Reading Luke and Acts in 2020
Week 35 | Acts 11
Acts 11 Reflections and Questions
By Rev. Hal Jones
If you ever watched some of the old TV western series like I did (think Bonanza), you may remember the phrase, “But meanwhile, back at the ranch…” That phrase was usually spoken by a narrator to mark a resetting of the scene and action, and often indicated there was more going on than the previous scene had revealed. If Acts 11 had been filmed as an episode of one of those old westerns, it might have begun with just that phrase. Acts 11 follows the action-packed episode which is chapter 10. To recap, chapter 10 was filled with intrigue and exciting deeds: the Holy Spirit working simultaneously through Cornelius and Peter; the fascinating
visions both had that led to them being brought together; the fruits of their encounter —with the Holy Spirt and with each other—leading to even more, exciting work of the Holy Spirit. And then, that work of the Holy Spirit prompting dramatic conversions—conversions that as Lindsay pointed out last week, included a profound reframing of what God intends the community of believers to look like. There was a lot going on out there in the mission field!
The storyline changes in chapter 11, as the focus shifts to a dramatic depiction of the impact all that mission work was having on the home base, on the people “back at the ranch” who had sent out those missionaries in the first place. There may have been some exciting things happening in the mission field; but meanwhile, back at the ranch, discontent was brewing.
As chapter 11 begins, Peter has returned to the ranch, to Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, those who it seems viewed themselves as the protectors of all the ranch stood for, confront Peter with their discontent and concerns: “the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you…?’” (vs. 2)
We don’t know, of course, but we can imagine some of the other comments made as they launched their criticism. “That is not how we do things. That is not reflective of what we believe.” Then, we begin to see that something else was at work during that encounter. The Holy Spirit, so involved and active with Cornelius and Peter, and then in Caesarea, was also clearly involved and active in the encounter Peter had with those who criticized him back at the ranch. Note that Peter didn’t react in a defensive or hostile way to the criticisms. Instead, he shared a personal story. Just as significantly, note that those who had leveled their criticism at Peter didn’t react in a defensive or hostile way to Peter’s response, either. Instead, they listened; and they listened with a depth of attention and openness that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit shapes and guides this moment of conflict. The result? Those who had criticized Peter were converted; they learned what God wanted them to learn; and the church experienced one of the most meaningful conversions we have ever had: “When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’ ” (vs.14)
When I’ve presented workshops on conflict management, or when I’ve been invited to work with groups experiencing conflict with each other, I’ve always found it important to point out the difference between “conflict” and “hostility,” concepts a lot of people confuse. “Conflict” means we disagree; and there’s a richness to that. “Hostility” means we’re trying to hurt each other. Conflict, when engaged well, is constructive. Hostility is always destructive. Hostility introduces dynamics counter to Jesus’ call to make disciples. On the other hand, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, conflict (we can substitute “diversity of thought” for “conflict”) invites the opportunity for everyone involved to learn, to grow, to continue their conversion experience, and to move further in Sanctification toward perfect love. This is what happened back at the ranch, back in Jerusalem. And the results were nothing short of extraordinary.
In verse 19, the scene shifts away from the ranch again, and back to the mission field. This time the work of the Holy Spirit is highlighted in Antioch; and the difference in the response from the ranch, the church in Jerusalem, is striking. Rather than summoning to criticize, resources were sent… “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” (vs. 22) And then, in what might be one of the most powerful examples we have of the strength and power of the church as a connectional system, Barnabas, sent by the church in Jerusalem, soon realizes even more resources are needed to support this new church, so he reaches out to Paul who had been in Tarsus at the time. Paul accompanies Barnabas to Antioch; and the rest, as they say, is history.
In Acts 11, conflict led to listening at a deep and Holy Spirit-inspired level, which led to corporate conversion working in concert with individual conversion, which led to organizational learning and spiritual growth, which led to a strengthening of the connection, which led to acceleration and expansion of ministry. All of this, and then, “in Antioch, the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” (vs. 26)
Chapter 11 ends with a beautiful and ironic twist, one befitting those old westerns. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…a famine. And the new church in Antioch, whose growth had been supported by the conversion of, and subsequent help from, those back at the ranch, affirms its understanding of the connectional church, acts on its commitment to the wider community of faith, and ministers to those “who lived in Judea.” (vs. 29) Only God, through the Holy Spirit, could offer such incredible and inspiring symmetry.
Questions I continue to think about, and invite you to join me in thinking about, as we reflect on Acts 11:
Rev. Hal Jones is Director of Connectional Ministries for the North Georgia Conference.
- Have there been enough occasions when I was “for the first time called Christian” by someone who knew me only by my behaviors?
- As we continue to prepare for and then hold our Annual Conference, will members of the communities we serve, both believers and non-believers, view us, our behaviors, and our decisions as Christian?
- Do I view conflict —diversity of thought— as an opportunity to experience the work of the Holy Spirit? Do I engage conflict seeking to learn from others, and seeking to discover what God wants me to learn about God’s will? Do I view and engage conflict as an opportunity to continue my conversion experience?
- Do I consider all churches across the North Georgia Conference “my” churches, too?