Who are we? What is our identity? In our Sunday congregational conversation, we sorted words of description into categories of I am, I’m not, and I want to be. A challenging and fun activity to wrestle with our understanding of ourselves as being, not being, and longing to be. So many words! With endless combinations to spark discussion and connection.
Differences that divide and fascinate us are not a new-fangled concept of pop-psychology. Even Jesus’ first followers ran the gamut of Jewish life- fishermen, scholars, tax collectors, zealots, and various women who hosted, followed, and financed Jesus’ ministry. When Peter preached to faithful Jews from all over the world visiting and living in Jerusalem, the differences between individuals within the movement began expanding by leaps and bounds.
But it wasn’t Philip’s idea to speak with the Ethiopian official. And Peter would not have gone to an Italian centurion’s house without a vision and explicit direction. So today I am fascinated by another identity: What was it like for Jews in Cyrene, that Greek city in Libya on the north coast of Africa? What part of their identity inspired them to share the Jewish Messiah with Gentiles?
Now those who were scattered as a result of the trouble that occurred because of Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. They proclaimed the word only to Jews. Among them were some people from Cyprus and Cyrene. They entered Antioch and began to proclaim the good news about the Lord Jesus also to Gentiles. Acts 11:19-20 (CEB)
This push-and-pull balance between our differences and our sameness runs throughout the Bible. If we had a better grasp of the cultures of these places, their geography and language, their foods and smells…. If the writing of history and the establishment of scripture better chronicled the personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the believers…. We might understand the daunting task of oneness among such a disparate group.
How do we dig deeper? To know each other, and in that journey of relationship, to love one another? The challenge to look into the face of a stranger, the one who is Other, and see someone like us, also waiting for good news. And to know more fully our companion in faith, so that our love for them covers up the multitude of times we sin against each other.
Barnabas seemed to have that gift. An encourager. What was it like to grow up as a Levite on Cyprus? He was a natural choice to send to investigate this large number of Gentiles believing in Jesus. The Cypriot Jews and Cyrenian Jews seem to have a lot in common, including their ability to see the similar need for a savior in the Gentile Other.
When he arrived and saw evidence of God’s grace, he was overjoyed and encouraged everyone to remain fully committed to the Lord. Barnabas responded in this way because he was a good man, whom the Holy Spirit had endowed with exceptional faith. Acts 11:23-24a (CEB)
It took exceptional faith to recognize this inclusion of Gentiles as evidence of God’s grace. Barnabas marries encouragement with practical solutions. He sold a field to finance the ministry in Jerusalem. Recognizing that the believers in Antioch needed help, he went to Tarsus to search for Saul and stayed for a whole year to empower and strengthen this diverse community.
What gifts might we have to strengthen our community of faith? What differences might we be called to bridge? What work of the Holy Spirit can we recognize and encourage, with words and with deeds?
May we too see our differences as opportunities for God’s grace.