Friends are trustworthy, honest with us, dependable, loyal, able to trust us too. They experience and express empathy, are non-judgmental, good listeners, supportive in good times and bad times, self-confident, able to see the humor in life, and fun to be around. Would you agree? In your own list for “friends” what would you add? “A real friend will tell you when you have spinach in your teeth.” “A real friend has your back.” And at different times we’re asking it very personally for ourselves: “Who are my friends?” Or perhaps, “Am I a good friend?” What makes a friend?
How about with our theme this morning? We said for this service that we’re “friends with Christ”. But this is potentially something on an entirely different level. Friends with the Son of God? At first blush that might seem sacrilegious or presumptuous. Would you say it about yourselves? That you are Jesus’ friends? Because in our gospel he does talk about us that way. He said, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (Jn 15:14) and a little later he explained it: “This is my command: Love each other.” (15:17)
This morning we’re focusing again on the story of God’s early church as it grows out into the world. As we do, we’re getting a picture as well of what it means to be Christ’s friends. And we see that the early church understood that being Christ’s friends means love.
Look at how you see it in vv.19-21 – even in the worst of times. These times were the ones after Stephen had been killed, when persecution drove the believers away from Jerusalem to cities all over. They fled. Still, they showed they were Christ’s friends even then by showing love to all kinds of people. Those who fled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch did the same thing those in Jerusalem had been doing – the very same thing Stephen had died doing – they told the message. They told it to Jews: to people who would have shared their background, their Scriptural worldview, their longing for a Messiah. But more than that… People from north Africa and Cyprus came to Antioch and also told the message to Greeks. They told non-Jewish people – people who would have worshiped pagan gods and eaten non-Jewish foods, people who found Jewish culture weird and who would have been scandalized by a crucified Savior. And, with both, “the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Christ’s friends showed love in the worst of times to everyone.
Here we are in the 21st century church, assessing what does it mean to be Christ’s friends for us? In the general case, our circumstances are pretty good: you can open a store-front church, you can come to this place, you can mail your neighbors about Jesus, you can talk freely about him. Perhaps our times are headed somewhere different, a soft persecution and a slow restriction of faith? Whatever the time, do you ever find yourself afraid that the Lord’s hand won’t be with you if you show love? If you show the kind of love these believers did – where you preach the message of Jesus’ love? Say, with those who are like us with a Christian worldview and a Savior knowledge. Isn’t it tempting sometimes with those to say, “This conversation will be too complicated. We’ll get caught up in all the little differences. It’s not worth it.” And then we don’t tell the message; you don’t love. Let alone that other category: those who are so different from us (at least we’re tempted to think). Those who don’t worship any god or worship the god of their own sexuality; the ones who think you’re truly unintelligent for this first-century blood-atonement faith you have, or the “anti-science” views we hold, or (forget about man/woman roles) our 50’s views of sex and marriage, fidelity and fun. Isn’t it tempting to flee to other places – your cube at work, keep your head down, your personal information shares low. Isn’t it tempting to think that God’s hand cannot possibly turn those kinds of people to him?
To use a sports analogy, if our Christian faith were a football game, this may be a bit like one of those pre-game huddles teams do. Those are totally important. That’s the team revving each other up. They’re getting their heads in the game. They’re prodding each other – knowing each other’s talents and weaknesses and saying, “Let’s do this!” So, if being Christ’s friends is like a football game, to not share the message of Jesus’ love would be like if a team just stayed in the huddle. Other team’s waitin’. Ref’s throwing flags – team’s still huddled though, encouraging, swaying… You would say, “Hey guys, there’s a game to play!” To be Christ’s friends means taking the message of his love out into the world and telling all kinds of people: people you know who don’t know about sin and who will struggle with ugly ones; people who misunderstand “small” doctrines of Scripture, and people within our own walls who just need encouragement and hope.
We each have sins of fear to take the message out to the people we know and don’t. Perhaps we ask, “Are we Christ’s friends?” And perhaps it’s made worse by reading on further about Barnabas – because he was a “good man”. Read about Barnabas sometime. He’s not the star quarterback – that’s Paul or Peter or James. But Barnabas is the guy in the high school yearbook who’s face you find smiling somewhere in every picture – left of center, back row, inconspicuous. Do you recall that Barnabas shows up in Acts in chs. 4, 9, 11 (twice), and 15. Barnabas appears after Saul the persecutor has been changed to Paul, when the believers won’t even go near him. Who does? Barnabas – he gets Paul and forces those believers to see who he really was: a disciple like them. Later on when mega-missionary Paul says, “No way!” to bringing John Mark along on his mission-trip, who steps in to stand up for the down-trodden apostle-in-training? It’s Barnabas. And here, when the church is growing in new places and new ways in Antioch, who does the church send? It’s Barnabas – “Son of Encouragement”, a good man.
Perhaps our sin comes in self-assessment. We worry that we aren’t the encourager, the preacher, the arguer, the fount Scriptural knowledge. We aren’t a good man or a good woman. In fact, we’re too much the sinner to share Christ’s lpve – he probably shouldn’t even call us his friends. Sometimes we’re afraid to tell the message not because the Lord’s hand won’t be with us but because we’re thinking about our own hands and what they’ve done and all they cannot do. We don’t love because we’re not good enough. But do you know why they called Barnabas “good”? He was “full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” Do you recall how the Holy Spirit works? He doesn’t come to you because you’re good. He comes to you and calls you good. And you know him, as St. John said in his epistle, because the Spirit acknowledges Jesus. Do you remember how faith works? It’s just trust in the most beautiful, intricate & simple thing. John said it in his epistle:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
“Full of the Holy Spirit”…who preaches to our hearts about Jesus so that we latch onto him in faith… “and [full of] faith”…trust in this Jesus who loved us by giving up his life when we were sinners and not good, so that our sins would be atoned for, every one. And God would call us his friends.
Christ has called you his friends in his amazing love. Christ’s friends show his love in faithfulness. As you find it in Barnabas – the kind of thing that is not so much about what you can do, but almost entirely about what God can do.
- For faithfulness is glad when it sees God at work. Barnabas rejoiced at the growing church. But you don’t have to go to Antioch or Africa or Afghanistan to find that joy. Be filled with joy when you this morning walk down the hallway and little children are in Sunday school and adults gather around the Bible, when you look around as people join you in communion, or when you see the possibilities in the faces of those in the mall. Faithfulness is gladness of heart that God is working – through you and others.
- Faithfulness encourages people to remain true to the Lord who has saved them. It helps others steer away from the things of this world that call to us. It holds the Word of God out as a rallying-point in this world around which we gather. It encourages others to see that Word of God as the treasure that shows us Christ in his love and the forgiveness of our sins and the source any loving we’re going to do.
- Faithfulness isn’t worried about itself. Rather, like Barnabas, it looks at all the gifts and talents around and seeks out those who can help to serve. Barnabas went and got Paul and they got down to the business of training this young church for over a year. And they used their hands, their teamwork, their brains, their talents – along with all those in that church – and the Lord’s hand was with them too, to bring blessing and growth.
At this church right now, we’re thinking about big things. Maybe God will bless us to build a new and beautiful sanctuary with space for many, many more to gather here. Maybe God will allow for more beautiful music to swell in here, children and adults, voices strong with his love. Maybe he’ll bless our ministry to grow and grow in church and school. I don’t know. But I do know that Christ has called us his friends. And, church or no, persecution or no, money or no, Christ’s friends go out with his love for everyone – sinners and saints, here and there. And Christ’s friends love faithfully – filled with his Spirit we gather around his Word, trusting in the amazing love and grace that has made us God’s own, and smiling, laughing, and encouraging one another to grow in the same. Not because of our own goodness, but because of Christ’s good love, we are his friends. And it leaves us with this good expectation: in whatever we do, the Lord’s hand will be at work to bring great blessings to us and through us to many others. Amen.