Have you ever had a conversation with someone when something is said that help you begin to put your arms around something you are thinking or feeling? They say something that makes you stop and say quietly to yourself, “yes, that’s it.” A couple of months ago I had a conversation like that with Mitch Randall, pastor at NorthHaven Church in Norman. In a conversation with a number of area pastors he said that he had recently preached a sermon about what it meant to “release” people for ministry. To be honest, I do not remember much more about the conversation, that word just kept rolling over and over in mind. I could not help but think about how that term, that image, described what I saw happening in our midst as a church family. It is clear to me that God is moving in some new and exciting ways. This movement of God transcends age, gender, ethnic tradition or ministry venue. I have never seen anything quite like it before. It is the story of God calling and people responding. It is the story of a people being released for ministry for God.
Join me in a journey to watch, to listen, and to respond. Join me as we look at a well known story recast for this moment in the life of our church. Join me as we wander into a worship service in the church in Antioch where God acts and changes the story of that church and the Church forever.
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. Sometimes when we read a list of names like this we tend to become so focused on pronouncing their names right so we do not embarrass ourselves that we forget to see why they are listed. In the case, we learn a lot about the church in Antioch by looking at its prophets, preachers, and teachers.
Many of you probably remember that Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem to see what was going on up there. What he found was gentiles and Jews and people from across the globe acting like family because of their relationship with Christ. Barnabas, a trusted leader in the Jerusalem church was so moved by what he experienced in Antioch that he joined them. Simeon called Niger, would have been dark skinned, most probably from Libya. He was clearly different from the Jews and the some of the fair skinned gentiles that would have called that area home. Lucius of Cyrene would have come to the church from North Africa. And Manaen, would have emerged from the halls of government and influence. Finally Saul, a Jew with a well documented pedigree, but a Roman citizen, persecutor turned preacher. These five men could not have been more different. You would see it in their complexion; you would notice it in their speech; you would even see a difference in how the carried themselves. They represented a cultural diversity that would have been shocking to many. But they looked like the emerging church – the Kingdom of God on earth. Their diversity allows them to speak across their community – and later the world.
I imagine that gathering looked a lot like we do on the first Sunday of the month when we worship across language and culture and country and focus on the faith that makes us the children of God. I believe that one of the reasons that God is moving among us in new and special ways is that we have begun to look like and sound like the faithful church in Antioch, a church that changed the world.
The passage continues; “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting…”I stop mid sentence because I want to focus for a moment on the fact that this defining moment is born in worship. It is born at the feet of God. It is a worship service where being different was normal, where the only common thread was their relationship with God. This was a worship service founded in expectation. They had been praying and fasting before they got together. They had been seeking the voice of God and giving them self over to God before they walked in the room. They came and expectation and God responded.
Ok, back to the passage; “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” The temptation is to think that is the church that sets people apart for ministry. This is not our task. In fact, too many times it is the Church and good church folk who get in the way of people responding to God’s call. We want our children close and our grandchildren closer. Our desire to hold on gets in the way of them hearing and responding to God’s call. We fear the unknown. Our desire for certainty and comfort gets in the way of people and churches responding boldly to God. We like the predictable. We quietly know that when God moves our predictable world can get shattered and God can sweep us new directions. But, the good news is that it is not our boundaries. It is not about us making the choices about who is called and who is worthy. It is the Holy Spirit that sets people apart for ministry. It is God who calls out. It is God who empowers. It means when we go out, we go out with the confidence that God will provide the resources and that we serve out of God’s power.
The passage finishes; “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. “ One of the earliest English Bible translations is the Wycliffe translation. It served as the foundation text of the later King James Version and was set aside because in its attempt to be literal, it was often sounded clumsy and awkward. However I think this 1382 handwritten translation powerful caught the intended heart of verse 3. It reads; “Then they fasted, and prayed, and laid hands on them, and let them go.” All of my life I heard the sermons that focused on the church sending Paul and Barnabas out for missions. I heard it this passage used in the commissioning of mission teams and the blessing of missionaries. The focus over and over again was the church as a central part of the “sending” of these first missionaries. Hear that it was God who called them out – and it was the task of the church not to send them, but to let them go, to release them for mission and ministry.
Take a look at this door with me. The perception is that the church is on this side of the door (inside) eagerly waiting to send out their best from their midst into the world. Can you imagine what the leaders in that worship service must have felt like when they understood that God wanted their very best, their pastor and their teacher to take the word of God to the world? Do you think that anyone of them thought of their own self interest and wanted Barnabas and Paul to stay? Do you think that anyone of them wished God would send someone else instead? When the Spirit called and moved, the church responded immediately. God did not call out their weak links, odd ducks or spiritually challenged. God called out the very best that the church had and the church released them out without reservation.
Our reality is that too often we find the church – we find ourselves – on this side of the door (outside) keeping people in; wanting to be the one to decide who gets sent out; wanting to be the ones to make sure they follow our plans and our strategies, fulfilling our wishes, meeting our demands. This passage provides a very different picture, of a church that releases people for mission and ministry – that opens the door and gets out of their way – out of God’s way. This can be scary for a grand structured institution like the church. We are used to being in control. We are used to deciding who goes where and who does what in the name of the church. If we see our task as releasing people for ministry – freeing them to hear and respond to God’s call then it means that we are out of control and God is setting the pace and direction. This is a model of a church that is less structured; and much, much more organic. We are becoming that kind of church.
This morning Kimberly Anno led us through our responsive reading. She and Sarah Kroutil are working on a summer medical mission trip to Haiti. They are moved by compassion by what they have seen and heard related to the ongoing tragedy in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They have heard God call and have responded. They do not ask our permission to God. They ask for us to release them and to bless their Kingdom endeavors. Paul and Barbara Calmes seemed to always going somewhere –and taking others along with them. India, Guatemala, Ghana, Kenya, China, and who knows where’s next. They are gifted leaders that we are tempted to claim just for ourselves. They have heard God call and have responded. They do not ask our permission to God. They ask for us to release them and to bless their Kingdom endeavors. Cathy Manuel prayed that God would fill the shelves of the food pantry and through a Walmart Grocery store God has provided so much that we are now expanding the number of zip codes we are serving. Kim and Bruce believed God was calling our church to stage the musical It’s a Wonderful Life. God called and together we released those in our midst who heard God’s call and God blessed beyond our wildest imagination. The Yorks have released a facility to launch a new furniture ministry into our care and just in time for college students from FBC Waco join us and prepare the building for ministry. We need about $6000 for carpet, but I am confident that God will provide it because this is the very kind of thing we are seeing God do. A number of our youth and 20somethings are heading to Canada summer because they have heard God’s call. Our task is to release them and bless them. These stories are becoming more and more common among our church family. We need to make sure we are on the right side of the door, releasing one another in ministry to our community and our world. God is doing something new among us. How will we respond?
I believe that we are beginning a new era of ministry where the driving questions will not be; “how have we done this in the past?” or even, “what is the most strategic thing our church can do?” Instead we will be driven by asking “who is God calling next?” and “how do we release each other and bless each other in fulfilling our Kingdom endeavors?” This era will shape us and change us and hopefully help us change our community and change our world as well. I can hardly wait to see where God will take us! Come and go with me.