Commentary by Walter Albritton

                                   October 26, 2008

The Spirit Empowers Churches to become Sending Communities

Acts 13:1-12

Key Verse: After fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off. – Acts 13:3

          The key words in this lesson are “sent them off” or “sent them on their way” (New Living). This is the beginning of the first missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul. The two of them, having found new life in Christ, are being sent to tell others the good news of salvation.

          Though Barnabas and Paul were sent out by their fellow disciples in the church at Antioch, Luke emphasizes that they were actually “sent out by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit called them. The Spirit equipped them. The Spirit sent them out. But the Spirit sent them through the church with the encouragement and prayers of the church. It was then a joint effort of the Spirit and the church.

          Observe that the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples while they were “worshiping the Lord and fasting.” This reminds us that the focus of our worship must always be the Lord Jesus, not butterflies and caterpillars or the birds and the bees. While the beauty of nature is a precious gift of God, Christian worship must be centered in the greatest gift – His Son Jesus Christ. The life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus constitute the inexhaustible subject of authentic worship.

          In the Antioch church fasting is connected to worship. This we might ponder. Though fasting is not a practice commanded by the New Testament, it has been the experience of Christians that fasting helps believers to discern the will of God. Jesus fasted. The early disciples fasted. Christians through the ages have fasted. Is it possible that the Spirit might speak to us more clearly if we also included fasting in our worship of the Lord? Not for “show” but to express our earnest desire to know and do the will of God.

          We need not assume that the words of the Holy Spirit were audible when he “said” to the worshipers, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” They may have heard the Spirit’s voice as we do, in their minds and hearts. However the Spirit spoke, his command was clear. In response the worshipers fasted and prayed, then “laid their hands on them and sent them off.” Significant it is that they took time to fast and pray before obeying the Spirit.

          The words “set apart” remind us that this is the definition of the word “holy.” To be holy is to be set apart for the work of God. In truth all Christians are called to be holy, set apart for the work of Christ. It was not the “laying on of hands” that empowered Barnabas and Paul for their mission. Then and today the laying on of hands is simply a loving way of inviting the Spirit to fill the recipients with the grace and power to do the will of God. The power belongs to the Spirit, not to the hands of those praying.

Sadly it must be admitted that many churches do not practice “sending forth disciples” into their communities. They seem satisfied to set up camp and invite people to come to them. These congregations focus more on inviting than sending. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “We are here for you if you need us.”

          Few United Methodists are ever seen going door to door inviting people in their neighborhoods to come to church, much less inviting people to accept Christ as Savior. In past generations a few Methodists sometimes went out “two by two” to knock on doors and share their faith in Christ. That day is past.

          Despite that reality the church today lives in a culture much like that of the First Century. Many among us do not know Christ. Many have never heard the personal testimony of a devout Christian. Is it not likely that the Spirit still wishes to send us out into our communities to tell others of the forgiving love we have found in Jesus?

          Perhaps the church can find creative new ways to send out believers to share the gospel with their colleagues at work and their neighbors. Have we not all received the mandate to “be his witnesses” and to “go into all the world”? Surely the Great Commission applies to all believers and not a select few. We are all familiar with the Lord’s command, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Most of us have perceived this as the Lord’s instructions to missionaries, not ordinary disciples. New light from the Spirit can come as we re-think this passage. Some commentators suggest that the Lord was actually saying, “As you go about, living your daily life, do your best to make disciples of everyone you meet.”

          Instead of saying to people as they leave church, “Depart in peace,” we could say, “As you go, go forth as disciples sent out to share the good news of Christ in the place where you work, in your neighborhood, in your school, and in all the places where your witness can count.” The Spirit could release in us the same power released in the ministry of Barnabas and Paul.

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