Formations 04.15.2018: Acts of Encouragement

Acts 11:22-30

Statue of Saint Barnabas in Marbella, Andalusia, Spain (Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

The most triumphant moment of the musical Dear Evan Hansen might come after Evan starts a club to remember Connor Murphy, a classmate who had recently killed himself. In the Connor Project’s first assembly, Evan imagines a community of encouragement. In it, Evan promises, “you will be found, even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you, and when you’re broken on the ground.”

The speech goes viral, and the magnitude of Evan’s vision resonates far beyond his school. Greetings and prayers of sympathy come in from all over—Michigan, Vermont, Tampa, and Sacramento—and intersect the common refrain sung by people who want both to be seen and to see others.

While the musical celebrates this soaring vision, it also exposes its frailty. In this story, the promise of encouragement is built on shaky ground. Evan made up his friendship with Connor, deceiving Connor’s family in the process. And when his lies come to light, the possibility of true encouragement feels lost.

Even after Evan confesses his regret and shame, his isolation appears certain and eternal. As important as his promise of encouragement was for others, here in his own shortcoming, it was powerless.

But Evan’s understanding of encouragement is not the only one offered in this musical. Evan’s mom Heidi offers a more subtle form of encouragement in the depths of Evan’s failures. Her encouragement is shared between just the two of them. It comes in vulnerability, as she admits her own feelings of shame and her own experiences of failure. And finally, it flows from her simple promise to be with her son “when it feels so big until it all feels so small.”

In a similar way, the stories of Barnabas reflect a multifaceted view of encouragement. When Barnabas comes to Antioch, he first exhorts the new Gentile believers to follow God’s ways. Even more, he rejoices with them, celebrating their inclusion in the growing kingdom of encouragement (11:23).

On the other hand, Barnabas travels to Tarsus to bring Saul into the work of teaching new believers (11:25). Earlier, when the disciples in Jerusalem feared Saul and questioned the authenticity of his conversion, Barnabas affirmed his place in the movement of God (9:26-27). Time and again, he encourages Saul in ways that involve only the two apostles. Compared to the joy expressed by all the believers of Antioch, this is a small act. But Barnabas shows us they are no less important.

In these examples from Acts and Dear Evan Hansen, we might recognize a familiar tension between general and specific encouragement. It shows up when we ask how to balance the conviction that everyone’s life matters with the fact that some people’s lives have too often been treated as inconsequential. It shows up when we ask if social structures or individual actions are most important in caring for our neighbors. But if it feels as if we have to choose one or the other, these final verses insist that such choices aren’t mutually exclusive.

As Barnabas and Saul respond to the news of a famine in Judea, they direct our attention away from ways we express and feel encouragement. Instead, they challenge us to see encouragement as action. In so doing they invite us to see sorrow and pain and fear in our communities and to then do something.

Discussion

• Where in your community are people treated as if they don’t matter? Where do you see situations that might cause people to feel overwhelmed, afraid, or lonely?
• What are the most profound acts of encouragement you have experienced? Why?
• How might you offer encouragement to those in your community who need it? What gifts or abilities might you bring to this work?

Reference Shelf

Encouragement and Community

When Philip, another follower of Jesus who was scattered because of the persecution, preached the gospel to the Samaritans (see 8:4-24), the Jerusalem church, upon hearing of the Samaritans’ receiving the word, “sent [apesteilan] to them Peter and John” (8:14). So, too, when news of the success at Antioch reached Jerusalem “they sent [exapesteilan] Barnabas to Antioch” (v. 22). Perhaps Barnabas was selected to visit the church because he, like some of those who preached to non-Jews at Antioch, was from Cyprus (cf. 4:35). Barnabas might have been sent “to investigate . . . and allay the concerns of the more conservative ‘circumcision’ group in Jerusalem (cf. 11:2).” Perhaps this is true historically. But in the narrative world this group has supposedly been “won over” to the Gentile cause. More likely, Barnabas represents the continuity between Jerusalem and churches beyond its immediate environs. In Acts 9, Barnabas provided a connection between Paul and the apostles. Here he provides a link between the apostles of Jerusalem and Antioch: “We see Luke’s concern to secure continuity between the restored people of God in Jerusalem, and the ever extending messianic people, now including great new areas and entire new races.”

Upon his arrival, Barnabas, being “full of the Holy Spirit and faith,” can easily infer that the grace, or favor, of God was with these new believers. Barnabas, true to his name (recall 4:36), “exhorts” or “encourages” the new believers “to remain in the Lord with steadfastness of heart” (v. 24, which the NRSV translates as “faithful . . . with steadfast devotion”). The appropriate response of those who have experienced the grace or favor of God is loyalty to this graceful God. God’s favor is further displayed as yet more people were added to the ranks of God’s people (v. 25b).

The narrative had left Saul in Tarsus (9:30). Luke does not tell readers why Barnabas decided to go to Tarsus to look for Saul and bring him back to Antioch (v. 25). Yet, as the narrative will later make clear, Saul’s connection with Antioch will prove decisive as the mission to the ends of earth progresses (cf. 13:1-3). However, the indication that Saul and Barnabas spent a year meeting with and teaching the church (v. 26) allows readers yet another comparison of this congregation with that of Jerusalem: just as the apostles taught the church of Jerusalem, these two, who have each in some way received the blessing of Jerusalem (cf. 9:26-30), teach this new company of believers.

The narrative establishes clear connections between the community in Antioch and the Jerusalem church. And yet there is something distinctive about these people, for they are, for the first time, called Christians. Even non-followers can see that “Christianity is no mere variant of Judaism.” It is religious loyalty, not ethnic identification, that offers the church at Antioch its distinctiveness.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 187–88.

The Common Life

The church as “community of the Spirit” exists to be sure, as those who confess a common faith (Eph 4:4-6), it exists as those who know a common life in the body of Christ; and it should be noted that the word for “fellowship” (koinōnia) means life lived in common. But as a common faith does not mean unanimity in the understanding of faith, so does the common life of the body leave room for individual members (individual roles and functions). We are “saints,” not clones. This koinōnia of the Spirit gives prominence to singular experiences to the freedom of faith and life, to the unpredictable dimensions of faith acting in situations where no “preapproved” guidelines exist. As much as it is anything else at all, the church is “where the Holy Spirit [is] recognizably present with power” (Newbigin). It exists where lives are actually changed, are turned from their condition into their possibility. Little attention is given here to either order or creed. Emphasis falls on the presence, the power, the purpose of God the Spirit (Acts 2, 3, 10). It is this given Spirit who makes us belong to Christ (Rom 8:9); this Spirit is the power and sign of our obedience (Acts 5:32); and this Spirit is the title-deed of our final inheritance (Eph 1:14).

If, however, the Spirit works in members in ways unique to each, in the broadest and deepest sense the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the body (in a quite exact sense, the esprit de corps). The NT makes room for spontaneity, for singularity, for the individual member—it is not an encouragement to individualism. The Spirit is given to us as members of the body, to us as those who confess authentic faith with our lives. “Winging it alone,” “free-lance evangelism,” and “untested private revelations” are very difficult to square with a biblically oriented faith. It is the reality and activity of the Holy Spirit which identify the church, and such things that violate the common life and the common faith of Christians also violate the church as the fellowship of God’s Spirit.

Theron D. Price, “Church,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 152.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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