What Are We Becoming? A Sermon on Acts 11

So this morning we are finishing up Acts 11. Because it’s fairly short and there isn’t too much exegetical work that I am going to do, we are going to take some time and try to understand and picture ourselves in light of what we know so far of the early church. I think it can be kind of intimidating reading through Acts and hearing these stories in Acts and then being left with the questions so what now? Generally with many views of scripture there is this sense of urgency to replicate whatever we are reading in the Bible. We tell ourselves that we are doing something wrong because things aren’t unfolding the same way. Or what I think could be even worse, when things do unfold the same way, we think we are doing something right. However, I don’t think that this is a good way to read the Bible, especially the stories in Acts. After all, the Bible is not a book full of rules and lives that we are supposed to mimic. Rather the Bible is a book that records how God has worked and moved in history and let’s us in on his overall plan. We can see this plan unfolding from Adam to Abraham to Israel to Jesus and eventually to the church.

N.T. Wright offers a model of understanding the Bible in today’s context and I think this will be important for today and for reading the rest of Acts and what we will be talking about today, so I want to spend a bit of time on it. Here is how he starts.

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, outlined earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impulse, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering into the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities. Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal-and such an offering!-would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections. Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?

So N.T. Wright is giving us a basis on how to understand the scriptures and Acts especially. So let’s keep that in mind as we move in today’s message so help us better understand how to translate stories that we are reading every Sunday and make sense of them. Picture us being in the fifth and final act of God’s play. We’ve even seen how the beginning of this act has played out in the first eleven chapters of Acts. Now it’s our job as the church to live under the authority of these first four acts. That is our mandate if we are too call ourselves Christians and the church. So we can’t just extract key moments in the first four acts and try to repeat them, and we especially can’t think that the first four acts of the play is a script that we can live out verbatim. There is some discerning involved and a deep immersion in the first four acts but it’s not so we can repeat them, it’s so that we know where the fifth act is going and we continue on the play in the same Spirit?

Q: Does this analogy make sense? Anyone have any questions or not understand what is happening? How does understanding the Bible confirm or offend previously held beliefs on what the Bible is?

All right, so let’s move along and finish off this last bit of Acts 11.

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. 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. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 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. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 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.
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

So we are getting kind of an overview here of how the church is doing and what is happening. [Summary of where we’ve been] Everyone has previously scattered all over the place because of the persecution and is starting to land in neighbouring towns and sharing to their kind what was happening. Because of this, Jesus’ words start to become true as we saw the news of Jesus spreading to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. We’ve heard key stories along the way of how these news has spread to these places specifically and then we heard an amazing story of Saul’s conversion and eventually instead of persecuting Christians he joins them. Tim shared with us two weeks ago Peter’s vision and how this gospel is no longer just for Israel but for the rest of the world too. This comes to a shock to many and it is hard work convincing people that those that were not chosen are now chosen.

So in looking here at the end of Acts 11, there is a few things that are probably important to highlight. For starters Antioch was third among the cities of the Roman world and was of great importance to early Christianity. It was the first major city outside of Israel where Christianity clearly established itself as a force with which to be reckoned. It was a great religious center and also a commercial centre where they were connected to all sorts of other places and on the coast of the Mediterranean. Even in this little bit at the end of Acts 11, Luke mentions that they were “spreading the word only among the Jews.” There is however soon after others that start spreading news to other Gentiles so the word is still getting out there, but it isn’t as normal yet to those other than Jews.

For the first time the word Christian comes up in the Bible. This Greek term is an important one because there was other terms to define those who belonged to or identified with Herod, or Nero. But in this case it’s a term referring to those who belong to or identify with the risen Christ. The most interesting part about this term is that it isn’t something they labeled themselves this was a term that was given to them because it’s how other people referred to them. “That group of people over there are Christians.” They are the ones that identify themselves and belong to the risen Christ. When early Christians spoke of themselves they called themselves believers, saints, brothers and sisters, followers of ‘The Way’ and sometimes even Nazarenes. In fact Christians probably didn’t start using this term to identify themselves until the second century. Luke wants to distinguish two different groups of Jews. There are Jews that followed Christ and others that didn’t, so this new term was given and used by those that were following Christ. Other Jews still wouldn’t believe or adhere that this Jesus they spoke about was the hope that they were waiting for.

We start to see more and more how these Christians would rally around each other to support each other and make sure that no one was in need. When the famines were coming whoever could pitch in and help did so by providing help to those that needed it. Luke highlights continuously through Acts how Christians take care of each other and when there was need they stepped up to the plate and made things happen making other Christian’s needs as important as their own.

So this morning where I want to spend the rest of our time is in figuring out what Luke, Acts and the bible is talking about when we talk about disciples. At first we get these introductions to the twelve disciples of Jesus and then we get his commission to go into all the world and make disciples. As Acts unfolds we see mention of these disciples all over the place and what they are up to and the kinds of people that they are. We also have heard many times I’m sure that we are supposed to be disciples. So today I want to follow this graph and together come up with a better idea, a more solid understanding of what a disciple looks like. What are the kinds of things that they participate it, what do they believe, think, care about etc.

So this is taken from a training session that is done with church planters and other people who are interested in gauging what the health is of their local church is like. So this is the exercise that I want to do with us this morning. This is how this graph works. We have all these people, basically everyone in this room this morning, everyone on the Family Tree in the back wall, and we all have our own pasts. Our pasts are full of all sorts of scenarios, good and bad actions, good and bad relationships, good and bad decisions. Somehow though we’ve all ended up here. Sitting in this room, on a Sunday morning, singing songs together, listening to each other talk, eating together. We all came for different reasons but we are all in the same place now. So that’s the arrows on the left side. So then we have the box in the middle. This is theStory. This is the things that we do together, the things we care about, the systems we have in place, the relationships we have. Pretty much everything that is on the Family Tree Poster in the boxes around our values. These are our structures, the things we’ve put in place here at theStory together. Then the black arrows on the right are what we are after coming into contact and the kinds of people we are. What do we look like, who are we, what kinds of people are we in the world.

“The end of all Christian belief and obedience, witness and teaching, marriage and family, leisure and work life, preaching and pastoral work is the living of everything we know about God: life, life and more life. If we don’t know where we are going, any road will get us there. But if we have a destination-in this case a life lived to the glory of God-there is a well marked way, the Jesus-revealed Way. Spiritual theology is the attention that we give to the details of living life on this way”
– Eugene Peterson

This is a graph that helps us see where we are going, and how the things that we do help us (or don’t help us) get there. So this is want to happen. I want everyone to split up into groups of three or four. I want them to fill in two different spots on the postcards that you have. In the first spot I want you to fill in the yellow box. What are the structures that we have in place here at theStory, what are the kinds of things that go on that shape people that come into contact with theStory. What are the practices, rituals, relationships, and activities that we do. Who are we? When you interact with theStory, where do you interact?

The next to the right arrows, I want you to come up with what kinds of people we are becoming. Some of you have been here for six years since the very beginning so you might have a certain perspective that others don’t have. But how are you different because of the things that you participate in, the relationships that you have and your involvement with theStory? If you don’t know, or if there is no change, that is fine too, but if there is something, put it on a postcard and put it up on the whiteboard next to the black arrows on the right.

[10 Minutes to Add to the Board]

So what we have basically done is a brief overview of what theStory is in the world. As Christians, we have a belief that the church is the body of Christ. It isn’t a place that you show up to. It isn’t a service. It isn’t a building. It is people who claim to be followers of the way of Christ. It is people who inaugurate the kingdom of God through their lives and actions in the world. It is a group of people who live with a king who is God and live as if he is king over the world. So this inner box is what this kingdom should look like. It is the practices and lifestyles of all those that consider themselves part of theStory. theStory is a group of people who have come together in Sarnia, Ontario and who believe that God is the king of this world and order their lives in such a way that says that this is a true statement. So what we have created in this box is a brief picture of what the kingdom of God looks like here with us and how that looks in our lives here at theStory.

Now the church, these people that live kingdom lives together, have always had this duty to create disciples. Basically creating the kinds of people that look more and more like Jesus and make their lives more and more centered around kingdom values. One of the core duties of the church, is to make disciples. So, when we look at this box, and then we look at the arrows coming from this box, the people that come out of this box should look more and more like disciples of Christ. Consequently, if the arrows out of this box don’t look more and more like Christ and people that live like the Kingdom, then there is something in this box that has gone wrong. It would mean that theStory isn’t actually doing its job in making disciples.

This gets easier and easier to notice as time goes on. Since theStory has been around for six years, we now should get a pretty good idea if what we are doing here with theStory is actually doing it’s responsibility as the church and making disciples. If we aren’t making disciples. If your time spent with theStory hasn’t made you more like the Jesus we are following then we and you are doing something wrong and the things in the box need to change. Making disciples is our job, and the way we conduct ourselves, the things we do together, the rituals we participate in together, the time we spend with each other determines the kinds of people we are.

Q: After seeing our church life from this point of view, do you think there are more things we can change ‘inside the box’ so that we are formed into the disciples that Jesus speaks about?

As we spend our time here in Acts we are going to see how the early church started asking themselves these same questions. They had to deal with and constantly ask themselves the question “what do followers of Jesus Christ look like?” “How do people who are committed to the Kingdom of God act?” Then, depending on the answer to that question they begin to invoke certain kinds of rituals, practices and traditions into their lives so that when they get through their own box, they look like these kinds of people. So when Barnabas and Saul are back in Antioch and they are with the church for an entire year, this is what they were talking about. They were teaching people the practices necessary and the lives that they needed to live so that they looked like the kind of people that Jesus called them to be. For them, this meant making sure that no one was in need, realizing that this message extended to the Gentiles as well as Jews and to constantly confront the allegiances to an empire that was not Gods.

I bet you didn’t think that you showing up here on a Sunday was actually part of a larger plan like this did you? But this is what the kingdom of God is actually about. And Jesus was all about the kingdom. This was never about getting saved and making it to heaven when you die, sorry if you thought that. This was about coming together with others who call Jesus Lord and then become the kinds of people that live out the reality of Jesus being Lord.

The church is not, in any proper sense, Christian. Its members are indeed called Christians (though it is worth noting that the name was first applied to them, in Acts 11:26 by outsiders); but it is not some sectarian society whose members have a monopoly on the mystery [the knowledge of salvation]. It is not a club of insiders who, because of their theology, race, color, or sex-or their good behavior, intelligence, or income bracket-are the only channels through which the Word conveys himself to the world. Rather, it is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the Light has already lightened the whole shooting match, by which the divine Leaven has already leavened the whole lump of creation.
– Robert Capon

So as we start to move deeper into Acts and we start to observe the conversations that are going on. As we start seeing the disciples being referred to and we start to see the kinds of things that they are doing. We can remember that it isn’t our job to replicate verbatim the words and deeds of these early disciples just because these stories are in our Bible. Rather, what we are doing is being the church. We are being the manifestation of God’s kingdom right here and right now. The point isn’t that we are Christians. This isn’t a title that we give ourselves, like Capon mentions. The point is that we are a sign. We are a sign to the rest of the world of what the Kingdom of God looks like when people are disciples and they make Jesus Lord. We’ll take it as a compliment if we get the title give to us

So our job at theStory. The reason that we are all here is that we get to participate in discipleship. We get to come alongside of these things that theStory does together so that we are shaped together to look like followers of Jesus. Typically this is seen as orthodoxy (believing or thinking the right information in your head) or orthopraxy (doing the right things). However discipleship is not really about those kinds of things. What it is about is orthopathy – desiring the right things, desiring the things of the Kingdom. theStory is meant to be a place that is designed where people can experience something about God. It is meant to be a place that helps shapes and forms desires into those of the Kingdom. This is what this place, this thing that we are doing should be up to and then inviting people along with us to be formed and shaped into this kind of discipleship.

It turns discipleship into a story. It takes everyone that is entangled up into this center box and it gives us a common story. We all are being shaped. We all are being formed. We all are saying this story is fixing me. This story is changing me. This is where I want to end today. I don’t want to look at our diagram that we drew and say this is right or wrong right now. I want this diagram to sit in your hearts. I want you to go home and think about this. Ask yourself the question, “are the things that I am doing in my life shaping and forming me to be the kind of disciple that I am called to be?” If in five years you are no different than you were before, then there are changes that need to be made. It’s time that we as a community start to make this story alive in our midst. God’s Kingdom is alive and it’s around us and we can choose to participate with him and be shaped by it. I want to end with the last part to N.T. Wright’s quote here which I think is a good bookend to this message.

That, in fact, is (I believe) one of the reasons why God has given us so much story, so much narrative in scripture. Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling the does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others. Great revolutionary movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed. If that happens at a merely human level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through his word.

In the church and in the world, then, we have to tell the story. It is not enough to translate scripture into timeless truths. The story has to be told as the new covenant story. This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation. This is how we are to be the church, for the world. As we do so, we are calling into question the world’s models of authority, as well as the content and direction of that authority.

So I’ll leave you with this. What story are you improvising? What story are you living out of? Is it the Story of God and his Kingdom? Is it a story of God redeeming the world with his Son and inviting you to participate with him? What kind of person are you going to become because of the story that you are living out? Let’s pray.

Loving God and Father
Help us to be the people of the Kingdom
Committed to your story and and what it entails
Giving it authority in our lives

Help us to grasp
the intricacies of your grace
Help us to think well, live well
Form our desires to be from you

Let us recognize our identity
We are the church
We are chosen to be a light
We are your disciples
We are committed to the mission of the Church

Your plan for us is scary
Sometimes we pretend we don’t really know what to do
Sometimes we ignore it completely
Forgive us when we turn in the other direction

Give us strength to be your disciples
Give us strength to be your representatives
Give us wisdom to know the direction we are heading
Give us wisdom to know when we are standing still
Continue to lead us

Amen.

2 Comments

  • Sam Wells has a slightly different 5 act play than N.T. Wright. here is a snipit: http://www.faithandleadership.com/multimedia/samuel-wells-improvising-leadership

    The major difference is Wright has act 4 at Jesus and act 5 is eschaton. Wells has Jesus in act 3 and the church in act 4 and eschaton in act 5. He makes a good case in his book Improvisation. which is a great read. Wells (appropriately in my opinion) often highlights John 14 where Jesus reminds us that “we will do even greater things”. Highlighting the importance of the church as God’s companions.

    I greatly appreciate this sermon, Nathan.

  • Dang. Not thinking clearly. Was going to send this to you Nathan…not the world. I will be the bat boy for the next 4 weeks.

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