This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
The last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.
We heard about how the newborn church in Jerusalem abandoned the strict “mine” and “thine” of private property. They held all things in common. People who had lands and possessions, they sold them and shared. People who had nothing received what they needed. We heard about a man named Barnabas – whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was one of the first to sell a field that he owned and hand over the proceeds to the church, so that no one would go hungry.
In our reading this morning, Barnabas shows up again. And once again, we hear about violent persecution. We hear the struggle of the church, and its mission to preach the word of God with boldness.
A lot has happened between chapter four and chapter eleven. Miracles of all kinds. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all – Peter has a series of encounters with the Holy Spirit and with a Roman soldier named Cornelius. These experiences convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people – Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.
Now after Stephen was killed, a great persecution broke out that scattered the church throughout Judea and Samaria, but it didn’t stop there. The scattered friends of Jesus made their way all the way up to Phoenicia, which is what we think of today as Lebanon. And from there some of the disciples traveled to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. And from there, others went to Antioch, in the southern part of modern-day Turkey. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God and the good news about Jesus, and new communities of disciples formed in these places.
But in Phoenicia and Cyprus, it says that the disciples only spoke to their fellow Jews. They went to the synagogues and preached the word of the kingdom, but they didn’t mix with the uncircumcised Gentiles. They were Jews, and they kept to their own kind.
Something changed in Antioch. As the disciples went along, the Holy Spirit raised up new believers, to carry on the missionary outreach. It was Jews from Jerusalem who took the word of God to Phoenicia and Cyprus. But by the time the disciples got to Antioch, at least some of the them were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These disciples were not interested in limiting the gospel to Jews. “They began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. [And] the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
When the church in Jerusalem heard about the great outpouring of God’s spirit taking place up in Antioch, it confirmed everything that God had been showing them through Peter and Philip and others – God had opened the kingdom to those who had formally been excluded.
So the church in Jerusalem sent good old, trustworthy Barnabas up to Antioch to get a grip on the situation. And when Barnabas arrived, he did what a son of encouragement does – it says “he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” And it says that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”
Now Barnabas gets excited, and he runs off to Tarsus to get Saul. And he and Saul spend a whole year together in Antioch, preaching and teaching – encouraging the new church that is emerging in this great city of the north.
And after Saul and Barnabas had been laboring there for about a year, some prophets came down from Jerusalem. One of them predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. And so the believers in Antioch took up a collection. They pooled their resources so that they could send relief to the church in Jerusalem, who the prophet foretold would bear the brunt of this coming famine.
This must have taken a lot of guts. Because the prophet didn’t say “there will be a severe famine in Jerusalem.” He said “the whole world.” That means there’s a famine coming to Antioch, too. Is this really the best time to be sending your money out to people you’ve never even met?
But this is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the brothers and sisters, this new family of God that is emerging in the months and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Before, these people would have been disconnected – perhaps even enemies, because some were Jews and others were Greeks. But now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they have become more than friends – they have become one flesh, one body, one family. They support one another because the distinction between “us” and “them” has broken down. There’s no longer any separation.
They’re a body. Just like my stomach doesn’t withhold calories from my arms and legs, the church in Antioch doesn’t withhold their wealth from the poor and persecuted church in Jerusalem. They’ve become a family. In a family you don’t keep separate accounts; you hold everything in common. And that’s how the church is. They’re in it together. Profoundly. They’ve abandoned private wealth and security in favor of what Jesus called “treasure in heaven” and a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perfect love has cast out fear, and the selfish human nature has been overcome by the resurrection.
All of this is possible because of the way God gathers his people. On the day of Pentecost. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman soldier. In the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit falls on us as in the beginning, gathering us into a new body, a new people, a new creation.
When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples were scattered. But through the resurrection, God gathered them in Jerusalem. And the church was born, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thousands come to faith.
Then the disciples were scattered again, by the violent persecution that comes as a result of the church’s bold and faithful preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Things got rough. Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. And it says that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was a bad time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem.
This is a pattern throughout the book of Acts: The action of the Holy Spirit draws people together to become a body in Christ Jesus. This new life as God’s family results in boldness and non-conformity to the evil ways of the world around them. And this boldness causes a violent reaction from the people who are in charge, scattering God’s people to take the message even further.
The scattering part isn’t fun or glamorous. I doubt that any of the brothers and sisters at that time were saying to themselves, “look at the good thing God is doing by scattering us out of Jerusalem!” And yet, even though perhaps they couldn’t see it, God was turning the horror of their circumstances into the seeds of a new movement.
Gathered in Jerusalem, scattered to Samaria. Gathered in Samaria, scattered to Phoenicia. Gathered in Phoenicia, scattered to Cyprus. Gathered in Cyprus, scattered to Antioch. And on, and on, and on, in a network of relationships that we can’t even track.
Gathered at Firbank Fell, the Quaker movement was scattered like wildfire throughout the north of England, and quickly to the south. Scattered by persecution, the movement was spread to the Americas and the continent of Europe. God scattered them across the world – to preach the word of God to the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Turkey. Scattered to listen to the inward voice of Jesus together with the Native Americans. The movement was scattered, and God gathered.
So what about us? Are we gathered?
Our community has been scattered. Our presence here in Berkeley, California is the result of many scatterings: Westward migrations. A series of Quaker schisms. And countless personal journeys that circled this meetinghouse on a map for each one of us.
Berkeley Friends Church is scattered. We’re an isolated congregation with our nearest sister churches hundreds of miles away. We’re a community scattered among the nations, a people seeking to follow Jesus in the midst of one of the most secular cities in the United States.
We were scattered for a purpose. We are here for a reason. Why? What is that reason?
When the first disciples were scattered to Samaria and Cyprus and Antioch, they were faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus. God used them to gather communities in the Holy Spirit, to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.
When early Quaker ministers like James Nayler, Francis Howgill, and Edward Burrough, were scattered to London, they preached and taught. They held public meetings where they directed thousands to the voice of their inward teacher, Jesus. When they obeyed the voice of this teacher, they found brothers and sisters they never knew they had. They found themselves part of a new creation, the body of Christ. They were gathered by the Holy Spirit.
And us? When we were scattered to the East Bay, when you and I were called here, to gather as the church in Berkeley in the early 21st century… We what? What will be our story?
Why has God scattered us here? Who are the women, men, and children who need to hear the word of God here in our time and place? Who are the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers that we will discover? When will we be filled by the Holy Spirit and released from the fear that holds us back from complete obedience?
You are here for a reason. God has scattered us here for a purpose. What is it? And what price must we pay to receive it?
As we enter a time of waiting worship, I’d like to invite us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled. That we might be gathered. That all fear would be stripped away. That we would be left with nothing but love and knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry it out.