If Then, Then Now

Encouraged and strengthened. How did it happen then? How does it happen now?

Read Acts 16:30-16:5, Psalm 28:7 here

Listen here:

Today I’m going to be asking you what jumps out at you in this scripture after we read it, so if you want to be able to refer back to it, grab one of the pew Bibles and turn to page 900 to read along.

What jumped out to you in the scripture I just read?

whiteboard[Here’s what I wrote on the white board]

I love asking that question because there are so many different answers, and inevitably someone will see or hear something that I didn’t see at all.  It’s one of the biggest blessings about studying the Bible together, and can also be one of our biggest challenges.  We don’t all see things the same way. And yet God loves us all the same.  Seeing things the same way is not a requirement, and it’s encouraging to share what we see.

What jumped out at me were two words: encouraged and strengthened.  They occur several times, and they are both in Acts 16:5, the summary of this whole section, which is kind of funny considering that happens here.

Three things happen:

  1. Paul and Barnabas bring the letter from the Jerusalem Council to Antioch.
  2. Paul and Barnabas argue about John Mark and decide to go their separate ways.
  3. Paul recruits Timothy and has him circumcised.

Why does Luke tell us these particular things?  Why are these encouraging and strengthening?

Delivering the letter from the council – If you’re reading along on our daily reading plan or if you were here last week, you may remember that this was the meeting where they’ve just resolved a huge disagreement about what’s required to be a Christian – specifically whether or not someone has to be circumcised first.  As you might imagine, this was a major obstacle in their outreach to the Gentiles, those who were not already Jewish

Maybe it’s obvious why the letter was encouraging and strengthening.  Circumcision was not required to become a Christian.  A major obstacle was removed.  Obstacles creep back into our teaching, though, and have at various points throughout history.  Maybe the most notable time was the Reformation when the church was requiring people to pay for salvation by purchasing indulgences.  Basically buying their way into heaven.[1]  Martin Luther railed against this because Jesus already purchased our salvation for us through his death on the cross.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. –Ephesians 2:8-9

All it takes to be a Christian is faith in Jesus Christ and accepting the free grace that he offers us.  Whether we mean to or not, we sometimes make it seem like there are other requirements.

In what ways are we trying to make people be like us today instead of like Jesus? Today’s obstacles?

The message of God’s free gift of grace is encouraging and strengthening.  It was then, and it still is now.

The second thing that happens is Paul & Barnabas Argue.  John Mark had been with them at the beginning of their first mission trip, but had bailed out and gone home.  Paul doesn’t want that to happen again. We don’t know why John Mark dropped out halfway through that first missionary journey, but because he did Paul didn’t want to take him along on the second trip.  Barnabas disagrees.  Barnabas is willing to give John Mark another chance.

I think Luke tells us about this so that we can see that they didn’t just pretend that everything was fine.  They had a good old fashioned argument.  They addressed their issues so that they didn’t get in the way of moving forward.

Good Witch Season 2There’s a series on Netflix called The Good Witch.  The main character is a widow named Cassie whose home is a bed and breakfast hotel in a small town called Middleton.  In one episode,[2] a couple arrive who are going to be married.  In their first conversation with Cassie, we see that there might be a problem.  The man agrees with everything his fiancé decides.  Cassie, whose gift is discernment, senses that the man doesn’t really agree, but is just avoiding conflict, and it turns out that he has been doing this so much that he and his fiancé don’t truly know each other.  Their relationship is quite shallow because the man has never been brave enough to tell his fiancé what he really likes or doesn’t like.  When this comes to light, they call off the wedding, but rather than let them just walk away and be done with each other, Cassie makes them sit down together and decide what to do with all the things that have been ordered for the wedding.  For example, there is 60 pounds of fish that were to be served at the dinner.  The fiancé suggests they split it.  But it turns out that the man actually detests fish, and never really wanted there to be fish at all.  As they work through the list of items, there are lots of arguments, but also lots of discovery, because this is the first time they have truly communicated with one another.  And in the process, they discover that they still love each other but they need to start over, this time being honest with each other so that they can get to know who they really are.

Through the grace we have in Jesus, we get to start over, too. Conflicts are normal and healthy.  Ignoring them is problematic. Through addressing them we grow. Exercise – resistance training – is how we strengthen our muscles. Dealing with adversity is how we strengthen our relationships and our faith.

Paul and Barnabas do go their separate ways, and it seems that this was for the best.  Barnabas could have stuck with Paul and said goodbye to Mark, but instead Barnabas sticks with Mark, and they go off on their own missionary journey. Their efforts to spread the gospel have now been multiplied.  Tradition says that this is the same Mark that wrote the gospel by that name.  Maybe Barnabas’s encouragement gave him the strength to write that gospel.

Forky-and-Woody-in-Toy-Story-4Barnabas is kind of like Woody, the character played by Tom Hanks in Toy Story 4, the movie that came out recently. In this movie, there’s a new character, a new toy that the little girl Bonnie made on her first day at school by gluing things to a spork she found in the wastebasket. She names him Forky.  From then on, Forky is drawn back to the trash because that’s where Bonnie found him. One of my favorite parts of the story is Woody’s struggle to keep Forky from putting himself back in the wastebasket. There’s a montage of all the times Forky tries to get back in the trash, and as we watch the montage, we hear a fun little ditty written by Randy Newman singing “I can’t let you, I can’t let you, I can’t let you throw yourself away.”[3]

Woody continually follows Forky around to make sure he doesn’t succeed in throwing himself away.  The Holy Spirit sticks with us like Woody and like Barnabas, encouraging us not to throw ourselves away. We all have value.  We’re not trash.  We shouldn’t give up.  As John tells us in his letter:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! –1 John 3:1a

God has not given up on us and we should not give up on ourselves or each other.

So what about that third thing? Paul recruits Timothy and has him circumcised. Although the council has just agreed that circumcision is not required for salvation, it is still of critical importance for Jews, and Timothy is a half Jewish.

Why does Paul have Timothy get circumcised after all the big to-do about not requiring circumcision?  Because it was not the circumcision that mattered, but rather that there would be no stumbling blocks to people coming to Christ.  And since Timothy was Jewish, he would be a stumbling block to the Jews who would not be able to see past his apparent disobedience to Jewish tradition.[4]

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. –1 Corinthians 9:22-23

The message of the gospel is too important to let it get hung up in things that don’t matter.  God loves us so much that he didn’t want to be without us, so God came to earth to show us that he loves us enough to break the power of sin and death by dying on the cross and being raised from the dead.

What was the Holy Spirit doing then?

–Encouraging and strengthening the churches as they wrestled with the questions and challenges of life and faith in that time, and reminding them that God is with us, and God loves us the way we are, and God’s love is greater than any of the things that might otherwise keep us from him.

So, let’s ask ourselves. Right here, right now, what is the Holy Spirit doing now?   (The same.)

We still wrestle with the same questions that troubled the disciples at that first big council meeting in Jerusalem:

  • Is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and because of his love, or do we also need to do certain things or be a certain way to earn it?
  • Do we need to agree about everything or just the essential things?

Why were the churches strengthened and encouraged?

  • All of the obstacles of additional requirements for salvation were removed
  • Their disagreements were addressed and overcome
  • They trust God’s promise of grace through faith in Jesus Christ

There’s a cartoon that’s been going around on social media this week that illustrates this beautifully.  It shows a person talking to a genie saying, “I wish I was worthy of love.”

The genie says, “Poof! It is done.”

The person looks down at themselves in disbelief and says, “But nothing’s changed.”

To which the genie replies, “Correct.”

Kissing Fish Loved Comic

God already loves us the way we are.  We are all worthy of God’s love, made worthy because of his grace.  All that’s required is that we believe it. And the Holy Spirit encourages us and strengthens us as we do.

Our memory verse for this week helps us remember this:

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him. –Psalm 28:7

Thanks be to God.

Listen to “What A Beautiful Name” led by Tess Cannon, accompanied by Mike Vogt on guitar and Rob Krabbe on piano:

Listen to the offertory “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” (Rob Krabbe style):

[1] Read more in this article by Robert Wilde: https://www.thoughtco.com/indulgences-their-role-in-the-reformation-1221776

[2] The Good Witch (2015- ), Season 2 Episode 1 “Second Time Around” (aired 17 April 2016).

[3] https://youtu.be/fgKpDyM_1y0 By Randy Newman for Toy Story 4 (2019)

[4] Calvin et al http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom37.iv.i.html

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