September and October are the months when we celebrate Harvest Sunday across the chaplaincy. For example you’ll see from photos from All Saints Harvest last month. I always find it striking the range of images that are used in the hymns sung at Harvest . Sometimes the words are very close to agricultural ideas – such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter.” But other well loved hymns, merges these farming images with other biblical images, as we see in hymns such as ‘Come ye thankful people, come’, or ‘For the fruits of His creation.’
So, I’d suggest Harvest can be a time not only to remember and give thanks for the Harvest, and physical provision, but perhaps also to reflect upon the other ways God has brought a harvest in us, through us, or around us?
To help us explore what this could look like, I’d like to look at the new church written about in Acts 11:19-30. Antioch.
Antioch was the “first great city”1 where Christianity gained its footing. It lay about 640 km north of Jerusalem. Now, Utrecht to Groningen is only 141 km, which according to online mapping takes you around 2 days 3 hours to walk! The distance between Jerusalem and Antioch is closer to that distance between Groningen to Munich, or from Groningen to Berlin. A more dispersed church network than our own chaplaincy in Groningen, Zwolle, Amersfoort and Utrecht! Today the location of Antioch lies in southern Turkey, 2 hours west by car from the city of Aleppo. The modern Turkish city of Antakya is built over it.
Harvest out of the difficult and painful
It is here, in Antioch, a new church community begins. This was a church founded not by missionary strategy, but by enforced migration – namely persecution. The core of this first Christian community in Antioch are Christian refugees – those fleeing from persecution. That has a familiar ring – of Christians fleeing hundreds of miles from danger – it was a persecution led by Saul – who later became known as Paul, (see Acts 7: 54- 8:4) how this persecution began. Reading chapter 11: 19 – reminds us of the millions of believers, who are persecuted for their faith – some leave and can escape, others cannot, and others choose to stay.
Harvest. A new church is born out of an unlikely, hostile situation. So where in the life of our congregation, in the past year, has the Lord brought a spiritual harvest even though times were difficult? In our personal lives, looking back upon past dark days, what harvest did the Lord bring? A harvest that we benefited from or others benefited from?
What Harvest can you see?
News of this new church community comes to Jerusalem. The senior leadership send Barnabas to visit, (vv22-24). I don’t know what image you have of Barnabas. He is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” I always image a big man, tall, beard, big laugh… a big version of Gimli from Lord of the Rings! We already know some things about him. He is from Cyprus – he is a Hellenistic Jew – from the tribe of Levi – he had sold a field he owned – and remember, traditionally Levities did not own land, so however he owned it, it was quite a rare possession. And gave it to the apostles in Jerusalem to help people in need (Acts 4). And then when Saul is converted to Christ, and he goes to Jerusalem and seeks to meet the believers, no one trusts him, thinking he is trying to trick them (Acts 9), but, 9:27 – “But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.”
Barnabas was given the name ‘son of encouragement’ by the apostles,(Acts 4), and Luke adds that he was ”a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, ” (v24).
St Luke writes: ”When he arrived [in Antioch] he saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them to all remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” (v23).
Here Barnabas discerns “evidence of the grace of God” – he sees when God is at work. He is also a man of generosity. We have seen that in his selling of a field. But also I’d suggest, he may well have been generous here – he may or may not have enjoyed all that was happening in the worship, in the prayer, in the community, in the disciple making, in the service of others or the evangelism, ”but he is glad and encourages them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” – generous to say, ‘it is not exactly my thing but the Lord is here, He is blessing and the main thing, keep with the Lord.’ He is a son of encouragement to the church in Antioch.
Harvest – where in your congregation, in the past year, have you seen ”evidence of the grace of God.” Maybe different than what you expected?! But like Barnabas, what we see, let us be glad before the Lord and why not encourage the people, where you see that ”evidence” of the Lord’s harvest?
The work of the Harvest needs many involved and may mean taking risks.
Barnabas sees more growth in the church (v24). But then we see two more elements to him: a man of discernment, a man of generosity, a man of encouragement, but to add: a man who admits he needs help and a risk taker. He goes to Tarsus – 169km away – to find Saul P who is preaching in the area of his home city (Galatians 1:21-24). Barnabas admits he cannot do it all. Or he admits that God’s vision for this church is much greater than he can fulfil.
You know, the chaplains need you, I, a chaplain need you. Not to do what I want or to ease the burden. No, there is only so much that a Council or leadership team and so on can do. But I can imagine the Lord has a much greater vision for our congregations than we have began yet to see.
Jesus once shared some famous words about harvest: ” When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ”The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:36-38). Thinking back to the past when entire villages or communities would be involved in helping bring in the harvest. Jesus words, suggest that the harvest work the Lord would ask of us, is more than a few can manage.
And for us to do all the Lord would ask of us, I feel he is going to ask all of us to be involved, and all of us have a part to play – young, old, inbetween, here for a long time, only here for a few months. As a Council or Leadership Team member, and a vicar we can not do all the Lord would ask of this congregation or chaplaincy. But, all of us, as a body, with the Lord’s resources, doing his work in his way, we will achieve what he would ask of us, for his kingdom’s work.
Barnabas – realised he needs help. Also he is a risk taker. The risk is Saul. For a long time I thought – great choice, Saul, the man. And I read on, how they taught for a year, great numbers of people, helping them become not just converts but disciples, (v26). But who is Saul?
Well, Saul is the reason, indirectly this church exists, isn’t he? The church was formed by persecution, brutal persecution that Saul led or initiated. Luke says in Acts 8: ”Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” Imagine the street where you live – there a few roads where you know there are quite a few fellow believers. Imagine you are looking out the window and you see the police, and believers being dragged out, you keep watching, you see the next house three doors down, you’ve been to their church, you run to get a suitcase, get some clothes, there is banging at your door, you run out the back door just in time to see police coming in your yard… The first Christians in Antioch fled that. They fled 600 km to get away from that man. And Barnabas goes and gets him. Did they know Barnabas’ plan or did it just happen – Big Barnabas – big booming voice, comes into the gathering and says ‘I’m here’ and I’m brought a friend – do you know him?! Maybe people say – ”Yes we do know him, he is the reason we are here and not in Jerusalem. That is why I had to take my kids and wife with me 600 km to this city. I know him, my brother and sister were put in prison by him.” That is risk. Of course, it works out fine – we know that. But it was a risk. It could have been divisive. He had to trust that these men and women had forgiven him or would forgive him and welcome him as a true brother and sister in Christ. Saul is accepted. It is beautiful. A church of acceptance and love and generosity who knew the acceptance, generosity and love of God shown to them in Christ. Show that to another.
Harvest. The Lord at times asks us individually or as a congregation to take risks. One example may have been the stepping out to establish a new congregation in Amersfoort… In fact someone famously said – how do you spell faith, it is spelled RISK. Where can you become involved in the harvest work the Lord is asking of your congregation? Where is he asking you or the congregation to take risks?
Sharing the Harvest
Prophets later come from Jerusalem to Antioch, presumably to work among the church, (11:27). During this ministry, Agabus predicts the famine to come. The result is financial aid from that young church to the mother church. The Church in Antioch helps their fellow believers. They follow the example of Jerusalem, where there have been references to the believers helping one another – particularly in 2:44-45 & 4:32-37.
They only hear of the need – they are not asked to contribute. They decide to help. They know the Jerusalem church will be affected by the famine. So the disciples – ”each according to their ability decided to provide help for the brother living in Judea.” (v29). A relief fund is established. We see this as an outflow of Christian discipleship. The preaching we see recorded in Acts had contained nothing about giving to others in need. But the early believers had been generous as we seen.
“Their social concern was a spontaneous external demonstration of their inner transformation. Jerusalem had sent them spiritual support – through Barnabas, and through the prophets. And remarkably this young church, this daughter church, has the strength, the wealth and the heart to gladly send financial support to their Jewish brothers and sister in Christ in Jerusalem.”2
The Antioch church have encountered the generous gospel – all are invited to believe and all are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. They have seen the generous nature of Barnabas both in the affirming of their ministries and mission and their church community. They have been generous in their acceptance and welcome of Saul. Now they show generosity in giving. The hear about the famine –across the whole Roman Empire – it does not say : in Judah – so only Jerusalem. So it will affect them too in Antioch, yet they take an offering to help another church, as each disciple contributes as he or she can. There was generosity when it is easier to look after yourselves.
Harvest is about pausing, praying, thinking. What needs are we aware of? Can we help others materially? We may not have much but can we give ”according to our ability?”
So, Harvest – our hymns remind us as we sing and listen – has many aspects. Antioch’s early years help us consider, at Harvest:
- Harvest out of the difficult and painful.
- What Harvest can you see?
- The work of the Harvest needs many involved and may mean taking risks.
- Sharing the Harvest.
1. Bosch, David, Transforming Mission, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), p.43
2. Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians Volume 41, (Dallas: Word Books Pu-blisher, 1990) p. 70