From Paphos, Paul and company put out to sea, sailing on to Perga in Pamphylia. That’s where John called it quits and went back to Jerusalem. From Perga the rest of them travelled on to Antioch in Pisidia.
On the Sabbath they went to the meeting place and took their places. After the reading of the Scriptures—God’s Law and the Prophets—the president of the meeting asked them, “Friends, do you have anything you want to say? A word of encouragement, perhaps?”
Paul stood up, paused and took a deep breath, then said, “Fellow Israelites and friends of God, listen. God took a special interest in our ancestors, pulled our people who were beaten down in Egyptian exile to their feet, and led them out of there in grand style. He took good care of them for nearly forty years in that godforsaken wilderness and then, having wiped out seven enemies who stood in the way, gave them the land of Canaan for their very own—a span in all of about 450 years.
“Up to the time of Samuel the prophet, God provided judges to lead them. But then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul, son of Kish, out of the tribe of Benjamin. After Saul had ruled forty years, God removed him from office and put King David in his place, with this commendation: ‘I’ve searched the land and found this David, son of Jesse. He’s a man whose heart beats to my heart, a man who will do what I tell him.’
“From out of David’s descendants God produced a Saviour for Israel, Jesus, exactly as he promised—but only after John had thoroughly alerted the people to his arrival by preparing them for a total life-change. As John was finishing up his work, he said, ‘Did you think I was the One? No, I’m not the One. But the One you’ve been waiting for all these years is just around the corner, about to appear. And I’m about to disappear.’
“Dear brothers and sisters, children of Abraham, and friends of God, this message of salvation has been precisely targeted to you. The citizens and rulers in Jerusalem didn’t recognize who he was and condemned him to death. They couldn’t find a good reason, but demanded that Pilate execute him anyway. They did just what the prophets said they would do, but had no idea they were following to the letter the script of the prophets, even though those same prophets are read every Sabbath in their meeting places.
“After they had done everything the prophets said they would do, they took him down from the cross and buried him. And then God raised him from death. There is no disputing that—he appeared over and over again many times and places to those who had known him well in the Galilean years, and these same people continue to give witness that he is alive.
“Friends, do you have anything you want to say? A word of encouragement, perhaps?”
As I write this, exam season is looming in our house. In the coming weeks two of my children will be sitting AS or A levels and the nervous tension is palpable! ‘Do your best’ we tell them, ‘work hard’, ‘try not to worry’, ‘get an early night…’ (like that’s going to happen with teenagers!). All words of encouragement from well-meaning and anxious parents, which may or may not make any difference to the outcome!
But words of encouragement are things that we all need to hear. They help us get alongside each other and lift us from the gloom of drudgery. They remind us that we are not alone, even if the task ahead is an individual one. They give us hope.
When Paul and Barnabas are invited to speak in the synagogue at Antioch it is a word of encouragement that they are invited to offer. The way Paul approaches this is to tell a story – to remind the gathered congregation of their own story, and to reflect back to them something about who they are and whose they are. This is about them, fellow Israelites and friends of God, and it is about God and the sustained and special relationship that God has had with the people of Israel over many generations. Paul’s words of encouragement extend beyond the scope of this passage but you get the sense that those hearing Paul’s message might feel heartened by the fact that he knows them, he knows where they have come from, and that this Jesus, who brings forgiveness, freedom and fulfilment is part of their story too.
Getting alongside people and offering words of encouragement is a vital task for the church today. Churches themselves are in need of encouragement but it is the encouragement we have to offer that stands out. We need to tell the story of our church and the stories of our faith in ways that people can relate to. Telling stories that break down barriers and leave open the possibility that this is as much about them as it is about us. Telling stories that give hope and inspire trust. Telling stories that help people to see that this Jesus, whom we call Lord, and who offers forgiveness, freedom and fulfilment can part of their story too. So be encouraged – and be encouragers as you walk the way of Jesus.
Loving God, we thank you for your presence in our lives, bringing hope and encouragement and reminding us that, in Jesus, we are not alone.
As we share the story of your love help us to walk alongside others, that they might find encouragement in our words and discover Jesus as their friend and saviour.
In his name we pray, Amen
The Rev’d David Salsbury is minister of Dyserth and Holywell and Training and Development Officer in the National Synod of Wales.