This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts 13:13-52. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.
We all know that we express our deepest thoughts and feelings most easily in our mother tongue. A couple of years ago I helped out with an Alpha course in the mediu-security wing of Pollsmoor prison. When it came to group discussions, we’d start in English, but when one of the guys in the group got passionate about a point or was trying to express something more personal, they would often transition from English into Afrikaans, sometimes over the course of a single sentence. Then they’d be off and running, talking at length and great speed for a few minutes. They’d finish, often with a polite “Thank you”; and a kind group member would take pity on me and attempt a translation. It’s not surprising that this happens – if we want to talk about the deep stuff of life, we do so most easily in the language that comes most naturally.
At St Peter’s we have a community of about 120 people, with what I estimate to be about 12 different nationalities and as many different languages among us. That’s great diversity, reflecting the area in which we are placed. We use English as a common language, but sometimes we’ll pray the Lord’s Prayer in languages of our choosing – maybe we could move towards songs and hymns in other languages … it’s a great way to express unity in diversity. We’re not just a diverse group in terms of spoken languages – there’s also the ‘cultural’ languages we speak – students, taxi drivers, people who sleep on the street and so on … how do we speak those languages? We’ll come back to these thoughts in a little while.
Last week we looked at Paul & Barnabas starting out on the first missionary journey, and the template they give us as we all live as missionaries in the world God calls us to; going to the place where God is already at work and getting involved there. Here that continues – they arrive in Antioch, and head once again to the synagogue. The synagogue rulers – those responsible for the ordering of public worship – invite them to speak (Acts 13:15-16), which Paul does.
His sermon falls into 3 sections. In the first part (Acts 13: 16b-25) he sketches the highlights of Old Testament history – which is the history of the community that gathers at the synagogue. He contrasts the disobedience of the people with the faithfulness and the grace of God – God endures (13:18) their faithlessness as they wander in the desert; they get judges to lead them even when they do what is evil in God’s sight; they ask for a king and eventually get one who is a Godly man (13:22) despite the fact that God tells them they should not have a king.
From there, Paul moves to the second section – to Jesus (13:26-37), demonstrating that Jesus fits in line with this history and the prophecies they know so well, unrecognised by some but God’s son nonetheless (13:27). Paul moves seamlessly from there to his conclusion – an invitation to respond to the grace of God in Jesus (13:38-41).
It’s a familiar structure for a speech about Jesus to an orthodox Jewish audience – it has all the hallmarks of Stephen’s speech before his martyrdom. Stephen’s sermon, though, concentrated on the disobedience of the people; Paul’s here majors on the contrasting grace of God.
Initially the response is good – there’s a desire to hear more (13:42), to which Paul and Barnabas respond the following week (13:44). Within a week, word has spread and a huge crowd arrives (13:44-45); and it’s this that exposes the hard hearts of some in the synagogue community. Seeing the newcomers, they are jealous and protective of their privileged status, which they put into action by lashing out with gossip and slander (13:45-46). Pau seizes the opportunity, and like Stephen he’s now able to talk clearly about the disobedience of people who claim to belong to God; which leads, ironically, to Gentiles turning to God for themselves (13:48). This is too much for those who hold the religious power; the welcome and invitation of a few days earlier is revoked, and the evangelists are expelled from the region under threat of persecution (13:50), provoking a dramatic response as Paul & Barnabas shake the dust from their feet as the leave (13:51).
That in itself was provocative. Dust was symbolic for a good religious Jew; a rabbi’s attentive student was said to be so close to him that the student was covered in his master’s dust. When a rabbi passed through a Gentile area, he would shake the dust from his feet as a prophetic sign of the danger of ignoring God … as this dust is shaken off me, so God will do to you in your disobedience. In another echo of Matthew 10 (verse 14), Jesus had told his disciples to shake the dust from themselves as they left a region in which they found no welcome for the message of the kingdom of God. So as Paul and Barnabas do this, they stand in a prophetic lineage with Jesus, turning the religious obedience of the synagogue rulers back on themselves. They are now the ones under judgement.
All through this, Paul and Barnabas have been speaking the language of their audience – from the history of the community which opens the synagogue sermon to the prophetic dust0-shaking as they leave, they are speaking a cultural language of their audience.
There is a good heritage for this. Jesus, after all, was God speaking human language, a man able to empathise with our weakness; to experience our temptations but get right for us what we could not get right for ourselves. This is what we’re all called to respond to: the God who makes us in His image then stoops to speak our language so that we can hear him. Have we heard Him? Have we responded to the amazing grace of the God of creation learning our languages?
Do we learn from that, and learn then languages of those around us? Do we in Mowbray, or wherever we are, learn the languages of students, drivers, homeless; those in Mowbray and those from all over who pass through? Do we embody Jesus and the kingdom of God in language that will then be heard? Or do we harden our hearts and become jealous as those of other tongues encounter God and come into our community’s orbit? Imagine a church with such missionary language-learning, resourcing and equipping communities of mission of all those in our surrounds, embodying the kingdom of God in a way which will be seen and heard.
To whom is God calling us, you? What languages, cultures is he putting on you heart? To go and learn will lead to persecution and misunderstandings and gossip, as it did with Paul and Barnabas. Their response? Joy (13:52). How is that possible? They are filled with the presence of God (13:52).
Ask for the presence of God to fill you and flood you, giving you a language to speak, a place to go and joy in all circumstances.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 11th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.