Our Shared Vision: A Sermon based on Acts 15:36-41
(Slide 1) Over the last three weeks we’ve been reflecting on our three vision statements surrounding discipleship. We value loving grace filled relationships in which members and seekers are enfolded and cared for. We value our church to be a safe place for those who are broken and hurting. We believe followers of Christ of all ages should be nurtured and trained as we yearn for continuous growth. Over the last three Sundays, we’ve reflected on each one of these statements. We’ve reflected on the awkwardness that sometimes exists when people really different from each other are enfolded into one community. We’ve asked how to move forward when people might have conflicting ideas of what it means for a church to be safe. We’ve affirmed partnering with the Holy Spirit, who is ultimately responsible for our formation and growth. The feedback on these vision statements has been mainly positive. Most of us here generally affirm that being a safe place, a healing place, and a nurturing place are good aspirations for a church. But what does this look like in practice? That’s the challenging question. The Scripture passage we read shows us how messy that challenge can be. Paul and Barnabas agreed on their mission, they agreed on the vision, but they had strongly differing views on how to live it out. There different perspectives on how to achieve their vision nearly destroyed their relationship. This story serves as a sober reminder that without fostering relationship, the process of living out our vision will flounder.
(slide 2) Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas had been completely unified as they’ve lived out their mission and vision. In chapter 13, the church at Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas to be a missionary team, so they were sent off proclaiming the word of God. They spoke so effectively that a ton of Gentiles were coming to know Jesus. Men and women were healed through the Holy Spirit. Demons were cast out. Lives were saved. Churches were planted. The unity of the churches was preserved when Paul and Barnabas advocated before the Jerusalem Church that the Gentiles need not be circumcised. This was a huge victory for them as they lived out their vision for the church.
After this victory, Paul and Barnabas begin asking about the next step of implementing their vision. (Slide 3) Paul says, “let’s go back and visit the bothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Their vision statement would probably say something about strengthening young churches as they mature into Christ in the face of persecution. In order to do that, Paul suggests they visit all the churches they’ve planted. Barnabas thinks that’s a great idea, and suggests that they take John Mark along with them. Paul thinks that’s a terrible idea. Paul is remembering back when they were in Pamphylia, and John Mark deserted them and returned to Jerusalem. He saw danger ahead and ran back to Jerusalem. Paul was all too aware that if they were going to be faithful in pursuing their vision, they needed someone with enough backbone to stick with them through thick and thin. Paul was probably still healing from the bruises he recieved from being dragged out of the city, stoned and left for dead. He didn’t want a traveling companion that would turn tail at the first sign of trouble. Barnabas knew all this, but his nickname was the son of encouragement. No doubt, he saw John Mark as someone who needed a second chance.
Paul and Barnabas were in total agreement about their mission and vision. They agreed on the first step of visiting all the churches to see how they’re doing. But they didn’t see eye to eye on who go on the mission trip. Verse 39 says that they had a sharp disagreement over this. (Slide 4) The greek word is paroxysmos, its intense argument, sharp contention, implying exasperation. This word is where we get the english word paroxysm, a medical term referring to someone with a high fever. It brings to mind high emotions, red, convoluted faces, angry voices, and things probably better left unsaid. Paul and Barnabas were clear about the vision, but disagreed on how to carry it out. So they parted company.
I’ve been learning how a vicious cycle can develop when two or more people have a different perspective on how to live out a vision. Its the snowball effect. (Slide 5) Paul was threatened by Barnabas’ position, so OYK vehemently restated his position. This threatened Barnabas’ position, who clamped down more firmly on his position. This threatened Paul’s position, bringing about Paul’s vehemence. That threatened Barnabas, and on it goes until the relationship fractured and they parted ways. Have you ever seen that cycle play out in a relationship or group? You have one idea, which threatens another person’s position. That person restates their position, which threatens you? And this goes on until you can hardly stand being in the same room as them> Unless we all think in exactly the same way, this cycle is going to be part of our life together. This dynamic is part of an even bigger cycle at play whenever we pursue our vision and values together.
(Slide 6) Let’s start on the left hand side. Paul and Barnabas were enthusiastic about the vision. They began talking about how to pursue the vision. They had a diversity of views, which which resulted in conflict. As the conflict grew, they became polarized. Its at that point that they did not have the ability to inquire into and harmonize their diverse views. Doing so would have helped them on their way towards shared vision. But they couldn’t harmonize their diversity, the result was they lost their shared vision, enthusiasm was diminished, they stopped talking… and the cycle kept negatively going around until the fellowship was broken. Again, this cycle can pretty much come into play whenever two or more people come together. Groups split over these sorts of dynamics and relationships burnout. Some of us have been so strongly impacted by these cycles that it almost feels safer not to try and do anything together, believing that institutions are just a recipe for disaster and disillusionment. Either the two competing visions fracture the body, or one person’s vision is shoved down the throat of the group. In the case of Paul and Barnabas, the fellowship was broken.
A few years later, Paul was writing a letter to a church that was experiencing conflicting visions of how to be together. Some had a vision that the whole church should speak in tongues, which polarized the people in the church that didn’t. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he made an analogy between the church and a human body. (Slide 7) He said, “There are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” I wonder if, while writing this part of the letter, Paul was thinking about the time he said to John Mark, “I have no need of you.” I wonder if he was thinking about the time he hacked off a limb of the body of Christ because he didn’t want John Mark to go on their mission trip. Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that there is a better way to be than to just fight for your position. Paul talks about the importance of love. (Slide 8) Paul says, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, “I gain nothing…” I wonder if Paul was remembering the times he handed his body over to hardship, and I wonder if he felt that his lack of love for John Mark made it seem all for nothing. I wonder if when Paul began his most famous passage about Love being patient and kind, if he was thinking of John Mark? (Slide 9) I wonder if Paul remembered John Mark when he said, “Love does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
One of the reasons why we meet together is to grow together in love, love for God, love for one another, love for neighbour. That’s why its so important to do this messy work of coming together, having differing visions, having differing ideas of how to live these things out, being annoyed, irritated, and frustrated by one another. Practicing these things gives us the opportunity to grow together in love. (Slide 10) In fact, you could argue that the most important part of this whole visioning process isn’t the resulting vision statement. It isn’t the fact that people are really excited about talking about pursuing a vision together, although that’s important. I might suggest that the most important part of the vision process is the fact that through this process we are uncovering the diversity of views on how we should be together, and this gives us the chance to love each other in spite of disagreeing with each other. As we discover that our views are conflicting, we have the chance to practice love towards one another. We have the chance to practice the love that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13. We get to practice being patient, kind, and not being too proud to join in the process. We don’t attempt to dishonour another’s view or seek our own gain. If we’re frustrated by the process, we get to practice not being easily angered, or keeping a record of wrongs. We get the chance to trust each other, hope for the best, and persevere in our life together. When we disagree about how we do life together, we get to practice love.
(Slide 11) We won’t always succeed. I think we’ve all been apart of communities and relationships that have broken apart. Paul, didn’t succeed in the story we read today. But he didn’t give up, either. In the last letter he wrote, 2 Timothy, Paul is in dire straights. He writes from prison, saying “I am being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.” As his life comes to a close, Paul asks Timothy to bring him a blanket, some books, and most importantly to bring John Mark. Paul was a man of strong vision. Sometimes this vision brought him into great conflict. But we see that as Paul matured, Jesus taught him how to both hold on to his strong vision, and to hold on to loving relationship with others. We can avoid this spiritual formation if we just stay aloof from each other, and not talk about what’s important to us. We can have the appearance of living in harmony with each other, but its that limp sort of harmony achieved through avoiding disagreement. Or we can talk about our hearts desire, we can talk about our hopes for our life together, and we can disagree. As we do so, we get the chance to practice the love Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13. We get to practice the love witnessed in the life of Jesus. We get to practice the love Jesus invites us to when he gave us the command, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He has never stopped praying for this type of love. This prayer began when Jesus said to his Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have loved them even as you have loved me.” Let’s take the risk of disagreeing with each other so that we can learn how to love one another. Let’s take the risk of harmonizing our vision together, so that we can show the world the love of God.