“And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
Bible scholars believe that as many as twelve years have gone by, between the conversion of Paul (here, referred to as Saul) and this story. And this Paul is a little different from the newly converted Paul: he’s not rushing out the front door, without consulting anyone; he is not just going his own way, and allowing the chips to fall where they may. What is he doing instead?
Instead, Paul is praying with a group of believers: Really praying. Not going through the motions, because he already knows the answer he’d like to hear. He’s praying, with the hope that God can and does answer prayer.
Paul is worshipping with a group of believers: He is doing the primary thing that we do Sunday by Sunday – the thing we are all about: Praising God in prayer, in music, joining with others to be reminded who we really are, and whose we really are.
Paul has been partnered with Barnabas: He’s no longer an independent operator, but knows that his best ministry will only come as he shares with another who walks beside him.
Paul is fasting. When we hear that word – “fasting” – we tend to think of a joyless group of very skinny people. But to “fast” just means to turn away from something that prevents us from seeing – and participating in – the life-giving things God is doing all around us.
Finally, instead of striking out on his own, Paul is sent: The Holy Spirit sets apart and sends Paul, and Barnabas, through the laying on of hands by the community. God speaks through the community to say: “These two are ready. I’ve seen the transformation, and they can carry my name to those who don’t know me yet.”
Over several years, Paul has grown into these community practices that formed his character in the Way of Jesus. It didn’t happen overnight; it didn’t happen by accident: Paul’s participation in prayer, worship, fasting, and partnered service are all things he’s deliberately taken up in response to what Jesus said to him on the Damascus road; and, they are all things that prepared him to be used by God.
There are any number of things, in the past few years, that have given us the perfect excuse we need to “go it alone”: COVID, polarization, church scandals, etc.. But we may also have backed away, because it was easier… more comfortable: “I’ll just wait and see….” But that is not the Christian Faith: Our Faith is lived out in dedicated, weekly community – according to the New Testament, there is no such thing as a follower of Jesus, who is not at the same time a committed, regular member of a local church.
The Church is still where you will meet the Holy Spirit in the worship, prayer, praise and the Word preached – no other place on earth is like it, because God promises to do utterly unique things in it, and through it. If you have – perhaps understandably – held back from checking out your local church, I hope this will be the encouragement you need to go and really try it out. When you do, guess what?: You’re going to find imperfect people, leaders, and worship – that’s the world we live in. But you may also find God – and God may find you – and you might see that the church is all about imperfect people who know they don’t have a prayer (literally) of growing up, spiritually-speaking, on their own.
Prayer: God, I’ve tried to do this on my own, and it isn’t working anymore. Help me to get over the imperfection I see all around me. Lead me, Lord, to a church where I can meet you, and begin to learn to love my neighbor. I don’t need perfection, Lord, but I know I need you and your church. Amen.