Church home, or home church?

As a teenage convert, I didn’t grow up in the church. At best, we had my grandparents’ church. They lived over an hour away by car, and we didn’t visit often, so I found myself in church no more than two or three times a year.

If you were to ask me, I’d say my “church home” is where my wife and I have been now for 30 years. But still, the phrase “church home” doesn’t have the same ring as “home church,” the church of your childhood, the one that nurtured (or traumatized) you.

In that sense, I know I will find a church home wherever I may go. But I will never have a home church.

It makes me wonder what Saul of Tarsus would have said. Would one of the synagogues in Tarsus have been his home church? Having been educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, would he have considered his home church to be there? 

Whatever the case, by the time we get to Acts 13, Luke’s story seems to make an important symbolic shift. As we’ve seen, Acts 12 ends with the statement that “Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch from Jerusalem after completing their mission” (vs. 25, CEB) of bringing a gift from Antioch to help the poor in Jerusalem who had been hit hardest by the famine. 

But this is more than simply reporting what happened next in a sequence of events. From Jerusalem to Antioch: the geographical hub of the story is shifting. Previously, the unconverted Saul of Tarsus had been sent out on his mission of persecution from the city of Jerusalem. From this point in the story forward, he will be known as the apostle Paul (more on that in a later post), and the city from which he will be sent out as a missionary will be Antioch.

Here’s Luke’s brief description of Saul’s commission:

The church at Antioch included prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon (nicknamed Niger), Lucius from Cyrene, Manaen (a childhood friend of Herod the ruler), and Saul. As they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to the work I have called them to undertake.” After they fasted and prayed, they laid their hands on these two and sent them off. After the Holy Spirit sent them on their way, they went down to Seleucia. From there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:1-4, CEB)

Luke wants us to know that the newly founded church in Antioch was to be taken seriously. It was led by prophets and teachers, including Barnabas and Saul. Their names bookend a short list of others who may have been known to Luke’s readers, but about whom we can only guess.

Lucius was from Cyrene, a city in North Africa. Simeon’s nickname of “Niger” suggests that he was of dark complexion, and thus may have hailed from North Africa as well. Some have suggested that this may have been the Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, but the spelling of the name differs slightly, even in the Greek. More important is the fact that the church in Antioch was founded on the evangelistic work of men from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20) — thus Lucius (and possibly Simeon) may have been among them.

Luke describes Manaen as “a childhood friend of Herod the ruler.” The latter would be the tetrarch Herod Antipas, the youngest son of Herod the Great (the ogre of the Christmas story). In the gospels, Antipas is the Herod who beheaded John the Baptist and later became buddies with Pilate after Jesus’ arrest.

“Childhood friend” suggests much more than just two kids meeting on the playground; it can be translated as “foster brother.” Manaen, in other words, may have been a Jewish boy (possibly named Menahem) who was brought into the royal court to be raised as a brother to Antipas. Luke’s point? There were people of status in the church at Antioch.

In all of this, though, Luke continues to emphasize how God directs the action through the Holy Spirit. The believers in Antioch (I can’t help thinking of them as “antioxidants”) are worshiping together, and receive a word from the Spirit, presumably from one of the prophets in their midst: Barnabas and Saul are to be set apart for a specific work that God has for them to do.

The people respond with fasting and prayer. It’s never easy to lose two key leaders. But if there were any regrets over losing Barnabas and Saul, Luke doesn’t say. All that matters is that the people obey, laying hands on the two men to commission them and send them on their way. 

Note, however, Luke’s way of putting it. In one sense, Antioch is the home church, the church that loves and prays for the missionaries it sends forth. But in another, overarching sense, it is the Holy Spirit who actually does the sending.

And home church or church home, it’s the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in their midst that matters.

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