As you know, several of our pastors and teachers have recently had – or right now have – what are called “calls” to serve in other congregations and schools. Whenever someone has a call like that, it often makes me think back to calls I have received over the years. One of the calls that has come to my mind, especially as I studied today’s Lesson from the book of Acts about Paul and Barnabus crossing the sea to do mission work, is a call I had many years ago to be a missionary in Japan. It happened to be at the same time one my brothers was serving as a missionary in Africa in the country of Zambia. Calls are always interesting and meaningful to think through, but one that involves possibly going to another country and probably learning another language demands an extra degree of reflection because of the profound changes that are going to need to be made both for yourself and obviously for your family. As with others calls, but perhaps more with this call, I remember thinking so often during those weeks, “Lord, what should I do? This is not easy…”
It often seemed to me – foolishly — that Barnabus and Saul – later known as the apostle Paul – had it much easier, because they didn’t have to worry about deciding what to do, did they? I have to tell you that while reflecting on calls I often wished that God would do for me what he did for them, which we are told about in verse 2: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabus and Saul for the work I have called them to do.’” And so they did – and so they went. The Holy Spirit just answered the question for them. I am telling you what you should do. I have chosen you, so go.
Today’s sermon is perhaps going to be somewhat different than most, but, based on this Lesson, I hope to share with you some thoughts about what we call the public ministry and following a calling from God. I pray you will find it a meaningful time of reflection… The public ministry consists of those we call pastors and teachers and staff ministers, who are called – or asked – by the members of our congregations and schools to shepherd and teach and guide them with God’s Word, so they and their children can go about their own personal ministries that all of us as Christians have. In reality the work all of us share together as public minister called workers and as congregational members in our personal ministries ends up answering the same question, “What Should I do?”
I’ll start with one doctrine or teaching from God’s Word and one distinction from God’s Word. The doctrine is that the call – or the calling – into the public ministry to serve in a church or school is something that God the Holy Spirit causes and oversees. That makes sense if you think about it, because who does the Bible tells us is responsible for bringing us to faith and keeping us in faith and motivating us to live as people of faith? The Holy Spirit. So it is natural that the Holy Spirit would supply the people to share with us the message of God’s Word which causes all those things. The apostle Paul, who here was called to serve as a missionary, years later exhorted other pastors in this way, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” That is why we often refer to this calling of the Holy Spirit as a “divine call” – a call from God himself.
That doctrine from God’s Word is what then leads to this distinction from God’s Word. Barnabus and Paul received a “direct call” from God himself. That’s the way God often did it in the Bible, as he personally set aside his prophets and apostles for the work of sharing the gospel. Since those times, he provides what we might call “indirect” or “intermediate” calls through congregations, since he assures us that wherever two or three gather in his name, there he is right there with them. When our congregation, for example, has called our pastors and teachers to serve among us here at Christ the Lord, we extend to them a call “in the name of Jesus,” having prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide us – and then to guide them as they make a decision, and as they carry out their ministry once they have made a decision.
That is exactly what happened in our Lesson. As these people in a church in a city called Antioch gathered to worship their Lord – and to fast – a custom of not eating for a period of time to concentrate on their spiritual task, they “placed their hands on” Paul and Barnabus and sent them off. If you have ever attended an installation service of a new pastor, you know that we normally follow that same custom of placing our hands on the top of that person’s head as a way of showing that we are imparting the blessing of God himself on them and on the work they are about to do.
But it is the work – the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the main point of all this, just as it is the main point of all our lives. The next thing we are told is that Paul and Barnabus took off from that place and traveled to an island in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coasts of Turkey and Syria, called Cyprus. Maybe that would be something like leaving from a church in Miami Beach, Florida and going to do mission work in Cuba. What they did is described in a very simple way. Verse 5 tells us “They proclaimed the Word of God in the Jewish synagogues.” On that island of Cyprus there were Jewish churches or synagogues, meaning there were “mission prospects” who knew about the Messiah being promised, but did not know that the Messiah had come or they did not know much about him. Paul and Barnabus had the honor of telling them about him – of telling them about Jesus. Throughout their ministries, most of the people with whom they shared the gospel did not feel they needed it. Many outright rejected it, and some made Paul and Barnaubus’ life downright miserable. But many other people knew they did need it, because they knew the guilt of their sins against God, and they were overjoyed to know that someone – The Someone – had come to pay for that guilt through his death on the cross – the same joy you and I know because of the very same message, which has never changed and never will – the same message which continued to be proclaimed in the years and centuries after Paul and Barnabus – and which continues to be proclaimed right here right now.
Much of that proclamation of God’s Word has been shared by people we know very little about – and often nothing about. For example, think about people one or two or three generations from now here at Christ the Lord. They may see pictures of us pastors and teachers, but all of us will likely at some point be a distant and then maybe a long-lost memory. But the ministry – and the results of that ministry – will continue until Christ comes again. I think it’s interesting that while we do know quite a bit about Paul and Barnabus and the other missionaries mentioned in the Bible, God did not see fit to tell us anything more about the three who were not chosen by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries to other places far away, but to continue serving as prophets and teachers in their present congregation in Antioch. We know their names: Simeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, a city in northern Africa, and Manaen, whom we are told had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch. While we can assume these three pastors just went about their ministries in a humble, quiet way, the comment about Manaen being brought up with Herod the Tetrach is an interesting one, to say the least. Do you know which of the many Herods Herod the Tetrach was? He was the Herod who not only killed John the Baptist; he is also the one who was part of the trial of Jesus our Savior and who ended up sending Jesus back to Pontius Pilate, as Pilate then uttered the sentence of death. Can you imagine the stories Menaen might have been able to tell about the one he knew so well, one about whom we can also assume he was terribly sad, since the Bible later tells us he died tragically as an unbeliever, because he gave all glory to himself and not to God, when the people of his kingdom said, “You are like a god, Herod,” and Herod basically said, “Yes, I am.” And he died.
You and I have every reason to give glory to God for how wonderfully he has worked out our lives to not only have perhaps parents and grandparents and friends who told us about Jesus or invited us to come and learn more about Jesus, but we also have had public ministers as pastors and teachers to share that Word of God with us in what we pray was – and is — a humble and loving way, as they constantly remind us of our failures to live as God’s people and the eternal punishment we therefore deserve, and as they equally constantly assure us of God’s never-ending grace that led him to send the Christ to be our Substitute in dying because of what we have done – and in living a way for which God credits us – as holy, dearly loved children of our heavenly Father.
What a reason that it is for you and me, I pray, to continue to give our offerings and our prayers for the training we provide at our ministry schools so our young men and women can mature in the Word, just like the young man named “John” – also known as Mark, the likely writer of the Gospel of Mark — who is mentioned in the last verse of our lesson as the “helper” of Paul and Barnabus — and just as young Elisha served in that same way for the older prophet Elijah in our Old Testament Lesson, after God had told Elijah to call Elisha to be the next prophet of Israel. And what a reason all this also is, especially if you are a younger person, for you boys to maybe wonder if God might wish for you to consider becoming a pastor – and for you boys and girls to wonder the same thing about becoming a teacher in one of our schools. I have to say it a humbling honor to now serve as a colleague in the public ministry with young men and women, who once sat in the classroom chairs and church pews of congregations I have served – young men and women who are doing the never-old thing of sharing Jesus so we can all grow in Jesus – and then share Jesus with still more.
Whether we are called workers or congregational members, we are all in this together in the Body of Christ, and we know the question of “What should I do” is something we can ask about so many things that confuse us or frustrate us. That’s why the main thing for all of us is always not so much to ask what should I do, but to ask what do I know Christ has done. What Christ has done is what Paul and Barnabus proclaimed to the people of God, and what Christ has done is what God’s people proclaim today. Let’s pray that that is always and forever what our public ministers are led by the Holy Spirit in his Word to do and to say in whatever callings they may follow. Amen.