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Not long ago I read an article which was entitled “These 3 Simple Words Can Save Your Marriage, Your Career, and Quite Possibly Your Life.” The three words were “disagree and commit.” It was about a management technique which came to fame in the 1980’s at places like Amazon and Intel. It’s described as a “management principle that encourages healthy discussion and disagreement during the decision-making process, but that requires full support for a decision once made.” Not walking away. Not sabotage. Not holding grudges or writing another person off.
It was interesting that I came across this article while reading the story we’re looking at today. While “disagree and commit” might have been popularized in the 80’s, it has been around for much longer. We see in our story this morning a disagreement along with a commitment to a larger purpose. We’re starting the 4th major turn toward Gentiles in our journey through Luke’s book of Acts. The first was Peter going to visit Cornelius. The second was the group of Hellenists or Greeks who were preached to at Antioch. The third was the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, which we have looked at here. Now we’re coming to our 4th – the journey of Paul and Silas.
Which of course means that Paul and Barnabas are no longer operating as a team. The band has broken up, as it were. This is one of the great things about this book. I find it heartening, particularly when you consider the troubles and disputes that can come up in churches. Luke makes no effort to paper over or whitewash these things. Remember when we looked at earlier problems in Acts and said that it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t often make the annual church report, where we like to talk about all the positives. This is the same kind of situation at the end of chapter 15.
We’re at a hinge in our story here, but there is a lot of truth to be taken out of the hinge. Before we look at the dispute between Paul and Barnabas, I want us to note what the trip that Paul proposes is all about. Paul says to his friend and co-worker “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” This has something to tell us about how the church does mission. It has something to tell us about our relationships. We might think of the missionary journeys of Paul and consider him going from town to town and city to city like a missionary Littlest Hobo. It was not about a one and done for Paul. Let us visit and see how they are doing.
What does this mean for us in our relationships individually? How are we doing with making sure we’re ok? What does this mean for us in terms of the work we’ve been called to do as a church outside of these walls? Part of what we think is good about our commitment to Bolivia through CBM is the non-one-and-done nature of the work. We’d rather not simply parachute in and then we’re gone never to be heard of again, though we recognize that circumstances and time and distance may make this inevitable. We’ve been happy to have been able to visit our friends in Bolivia multiple times. Are there ways that we can nurture these relationships in between trips? The same question goes to the relationships that have developed with our pastoral interns. Our friends in Murfreesboro. Our summer camp friends from Lawrence Heights and the surrounding area.
How is everyone doing?
This is where the problem occurs. Barnabas is on board as they say. He wants to bring along his cousin John Mark. Paul does not want John Mark to come along. John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13). We’re not told why. Barnabas wants to give him another chance. Barnabas was all about second chances apparently. Remember that he was the one who introduced the newly converted Paul to the believers in Jerusalem. The son of encouragement. Perhaps Paul is hesitant as he remember what happened in Lystra the last time. Things got a little hot there. Perhaps he feels he has no use for someone whose track record has shown him to be one to cut and run.
It’s called a disagreement but it’s a little more than that. The Greek word that’s used here is the same word from which we get “paroxysm.” A sudden or violent expression of emotion or physical manifestation. A paroxysm of laughter. A paroxysm of coughing. It was sharp. Sudden. Tempers no doubt flared. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time?” on one side. “You of all people should know something about second chances and isn’t that what we’re supposed to be all about?” on the other side. It’s not like either side is wrong necessarily, which makes it even more difficult.
They decide to go their separate ways. Barnabas goes back to his home island of Cyprus, bringing John Mark along. Paul will continue on with Silas. We’ll not hear any more from Barnabas or John Mark in this story, but that doesn’t mean of course that it’s the end of their story. This is where they disagree and commit thing comes in. Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement. They were both committed though, to the same thing. They were both committed to the Kingdom of God. They were both committed to the spreading of the gospel – the good news of Jesus – and the upholding of communities of faith that had been established. God uses this disagreement in a divide and conquer sort of way, as what was one missionary journey (or mission) becomes two. They are committed to the same thing.
Speaking of second chances, this won’t be the last time we hear of John Mark. John Mark is a great character to remind us of what life in Christ looks like post-failure. It is thought that John Mark is the same John Mark that ran out of the garden without his clothes when Jesus was being arrested. There are no ill feelings harboured here. In fact we read in Paul’s letter to Philemon (24) and the people of Collosae (Col 4:10) that John Mark will later join Paul. Not only did he rejoin Paul, but he became a close and vital partner. While in prison, Paul writes to Timothy “do your best to come to me soon… Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me in ministry.” (2 Tim 4:9,11) As someone has said, “Paul asks for Mark to join him at one of his most difficult times in his life.”
People come into the story. People exit the story. Everything and everyone remains connected in what one song calls the Kingdom’s cause. Paul chooses Silas and the believers at Antioch commend him to the grace of the Lord. They go through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
When they return to Lystra we find out that the ministry that has happened there has born fruit in the person of Timothy. The activity of the church is resulting in the formation of new leaders. His mother is a Jewish believer, his father is a Greek. Growing up between worlds in a tough frontier town made him ideally suited for the work to which he is called here. He is well spoken of by the believers of Lystra and Iconium. He has a good reputation. Someone has described the gaining of a reputation as “a long obedience in the same direction.” I like that. A long obedience in the same direction. Paul will later say to this man “You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” (2 Tim 2:1-2).
Part of our task as followers of Christ is to be building up faithful leaders who will teach others. Paul is living this as leaders are being raised up from within the church. Timothy will go on to become like a son to Paul. “My loyal child in the faith” is what Paul will call him in a letter. How can we as a church encourage future leaders? This is a question we must always be asking.
Timothy is circumcised. This may seem odd in light of the Jerusalem Council’s decision. The thing is Timothy’s mother was Jewish. Timothy was known and this fact was known. Paul did not want this to become a barrier for those to whom is team was presenting the good news. We’ve said just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Conversely, just because you don’t have to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Bolivian beer story? They go from town to town delivering the news about what happened in Jerusalem. The churches are strengthened in their faith and increase in numbers daily.
The final section of this hinge story takes our band into some pretty wild country. They were forbidden by the Spirit to preach in Asia, which might have seemed like a natural route for them to take. This had been their area of operation after all. What they had always done. They head north into increasingly wild and mountainous territory. Wandering into the unknown. They attempted to go into Bithnyia but the Spirit did not allow them. They end up in Troas on the coast.
Now this is a few verses but would have represented weeks if not months of travel on foot. They were guided by the Holy Spirit. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what that looks like. We wanted to have our summer camp at Flemington PS this summer, but were prevented. Sometimes the Spirit leads through dramatic visions. Other times not so dramatic. The thing is that we seek the Spirit’s leading together. No one was going along this unknown road alone. Someone has put is like this – “For most of us, much of the time, the Spirit leads us quietly and obliquely. Hopefully we recognize that we have brothers and sisters as companions alongside us for when the way seems hard and the direction unsure. It is easy to trust the Spirit’s guidance when the way is clear, but it is not so easy when we are being led down seemingly endless and unfamiliar roads. This is why fellow pilgrims are necessary. Paul never travels alone.”
Neither do we. We travel as pilgrim people together. As we prepare to enter a new season here and all the unknowns the coming months may bring, may God keep this truth in our hearts. This passage ends with Paul having a vision of a man pleading to him and saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” This is going to result in the good news coming to what we call Europe today!
To what new destinations might God be calling us as the Blythwood Road Baptist Church family? May we continue to seek the answers by the Spirit as we continue in prayers, the breaking of bread, the apostle’s teaching and fellowship. May this be true for us all.