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Nov. 22 lesson: The mission of spreading the Gospel in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens

November 16, 2015
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The mission of spreading the Gospel in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens

Sunday school lesson for the week of November 22, 2015
By Rev. Denise Walton

Lesson scripture: Acts 17:1-4, 10-12, 22-25, 28

I have often shared my understanding of leadership and teamwork as such: the best teams recognize that all persons have value and aid in the success of the mission, vision, and goals. In order to reach our goals, we need everyone’s gifts at the table of God. Denise Walton

We are all valuable on God’s team

Do you like sports? If so, can you identify your favorite sport, athletic team, or most valuable player? Let’s take a look at American baseball (from the least qualified person to do so) and divide the leagues into categories. Now, be patient with me as I know absolutely nothing about baseball but find the analogy proves a powerful point leading into our Sunday school lesson today.

The American League East (Baltimore, Boston, Tampa, Toronto)

The American League Central (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas, Minnesota)

The American League West (Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Texas)

National League East (Atlanta, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Washington)

National League Central (Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, St. Louis)

National League West (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego, Colorado)

A real baseball fan could glance at the roster above and know if the leagues were represented correctly. A real baseball fan could also name the most valuable players associated with each league.

However, for the purposes of today’s lesson in Acts 17, we want to focus not on the MVP players such as the apostle Peter, but on the second-string players who have witnessed the gospel being shared and are now sharing the gospel beyond the limits of Jerusalem.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 NRSV

As I have reflected on the fall Sunday school lessons, we have consistently gone back to Acts 1:8 as the vision and mission for the Acts of the Apostles. If a primary purpose were identified with the ministry and movement within the Book of Acts it would be the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

From the beginning of the Book of Acts, the apostle Peter stands as one of the most significant leaders within the early church. We can trace the significant leadership of Peter and John throughout the Book of Acts. However, by the time we reach Acts 6, there is a second level of leadership capacity emerging that shares the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond the walls of Jerusalem.

Second level leadership capacity

I have introduced the term “second level leadership capacity” as descriptive and in no way meant to address the value or significance of the leadership exhibited by Stephen, Philip, or Saul. The term helps the reader to see the transition in the gospel story from those who serve as primary spokespersons (Peter and John) to the emerging and impactful leadership of other disciples.

Stephen is introduced as a significant leader. Stephen had also served as faithful witness and proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, the first martyr, gave his life in the spreading of the gospel. Stephen speaks to the church today as we consider the cost of living a Christian life – it will cost us all something to follow Jesus proclaiming the good news.

Philip is a significant leader. Philip’s leadership in Samaria (Acts 8:1-40) expands the gospel into Samaria. From previous lessons, we recognize Philip’s journey to Samaria as a significant choice to go where no Jew wanted to travel, share or be in relationship with others. Phillip’s leadership speaks to the church today as a mandate to take the gospel into the places you have no desire to go. 

Saul (later becomes Paul) is a significant leader. Saul’s leadership began as a negative force but God still used it as a driving force to share the gospel.

As the writer, Luke spends a great deal of time with Saul’s conversion experience in Acts 9:1-30. According to scholars, Luke spends much time telling his audience about Saul’s conversion (it is rehearsed three times in the book of Acts), with a special emphasis on the revelation of the risen Lord to Saul (9:4-5) as well as the Lord’s disclosure to Ananias that Saul had truly converted and would be the “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” (9:10-15). Thus Saul is seen not only to have a remarkable conversion experience, but also from the first to be the one who would exemplify the mandate of Acts 1:8. (Adapted from textweek.com/https://bible.org/seriespage/5-acts-introduction-outline-and-argument)

Peter and Paul’s significant leadership to the Gentiles

Peter remains as a significant leader within the gospel of Acts. As author, Luke introduces Peter’s personal wrestling with the mission to the Gentiles and his acceptance of the way forward. Peter, as primary spokesperson, eventually embraced the Gentile mission and provided significant leadership in the expansion of the gospel. 

Not only did Peter have to be prepared for the Gentile mission, the Jerusalem church did, too (11:1-18). Since Peter was recognized by all as a legitimate spokesman for God, his recounting of what happened at Cornelius’ house was enough to convince the Jewish believers.

As we move into Chapter twelve, rather than Saul, Herod is the one persecuting the church. First, he executes James (12:1-2), and then arrests Peter (12:3-19). But Peter miraculously escapes (12:6-11) and Herod dies (12:20-23). This is the last we see of Peter in his evangelistic efforts. The stage is thus set for Paul, the man with whom the rest of Acts is concerned. (Ibid, textweek.com)

The Expansion of the Gospel to Asia Minor

The Apostle Paul with three major missionary journeys takes the gospel further than any other disciple. The second level leadership has now established itself as crucial to the completion of the mission.

It is significant to add that the mission and vision of taking the gospel beyond the walls of Jerusalem can only be accomplished as Paul joins with the lay leadership on each of the missionary journeys. Therefore, without the laity the mission of sharing the gospel beyond the walls of Jerusalem would be incomplete. Clergy and laity are needed in our local churches and beyond sharing the leadership to expand the gospel message.

Thus the readings today, Acts 17:1-4, 10-12, 22-25, 28, seek to show the reader the practical ways in which Paul addressed the sharing of the gospel. Paul and his companions moved from Thessalonica to Berea to Athens. At each location, he first went to the synagogue to preach and teach. Each context was different and the approach to sharing the gospel was appropriate to the context.

In Thessalonica, Paul preached for three Sabbath days, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The message was received and some joined while others grew in resentment. In Berea, Paul was received well by Berean Jews eager to hear and respond to the gospel. Many believed including prominent Greek women and men. But there was resistance and persons from Thessalonica appeared in Berea to cause problems for the church and the gospel message.

By the time Paul and his companions reach Athens, the fellowship has significantly grown and the gospel message is spreading. Athens is a new context that requires reasoning as a tool to share the gospel. Paul addresses the Greek Council (Areopagus) and relates their philosophical and spiritual beliefs to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Athenians are introduced to the one true God and his son, Jesus Christ. Some believe and join the fellowship others remained unconvinced.

We see holistically the gospel being shared and Acts 1:8 being fulfilled. The journey continues for Paul and for us, there is more to do in the kingdom of God. As you reflect on the lesson this week, I invite you to consider these questions:

What persons in your local church, district and conference provide leadership?

Who among you would make a great leader?

How can you encourage those whose leadership is not prominent to get involved in the mission and vision of the church (local, district, and conference)?

It takes all of us to make a difference. Each individual’s spiritual gifts, no matter how large or small, work together to complete the mission of the church. Let’s be on the lookout among us for those who are willing to join the leadership and let us make room as they bring their gifts and graces. 

I am reminded today that the second string, second level of leadership capacity may just bring us all to the completion of the goal.

Dear Lord, let it be so, according to your will. Amen.

Rev. Denise Walton serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Connectional Ministries. Contact her at denise@sgaumc.org.

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