Blueprint Vision #2 - Going Deep in Prayer

READ – Acts 13:1-3

Antioch was one of the major multi-cultural and cosmopolitan cities of the ancient world. It was here that Jesus built the first ever multi-ethnic church. This church became a large and thriving community full of people from different backgrounds. It was a church that went deep in the gospel together. Their lives were so captivated by Jesus, they earned the nickname “Christians”.  It was a church that went out with the gospel and became the first church to send people out on mission.  For all these reasons, the church in Antioch is  a blueprint for the kind of church we are praying Jesus would build at Trinity.  Acts 13:1-3 gives us a glimpse into the regular rhythms of this church and tells how it came to be that Antioch became such a thriving and outward focused church—at the heart of their life together they were deeply devoted to prayer.  

From this church’s practice of prayer, we learn one of the most important lessons about prayer: A deep and meaningful prayer life will not come by guilt or by grit but only when we are convinced that prayer is a gift.

1. BREATHING – PRAYER AND WORSHIP

The rhythm at the heart of this thriving church was worship - “As they were worshipping the Lord and fasting…” (v2). This isn’t talking about just one day, ie “One day they were worshipping…” The verb form carries the sense of an ongoing, repeated activity. This was the rhythm at the heart of the church. The word used here for worshipping is rarely used in the NT. In the OT, it referred to the intercessory ministry of the priests in bringing the life of the people to God and the life of God to the people. Most scholars of Acts say “worshipping” here refers to corporate prayer.

We know that the churches of the NT did a lot more than “just pray” together. They learned, taught, ate, connected and served each other. What this description of Antioch shows us is that prayer is what turns all these things into worship. It’s prayer that animates and gives life to them. When prayer is at the heart of a church, it guards the church from doing what it does out of routine and duty. Prayer is how our horizontal actions become vertical communion with the living God.  How was it that Antioch became a church so alive with the presence of God? The answer is that for this church—prayer was like breathing. Prayer was how God animated their lives and actions with his gift of his presence.

2. EATING – PRAYER AND FASTING

One of the things that stands out about this church is their practice of fasting. Fasting is only mentioned 3 times in the book of Acts. All 3 times it is in reference to this church. In the bible, fasting is always combined with prayer. Fasting creates space for prayer, sharpens its focus, and deepens its fervency. Fasting is not a directly commanded practice in Scripture - but it is an expected practice. Jesus said, “when you fast” and that his disciples “will fast”. The idea is not that followers of Jesus have to fast, it’s that they will want to fast. Why would we want to? Antioch helps us see why – Fasting teaches us prayer is like eating. What eating is for us physically; prayer is for us spiritually. Fasting reminds us how basic and necessary it is for us to pray. It reminds us that God gives us the gift of spiritual strength, nourishment and growth by connecting to Him in prayer.

Fasting also reminds us of an important principle – going deeper in prayer requires giving up something good to get something better (namely, a deeper relationship with God). Fasting of all kinds (from food and from other good things for a season) is training for saying “no” to good yet lesser gifts for the greater gift of prayer.

3. FIGHTING – PRAYER AND SENDING

The praying church in Antioch reinforces what we’ve seen throughout in Acts 1-12.  It’s not so much that God answers the prayers of a church to be sent as it is that God sends a praying church. The churches in Acts didn’t want to be sent. They didn’t ask to be sent.

When Jesus said, “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” to his followers, what did they do? They stayed! Later, Peter refused to go to the house of a non-Jewish person. The scattered Christians who started the church in Antioch didn’t ask to be forced from their homes. Saul didn’t ask to become a missionary. The church at Antioch didn’t ask God to send their two best leaders. So how did all this happen? It happened through prayer. It was in prayer that God somehow sent the fearful, reluctant and comfortable out with boldness and power. In the early church, prayer was struggling, wrestling and fighting with God to learn that life was not about them. Prayer was where God broke them of self-centeredness so he could send them out to love and serve others.  

This is why it’s been said that “Prayer does not enable us to do a greater work for God. Prayer is a greater work for God.” The greater work of God is humbling the proud and curing self-centeredness and self-reliance. The greater work of God is opening our hearts to the greatness of his glory, the immensity of our need and the sufficiency of Jesus’ redeeming work. Prayer is the greater work because it is only humbled, broken, dependent and needy people that God uses to do great works.

4. RECEIVING – OUR PRAYER AND JESUS’ PRAYERS

In studying the role of prayer in Luke and Acts together, an important and significant insight emerges. Luke shows us that the church’s prayer life mirrors and images Jesus’ own prayer life.

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What’s the takeaway from all these parallels? 1) Jesus builds his own life of prayer into His church. 2) Jesus builds his life of prayer into the church when they are at their most clueless, helpless, scared and weak (see question 2 below) 3) Jesus gave his life to give us his life of prayer. The “unanswered prayer” of Jesus is how all our prayer is made possible. In prayer, Jesus faced two choices – 1) God could take the cup from him or 2) he could take the cup from us. In prayer, He chose to take the cup of curse and separation to give us the cup of blessing and connection with God in prayer. When we pray, we receive the gift Jesus thought was worth dying for to give to us.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.        What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions? What is most hard for you when it comes to prayer? What is most rewarding for you when it comes to prayer?

2.       Group exercise – Take a tour through the prayers of Acts (1-13).

a.        What do you observe about these prayers? Why did they pray? When did they pray? What can we learn from this?

3.        Jonathan Edwards once said, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith, as breathing is of life; and to say a man lives a life of faith, and yet lives a prayerless life, is every whit as inconsistent and incredible, as to say, that a man lives without breathing.” If this is true, why is prayer so difficult? How might this explain why we can feel dry and lifeless in Christian practices (bible reading/study, Sunday worship, serving, etc)?

4.       Do you have any experience with fasting and prayer? If so, what have you learned from it? Why would a Christian want to fast? How might fasting help us see more clearly that prayer is a gift?

5.       It was said in the sermon, “It’s not so much that God answers the prayers of a church to be sent as it is that God sends a praying church.” What’s the difference? Why is this so important for us to learn in our attempts to do great things for God and for others?

6.       Take another look at the parallels between Jesus’ prayers and the prayers of the church in Acts. What strikes you? How is it encouraging to know Jesus is and will build his praying life into His church?

7.        Why is it so important to see how our prayers can be answered because of Jesus’ “unanswered prayer”? How might your perspective on prayer change if you believed that Jesus died to give you the gift of prayer?

8.       What is one thing you can do in 2019 to go deeper in prayer individually and as a group?

Blueprint Vision #1 - Going Deep in Scripture

READ – Acts 11:19-26

2019 VISION PART 1 - GOING DEEP IN SCRIPTURE

The church in Antioch is a “hinge” church in the book of Acts. It was in Antioch that the first diverse multi-ethnic church was formed. It was from Antioch that the first missionaries were sent to take the gospel to “the ends of the earth”. The first part of Acts (1-12) tells the story of an almost entirely Jewish church in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria – people and places that all had knowledge and esteem for the Bible. The second part of Acts (13-28) tells the story of a predominantly Gentile church in cities of the ancient world - people and places that had little to no knowledge and esteem for the Bible.

The church at Antioch is a blueprint for the kind of church Jesus can build in a multi-cultural and cosmopolitan city. It’s the blueprint for the kind of churches the apostle Paul sought to establish all over the world. It’s a blueprint for the kind of church we are praying Jesus would build here at Trinity OC.

The first thing we’ll look at is how it was a church that went deep in Scripture.

1. WHY GO DEEP IN SCRIPTURE

The story of the church at Antioch starts back to Acts chapter 8, “On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria…. So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the word (8:1, 4).” Their story is picked up in 11:19, “Now those who were scattered because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one but Jews. But there were some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus.” At first these Christians hesitated to talk about the word with Greeks but some just couldn’t help it – they began proclaiming the good news that was the deepest part of their lives – the good news about Jesus. For the Christian who started the church at Antioch, the “word”, they spoke, the “good news” they proclaimed was what the Scriptures were all about (see Luke 24:27, 45ff).

The Christians who started the church at Antioch are a picture of what happens when someone goes deep in Scripture. The people to whom they spoke the word saw 2 things in their lives:

1)        The Scriptures somehow gave them something stronger than the worst that could happen to them. They were refugees who lost everything. Yet somehow, they not only endured their suffering, they thought of others and how important it was for them to hear this good news.

2)       The Scriptures somehow gave them something better than the best that could have happened to them. The best news they could have heard would have been, “Come back home to Jerusalem. It’s safe now”. What’s remarkable is that they could’ve heard this – if only they left behind their new commitment to Jesus and his church. But they didn’t. They couldn’t. Why not? They must’ve thought they had something better in Jesus than even the best thing that could’ve happened to them.

When these displaced Christians started talking with others about Jesus and the Scriptures, they spoke with an undeniable credibility. People must’ve been wondering – what could be this strong? what could be this good? The church at Antioch began with people deeply convinced in the truth and power of the Scriptures.

2. HOW TO GO DEEP IN SCRIPTURE

As this mix of people from different backgrounds became attracted to the message of the Bible and formed a church, what would they do first? What would be their priority and focus? Acts tells us that after Barnabas visited from Jerusalem and encouraged them, he knew exactly what they needed. He got Saul and “for a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers”. What did it look like for this church to go deep together in Scripture?

1) Consistency – “for a whole year”. Based on the evidence from the rest of Acts, this is more than a weekly gathering. It was almost certainly a daily gathering (see Acts 2:42-46, 5:42, Acts 19:9). The soaked and marinated in the Scriptures.

2) Community – The story emphasizes the “large numbers” who were taught (11: 21, 24, 26).  Why such a focus on numbers? Reading and learning Scripture is meant to be done in “large numbers” – in community with others.

3) Conversation – We are told here what these daily teaching sessions looked like. But the rest of Acts tells us that Paul’s style was a mix of instruction and dialog. These large numbers didn’t only silently listen but asked questions and discussed what they were learning.

This is the way the church at Antioch was built. While being careful about establishing a “formula” for the variety of ways a church can go deep in Scripture – this is how Jesus built the church at Antioch. It’s the foundation for how they established a faithful, long-term presence in their city and became the first sending church.

3. THE IMPACT OF GOING DEEP IN SCRIPTURE

What was the impact of this deep engagement with Scripture over time? We could summarize it like this – a transformative personal encounter with Jesus. This is the ultimate purpose of the bible and it is the impact all our reading, studying, discussion is meant to have.

The city of Antioch was known to classify and categorize people using nicknames. There were the “Herodians”, the “Neronians” and the “Augustiani’s”. When it came to this new religious movement, the people had no way to categorize them. They finally figured out the best nickname for this community – “Christians”. The Christ-people. The people who look like and act like this Christ they keep talking about. We “become Christians” through deep engagement with the Scriptures because in the Scriptures we personally encounter Christ. Going deep in Scripture isn’t for gaining information, finding self-help advice to better ourselves or for pointing the finger at all that’s wrong with other people. Going deep in Scripture is going deep in relationship with Jesus Himself. As we encounter Him there, we become like Him.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.        What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.       What are your biggest personal objections or biggest personal obstacles to going deep in Scripture? What things have been most helpful for you in going deeper into Scripture?

3.        What is your response to the idea that the Scriptures give us something stronger than the worst that can happen to us and better than the best thing that can happen to us? How did the lives of the Christians who started the church at Antioch show this? Is it promising too much to make this claim for anyone? Have you experienced this?

4.       Of the 3 parts of the “formula” for how we can go deep in Scripture, which of them is most lacking in your relationship to Scripture? Why? How might you (or your community group) put these into practice?  

5.       What can we learn from the nickname this church earned for themselves (“Christians”)? Would anyone in your give you this nickname? What role does Scripture play in making us “look and act” like Jesus?

6.       Do you resonate with the idea that to read and learn the Scriptures is to personally encounter Jesus Himself? How is this similar or different than your motivations and reasons for reading Scripture?

a.        What questions do you have about this? What experience do you have in this?

b.       For further support of this idea, see John 5:46, Luke 24:13-49, 2 Timothy 3:10-17

7.        What is one thing you can do in 2019 to go further into Scripture? Share it with your group or a friend and ask them to regularly check in with you to see how you are doing. 

Blueprint #14 - No Rivals

READ – Acts 12:1-24

Before Acts makes a major shift in the story away from the church at Jerusalem (Acts 1-12) to the gospel going out all to the ends of the earth (Acts 13-28), there is one more story that Luke wants to tell us about this church. It’s the story about how Jesus built this church (and how he builds a life) to be prepared for and able to withstand disaster. What do we need to see, believe in and hold on to when our lives are shaken? When our faith is shaken? What makes for strong, enduring faith? Acts 12 shows us it is the firm conviction that Jesus has no rivals.

1. THE ATTACK OF RIVALS (v1-4)

After Saul’s dramatic conversion, the church of Jerusalem experienced a long season of peace and growth (see Acts 9:31). More and more people from varying backgrounds were coming to faith in Jesus and joining the church. But this time of peace didn’t last. Acts 12:1 says King Herod (also known as King Agrippa I) began to violently attack the church. He executed James. He put Peter in prison intending to kill him after the Passover. After many years of peace and coexistence with Judaism (and other religions), the natural question is, “Why did Herod attack the church?” The answer is that these Christians were living like Jesus was really king. Not Caesar. Not Herod. Not anyone or anything else but Jesus. They weren’t protesting. They weren’t being obnoxious and drawing attention to themselves. They weren’t trying to take Herod’s political power. They were simply yet consistently living like Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords. 

The principle we see here applies to all times and places. When Jesus is given supreme authority and leadership in a life or in a church, the rival kings, authorities, leaders of a culture and of a person’s life will be challenged. And rivals don’t go down without a counter attack.

2. THE REPSONSE TO THE ATTACK (v5-18)

What was the response to this violent attack of such a powerful and vengeful king? The church did the only thing they could. In their powerlessness and helplessness, they turned to “fervent prayer” (10:5). We see two things about their prayerful response in the story. First, we see it was the right thing for them to do. Though they were powerless to do anything, God was sovereign over it all. God’s power was greater than Herod’s, greater than the 4 squads of 4 soldiers, the 2 soldiers sleeping next to Peter, the chains that bound Peter and the sentry at the door. None of that stopped God from rescuing Peter in response to the prayers of the people.

But we also see it was a hard thing for them to do. It was fervent prayer, but it was also fragile prayer. It was prayer that was a mixture of belief and unbelief. How do we know this? They didn’t expect God to answer them! When they were told Peter stood outside their door, they responded, “You are out of your mind!”. We can understand why it was so hard for them to pray. James had been killed. Peter was in prison. Their faith was shaken. Fear was settling in. Here we can draw great encouragement in times when our lives and faith our shaken and we feel we can barely pray. The sovereign power of God + the power of faithful yet fragile prayer is greater than the power of anything that might shake us.

There’s even more encouragement for us here. When we take a closer look at God’s response to this attack, we see the powerful statement God is making to a shaken church. Luke makes very intentional and specific connections between this attack on the church and the attack (and death) of Jesus:

  • Both happened at the same time - during Passover, the feast of Unleavened Bread (see Lk. 22:1, 7)

  • Both led to “fervent prayer” (22:44, the only other time this phrase is used in the bible)

  • Both attacks happened under the reign of a rival King named Herod (Lk 23:6-12)

  • Both attacks happened for the same reason. The claim of Jesus to be King (Lk 23:3, 38)

What is Luke trying to show us? He wants us to read this story as the story of two kings. He wants us to read this as the story of the response of the True King to all other rival kings. On the one side we have Herod (and Pharaoh, and all rival kings before and after). On the other side we have Jesus. There are the rival kings who kill, do violence to humanity and put people into bondage. And there is the One True King who deserved life yet was killed for us, who was innocent yet absorbed violence in our place, who was arrested and bound that we might be set free from bondage. This is our choice. Every rival king will demand you to give your life for them and put you in chains. Jesus is the only king who gives his life for you to set you free. When our lives are shaken, when our faith is shaken, we can trust Him. We don’t have to flee from or to any of the rivals. The King who was shaken for us won’t ever abandon us to his rivals. In suffering, trials, even martyrdom - He will bring us safely into his kingdom (2 Tim 4:18).

3. THE DEFEAT OF RIVALS (v19-24)

This story not only tells us rivals will attack and God will respond; it tells us all rivals to the True King will be defeated. After seeing Peter slip out his grasp, King Herod takes his wounded ego to Caesarea. There his pride and arrogance is re-inflated as delegates from two cities beg for his favor. He puts on his kingly garments (which we know from history were woven of silver), he sat on this throne and delivered a speech. The people praise him as a god and he gladly receive their praise. This was the day of his defeat. Why? “Because he did not give the glory to God” (v23). Herod had gone too far. This isn’t just a “Herod” thing. This is an everyone and every rival thing – God will not give his glory to another (Isa 42:8, 48:11). Rival kings we look to for life, peace, security and meaning can seem so powerful, glorious and indestructible – but none of them can compare to the glory of the true King. In the light of the glory of God we see all rival kings for what they really are.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.        What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.       One of core questions we ask when our lives and faith is shaken is “Why?” This story from Acts teaches us there will be seasons of peace for our growth but there will be (there must be) seasons of shaking for God to reveal his rivals and show us his supremacy over them. What’s your response to this? How might it encourage you in times when you feel shaken?

3.        Do you agree that the human heart can only have one supreme value and authority at a time? How does this play out in your life? What other “rival kings” do you look to for security and power? (Examples: Money, control, success, achievement, relationships, comfort/pleasure, approval). Why do you look to these things instead of Jesus?

4.       How is it comforting for you to see that it’s possible for God to answer prayers that are fervent yet fragile; a mix of belief and unbelief? Is there something shaking your life now that you struggle to believe whether God is “big enough” to address?

5.       The gospel is that “Every rival king will demand you to give your life for them and put you in chains. Jesus is the only king who gives his life for you to set you free.” How have you found it to be true that every other thing we look to for life ends up taking life from us?

6.       In the sermon, 3 final lessons were shared.

a.        Personal Lesson- Jesus’ loving plan for us is to defeat all His rivals in our hearts. What rivals do you need to allow Him to defeat in your heart?

b.       Political Lesson - No political party, country, leader can have our ultimate allegiance. How can this help in a time of political turmoil?

c.        Missional Lesson- Nothing is more powerful than or can ever stop the word of God, the gospel from flourishing and increasing. Read v24. How can this ease our fears and give us boldness in going “public” with our faith in Jesus?

Blueprint #13 - No Outsiders

READ – Acts 10+11

As people from all different backgrounds came to faith in Jesus, one of the biggest and hardest issues in the early church was how people formerly divided by cultural and ethnic walls could now live as brothers, sisters, friends and family in the church. The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11 tells the foundational story that opened up the door of the church to those who were considered “outsiders”. Because the church sought to apply the lessons of this story - one of the biggest draws of early Christianity was how people who were naturally divided by cultural and ethnic walls worked through hard issues and found a way to live as brothers, sisters, friends and family. There was nothing like this in the ancient world.  As the blueprint for how Jesus built and builds the church, Acts shows us that the church is meant to be a place where there are no outsiders - a place where no one feels less than, unwelcome, unwanted, or they don’t belong because of race, ethnicity or culture. A place where everyone feels included, valued, that they can belong, their voices heard, and their gifts needed. How is this possible? It takes the 3 conversions of Acts 10 and 11.

1. CORNELIUS’ CONVERSION

The first conversion in the story is Cornelius’. Cornelius was a Gentile - a captain in the Roman army. We are told he was a devout man who feared God with his whole household. He gave to charity and prayed regularly. He was a good person. As a “god-fearer”, he was willing to take on the beliefs and practices of the Jewish faith, but he wasn’t willing to fully convert to Judaism (by undergoing circumcision and observing the food laws). So, even though Cornelius was as good a person as someone could be, he was still considered unclean. He couldn’t eat with faithful Jewish people. He was not welcome into a Jewish home or into the temple in Jerusalem for worship. He was an outsider because of his ethnicity. He was good but not good enough.

But God arranges for Peter to come to Cornelius through angelic visits, visions and the assurance of the Holy Spirit. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home (10:25-33), what does he say? Why did God go through so much trouble to bring Peter to Cornelius? Was it to tell Cornelius, “If you want to truly be in, you need to do more good”? No! Peter wasn’t sent to tell Cornelius what more to do to get in; he was sent to tell him all that Jesus did so he could get in. Peter preached the gospel (10:36-43) – Everyone can be forgiven because of all Jesus has done! It clicked for Cornelius - being good doesn’t make me an insider. Only Jesus does. When Cornelius heard this, he repented (11:18), believed and the Holy Spirit confirmed something that Peter was slow to believe – because of Cornelius’ faith in Jesus, this Gentile Roman solider is no longer an outsider. He was baptized into the church. Now he was just as much an insider as Peter.

This is the first conversion necessary for God to build a “no outsiders” church: It’s not Jesus + my goodness that gets me in. It’s Jesus + nothing that gets me in. The gospel equally humbles all (no one is in because of their race, culture or goodness) and equally elevates all (everyone who comes in by faith is equally “in”, equally valued and loved).

2. PETER’S CONVERSION

But a second conversion is needed. Scholar John Stott argues that it’s this conversion that is the main subject of these two chapters. He writes, “How would God succeed in breaking down Peter’s deep seated racial intolerance? The principle subject in this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the conversion of Peter”. God chose one of the hardest people for Peter to accept – a Roman captain. The Romans had subjugated and oppressed his people for years.

In order for Peter to experience his conversion, it took a vision of God directly speaking to him three times (10:16), a visit from Cornelius’ messengers to share his vision (10:22) and the direct assurance of the Holy Spirit (10:20) for Peter to go inside a Gentile home. God could have directly proclaimed the gospel to Cornelius Himself! But clearly, he wanted Peter to do it. Why? So Peter could experience his conversion and a “no outsiders” church could be built.

Peter had to realize he was adding to the gospel. By adding race and culture to what was needed to be right and fully acceptable before God, he was denying the gospel of grace. Peter speaks as one experiencing repentance - “God has shown me (10:28)”, “now I truly understand” (10:34). It was Peter’s repentance from his racial and cultural self-righteousness that opened up the door of the gospel to all nations, race and peoples.

Peter realized the implications of the gospel he proclaimed in Cornelius’ home. The cross shows the world there is only one insider. There is only one person good enough, only one person clean enough, only one person pure enough. There is only one insider yet he’s the One on the cross (“the tree”, 10:39). The tree was the place where the bad, the impure, and the unclean belong. The tree is the place of curse – outside of God’s blessing. Why is Jesus there? On the cross, He took our place on the outside (what we deserve) and he gave us his goodness, his cleanness, his purity so we can be on the inside. Everyone who gets in says, “I’m only in because of him!  This was Peter’s conversion - being Jewish or being (_insert anything here_ ) doesn’t make me an insider. Only Jesus does.

 3. THE CHURCH’S CONVERSION (AND OURS)

When Peter shared his report of the conversion of Cornelius and his household with the church in Judea (“the Gentiles had also received the word of God”, 11:1), there should have been a celebration of epic proportions! The Gentiles (ie, all non-Jewish nations, ethnic groups) receiving the word of God (the gospel) is the heartbeat and promise of the whole bible! It’s what Jesus’ Great Commission is all about (Matt. 28:18-20). It’s what he said would happen before he ascended (they would be his witness to the “ends of the earth”, Acts 1:8). But instead of celebration, there’s criticism and disgust – “You went to non-Jewish people and ate with them!”. What’s going on? The church needed to experience Peter’s conversion as a community. They needed to see - we are all only in because of Jesus, so there are no outsiders!

This communal conversion into a church where there are no outsiders happened in at least 4 ways:

Us vs. Them – Us vs. them thinking had to be exposed by God and dissolved by the gospel. Peter later reminded the church, “God made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). The “us vs them” thinking and distinctions we hold on to need to be honestly admitted and repented of.

Step by Step – Just as Peter needed to be taken step by step by God through a process of repentance from his prejudice, so he took the church in Jerusalem through the same process (11:4). In his commentary on this passage, Ajith Fernando, a Sri Lankan minister wrote, “living in a land of ethnic strife and struggling with the question of feelings of one’s race and the other’s race in a time of conflict, I have come to realize that prejudice is often one of the last things that is touched by the process of sanctification”. Prejudices are deeply held, very slowly recognized, reluctantly admitted and often slowly changed. We should be patient as we and others take steps toward repentance. Yet we should be firmly resolved to keep growing and calling others to grow since this is matter of great importance to God, his mission and our sanctification.

Face to Face – In order for Peter to experience his conversion, he needed more than a proper theology of the gospel applied to race and culture. He needed to enter into the home of a Gentile. He needed to stay with them and eat with them. It took face to face interaction with someone “other” for Peter to truly change. It’s the same for us. Personal study and disembodied controversies on social media can only get you so far. We need to sit down and eat with someone “other” than us in order to grow in our ability to be “no outsider” people and churches.

Book by Book – Diversity is not to be pursued in the church because it happens to be the socially progressive thing to do or is accepted in the circles we have. It’s not pursued for the personal benefits of enjoying cultures and learning about other people. It is to be pursued because it is God’s mission and heart in all of Scripture. It is the truth of the gospel lived out in the church. When Peter slipped into his old prejudices (Galatians 2:11-21), what did Paul say to him? He didn’t say, “Peter, you’re being a racist! a bigot!” He said, “Peter, Cephas, brother, you are denying the truth of the gospel.” If we don’t see this, we need to spend time book by book in the Scriptures until we are convinced it is a matter of gospel truth.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      Why is that some people think the message of Christianity is “to get in you need to be a good person”, “to stay in you need to be good enough”, or “to get in to heaven you need to be a good person”? How does the story of Cornelius’ conversion show us that a complete misunderstanding of Christianity?

3.       Do you see race, ethnicity and culture dividing people? in our country? in your community? in the church?  How is the message of salvation (“getting in”) by grace connected to issues of race?

4.      Have you ever had an experience of feeling like an outsider because of your race, ethnicity or culture? What was this like? How have you learned to welcome people different than you when you are the insider?

5.      How does the cross address all our insider thinking and insider/outsider divisions?

6.      In the sermon, 4 aspects to the church’s conversion were discussed – As a group, pick 1 or more of the following questions:

a.       Us vs them – Where do you see us vs them thinking still at work in your heart and life?

b.      Step by Step – Where do you feel you are in the step by step journey of sanctification in areas of prejudice?

c.       Face to Face – What face to face interactions have you had with people who were “other” changed how you saw other groups, races or cultures?

d.      Book by Book – Are you convinced that a church where there are insiders/outsiders because of race or culture is a matter of denying the truth of the gospel (2:14)? Why or why not?

7.       Acts shows us that the church is meant to be a place where there are no outsiders - a place where no one feels less than, unwelcome, unwanted, or they don’t belong because of race, ethnicity or culture. A place where everyone feels included, valued, that they can belong, their voices heard, and their gifts needed.

How is Trinity doing here? What can we do better? How can we become a church like this? Pray that we would.

Blueprint #12 - A Church That Brings People In

READ – Acts 9:19-31

Currently, our nation is divided by a controversy about our walls. There’s disagreement about which people should be brought in and who should be kept out. This issue is not unique to our country. Every country, group and community must make decisions about its walls. Who gets in? Who’s out? And why are some in and some out?

Because the heart of Christianity is that no one earns or deserves to be in, but everyone is welcome into relationship with God by grace through faith in Jesus – this means the church is called to be a community without walls. Everyone is not only allowed to come inside, the church is called to go “outside” to everyone and anyone to welcome all into relationship with God in Christ. The story of how Barnabas brought Paul in teaches us that God calls the church to be a community that brings people in by becoming a community of encouragement.

1. WHY WE WANT TO BE ON THE INSIDE

After Saul’s dramatic conversion in Damascus, he began “immediately proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues” (v20). First, everyone was astonished. “Is this the same Saul!?” The change was dramatic. Over time, it became clear it wasn’t a passing phase – he kept growing “stronger” in his faith and resolve to prove Jesus is the Messiah his people had been waiting for (v22). After a while (2-3 years), the Jewish leaders had enough of this new Saul and tried to trap him in the city to kill him. He barely escaped with his life (v25) and was on the run. Where would he go? Who would take him in? He thought to himself, “Surely the Jerusalem church will take me in. The apostles of Jesus will give me refuge.”

But when he arrived something very different happened – “He tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple” (v26). Saul must have been crushed. They didn’t just reject his newfound ministry, they didn’t believe in the authenticity of his new-found faith. He must have been deeply discouraged. Is there anything more discouraging than being on the outside of an “inner ring” that we desperately want to be in on? To be told, “You don’t belong”, “You aren’t one of us”, “We can’t accept you” is one of the most crushing things we experience in life. Why? The Bible teaches us we are all like Saul – everyone has the deep need to be accepted and belong.  

2. WHY WE KEEP PEOPLE ON THE OUTSIDE

Though we know how bad we want to be on the “inside” and how bad it feels to be on the outside, we continue to excel at making walls that exclude people and keep people out. Why is this? Verse 26 gives us the answer. It’s fear. Those on the inside had legitimate fears about Saul. Was he really changed? He had their friends murdered and driven out of their homes. What if it was a trick? Fear grew in the community. As our fear grow larger, our view of God grows smaller until who he is, what he is doing and can do is pushed out of the picture. Those who are on the outside are also afraid – afraid that any attempt to get in will lead to rejection. These fears are powerful. They lead to boundaries, walls and barriers being put up by people in fear. How can these walls be brought down? How can our fear be overcome?

 3. HOW GOD BRINGS US IN

This story is about how God overcame these fears through a man named Barnabas. We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4 where we are told that he earned the nickname Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement) because of his consistent encouraging presence in the church. Verse 27 says Barnabas “took him [Saul] and brought him to the apostles”. Barnabas, the insider with a great reputation, risked his place in the community and his reputation for Saul – the outsider with a terrible reputation who didn’t deserve to be brought in. This is a picture of how God brings us all in. This is a picture of the gospel.

The Gospel is that Jesus brings us in. We don’t deserve to be brought into the family of God. We could never earn our place. But Someone else does deserve it and has earned it –and He brings us in. This is how God brings us in:

·         Everything that would have kept us out & should have kept us out - Jesus took on himself.

·         Jesus brings us in to the acceptance, love and favor of God - forever.

·         Nothing we do can take us outside of God’s acceptance, love and favor.

When these gospel truths sink in; when we are astonished that we’ve been brought in and how we’ve been brought in, it changes how we think about “outsiders”.

4. HOW WE BRING OTHERS IN

When the gospel takes hold of a church, what happens? It’s described for us in 9:31 – ‘The church… had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit it increased in numbers.” A strong and healthy church is marked by the fear of the Lord—not the fear of being on the outside ourselves and not the fear of outsiders who believe, live, think differently than us. A church that gets the gospel is a community of encouragement – a church full of Barnabas who are willing to go outside of their comfort zone, to risk their own status in order to come alongside people who need encouragement.

An important principle emerges from the story of Paul and Barnabas : encouragement is absolutely necessary for the health of the church and for the mission of the church. An encourager is someone who goes out to bring someone else in; someone who goes out of their way to bring someone deeper in to God’s love and God’s will for them in Christ. Encouragement happens through words and actions of acceptance, welcome and affirmation.

Barnabas helps us build the “profile” of an encourager. An encourager is continually astonished that they are in. They know they don’t deserve and didn’t earn their place in God’s family. An encourager is willing to listen to opponents, even enemies, as Barnabas listened to Paul and his story. An encourager is willing to persevere in love – even when it’s hard. Paul (like us!) wasn’t always the easiest person to encourage – but Barnabas never stopped encouraging Paul. Even after they had a sharp disagreement (about what else? encouraging John Mark! see Acts 15:36-41), Paul felt Barnabas encouragement through John Mark while he was suffering in prison. There would be no apostle Paul, epistles of Paul and worldwide impact of Paul without Barnabas. Encouragement is that powerful.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      Have you ever experienced being on the outside of an “inner ring”? What was that experience like? Why does acceptance and belonging matter so much to us? How does the bible help us answer this question?

3.       Do you agree that it is largely fear that causes us to keep people outside of our groups, circles and communities? How have you seen this at work in your experience and the walls we build around ourselves?

4.      How does the gospel overcome our fear of being on the outside and our fear of outsiders? How might the three bold bullet points above address your own fears?

5.      EXERCISE: Read Romans 15:3-7. Notice how Paul encourages the church to welcome and accept each other. He references Psalm 69 to show them exactly how they were welcomed in and accepted by God. As a group, slowly read all of Psalm 69 listening for how the Psalmist describes his experience. In what ways does the Psalmist describe what it’s like to be an outsider? What difference does it make knowing that this was the experience of Jesus? that he experienced this to bring you in?

6.      What role has encouragement (what Barnabas did for Paul) played in your faith? Why is encouragement such a powerful thing? How are you in need of encouragement now?

7.       FOR GROUPS: Discuss this question together - How can we become better at encouragement? Hebrews 3:13 calls us to daily encourage each other. What would it look like for our group to put this into practice?