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Depending on who we are we might have different feelings about confrontation. We might want to avoid confrontation at all costs. We might like confrontation a little too much. We see in our story today that there is a time for confrontation of powers and forces that act in direct opposition to the love and will and truth of God. One such truth is that it is in Christ that God has reconciled the world to himself. “In Christ Alone” is what we sing and this is part of God’s story. It means that anything else that would purport to offer salvation or be necessary along with Christ for salvation and reconciliation and redemption is false.
The story speaks to the call of the church to be a peculiar people. We’ve talked about this before here. To be set apart. Part of the peculiarity for those who follow Christ is that Christ is worthy of and commands our complete allegiance. This means that there are situations which do not call for compromise or accommodation. For Saul and Barnabas this was one such situation. Being all in for Christ meant that no compromise was brooked here. In his Acts commentary, NT Wright puts is like this “… we would very much prefer the story to be one of gentle persuasion rather than confrontation. We would have liked it better if Paul had gone about telling people the simple message of Jesus and finding that many people were happy to accept it and live by it. But life is seldom that straightforward, and people who try to pretend it is often end up simply pulling the wool over their own eyes. It’s a murky world out there, and though the choice of compromise is always available in every profession (not least in the church), there is in fact no real choice.” “What’s the point of trying to swim with one foot on the bottom of the pool…” Wright goes on - never venturing out of our own depth, never trusting in something beyond ourselves – as opposed to swimming along not knowing where the bottom is and frankly not caring because we are buoyed up by Christ and the Holy Spirt as we venture out into the waters in which God has called us to swim.
The first missionary journey of Saul and Barnabas starts with some confrontation. Let us ask for God’s help this morning as we continue our journey through the book of Acts.
Saul and Barnabas launch their first missionary journey from Antioch. The last time we encountered Saul he’d just met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Shortly after that he affects an escape from the city by being lowered in a basket over the city wall. He goes to Jerusalem. His life is once again endangered and the believers in Jerusalem send him to Tarsus. In the meantime Antioch has become a big centre for the early church. The place believers in Christ were first called “Christians.” Barnabas – the son of encouragement we encountered weeks ago – the Cypriot, the man who sold the field and gave all the proceeds to the church to do with as they saw fit – is sent to Antioch and we read that when he came and saw the grace of God he rejoiced and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. Barnabas brings Saul back from Tarsus and the two were guests of the church and taught a great many people.
And now we’re caught up.
This was a sending church in Antioch. Directed by the Spirit of God they send Barnabas and Saul on their first journey, which means it’s time for a map. Their first destination is Cyprus, which makes sense. Barnabas was from there. Before we look at their experience on Cyprus though, I want to take a look at the marks of the sending church that we read in chapter 13. Whether we’re talking about sending people overseas or ourselves being sent from this place weekly, what are the things that mark the sending church?
It’s comprised of teachers. Remember how they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. This practice is still in effect. This coming to an ever greater understanding of the nature of God and the nature of the story that we are caught up as followers of Christ. It’s comprised of prophets. We’ve said many times that prophecy in the Bible is not simply a matter of foretelling – speaking of future events – but forthtelling – speaking about practices that are antithetical to the love of God. We’ll see Paul doing both later on. This teaching made a difference, in other words, in how they conducted their lives.
They were generous with their money, supporting famine relief in Judea (ch 11). They were generous with their people, sending them out and not keeping people like Saul and Barnabas to themselves. They were welcoming of people.
They were ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. A Cypriot. A couple from North Africa. A member of Herod the ruler’s (not to be confused with Herod the Great) court. And Saul. We talk about being given a new identity in Christ; about being welcomed into a new family. This is what was happening in the church of Antioch.
They worshipped the Lord together. They fasted together. They prayed together. We see God as the prime mover in the story. The Holy Spirit speaking. The Holy Spirit sending. We see the church taking part in God’s activity among them. Seeking to discern God’s will together in worshipping and praying and fasting. Laying hands on the two and sending them off or releasing them. Luke reminding us right after that they are sent out by the Holy Spirit. They went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. Barnabas’ turf. His home territory. It seems like a sensible place to start. Let us go back to the map. This is the journey that will be outlined through chapters 13 and 14.
They go across the island and come to Paphos. They meet two men. Bar-Jesus and Sergius Paulus, the local governor who wants to hear the word of God. Bar-Jesus is a magician. Jewish. A false prophet. Named Bar-Jesus ironically. A common enough name at the time. Not a magician like Penn and Teller but a man who purported to be able to commune with spirits, tell the future. Not an uncommon thing in those times for officials to have such people in their employ. Something that was forbidden by God in Deuteronomy 18:9-14. Such things work in direct opposition to the truth of the sufficiency of God. The sufficiency of Christ. A desire to know the future and someone purporting to be able to divine the future (and it’s interesting that we use the word “divine” because what is that but taking on the role of the divine) is getting in the way. Bar-Jesus or Elymas is opposing the message of Christ which Barnabas and Saul are bringing, and he is trying to turn the governor away from the faith. “What is the big deal with consulting the Long Island Psychic?” you might ask. What kind of thing do we consider to be ok as followers of Christ?
This brings us to an underlying message here. It’s a message that runs throughout the book of Acts and indeed it runs throughout our faith. It’s about the sufficiency of Christ. The message goes like this, as someone has put it – “The very nature of the gospel renders problematic and subservient any relationship other than the relationship of the believer to Christ.”
In Christ alone our hope is found.
Every other thing in the world that claims to save you or deliver you or bring you peace and joy or whatever claim is being made is to be held up in light of this claim. Such claims stand in opposition to this claim and on this we do not compromise.
What does this look like in real life (not that this was not a real life situation in which Saul and Barnabas found themselves)? A young acquaintance of mine recently asked me in a group setting what I thought about astral projection. I had no idea what that was and so asked him to tell me about it. It’s a term used to describe an intentional out of body experience that assumes the existence outside the physical body of a soul or consciousness called an “astral body” that can travel outside the body throughout the universe, and it’s a thing apparently as the young people say. This experience was causing this young man to worry that evil spirits might inhabit his physical body while his astral body was projecting. I told him that I didn’t think such a practice was leading to peace for him. I wondered why he would feel the need to escape his body in the first place. I told him that we preferred to have all of him around. That we believe that God made us whole, heart, soul, mind, body. A soul/ body dualism is not a Christian truth.
We’re talking about the sufficiency of Christ. In Luke’s day there was a widespread belief that we find our security in the state, and that all things were subservient to the state, including religion. This kind of belief is not just restricted to the ancient world of course. A recent CBC poll found high levels of anxiety in Canadians and a waning belief that it will be government policy or political parties which will bring us peace. The good news is that Jesus is Lord and Jesus is our peace.
False prophets cry peace when then is no peace. We need to be calling things out. It might sound harsh to our ears for Saul to say of Elymas “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (with a nod to John the Baptist and the straight paths there). Are we making paths crooked or are we making them straight? Are we speaking and living curses or blessings, death or life? Openness to the message can be found in the most unexpected places – like a Roman proconsul or a Roman centurion. Opposition can be found in the most unlikely places – for Barnabas and Saul from a fellow Jew. Opposition might come from within one’s own ranks.
Saul calls it out and makes a prophecy of his own. Elymas will be blind. Harsh. Only for a while though. And remember what happened to the last guy who was blinded by the light in our story and had to be led by the hand for a little while.
The story ends with amazement and belief. The proconsul saw what had happened. He was astonished at the teaching of the Lord. This should be reminding us of someone else who amazed with his deeds and teaching. Mark 1:27. Someone has said “Paul (as he’ll be known from here on out) used to be like Elymas – now he is like Jesus.” The sufficiency of God, Christ, the Spirit, to form us in the image of Christ as we follow him. May the Spirit of God continue to work in us to give us the wisdom to discern, the courage to call out, and the strength to hold on to the hope that is ours. May these things be true for us all.