The Changing Perspectives of the Early Church

The Changing Perspectives of the Early Church

Preacher: Rev Phil Swain Bible Reading: Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18

How do we respond when faced when our understanding or world view is being challenged? Last week Liesl shared how the Apostle Peter’s understanding of who was included in God’s family was turned upside-down with his “come and eat” vision and experience with Cornelius. But this episode caused ripples throughout the early church. This week our pastor Phil will explore how the Early Church’s perspectives where challenged and changed as God’s Spirit and the gospel spread across the known world – and how two new characters … Paul and Barnabas … were able to adapt their approach so that these newly included people were able to accept and grow in their faith in Jesus. As we work through Acts chapter 13 and 14, we will see that the experience of the early church can remarkably speak into our own situation as a church in today’s world.

Sermon Text

As you would know, this year we have been guided in worship by the Narrative Lectionary.  For the first 3½ months worked through the gospel of Matthew … from the Advent/Christmas stories through Matthew’s five discourses, to the Easter narrative and finishing with Kevin sermon two weeks ago “I am with you always”.

Last week Liesl took our first step into the rest of the New Testament … where we spend two weeks in Acts before jumping into the book of Romans where we will stay right up to Pentecost.  But if we only have a quick two weeks in Acts … it does seem a little weird – with all the other readings they could have chosen – to choose Peter and Cornelius and then a reading about Paul & Barnabas being called gods?  I think that there a reason, a particular point that the Narrative Lectionary people were trying to communicate through these two passages – that will ultimately help us as we work through the book of Romans…  and that is what we are going to explore this morning.

Last week’s sermon by Liesl.  Can you remember it?  It was about INCLUSION.  Peter (and the rest of the Early Church) thought that to be a follower of Jesus you had to be a Jew … or at least convert to and follow Judaism.  But Peter’s Vision … and the fact that Cornelius and his followers had received the Holy Spirit without converting to Judaism … changed everything.  God was now showing that all people were invited and included in the family of God. 

I don’t think we realise just how big of a deal this was Peter and the other Jewish people.  One of the core elements of their faith … something they had been taught all their lives … God showing them a different perspective.  (or maybe we do)

I deliberately choose that word perspective … because I don’t think that God was saying what they though before was wrong … but rather that there is another angle to consider, a different perspective to see.  I have shown you this artwork before … that from one angle it is a circle and from other it is a rectangle.  Both are correct if you are only considering things from one viewpoint.  But when we print perspective into it … we can see it is actually a cylinder.  Not to say that the circle answer was wrong, it was just not the full answer.

I think this is Peter’s experience.  He had his perspective challenged and changed.  Peter’s mind was blown with this revelation that God’s kingdom was for all people.  And it wasn’t just transforming for Peter … if you continue to read through the book of Acts we can see that this changing perspective transformed all of the early church.

Let me show you with the first part of our bible reading for today – Acts chapter 13 verse 1.  We are given a roll call of the key leaders in the church in Antioch: 

  • Barnabas is a Jew and a Levite priest – and was a member of the early, early church in Jerusalem.
  • Simeon is from north Africa  
  • Lucius of Cyrene, most likely from sub-Saharan Africa
  • Manaen, a Roman who had been brought up with Herod, and
  • Saul and educated Pharisee and a Roman citizen

Did you notice the diversity here?  A Jewish Levite, a Pharisee, two African people and a person who was brought up in the heart of Roman power.  And yet they were praying together as key leaders of a church.   Peters vision of radical inclusivity was coming alive.  Peters vision was transforming the church.

Another example happens in Acts 13:9, Saul (a Jewish name) starts to be referred to as Paul (a Roman name), without much explanation.  Many Jews in this era carried both a Semitic and a Greek or Roman name – but the shift in calling Saul Paul highlights this inclusion of the gentiles – that God’s kingdom was for all people.

Back to our bible reading from Acts chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas are set apart for a particular task that God has called them – to share the good news of Jesus across the known world.  If we keep reading, they do this in Antioch, Iconium and then we get to our second reading where they are in Lystra.

From Acts 14:8 we read the narrative where Paul was speaking about Jesus to a gathered crowd and gets eye contact with a man who has been lame since birth.  Paul tells him to get up and walk and he does!  The crowd watching go wild and thinks that Paul and Barnabas are the human versions of Zeus and Hermes and want to offer sacrifices to them.  Wild, eh?

Some cultural understanding that might help here – In Greek mythology, the gods were believed to have the ability to come to Earth and interact with mortals.  This was often done in the form of a disguise or transformation to avoid being recognized as a god or causing people to be fearful.  So, when the crowd saw who has been lame all his life, jump up and walk … it is keeping with the culture for them to think that it is Zeus and Hermes disguised as people. 

There was also earlier story in Greek writing that Zeus and Hermes had previously visited Lystra disguised as humans BUT hey were not given proper hospitality and sent a flood to devastate the region as punishment – which may also have influenced the reception Paul and Barnabas received. 

This whole misunderstanding in Acts 13 raises a tricky issue that confronted the early church in this time of changing perspectives or radical inclusivity.

If the good news of Jesus is for all people, from all cultures, in all contexts … then how do we speak of Jesus and how do we show the transforming power of Jesus in a way that makes sense in all cultures and all contexts.

Jesus heals a lame man in the middle of Jewish Jerusalem, and the crowd understands that it is the power of God and respond with praises to God.  Paul heals a lame man in the middle of Greek Lystra and the crowd understand this very differently – they see Paul as a god in human form and want to give him praise.

The early church had to wrestle with this idea of how they contextualise God’s good news to the people they were sharing it with.  Or to use the pictures from before … the early church had to understand the perspective that a particular crowd was coming from so that they could help them see the whole picture of God’s good news.  And this was always easy to discern.

Last week Liesl put forward the BELLS model of how we can participate in God’s mission or share God’s good news.  You remember it don’t you…

  • Bless
  • Eat
  • Listen
  • Learn
  • Sent (help others to see the good news of Jesus)

One of the big issues that the early church had to face was to do with EAT.  As they moved into the gentile cities and began to eat with others … they were confronted with the question “should they eat food that was offered to idols”.  From a Jewish perspective, the answer is no.  But these people they were eating with were not Jewish, so for them it is culturally ok.  So, someone like Peter would need to consider what was best for sharing the gospel … to prioritising his Jewish traditions, or prioritise the connection that comes through eating with them.  It was tricky and required some prayerful consideration.

We are not the early church, but sometimes I think that our situation is somewhat similiar.  We are in a society that is full of diversity, different cultures and backgrounds and different ways of thinking and doing things. 

And not everyone things the same as I do.  I have to admit that I come from a particular cultural perspective – as a middle age white, married Christian male … computer nerd.   And as such, others may not understand things that same way as I do.

And so like the early church, we are called to share Jesus others – BUT what makes sense for us, might not make sense in the diversity of people in our society.  We need to first stop and doing the two L’s out of the BELLS model … listen and learn.   

Take the time to get to know people, understand where they are coming from and prayerfully consider how to best way to shape or package the good news of Jesus in a way that will connect with them – that they can relate to and understand.

And this even goes to the language or jargon we use.  I have shared this before, but in any conversation outside Sunday worship, I rarely use the word SIN or RIGTHEOUSNESS because non-churched people just don’t understand or connect with those words.  Instead, I talk about brokenness and healing and how God can make things right again. 

So in the light of this, can I suggest that Paul in our bible reading missed an opportunity here.  After he healed the lame man, the people declared he was god, and listen to the words that Paul responded with… “We are only human like you.  We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

I love how the writer of Acts adds, “with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.” 

Of course they did because they had no idea what Paul was trying to say.  It’s his first missionary journey so we will cut some slack (and ultimately Paul does become an expert at this) … but I wonder … what might be a better response to these people calling you a god.  What could have Paul said that might have helped them understand?

Maybe Paul could used their cultural understanding as his starting point.   Let me give this a shot – if I am Paul or Barnabas responding to the people of Lystra.

In your culture you have this idea that a god can come down to earth and interact in your everyday life.  Well, let me tell you about Jesus – Emmanuel – God who became human and lived among us.  But whereas you fear your gods and are terrified of the idea of a god being near to you … when Jesus drew near, he showed people love and compassion and give us the example of how to live in a way that brings life.  This man here now walks not because I am a god but rather because this Jesus – this god who came to us – is still with us.  It is his power that this man walks. 

Can you see what I did?  Actually, this is very similar to what Paul does later in his encounter with the altar to the unknown god in Acts 17.  Told you that Paul becomes the expert this.  But this is contextualising the good news of Jesus in a way that someone from a different culture, or background, or way of thinking can understand and connect with.  It is understanding the perspective that another person is coming from and shifting or reshaping the gospel message so that it becomes clearer from that perspective.

So as we move into the theologically rich book of Romans next week, but also as we respond to God’s call to us over the past few weeks to look for opportunities to sharing Jesus with others … may we take up the calling to be contextual theologians, to be aware of the changing perspectives of people around us and share the unchanging good news of Jesus in a way that brings life to all people.  Amen.