It is good to be here at this gathering of people who seek to be like that great multitude that no one can number, of all nations and kindreds and peoples and tongues, gathered before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7). In the next few minutes I want to indicate something of the imperative in Scripture that God’s people are always called from all ethnicities and cultures and classes of people to form the church.
We could use Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11 the people tried to establish themselves as a monocultural group with one language by building a tower to reach Heaven. God rejected their efforts and scattered them across the world with many different languages. In Genesis 12 God began the process of recalling all humankind to himself by calling out one small family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. He gave them a great promise, including the promise that through them “all the families of the earth” (that is, all ethnic groups) will find God’s blessing.
We could use Revelation 7, with this grand vision of all languages and ethnicities gathered before the throne of God at the end of time. It is a stirring and wonderful vision, which completes the promise made to Abraham in glory and delight.
We could explore the way that Jesus restricts his own preaching mission to “the lost sheep of Israel” and tells his disciples to avoid the Gentiles (Matthew 10 and 15). We could observe how Jesus was born of Gentile ancestors in the genealogy of chapter 1, and how Gentile magi from “the East” knelt at his bedside in chapter 2. Then at the close of his ministry (chapter 28), just before he ascended into Heaven, Jesus told his followers to make new disciples of all Gentiles as well as of the Jews. Jesus began a multi-cultural church. You see that the Bible as a whole supports the multi-cultural nature of God’s people. From the passages I have just mentioned to the stories of Ruth (the Moabite woman) and Jonah (sent to the Ninevites), the Bible calls on all people everywhere to worship the one true God.
We could also explore Acts 1 (the sending of witnesses to the ends of the earth) and Acts 2 (all Jewish nations gathered Pentecost heard the gospel in their own language), as well as Acts 10, with Peter’s vision and Acts 15, with the council at Jerusalem, when the first church embraced all cultures.
But I am looking at a brief account found in Acts 11: 19-26
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
The Basic Scene
Picture the action in this passage.
· The church is formed at Pentecost (Acts 2). You notice that it is a strictly Jewish church—formed by “Jews from every nation under heaven.”
· The disciples engaged immediately in witnessing and preaching in Jerusalem (cf 1:8).
· As a result, many people followed Christ, and the church grew rapidly.
· This growth led to severe persecution, including the stoning of Stephen (chapter 7).
· The persecution scattered the disciples and forced them out of Jerusalem (cf 1:8—to Judea and Samaria) (chapter 8).
· There is a brief interlude on Paul’s conversion (chapter 9) and Peter’s experiences in Caesarea (chapter 10), which marks the beginning of a shift from the mission to the Jews to the mission to the Gentiles.
Then we have the text from Acts 11. Some of the disciples had gone as far north as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch is the scene for our story. There, disciples told everyone they met about the gospel of Jesus—or almost everyone. Actually, they told the gospel only to Jews. I can almost see them wanting to tell someone, and then realizing, “No, you are not a Jew. I can’t tell you about the Messiah. The Messiah is only for the Jews.”
Then some Greek and African disciples started telling Gentiles also, and the Gentiles believed! Suddenly you have a church made up of Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews.
The Name “Christian”
Consider the names used for the disciples up until this point. They are called”
· Brothers (brothers and sisters of the Jewish people).
· Disciples (followers of a Jewish rabbi).
· Church (the word used is ekklesia—the Greek word for “congregation”; like qahal— the Hebrew word for congregation: it means the gathered peole of God, that is, Jews).
· Followers of the Way (similar to disciples, members of a Jewish sect).
In short, every name used before Acts 11 applies to Jews only, so that when Gentiles join the church, people needed a new name for them. They were no longer “brothers”; they were now brothers and aliens. So people came up with a new name for this strange group: Christians, or Christ-people, or Christ-followers (11:26).
There is something about being Christian that crosses barriers and destroys boundaries. So Paul, Galatians 3: “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
A Multi-Cultural Church
A basic part of the vision in beginning this assembly, “All Nations Assembly”, is precisely to include people from all kinds of backgrounds. I know that some people say that words like multi-cultural and mono-cultural don’t really mean anything. I work in an academic setting, and there are those in the university who tell us that ethnicity is a social construct with little real meaning.
I am not interested in that debate here, because we know very well that people in Manitoba come from many different backgrounds. Some of us are immigrants from South America, and some from Africa. Some of us have roots in Russia and come many generations before that from Holland. Some of us are migrant workers from Mexico, and some of us are well-established. Some of us are wealthy, and some of us are poor.
The point of our passage is that the church includes all of us, all people from every possible background you can imagine in Manitoba. We might say with Paul, “In Christ there is neither Filipino nor German, there is neither immigrant nor first nations, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Churches are always on the edge of turning into their own ethnic groups that exclude people who are “not like us”. We may not intend to do this, but it happens. We work hard to bring our children up in Christian faith, and soon we are a church of third-generation people in Canada, all like each other, and we have become an ethnic group instead of a faith community.
I am a Mennonite. We Mennonites struggle with this tension between ethnicity and faith. We want to welcome everyone, but all too often one of our first questions is, “You say your name is Giesbrecht? Well do you know …?” I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, part of the larger Mennonite world, and I have often been asked, “Is your father David or Arthur?” This is a natural, normal process as we remain together in the church, but when it begins to form a wall that keeps other people out, it becomes something also that God wants to change.
When I was in college so many years ago, in 1969, I was in a musical called “For Heaven’s Sake”. One of the songs we sang in this play was a take-off on Luther’s great hymn, which we sang as “A Mighty Fortress is our Church”, written in response to the way that White Americans in the 1960s fled their city churches as people of colour moved in.
A mighty fortress is our church, a bulwark never-failing
Against the changing neighbourhood Where sin is all-prevailing.
For round us are the slums, With drunks and pimps and bums,
The nice folk had to move, But we return to prove
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.
If we let those outside in here, They’d make the place a shambles.
You don’t get purses from a sow’s ear, Nor gather grapes from brambles.
Your sheep protect the fold, The fortress we will hold
’Gainst those of darker skin. The goats we’ll not let in.
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.
There’s the problem. When the church becomes a fortress instead of a place of welcome, we have a problem. Sometimes we think that the church is under attack, and we want to fight back against those who are attacking us. Let me suggest that instead we should welcome them and pray for them and invite them to follow Jesus also. That invitation will only make sense to them if they see us as a truly welcoming people who truly have met God.
Being a People of Faith
Who truly have met God: There is the key point. Why did these Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene start telling everybody Jesus? They could not keep it in. They could not help it. They had met Jesus, and they had to tell everyone they met what had happened.
One reason that we turn into an ethnic fortress instead being Christ’s church is that our encounter with Jesus fades. Do you want to see evangelistic outreach throughout Canada? Pray for revival in the church. Do you want to see your neighbours come to Christ? Pray that you yourself will be overwhelmed with the Spirit of Christ in your own life. Sometimes in mission studies people debate whether we should emphasize the internal life of the church or the external outreach of the church first? The answer is always “Both”. Revival leads to mission, and mission requires revival. Maybe you can say that revival is logically first—it leads to outreach. But the space in time is so small as not to notice it.
All Nations Assembly desires to be a place where everyone can worship. You will need to be a place where people meet God, otherwise there is nothing to worship. As you move into the future my prayer for you is that you would indeed be a place where people encounter God, and that you would also be a place where people discover that in Christ we really are one. God bless you and guide you in this journey as you also tell everyone you meet about Jesus.
All Nations Fellowship, Winkler
25 October 2015