Sunday, May 28, 2017

From Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome

Today we conclude our three part comparison of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity with the first church in the book of Acts. (Perhaps I should say “an Anabaptist perspective on our Christian identity”. What I am describing belongs, I believe, to all Christians, but is distinctive of an Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding of Christian faith.)
Two weeks ago we considered the first summary statement, “Jesus is the centre of our faith”, by looking at the church begun at Pentecost (Acts 2).
Last week we examined the third summary statement, “Reconciliation is the centre of our work”, through the controversy that threatened to blow up the First Church of Jerusalem in Acts 15—the Council of Jerusalem

Today we conclude with the middle one, “Community is the centre of our life”, by looking at the church as it was in Paul’s experience by the end of Acts 28. I will review the story of Acts briefly up to chapter 28, look at what Paul found in Rome and how he lived there, and then ask what the whole account has to teach us today.

Acts to this point
Acts 2 shows the church formed at Pentecost, less than two months after the crucifixion of Jesus. This was a Jewish church until the movement of Gentiles into their fellowship in Acts 10 and 11. The church was then established in Antioch, 300 miles north, as well as in Jerusalem. The Antioch church sent the new convert, Saul, off with the old apostle, Barnabas, to evangelize Asia Minor, leading to many more Gentile followers of Jesus.

Now the Jewish Christians had to decide if Gentile converts must also become Jews. The resulting controversy between Paul and Barnabas on the one hand and the “circumcisers” on the other, led to Peter’s great statement in Acts 15: “We are saved by grace, even as they are”, and to the decision of the Jerusalem Council that Jesus was all that they needed. Following the council, Paul left for his second missionary journey, now travelling with Silas. Throughout the rest of Acts they travel to Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece, preaching to Jews and Gentiles in each place. It is an interesting exercise (beyond the bounds of this sermon) to place Paul’s letters within his travels—letters to the Galatians (just before the Jerusalem Council) and to the Corinthians and to Philippi and to Rome itself.

From these letters we learn that a basic purpose of their travels was to collect money for what we can call “The Jerusalem Fund”. The founding church in Jerusalem struggled with difficult economic conditions, as we can see already from Acts 2. From the beginning the first church pooled their resources to care for each other. That practice marked the early church through its first 300 years; it was known as a church who cared for the poor.

In Acts 21 Paul and Silas returned to Jerusalem, taking with them the gift they had collected from the Gentile churches of Asia and Greece. While there, Paul entered the Temple to worship as a Jew (he never stopped being an observant Jew), and his enemies started a riot against him, based on the false claim that he had defiled the Temple by bringing Gentiles into the inner courts, where they were forbidden. The Roman commander in Jerusalem arrested Paul, and he defended himself first before the Sanhedrin and then before the Roman governor, until in Acts 25 he appealed to Caesar. As a Roman citizen, Paul had the right to hear his case tried before Caesar himself, so the new governor (Festus) sent him to Rome to stand before the Emperor. Chapters 26 to 28 detail that journey under military guard, and the verses we heard this morning describe the journey’s end.

Acts 28
Verses 11 to 16 tell about the last stage of the journey, sailing from Malta to the coast of Italy, and then walking from there to Rome. There was already a church in Rome, and believers from the church heard of Paul’s coming. They met him on the road about 30 or 40 miles from Rome and walked into the city with him.

In Rome Paul was placed under house arrest “with a soldier to guard him”. I don’t know if he paid the rent on his house himself or if someone from the church in Rome paid his expenses, nor do I know who covered the guard’s expenses. In any case, Paul had enough freedom to send for the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome (verses 17-29). He presented the gospel to them, as he had wherever he went. Some received the gospel, but the main leadership of the synagogue rejected it, and Paul told them that they had fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, leading to his continued mission to Gentiles.

Verses 31 and 32 conclude the book:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and the apostles preached Jesus. Here we see that these two proclamations are one and the same. When we say as Anabaptists that Jesus is the centre of our faith, we are saying also that the kingdom of God is the centre of our faith.

We hear the same note, then, in the first church at Pentecost and in this church at Rome 30 years later. In Acts 2 the disciples were “devoted to the apostles’ teaching”—that is, the teachings and ministry of Jesus. In Acts 28 the same focus remains: Paul “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” As Becker puts it, “Jesus is the centre of our faith.”

Community is the Centre of Our Lives
What does this survey tell us about community? Jesus, the centre of our faith, is expressed by the way that we live together in community. Reconciliation, the centre of our work, flows out of our lives together in community. What, then, can we say about community?

1. The first church specialized in face-to-face community. In Acts 2 they met in house fellowships. In Acts 15 the two major churches of their time could work out their differences in a face-to-face meeting. Here in Acts 28 the core of the local church walked out 40 miles to meet Paul and enter the city with him

I like what we do in this area here at SMC. Our supper clubs give time to get to know each other outside of the worship service. Care groups have given many of us a safe place to share our lives with each other. Our summer potlucks provide another place where we meet face-to-face outside of the worship service. We have many people here this morning who can testify to the care that others in the church have given them. I think that Paul—and Luke—would compliment us, and that he would tell us to care for each other even more! We can keep on developing ways to know each other and support each other face-to-face.

2. The first church cared for each other in practical ways (not just saying “I love you man!”). Remember that Paul went to Jerusalem twice to take a gift to help them in a time of economic hardship and famine. In Acts 11 Barnabas and Paul took them support during a famine, and in Acts 21, Paul and Silas did the same. In Acts 2 they shared all that they had. In the passage we read, someone provided a house for Paul to stay in. I’m reading a history of the early church by F.F. Bruce, titled The Spreading Flame. He observes:
The organization of charity … was a major activity within the individual churches themselves from the start …. The first institution of officers in the Jerusalem church, in addition to the apostles who were the natural leaders from the outset, was the appointment of seven almoners to take charge of this distribution. (Bruce, 189)

He adds this statement about physical needs:
The Christian tradition of caring for the sick also goes back to primitive times. When Alexandria was devastated by an outbreak of plague in the middle of the third century, Dionysius, bishop of the church in that city, describes the devotion with which Christians tended the sick, often catching the plague and dying of it themselves in consequence, whereas their pagan neighbours “thrust from them those who showed the symptoms of plague and fled from their nearest and dearest.” (Bruce, 191)

Here is a contemporary example of the way that church community speaks to the world around us, found in a prayer letter from my wife’s niece. The report describes the experience of a Christian in their local community in Mexico:
About one month ago a boy from our church died in an accident and the reaction of the people who know God’s Word was different [than others’ reaction]; the believers of the church walked alongside the parents of the boy in this difficult situation that they were going through, and many people of the community went to visit the boy’s family and were able to hear the Word of God.  Also, when a service was given at church many people from the community that don’t know God’s Word went, and that day we preached God's Word and many could understand God’s Word since I preached in our language and I could tell that many people liked hearing God's Word.

One lady who recently began to congregate with us told us that her husband hadn’t given her or her children the freedom to go to church in the past, but that the day of the burial her husband had heard God's Word and when they got back home he told his wife that she and their children were free to go to the church.

I like what our church community does in this area as well. We have a history of supporting each other and of reaching out into our community with God’s love. For example, the continued growth of what we call “Steinbach Community Outreach” is an example of such community. Community and reconciliation go together, expressing God’s love to each other and expressing God’s love to the world around us.

3. Life in community creates a counter-culture, which stands against the larger society. The way that Paul proclaimed the gospel reminds us of God’s Reign. Do you ever wonder how the church is related to God’s Reign? Here is how I describe it.
·        The church is not God’s Reign. God’s Reign is bigger than the church. God’s reign is eternal, perfect beyond the bounds of this world, and the church is flawed and imperfect.
·        At the same time, within this world, the God’s reign is made visible in the church.
To put it another way, Canada as a whole lives by one set of values. But God’s Reign is seen in the values that we hold in the community of faith.

We confess that we fail many times to live according to the values of God’s Reign. We fail to love when we intend to love. We fail to forgive and reconcile when we know that God wants us to do so. Such failures hurt. I had a colleague once who felt that I betrayed him. He ended our relationship and refused any approach in which I could examine myself and apologize.

But you see, the fact that we feel the hurt of these failures reminds us of what God wants us to be and to do. People around us in the larger society do the same things and call them “self-care”, or “taking care of myself.” We seek to become like Christ. We are the community of Christ-followers who imitate Christ. As Paul says in Philippians 2, we consider each other’s needs as more important than our own. When we fail, we remember Peter’s words from the Jerusalem Council: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” We confess our failures, and God restores us so that we can walk again in Christ’s way.

There is much more that we could examine, but this is a start. We are a people who live with Jesus as the centre of our faith, community as the centre of our lives, and reconciliation as the centre of our work.

A final word about community: When we live together and love each other, we help each other to become better and stronger than any of us can be alone. There’s a reason that Weight Watchers encourage each other to lose weight in community with others. There’s a reason that Twelve-Step support systems work so well.

I haven’t defined “community” as we talk about it. Defining “faith” and “community” and “reconciliation” and so on would take another series. But for this morning here is my shorthand summary as a way to think about it:
Jesus is the centre of our faith—Love God.
Community is the centre of our life—Love God’s People.
Reconciliation is the centre of our work—Love—God’s World.

Love God. Love God’s People. Love God’s World.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
28 May 2017
Text, Acts 28: 11-31

Paul’s Arrival at Rome

11 After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days.13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. 14 There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. 15 The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. 16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

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