Book of Acts Sermon Starters Week 12
The three beginning verses in this passage expose us to two important events: Saul's commissioning and the role of the church in discerning the call on people's lives.
The God-initiated call to ministry commonly involves both the individual and a confirming community. The local body of Christ intimately familiar with the individual's life may notice God's gifting and call on a person's life before the person does. The local faith community affirms a person's call to ministry. Sometimes it takes multiple messages from God and affirmations by the local body before the individual acknowledges and agrees to answer the call.
This text provides the opportunity to explore corporate discernment, identifying one's ministry gifts, hearing and answering the call to fulltime ministry, and Christian vocation in everyday life.
Saul's Track Record
The Christians in Antioch list Saul, the once zealous persecutor of Christians, among their esteemed prophets and teachers. It may be helpful to provide your congregation a brief summary of events tracing Saul's path from initial Christian conversion to his commissioning.
Saul's fidelity to the gospel became apparent following his Damascus road conversion. "Immediately," Scripture notes, "he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues…and became increasingly more powerful" (Acts 9:20a, 22). Despite the Jerusalem disciples' fear of him as a neophyte Christian, Barnabus befriended Saul. Saul shared his testimony widely and spoke boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:26-28).
Later, after spending time in Tarsus, Barnabus found Saul and brought him to Antioch. In Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians, Saul, Barnabus, and others met with and taught many people.
Saul's loyalty to Christ did not go unnoticed. A prophet named Agabus predicted that a severe famine would strike the region. The disciples in Antioch entrusted Barnabus and Saul to deliver the relief sent to those in Judea.
Saul established a track record of faithfulness and devotion to the gospel. The faith community trusted him. They also had no problem confirming the Holy Spirit's directive to commission Saul into apostolic and missionary ministry.
Saul and Barnabus are named among the diverse group of prophets and teachers listed by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1).
While worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit identifies Saul and Barnabus as set apart to do the ministry to which they are called by God (Acts 13:2).
After fasting and prayer, those gathered laid their hands on Saul and Barnabus and sent them out, commissioned for their new phase of ministry (Acts 13:3).
The church at Antioch displays great diversity in its leadership. Named among the prophets and teachers were two black men, Simeon, a Levite from Cyprus, and Lucius, from North Africa, Manaen, a boyhood friend or foster brother of Herod Antipas, and Saul, a Pharisee educated under Gamaliel. Such an environment provided a fitting beginning for Saul, who would become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1).
While worshiping and fasting, the people were directed by the Holy Spirit to: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Jewish people commonly fasted to mourn or repent. Here they are probably seeking God in prayer. What role does prayer and fasting play in the life of your church? (Acts 13:2)
After praying and fasting, the group laid hands on Saul and Barnabus and sent them off. How might your church participate meaningfully in commissioning individuals for ministry? Here are some suggestions: Highlight the opportunities to serve in missionary service through GBGM. The Foundation for Evangelism established a new Culture of the Call Church Award. Read about Swartz Creek UMC, the first church to receive the award and discuss how your church prepares young people to hear and respond to God's call (Acts 13:3).
Putting the Sermon Together
Did You Hear That?
Remember "telephone," the traditional kid's game often used by grade school teachers? The class sits in a circle. The teacher makes up a sentence-long gossip statement. The teacher then whispers the statement to the person sitting next to her and then that person whispers what he heard to the person next to him and so on. When the message reaches the last person, the teacher says the gossip out loud and compares the original statement with the end result. This is used to demonstrate how messages get altered when passed from person to person.
Communication theorists use the phrase "filtering and completing" to describe what happens during communication breakdowns. When the message is impeded by some sort of noise (actual sounds or mental distractions), people may "complete" or substitute what they think the speaker may have said. At other times, people may "filter" out parts of a message so it will appear more favorable to us. Do we do similar things when God tries to talk to us?
What is the solution to erratic hearing problems? When two people get to know each other well, often one can start a sentence, and the other can finish it. Regular, honest conversations with God help familiarize us to God's ways. As the church at Antioch worshiped, prayed, and fasted, it heard the Holy Spirit's instruction to set apart Saul and Barnabus. They were two of the church's "best workers." Part of hearing God involves being selfless for the sake of expanding God's reign.
Corporate discernment is vital to the life of the local church. If everyone is actively listening for God's direction, the congregation recognizes its role in affirming God's guidance and call to ministry. This is much different from debating issues and decision making according to a majority vote.
This week's text affords the opportunity to explore corporate and individual participation in discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. The ancient church created regular opportunities for spiritual reflection during three major seasons in the Christian year: Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, and the fifty days of Pentecost/Pentecost Sunday. Your sermon could serve to stir interest to embark upon a season of discernment coupled with an appropriate study of prayer, fasting, or spiritual discernment.
In preparation for your sermon, you may wish to assess the personal ways you hear from God. Ask selected people from your congregation to talk about how they hear from God. Ask for more specifics than "I pray" or "I do devotions." Urge people to share details about "how" they hear. Consider interviewing some Quakers who regularly practice listening in worship. Use the sermon as a teaching moment for displaying a variety of ways to discern God's voice and guidance.
Questions to Wrestle With
- The church at Antioch actively participated in the discernment and commissioning of Saul and Barnabus. What does your congregation understand its role to be in helping people answer the call to ministry? (See Culture of the Call Church Award)
- In the ancient church, Christian initiates spent the days preceding Pentecost Sunday discerning their Christian vocation. On Pentecost Sunday, they publicly declared their Christian vocation. When might it be most appropriate to invite people to discern and declare the call on their lives to Christian vocation in the life of your local church?
- After a time of worship and fasting, the church at Antioch determined that Saul and Barnabus should be set apart for missionary work. How does your congregation discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Is fasting observed as a regular spiritual practice in the life of your church? If not, consider doing a Bible study that includes participation in a fast. (See the classic God's Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis.)
- In "Teach," Blogger Dan Dick says, "Laity across the United Methodist Church are sending four messages loud and clear: prayer, stewardship, evangelism and Bible are NOT being taught in our churches." How are these four topics being taught in your congregation? How might learning more about these four topics aid your congregation's ability to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit for your church?
- The church at Antioch named several people with prophetic and teaching gifts. The Holy Spirit was especially known as the Spirit of prophecy. What role should prophetic ministry play in our contemporary context?
- One commentator notes that the church at Antioch selflessly released Saul and Barnabus, two of their most gifted leaders, to mission ministry. How much emphasis does your congregation place on personal involvement with mission ministry? (See Missionary Service Opportunities.) How willingly might your congregation release your most gifted persons for mission ministry?
"Teach" --Dan Dick blog entry
Missionary Ministry Opportunities
Discerning God's Call
- Explore Calling: How Do I Know I'm Called?
- Discover God's Call
- Beginning Candidacy Process
- Culture of the Call Church Award
Prayer & Fasting
Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? by Phillip Yancey (Also has a leader's guide)
Praying for Grace by Terry Tekyl
God's Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis (Classic)
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (See Chapters 3 & 4) -- Classic
Companions to Christ Series Books:
- Deepening Our Prayer
- The Way of Prayer
- Prayer: Heart of the Pilgrimage An Adventure in Spiritual Formation for the Next Generation
The Way of the Child (Module 2 teaches children how to pray)
Acts & Holy Spirit Resources
Preaching Luke-Acts by Ronald Allen
The Acts of the Apostles by F. F. Bruce
Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F. F. Bruce -- a classic on the life of Paul
The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume 12: Acts of the Apostles by Michael Williams and Dennis Smith
The Helper (written from a layperson's perspective) by Catherine Marshall
The Breaking of the Outward Man by Watchman Nee
The Release of the Spirit by Watchman Nee
Basic Bible Study
What's in the Bible About the Holy Spirit? By Alexander Joyner