This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…
by Joyce Firth.
Acts 11: 19-30
It is easy to be impressed by the Church in Antioch which had matured so much in such a short time. The persecution of the Church in Jerusalem led to some astounding events. People had packed up and fled. They took with them that which was precious, which included the Jesus story. They went, at first, to their own people, other Jews who were living in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Others who had travelled from Cyprus and Cyrene went one step further and preached to the Gentiles of Antioch.
Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem Church to Antioch to investigate what was happening there. Rumours of untoward goings on must have reached them. The mother church would not be totally happy about accepting Gentiles so easily. It was against their custom and tradition, for they were first and foremost still Jews, with all the inhibitions and controls on their lives that accompanied that grounding: “Don’t mix, don’t touch, and don’t share”.
But Barnabas was able to see what the possibilities were – he opened his eyes, his heart and his understanding to these Gentile believers. He then went to Tarsus to persuade his friend and colleague to join him in his Antioch venture. They were there for a year: teaching, explaining, preaching and serving. When Agabus brought the news of the prospective famine in Judea, this was their call to action.
The Antioch Church was a community of faith- they had learned to follow the way of Christ and they lived out their faith in society. It was NEWS that called them to action – news of famine and need. We know from reading about Cornelius in Joppa, that some of the Gentiles who showed an interest in Christianity in the early days were generous, kindly people. Cornelius was renowned for giving alms generously. This is mentioned three times in his story before he joined the Church (Acts 10:2, 4, 31). It is not just Christians who know the meaning of sacrificial giving.
The famine did happen and Josephus wrote of a severe famine that hit Judea in AD 45-47 and we know also from Josephus that Queen Helena of Adiabene (modern day Turkey) was a convert to Judaism and sent figs and grain to Jerusalem to relieve the suffering there.
It was news of what was happening elsewhere in their known world that led to the decision to send aid to where it was needed and the Antioch Christians rose to the occasion, even though they were barely acceptable to the Jerusalem Church, as there were still those who regarded them as second class Christians. But they responded with graciousness and generosity to the need as it was made known to them. They didn’t hold a grudge and were authentic in their thinking and acting.
Antioch was an out-going, liberal and generous Church and it is where the disciples were first called Christians. So they did not hide their allegiance. It was obvious to all, who they were following and why. They were not only capable of sharing their money, but also of sharing their faith abroad as well as locally. So in Acts 13: 1-3, we read of Saul and Barnabas being sent by the Church in Antioch on their first missionary journey to Seleucia and Cyprus.
This was a Church able to respond when they heard of the need for food, and they responded, too, when they recognised the need for sharing God’s love in Jesus.
They put their faith to work (see James 2:14). Giving, in this way, lies at the heart of a Christian community and it is broad in its intent. It is seeing beyond ourselves and recognising what needs to be done: Here, There and Everywhere and How, Which Way and to Whom.
Questions to think about:
Q1. What does the term “to those less fortunate than ourselves” say and should we use it?
Q2. How do we decide if, when and how we give?
Q3. Should we put restrictions on what our giving should be used for?
Neil W The Acts of the Apostles Oliphants 1972
Crossan J D The Power of Parable SPCK 2012
Borg M Days of Awe and Wonder SPCK 2017