We’ve skipped ahead a little bit in Paul’s story. From here on the rest of the book of Acts is going to remain focused on Paul, but between his conversion in Damascus and this moment of commissioning in Antioch the text jumps back and forth between Paul and Peter. Now there’s some really good and important stuff in the three chapters that we’ve skipped so I hope you’ll take the opportunity to look at it on your own but for our purposes we’re going to focus on Paul for these last few weeks of looking at Acts.
We get bits and pieces of Paul’s story from several different sources. The rest of Acts 9, where we looked last week, show Paul immediately beginning to preach and teach in the synagogue in Damascus after his sight is restored, he does a complete 180 in those moments, to the point that he becomes the target of an assassination plot. Full role reversal there, Paul went to Damascus to round up and kill Christians, he eventually has to be smuggled out so that he isn’t killed himself. Then the story gets a little murky. Paul says in Galatians that after he left Damascus he went into the wilderness, he went down into what is now Saudi Arabia and was there for three years, and while he was there Jesus appeared to him and taught him personally before he went back to Jerusalem. Luke leaves that out of Acts, why we don’t know, probably trying to keep the story that he’s trying to tell more straightforward, Acts picks up with Paul in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem doesn’t really know what to do with Paul, he’s still relatively new to faith, he is obviously very gifted but he’s a lightning rod, being a former Pharisee he draws a lot of attention, and keeps getting into trouble, so to avoid another round of major persecution the disciples send him home to Tarsus. Before he leaves he becomes friends with Barnabas, who eventually gets sent to investigate and help lead the church in Antioch, and on his way there Barnabas goes to Tarsus and brings Paul with him, which is how we get to this moment in Acts 13.
The church in Antioch is important to the history of Christianity, it is actually the place where the name “Christian” came into existence. What we see here is a picture of an incredibly diverse church. Of the five people named as leaders in the church, two of them are Africans: Simeon and Lucius. Barnabas is presumed to be something of a mutt ethnically, he’s identified as a Levite which means he probably had a Jewish mother but he’s from Crete which probably means his father was Greek. Manaen grew up as a friend of Herod, and of course Paul was a Pharisee who at one point was bent on killing members of the church. So it is an eclectic and diverse group but it is a group that is presented as very in tune with the movement of the Holy Spirit. They’ve got a good grasp on where, when, and how God is calling them to serve.
At this point Sunday morning we played the game “Telephone,” where a group of people have to share a message with each other, attempting to tell the next person the correct message. The original message was “big dogs dig big holes for big bones.” After five people had relayed the message what was said was “big dogs bark and that’s all she said.”
When I wrote this Thursday I went on the assumption that you all would get it wrong. That’s the point of the game right, there’s an assumption that the same message won’t make it from beginning to end. Communication theorists, people who study how we communicate, use the phrase “filtering and completing” to talk about what happens when communication breaks down. When a message is distorted or interrupted by some sort of noise (and they define noise as both actual outside noise or any kind of mental distraction) people will often “complete” that message, filling in what they assume that the speaker must have been saying. Other times people “filter” out parts of messages so that they don’t hear anything that isn’t favorable to them or isn’t what they want to hear. We see that filtering process in all kinds of places right? We have news channels that are designed with a specific audience in mind so if we seek that channel out we hear from people with a similar worldview to us, we hear the news reported and interpreted in a way we’re most likely to agree with. If we listened to or watched the same story reported on a different channel we might hear an entirely different message, its filtered, its designed to keep the audience happy rather than challenge them because if we don’t like what we’re hearing we’ll change the channel and then those stations’ profits get impacted. Same thing on social media, those of you who use Facebook, have you noticed that a lot of times you see things from the same handful of people? Facebook has an algorithm where they narrow down your friends list to people who you’ve known the longest or have similar interests to or are most likely to interact with. I see that when I share things from the church Facebook page, we get a lot more hits when some of y’all share things or post them than when I do because you know more people around here, your people are a lot more likely to look at those kinds of things than mine are, folks in Laurens just don’t really care what we’ve got going on here as much as people in Shelby too. Where else do we see this filtering? Advertising right? Especially online advertising. The internet knew we were having a baby before I did. I’m serious, one day a flip switched and now all I see in the margins of websites are baby stuff. Its scary sometimes isn’t it? Those of you who do a lot of online shopping, have you ever looked at something once and then realized it was following you everywhere you go? I needed a new pair of dress shoes right before we came here probably, and I was an adult with a real job so I decided I was going to get a nice pair of shoes. So I went online to see what it would cost and quickly realized that I was not that much of an adult and moved on with my life. Those shoes followed me like the monster in a horror movie, I could not escape them.
So sometimes its funny the way things are filtered in our lives but we need to careful that we don’t embrace the filter too much. We need to be discerning about how much we allow our information to be filtered. If we only listen to things we know we’ll like or surround ourselves with people who will agree with us we run the risk of putting ourselves in an echo chamber. And these habits we have of completing and filtering what we’re hearing become even more of an issue when we turn our attention to listening to God.
Lets go back to the church at Antioch for a minute, they have five really gifted leaders in their church, and they hear the Holy Spirit calling them to commission, to set apart, two of them for a different work, they’re set apart to leave the church and travel the worlds. Now we know that the church at Antioch is a pretty good sized church at this point, it very quickly took the Jerusalem church’s place as the epicenter of faith. It would have been really easy to do some completing and filtering of that message. They could have found people who argued that the masses should come to them, so instead of sending Paul and Barnabas they needed to keep them close. They could have told themselves that what the Spirit really meant was that Paul and Barnabas needed to be extra diligent n finding gentiles in the city and talking to them. They could have completed and filtered this message in a way that worked out better for them but they didn’t, they listened to where they Holy Spirit was leading and they followed through on the plan that was put in front of them.
How do we become better listeners? How do we fight this tendency we have to filter or complete messages we think we might be hearing from God? What is the solution to our erratic hearing problems? When people know each other well, they sometimes get to the point where they can finish each other’s…sandwiches. Little pop culture reference for you there. The better we know someone the better we listen to them, right? The more likely we are to go to them for advice. The more likely we are to trust what they tell us or to really take their recommendations into consideration. It is the same when we listen to God. Regular prayer and study, regular conversation, with God helps to familiarize us with God’s ways. If we have no clue about who God is and wants for us and for the world then we’ll have an awfully hard time listening and hearing when God is speaking to us.
I want to leave you with a challenge this week. In two weeks we begin the season of Advent, the period of waiting for the coming of Christ. With all the busy-ness that comes along with the holidays, I hope you’ll make listening a part of your routine. Turn the radio off on your drive to work. Shut the tv off as you’re getting ready in the morning. Spend some time communicating with God and really listening. Through listening the church at Antioch discerned what God’s next step for them was. Take some time in this holiday season to listen and see what God may be trying to say all of us right now.