal faith and public truth. Instead, everywhere the apostles and teachers go, they speak the gospel as for the world. Paul will speak to the proconsul here, to Governor Felix later and finally use his citizenship to appeal to the emperor so that he could plead the case of Christ before the Roman Emperor himself. Paul and Barnabus refuse to believe that faith in Christ is a merely private matter, he has no qualms actively trying to convince and persuade his hearers of the truth of Christianity.

In our context, it may take more work to gain an audience with those around us. It may sometimes take time and investment to reach a place with someone where what the world views as private and personal can be proclaimed as public, life-changing truth. Sometimes we will be invited in quickly, the opportunity will come and we, like Saul and Barnabus, need to be ready. But our context means that sometimes we will need to develop friendships in order to open the door to sharing the gospel. Like Paul and Barnabus, we must seek to gain an audience, to be able to share the word of God. But that may take work.

But as we work to gain an audience to share the good news of Christ, we should not be surprised to find resistance. Verses 8-12:

8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.

Bar-Jesus, whose name means ‘Son of Jesus/Joshua’, is also known as Elymas (meaning sorcerer or shaman) is a magician, false prophet, and antichrist figure. Paul calls him a son of the devil, enemy of righteousness, and accuses him of trying to make crooked the straight paths of the Lord. Essentially, Bar-Jesus is doing the exact opposite of what John the Baptist was called to do ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (Is 40:3-5). Bar-Jesus is a flesh and blood man, but behind his opposition to Paul and Barnabus is the work of Satan.

The work of sharing the gospel is opposed by the work of Satan. That opposition creates a clash between the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of the false prophet. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul names Bar-Jesus for who he is and pronounces judgment, temporarily blinding him. Sergius Paulus sees this, is amazed, and believes. He believes, we are told, because of his astonishment at the teaching of Paul.

But there is a lesson in here for us. God’s plan will come to pass. Even if there is opposition, or resistance, or stumbling, or trials, it will happen. Bar-Jesus resisted the work of the Holy Spirit and somehow the Spirit turned that resistance into a witness of his power and drew Sergius Paulus to faith.

Mission begins with the church on its knees in prayer. If you are not sure where to begin in mission, begin in prayer and complete dependance upon the Holy Spirit. Then look for a partner. Perhaps you already have one – a spouse, a friend, a family member. But if you don’t, look for someone who can pray for you, check in with you, and walk alongside you as you seek to live for Christ and share Christ in your everyday life. Then, work to gain an audience. It will likely take patience, and may even encounter resistance. But the difference it can make will last a lifetime and even into the age to come.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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