Home Away From Home
(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 8:1-8
It’s all gone horribly wrong.
In a way it wasn’t too surprising bearing in mind it had been born out of death. But at least that death had been a temporary state. A once invincible church has been found to be extremely vincible.
A church of joy has become a church of mourning. A church in the public square has become a church in hiding. A church that counted its gatherings in the thousands has become a church scattered into fearful groups. No longer the heartbeat of God’s Spirit changing lives, transforming communities, and bringing Good News to all who would respond; the church is in retreat.
Or so it seems.
Yes, there is grief at the unlawful death of Stephen, killed by the mob on trumped-up charges. Yes, there is the fear of reprisals, as doors are kicked down, and believers are dragged off to jail to face an uncertain and pain-filled future. I’m sure that there will have been doubts among the faithful; Thomas can’t have been the only one who asked critical questions at crucial moments. There are times when I’ve started to wonder if the claims of the Christian faith are true, and I’ve never been faced with the threat of torture or painful death.
I’ve always been intrigued to know why the apostles stay in Jerusalem. Is it because they feel that they need to remain in the eye of the storm? Is it because those in the city under threat of arrest still need caring for? Maybe they feel that they can provide some form of sanctuary for the survivors of Saul’s clampdown. But they are public figures, known by those in authority and easily recognisable by the crowd. So, it’s a risk to remain at home, an act of bravery that understands the potentially-terminal consequences of staying put.
And yet, the story is not all bleak.
It may look like the church is in disarray and retreat, but it’s also flourishing. In adversity, those faithful members who have fled persecution set up shop wherever they end up. Free from the immediate threat of imprisonment, trusting that the long reach of the law won’t stretch into the more disparate communities of Samaria and Judea, pockets of Christianity begin to emerge.
The church went global, or at least beyond the confines of the walled city and its immediate surroundings. Finally going to where Jesus had told them to go when he gave them his last instructions (Acts 1:8), the church opens up branches in cities, towns and villages across Judea and Samaria.
We also see something that we haven’t seen up until this point. The church spreads its wings and flies, propelled by Saul’s anger, and galvanised by threatened destruction. And the Good News is preached not by the apostles, confined to their Jerusalem homes, but by the other members of the Jerusalem church as they seek to establish new lives for themselves and their families.
Luke, in recording these events, only briefly details the first great missionary outbreak of the church. But the fact that the apostles, the main evangelists, and primary voices of the church, stay in Jerusalem, means that the burden of responsibility for spreading the gospel falls on the shoulders of the rest of the community. We hear mention of Philip, who is likely to be one of the deacons appointed just before Stephen’s arrest and martyrdom (another of the deacons, so be careful what you volunteer in church for!). He becomes a key figure in preaching the gospel, though there was no suggestion that he would be taking on that role when given the task of making sure that food was distributed fairly.
Later in Acts, we hear of Christian communities in Lydda (Acts 9:32), Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (Acts 11:19). In fleeing Jerusalem, the Christian church finds new homes in different parts of the Roman Empire. And these communities will have been made up of everyday folk, those who had left their jobs in Jerusalem and found new employment wherever they could.
These churches were supported by the apostles and those in “authority”; we hear of visits by Peter and John (Acts 8:14) and Barnabas (Acts 11:22), one of the generous members of the Jerusalem church (Acts 4:36-37). But the lifeblood of those churches was those displaced families, with their impetus and enthusiasm in the face of danger.
With the partial freedom that life outside Jerusalem afforded them (even if it were only temporary until Saul’s deadly edict made its way into the countryside) the church grew under the guidance of those who hadn’t had the first-hand experience of living alongside Jesus. What they spoke of, they had learned at the feet of the apostles. What they did, though, was live as they had lived in Jerusalem: generously, openly and with the grace of the Good News at the heart of everything that they did. Of course, they would have had something to give to the local economy, assuming that they were tradespeople: clothworkers (like Dorcas as we read in Acts 9:39), or tentmakers like (spoiler alert) Saul/Paul (Acts 18:2-3).
Small wonder that these communities grew wherever these refugees ended up. The willingness to share everything that had been instilled from those early pre-persecution days in Jerusalem would have been very attractive to those who hadn’t experienced anything like that level of generosity before. And with it was the message that God had fulfilled his promise in Jesus, the longed-for Messiah, to give direct access to the Father without having to travel to the Temple or pay any of their taxes or fees.
So, what do we learn from this?
Simply, don’t leave it to a time of persecution to be effective for God. Also, don’t leave it up to the leaders of the church to do the work, thinking that because they hold a specific office only God has a plan and a purpose for them. You are not to be ignored. Nor are you to side-line yourself, thinking that you aren’t qualified, or trained, or equipped in some way.
Someone once said (and I apologise for not being able to find the originator), “The only ability that God asks of us is our availability”. Persecution gave the first generation of Christians the opportunity to discover this out of adversity and hardship. For us in our current pandemic age, we are having to re-evaluate so much, but we can also take this opportunity to seek God for what he wants us to do.
But we also need to recognise the current time as well. As they fled Jerusalem, the Christians would have been bereft; not only had they lost one of their own in Stephen, but also their homes, their livelihoods, their security, and their community. They had to leave everything behind and go in faith that something would turn up when they stopped running.
Our own emotions need to be recognised, acknowledged, and given space. If we are worried that things will never return to how they were, it isn’t helpful to speak of how great the new opportunities are going to be. We need to mourn our lost past. We need to grieve for what we may never return to. We need to give thanks for that which God has worked through that is no longer available to us. For some, that may take a considerable time.
For others, we want to constantly look ahead. We want to be seeking God for tomorrow, while still living in today. We need to help each other understand the need to look back as well as to look forward.
We also need to look around us; the Christians who fled into the outer reaches of Samaria and Judea didn’t fall into the trap of self-pity and self-indulgence. They grieved, they mourned, but they did it in the community that they travelled with, and in the midst of the communities that they began to call home. And then God got to work…