Last time we looked at three instances of the church crossing divides. Every time that someone became a Christian, a new divide was crossed - the Gospel came first to a Samaritan man, then to a Gentile Ethiopian and then to Saul, the enemy of the church. Again we’re going to look at another time where the Gospel crosses a divide. (Acts 11:18-26)
We saw a few months back how the gospel came through Peter to Cornelius and to his Gentile household. This was a huge, game-changing event in the life of the church. Up until that point they just thought this was a message for the Jews; they thought it was a message of completion and the coming of the Messiah. It still is. The Gospel is still good news to the Jewish people. But God showed the early church that He wanted to cross a divide and to bring Jewish people in contact with Gentiles; he wanted to get two sets of people talking who otherwise would not be talking. He wanted to build relationships between people who were quite different. And above all he wanted the Good News to be Good News for everyone.
So God himself took the initiative, and crossed the divide. He sent Peter to Cornelius. This is how God works - He takes the first step in creating relationships between people, and between Himself and people. He took the first step in approaching Adam and Eve when they sinned against Him. He took the first step with Abraham and made a covenant with him. He took the first step and called Moses while he was tended sheep. He took the first step and sent Jesus to reconcile us to Himself. And again he took the first step and sent Peter to bring reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles and between Gentiles and God.
We talked about the Gospel crossing a divide, but it’s really God who crosses the divide and the church follows. And the reason we see this happening so much in the Bible, and so much in the book of Acts is that the church is at its best when it is following God across the divide. The church is at its best when it realises that God is interested in creating new relationships and bringing about new reconciliation.
After Peter went to Cornelius and the first Gentile church was established, after that first divide was crossed, everyone else very quickly got the picture. The church realised that this Gospel, this good news that they had, was good news for everyone. It changed the way that they spoke about Jesus. So far in Acts they had been preaching “the Christ”, the Messiah, the promised and expected Jewish saviour. Now if you look in verse 20, people go out and start preaching the Lord Jesus. Yes, a Jewish message, but not just a Jewish message; the Lordship and the rule of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God to all the earth.
One question you see often in the Bible and particularly here in the book of Acts is the question “Who’s not here?”. One Christian poet imagined that the Gospel began with God asking “Who’s not here?” It’s a picture of how God always reaches out. They pictured God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit giving and receiving love. But then they realise - who’s not here? Humans! Humanity is not included in the fellowship of God’s love. So God goes out to Adam and Eve and includes them in his love. Then the people of Israel are invited to join the fellowship. But there are still people who are not here! So God goes out again and extends the fellowship to the Gentiles, until everyone is included. And here we see an example of the church asking themselves “Who’s not here?” We Israelites are having a great time being Church and finding our Messiah but there are people out there who are not included yet. And through understanding how God always goes out to find people, they also set out to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.
Like I said, this was a completely game-changing move. Gentiles and Jews did not like each other. Jews did not associate with Gentiles. They thought it would make them polluted and unclean. But some people saw beyond that, they saw what God was doing and they went and did the same. Up until this point the church had been reaching out to people like themselves: other Jews; people nearby; people they knew how to deal with.
But here we see something completely different. This is the church reaching out to people not like themselves. God’s mission is made real when people go out to those not like themselves. We see people from Cyprus and Cyrene going out to Antioch to spread the message. Cyprus is an island off the coast of Israel. Cyrene was in Africa. Antioch was in Turkey. People came from different countries to spread the Gospel. So this was the church’s first overseas mission trip. It was the first cross-cultural mission trip. People following God and going to those not like themselves.
I used to think that it was crazy that God sends missionaries from England to Africa to spread the Gospel and is now sending missionaries from Africa to England to spread the Gospel. Why don’t people in England stay in England and people in Africa stay in Africa and spread the Gospel where they are? Well, I think I’ve come to realise that God’s mission is all about going out to those who are not like us.
I was in a meeting the other day of pastors from different churches around Shiga. I am really excited to be part of that group because it means we get to talk to and meet pastors who are not like us. They have different backgrounds and slightly different understandings of the Gospel, and we can challenge and encourage each other. And we can also show that really despite our differences it is Christ that unites us.
But in another way we’re actually pretty similar. We’re all well-educated, cultured, fairly well-off middle-class people. And we were trying to plan an evangelistic event together. And everyone came up with the same sort of suggestions: let’s get a singer in and do a classical concert, let’s get a teacher in and have a lecture. Well, those are good ideas if you want to reach well-educated, cultured, middle-class people. But if that’s all you do then your church ends up being a well-educated, cultured and middle-class church. All you’ve done is reach out to people like you. And that doesn’t show the range and the diversity of the Gospel. It doesn’t show how God continues to reach out to people. It doesn’t show that you’re thinking about who is not here.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of church leaders and theologians talking about being a “missional” church. What they mean by that is a church which is always looking out, not focussed on its own members, but reaching out to people. That’s a good first step. But I really want to see a church which focusses on reaching out to people not like itself.
That’s what we see here in the book of Acts. People from Africa and Cyprus travelling up to Antioch to start a church there. Now of course these missionaries were not completely unlike the people in Antioch. Cyprus and Cyrene were Gentile cities; the Jewish believers there had grown up with the Gentile culture and they knew a little bit of both worlds. They knew how to live as a Jewish believer in God in a Gentile environment. And so they knew how to reach Gentiles with the message of Jesus. If you’re going to cross a divide, you need a bridge. You need to have one part of the bridge on one side of the divide and the other part of the bridge on the other side. God chose these people to be bridges between Jewish culture and Gentile culture; He knew exactly the kind of people required to stand in the gap.
One of the things that is most shameful for me as a missionary is that most of my friends here are Christians. It’s so easy when you’re involved in a church and taking part in the life of the church that most of your relationships are with Christians. And we can actually forget how to relate to non-Christians. All our thinking happens inside a Christian culture. I’ve seen people give presentations of the Gospel that make perfect sense to a Christian. To a non-Christian, not so much. We need to remember to be able to stand in the gap.
But anyway, eventually this church is established in Antioch. And the church leaders in Jerusalem get to hear about it and they’re really freaked out. Because this is the first time a church gets established without any of the apostles, the main church leaders being involved. So they don’t trust it. They could be doing anything up there in Antioch and they’re not under anyone’s control. So the church leaders send Barnabas up there to check it out. This is not a day trip for Barnabas. Antioch is about 600 kilometers away. It probably takes him a couple of weeks to get up there.
And guess what? He gets up there and it’s all fine. God is doing fantastic stuff up there in Antioch. So Barnabas tells them to basically keep on doing what they’re doing, and he goes out and looks for Paul. It probably took him a long time to find Paul; the disciples had sent Paul up to Tarsus to hide, and the Greek here suggests that Barnabas had to search pretty hard to find him. And they come back and teach the church together.
But I think it’s significant that the apostles chose to send Barnabas. They had a situation with a church that they did not trust. And Barnabas was a made who God had called to trust people. We first see him in Acts 4, when he sells some property and he gives over the money to the apostles. He trusted the apostles to do the right thing with the money that he was sacrificing. Then again we see him in Acts 9. Saul has become a Christian but nobody trusts him yet. He is trying to get in to see the apostles but they all think he wants to kill them. But Barnabas trusts someone that nobody else will trust. He takes Saul under his wing and introduces him to the apostles. Now again Barnabas pops up and he is called to trust some people that nobody else trusts.
Later he has an argument with Saul because Saul doesn’t trust another of his co-workers, a man called John Mark. Again Barnabas takes on John Mark and works with him. His character is to trust those who nobody else trusts. And for this he is called “the Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas is not his real name. It’s a nickname that the apostles gave him, it means Son of Encouragement. It’s because of his call to trust the untrusted that he is an encouragement to many.
We believe in a God who reaches out to us even when we reject him. We believe in a God who does not give up on people but pursues them and seeks to reconcile them to himself. We believe in a God who gives second changes. We believe in a God who reconciles those who would not otherwise be reconciled. We believe in a God who crosses divides. And this is exactly how Barnabas showed his faith. That is how he was an encouragement to many, and I believe it is how we can become an encouragement to others as well.