I came across a very sad tale this morning.
In 1938, a German merchant vessel sank in a storm in the North Atlantic. A lone sailor survived floating on a mattress. A British ship came by and came in close to pick up the sailor, even though it wasn’t the safest of manoeuvres. Someone on deck threw a life belt out to him. However, the sailor, realising that it was a British ship, an enemy of Germany turned away. His mattress sank and so did he.
The sailor chose to ignore the life belt because he defined the British as his enemy, and refused to change his definition even in the face of death.
I was reading the end section of Acts 9. Life had become unsafe for Saul in Damascus, and in the middle of the night he was lowered in a basket through a hole in the city wall. He travelled to Jerusalem to join the apostles, but got a very cool reception. They weren’t convinced that he was genuine in his faith.
The apostles chose to cold shoulder Saul because they had defined him as the enemy and were almost prepared to hold on to that definition, even though they had heard that he had changed.
It took Barnabas to stand with Saul to make them change their minds.
Supposing Saul, or Paul after his name change, had been allowed to walk away. Supposing the apostles hadn’t been challenged by Barnabas to change their definition – would we have Paul’s marvellous letters to the churches today? Would there still have been all those challenging missionary journeys with Barnabas, and later Silas? Would there have been a prison cell in Rome for Paul, and the letters he wrote there, and his example that he set?
How easily God’s plans for Paul could have been derailed even before they began! I am glad that Barnabas was there to make it happen!
A church that I attended for five years in Limassol, Cyprus had some very strong definitions about certain things. The activity of the Holy Spirit, in terms of the ministry of the gifts, was defined as something for the early church only. Their experience of Holy Spirit led ministry had been uncomfortable, touchy-feely and not, they felt, rooted in scripture, so they defined it as wrong. Even lifting a hand during whilst singing a hymn, or praying, was discouraged.
I am challenged about the definitions that I hold about things. How do I define church, for example? My mother was voicing concerns that now her church is growing, it is feeling less like a family. My own church remains very small and is like a close family and yet I long for a bigger church. So much of our church’s impact is out in the world – healing on the streets, Street pastors and housing the homeless – and yet I complain because no-one preaches a gritty sermon! My definition of church is outdated and self centred and needs to change.
And how do I define myself? I guess that puts me back with Stephen and Philip in Acts 6-8.