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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In life, we all need gestures and words of encouragement. When our sons and daughter are young, we place signs and posters around their bedrooms with gentle reminders to do their best. From Wolfgang Riebe, “No one is perfect, that’s why pencils have erasers.” From Dr. Seuss, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” As they grow older, we offer words of encouragement to inspire them to discover their passions, and we remind them that they should not be afraid of mistakes for when you avoid failure you also avoid success. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “I didn’t fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.” Yes, we all need gestures of encouragement.
Encouragement, however, is different from praise. Praise is to express approval, to laud and extol. Encouragement is intended to motivate the individual on the inside to demonstrate and practice a positive behavior in the future. The church itself is built on encouragement.
The Book of Acts tells us how encouragement changed the focus and ministry of the fledgling church in ancient Antioch. What the apostle Barnabas offered the church was more than mere words: he also embodied encouragement in deeds, in acts of generosity, in sacrifice and in loyalty which would serve as a serve a model for congregational life and leadership to this day.
Mind you, little remains of the ancient city of Antioch which once stood in eastern Turkey. It was a cosmopolitan city of Jews and Greeks, native Syrians and Romans which was once regarded as the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. The city’s geographical location about 300 miles north of Jerusalem along the principle spice and silk roads benefited its population of half a million. Regretfully, the city’s golden age waned during the time of the Crusades when attaching Muslim armies enslaved the majority of the population and took them away. Looking at the ancient ruins today, it would be hard to imagine that this was city once heralded as “the cradle of Christianity.” And yet the story in the Book of Acts remains as a testimony to the power of encouragement and God’s spirit.
The founding of the church in Antioch was significantly different from the stories of the Way in other places. The movement wasn’t established by apostles or evangelists. Rather, the Way was founded by unnamed men who were scattered abroad because of the persecution that arose after the death of Stephen in the city of Jerusalem. We read that majority of the disciples of the Way who fled Jerusalem spoke the word of Jesus to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch spoke to Gentiles as well, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. Now surely the Apostle Luke either knew or could have easily found out the names of these believers. After all, he mentions where they were from. Yet they remain unnamed. Perhaps he was telling us that we all can do what they did. They were common men who had met the Lord Jesus and who wanted others to know Him, too. They had been separated from the apostles who remained in Jerusalem, so they were forced to become confident in the faith and independent on their own. All they needed was some encouragement to keep on doing what they were doing.
It’s an important message for you and me and our congregation today. If the spreading of the gospel or the functioning of the church depends simply on the labors of full-time pastors and workers only, ministry will always be limited. But if every person who has trusted in Christ as Savior and feels the love and obligation of telling others the good news, then the gospel will spread and the church will be built up. Yes, Luke believes that every Christian should sense his or her responsibility to serve Christ. You have a part to play in this church, but you may need a little more encouragement.
When news of the growth of the Way came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. Why Barnabas, you may wonder? Perhaps because he was a fellow Cypriot. He knew the ways of that corner of the Mediterranean. Barnabas was actually first mentioned several chapters earlier in the Book of Acts even before the stoning of Stephen and the persecution that followed. We read that he was a Levite, a native of Cyprus named Joseph at birth, who sold a plot of land and laid it at the feet of the apostles. It was for this reason that the apostles gave him the name Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas was well- travelled, well- educated and a man of great means. He believed in Jesus’ resurrection, and the love of God for all people. The church in Jerusalem and Judea was growing daily, and there was an increasing financial need to support the apostles in going forth to spread the gospel. Surprisingly, all the apostles were taken care of, supported and encouraged by the church community in Jerusalem, and Barnabas was among the chief, financial supporters.
Now why is generous giving such an important gesture of encouragement? Pretty crafty way of increasing the Sunday morning offering to be sure. But what I have discovered about my own giving is that the more I invest in a program financially, at home, in the community, or in the church, the more I want that institution to succeed and thrive. To the receiver, it is a gesture of encouragement. It says, “I believe in you. You are doing the right thing. I trust your judgement.” Generous giving and support is not empty praise. It is solid encouragement. The church in Antioch would soon discover their own ability to encourage. As the result of the prophetic word of Agabus predicting a severe famine over all the world, they gathered resources and gifts to support the needy in Judea, in spite of their own need. And in time, they would commit themselves and their financial gifts to launching a missionary campaign to the west.
Let us turn now to the encouragement of energy and solidarity. Although he was not one of the original twelve, the apostles in Jerusalem recognized Barnabas’ gift as a very good preacher, so they laid hands of prayer on him and sent him off to the city of Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion. And a great many people were brought to the Lord because of him. Encouragement can be just that. Participation brings new life and new energy. It gives an excitement when it is needed. New ideas and new people bring an excitement to the life of a church. Yes, some new ways may take time, but it through these gifts the Holy Spirit it breathing new life and encouragement.
The task of nurturing the church, however, was overwhelming for the apostle. Barnabas’ heart was focused on building up of God’s church, but at some point, he began to realize that the work in Antioch was more than he could handle. Every pastor and evangelist discovers that truth. So Barnabas left Antioch and traveled 100 miles to Tarsus to search for Saul. Barnabas was not threatened to bring this gifted man back to Antioch to share in the work. Some Biblical scholars believe that the two studied together with the respected Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem. Barnabas had taken a chance before, when he sacrificed his own honor and credibility by presenting Saul after his conversion on the road to Damascus to the members of the Way in Jerusalem as a follower of Jesus. The apostles were shocked by Barnabas’ words. This Saul was they very man who had persecuted the church, who had arrested many believers and sent others away as refugees around the Mediterranean Sea to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Barnabas did the same now again in Antioch, as he risked his own good name for the sake of Saul. Barnabas knew that Saul, too, had a great gift to give and he wanted him to have the chance to share it. The two worked ceaselessly together in Antioch for a year, and when they left for Jerusalem, they were confident that all would be well- even without them.
Encouragement may seem easy, but true encouragement often demands similar sacrifice and loyalty from you. It’s the difference between mere words and true commitment. Talking the talk and walking the walk. As Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s the encouragement of loyalty and sacrifice.
Then we read, “and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The word Christian is actually recorded only three times in the Book of Acts. Jesus’ own followers preferred to call themselves, the disciples or saints meaning God’s Holy Ones. Probably, the name Christian was intended to be a derogatory nickname given by others in the city. It meant, “Christ-men.” F. F. Bruce, in his commentary on the Book of Acts imagines a group of two or three of the unofficial evangelist in the streets of Antioch, with a small group gathered around them, listening to the gospel. Someone watching asked another bystander, “Who are these people?” The other answered “O, these are the people who are always talking about Christos, the Christ-people, the Christians.” The nickname stuck, and while it may have been meant as a term of derision, it became the supreme compliment for the citizen of Antioch to refer to these followers of the Way as “Christ-men.” They were living in accordance with Barnabas’ and Saul’s teaching of God’s Word, breaking down the dividing barriers between Gentiles and Jews, and gathering men and women from all quarters of the city into focusing their worship on the life and death and resurrection of the Christ.
In the Book of Acts, the story of the church in Antioch and the early Christians is not lengthy, but it is set before us as an example to follow. Antioch was a community of the Way founded by simple believers who knew that God had called every Christian to serve Him. In time of famine, they gave financial support in spite of their own need. They proclaimed the gospel as the power of God for salvation to every nation regardless of race. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. All that was lacking was encouragement.
Throughout life we all need words and gestures of encouragement. So let us be like the Christians of Antioch of old, and be bold, and show encouragement, not simply in words, but in deeds and gestures of generosity, sacrifice and loyalty. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.