A Tectonic Shift

'Church on the Move' was the working title of the sermon I preached at a small Presbyterian parish last weekend. Although these days I serve in a Baptist congregation, my terms of call allow me to fill in at other places on occasional Sundays. I said 'Yes' to this pulpit supply because they no longer have a minister, and needed someone ordained to lead communion. I naively thought I would be able to adapt one of my recent sermons to the different context. That was before I got the email saying: We're in the middle of a series on the Book of Acts. The topic set down for May 9 is Number 12 - Acts 12:25 - 14:28, which our outline calls An Admirable Church, but don't feel obligated to follow it.

Yikes! I love the book of Acts and know it reasonably well, but had never actually preached on this section about the church at Antioch. I have too strong a sense of duty to cop out of a series where people are already grappling with a theme, and in any case the lessons from these early congregations have heaps to say to a twentyfirst century church in a changing context. So it was head down to do some reading and thinking about Antioch in Syria, and to reflect on what the Spirit might be saying to the good folk of this small, but diverse church, which is in a number of ways 'On the Move'. And what a fascinating time I had.

The story of the church at Antioch is a story of a Church on the Move. The followers of Jesus of Nazareth had mostly been Jewish, and after Resurrection Day, had continued to practise their ancient faith by attending temple worship or synagogue meetings, by keeping Sabbaths and feasts, and adhering to the purity laws, alongside their joyful Christian worship meetings. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which this week I heard called the Acts of the Risen Christ, tells us how they discovered God’s heart was for people of all nations. It always had been God’s purpose, of course, going way back to the promise to Abraham, that all nations would one day be blessed. But people like Peter and Paul had to discover that for themselves, as they experienced the Presence of the Christ in their everyday lives.

Acts 10 was a watershed, when Peter experienced that vision on the rooftop, of a dinner menu of animals, reptiles, and birds, ingredients he had been raised as a Jew to shun, but which God invited him to embrace. I have learned that God shows no partiality, he said to the Roman army officer Cornelius, as he shared the good news of Jesus. Cornelius was a godfearer, a Gentile who honoured the one God, and respected the Jewish faith for its morals and spirituality. But as a Roman, he would have had no inclination to keep the 613 rules in the Jewish law. Acts 10 tells us the spiritual transformation he experienced right then and there demonstrated to Peter and the others that Gentiles too could be Spirit-filled followers of the risen Christ.

I am not sure if we realise what a tectonic shift this was. Tectonic change is the sliding action of huge plates of soil and rock over a softer lower layer of the earth's crust, the movement that forms faultlines and volcanoes, peaks, ridges and continents. In the twenty years following the first Easter, the shape of the church underwent a huge transformation. The emphasis moved from temple to tent, from central leadership to diverse communities, and from ancient traditions to life in the Spirit. In Acts 13 and 14 (set in about 47 AD) we come to a real transition point in the history of the early church.

There is a change of Place, from Jerusalem to Antioch, and a change of Personnel, from Peter to Paul. The disciple Peter had been with Jesus all through his earthly ministry, and quickly emerged as the leader of the young church in Jerusalem. His experience of Jesus was a dramatic story, and his powerful preaching convinced many others to become followers – 3000 on the day of Pentecost. But in the later chapters of Acts, the author Luke moves from an emphasis on Peter to a focus on Paul, whose experience of Jesus was an encounter with the risen Christ. Why the change? Peter and Paul are both Jews, but Paul was raised in Tarsus, a city in Turkey. He has hands-on experience of Gentile society, he speaks Hebrew and Greek, he is a trained rabbi but is also familiar with the pagan religions of Greece and Rome, and is in fact a Roman citizen. These things all gave him a global perspective and equipped him to be an effective missionary to Gentiles. Churches today sometimes find a change of personnel is needed to enable them to more effectively move out in mission.

There is also a change of Proclamation. Christianity was moving from an emphasis on Jews to a mission to the Gentiles. We see that especially at Antioch, where the gospel is for the first time deliberately, purposefully preached to Gentiles. (see Acts 11: 19 - 21). They soon realised they had to put a different spin on their message. Peter’s sermons in the early chapters of Acts, proclaim the presence of the risen Jesus, as proof of God's love and power. But they use a lot of Jewish imagery and vocab; he talks about King David and the prophets, about the long-awaited Messiah and about judgment and forgiveness. By contrast, in Antioch and later in places like Athens, Paul uses Jewish concepts like Passover lamb and Messiah much less often. He speaks about God’s love, his creative power, and his presence everywhere. Although Paul often visited local synagogues, from here on out the focus of these early missionaries is God’s heart for the Gentiles. Paul and the others had to find different ways of communicating their faith.

I recently heard a fascinating testimony from a group of Kiwi Christian farmers who spend some of their working year in China, where they too must find different ways of sharing faith. Missionaries are still officially forbidden there, and proselytizing is technically illegal. Nonetheless, the majority of foreign teachers in China today are sponsored by Christian organizations. In the cash-strapped provinces where Beijing'S rules don’t count for much, nonprofit humanitarian agencies come in and assist with local development. These workers often find sensitive ways to get round the rules, sharing the gospel one to one with curious students. Their message has to be much more about character and kindness than sin and judgment. I wonder how God may be calling us to connect with non-Christians in our workplace or community and express our faith without Christian vocab. Paul Cheung's Big Story approach to sharing the gospel with a global rather than individual focus is one place to start.

The third change I noticed of was one of Paradigm, for Acts 12 - 14 records the move from strong individual professional leadership to a team-based approach using local gifts, skills and experience. The earliest Christians had looked to the apostles for leadership. These men had travelled with Jesus for three years, they knew his teachings about God and the Kingdom, they had experienced his way of life and his values. It was natural that their leadership was honoured and their judgment sought. But such a top-down model was not going to be sustainable in the long term. Churches were popping up all over the Empire and their leadership could not be writing to Jerusalem all the time for guidance. Congregations like that in Antioch needed to identify those among them with the gifts and skills of leadership, teaching and pastoral care. That little church I visited last Sunday is considering such a move right now, and it will may be for them a tectonic shift. But the different landscape that results may be used by the Spirit far more effectively in the future than they have ever dreamed.

To Chew Over:
What tectonic changes are going on in your faith landscape right now? Are they shifts you can embrace as movements of the Spirit? How?

Lord, your church on earth is seeking power and wisdom from above:

Teach us all the art of speaking with the accents of your love.

We will heed your great commission sending us to every place -

'Go, baptize, fulfil my mission; serve with love and share my grace!'

You release us from our bondage, lift the burdens caused by sin;

give new hope, new strength and courage, grant release from fears within.

Light for darkness, joy for sorrow, love for hatred, peace for strife -

these and countless blessings follow as the Spirit gives new life.

In the streets of every city where the bruised and lonely live,

we will show the saviour's pity and his longing to forgive.

In all lands and with all races we will serve, and seek to bring

all the world to render praises Christ, to you, redeemer king.

© Michael Saward