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Sermon for 31 January 2016


Acts 18 - Priscilla and Aquila

We’re well into our sermon series now looking at characters from the bible who hear and respond to God’s call. We’ve looked so far at some of the great heroes of the bible. People who hear God in amazing ways and go on to do extraordinary things for him; Moses who sees the bush on fire and sets off, haltingly and with plenty of reservations, to set the people of Israel free; Daniel, who knows the Lord, and stands strong in his faith in a foreign land; Mary, who accepts the call to be the Mother of Jesus, with all the glory and suffering it will bring; Zacchaeus, who comes down from his tree and discovers that he is, unbelievably and shockingly, loved.

Today something a bit different. Today we’re going to find out not about a person, but a couple, and a couple who get a total of 4 short mentions in the New Testament and who receive no heroic call. Their names are Priscilla and Aquila, and we find out most about them in chapter 18 of the book of Acts. And if you want to follow it, you can find this story on page XX of the bible in your pew.

Acts 18: 1-10, 18-28

So, I am going to tell you a bit about this couple, Priscilla and Aquila and then I will try to tease out some things that we can learn from them, as we try to follow God’s calling. And if this morning you’re not really in the mood for listening to a sermon - if you’d much prefer just to drift off and think your own thoughts - and that’s absolutely fine - just hear this one thing. This is everything I want to say, boiled down into 2 sentences; God doesn’t want great heroes, who drop everything to follow him to crazy places, to do extraordinary things. He wants faithful disciples who keep their eyes and hearts open and who are ready to join him in what he’s doing.

Now, feel free to listen to the rest of what I want to say, or to head off to your own thoughts.

We first meet this couple in Corinth, where Paul has arrived from Athens while on one of his great journeys around the Mediterranean. Aquila, the husband, is a Jewish man from Pontus - a Roman town on the Southern coast of the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey.

We always hear of the two of them as a couple - it’s always Priscilla and Aquila and we never hear of either of them on their own. And, notably, it is always Priscilla’s name that is put first. Notable because in the culture of the time, the husband would normally be named first. She, presumably, in a male dominated culture, was quite a person.

They have been living in Rome, but have had to move because of an edict issued by Emperor Claudius, which required all Jews to leave the city. The historian Suetonius says the Jews were kicked out because they had been involved in rioting ‘impulsore Chrestus’ - i.e. as a result of Chrestus, and it doesn’t take a huge linguistic leap to think that might be because the claims of Christianity had reached Rome and were causing trouble. 

We know that they are both Christians, although we have no idea when they began to follow Jesus. We hear nothing of a call to faith, nor of a call to any particular ministry.

So now they’re in Corinth. We don’t know why they have come to this place particularly, although it may be because it was a major commercial centre, situated as it was on the thin piece of land between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, which connects the mainland of Greece with the Peloponnesian islands. And we know that they were tent makers, or leather workers, who had presumably been running their business in Rome and for whom a place like Corinth was a good place to relocate.

And here they meet Paul. He has just come from Athens, where he has had a pretty crazy time telling the Greek philosophers about Jesus, and when he hears about a Christian couple who are tent makers like him, he makes his way to them. And they take him in, and offer him a job in their tent making business. And that allows Paul to get on with his calling, which is to preach the good news of Jesus Christ - and he ends up staying there for ‘a considerable time’, probably more than a year, before he heads off back to Jerusalem. 

At first Priscilla and Aquila accompany him - and we have no idea why they packed up in Corinth at this point. But when they get to Ephesus, they decide to stay there, while Paul travels on to Jerusalem. 

In Ephesus they hear a man preaching in the Synagogue. His name is Apollos, and he is going to go on to play a crucial role in the spread of Christianity. Apollos is from Alexandria, the great University city of the age - it’s a bit like saying he is from Oxford or Harvard. He is clearly smart and a very impressive speaker. But he hasn’t quite got all the facts about Jesus - It may be that he knew that the Messiah was coming - but not yet that he has come in the person of Jesus. And Priscilla and Aquila decide to help him out. They ‘take him aside’, which can also be translated as took him home, and they tell him all about Jesus, and what happened to him, and what that means,  and they clearly do a good job.

After this, Apollos is going to return to Corinth, where he is going to get the church going in wonderful ways. It is this same Apollos about whom Paul will write in his first letter to the Corinthian church, ‘I planted, Apollos watered and God gave the growth’. And Apollos will appear again in Paul’s letters when he has clearly become a key part of the team of people who spread the gospel around the Mediterranean and who, in doing so, brought the church to life. 

We hear twice more from this quiet and impressive couple. First when Paul writes to the church in Rome, some years later, he includes greetings to Priscilla and Aquila "who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.’ Paul recognises the debt that he personally, and all those little, fragile, scattered christian communities owe to this faithful couple who are now back in Rome. And they’re back home again because the Emperor Claudius has died, and his successor Nero has lifted the ban on the Jews, allowing their return.

And he goes on to greet ‘the church that meets in their house’. They’ve come back to Rome, and are settled again - and you might think they would keep their heads down and have a quieter time of it. Not so, they have opened up their house and that’s where the church in Rome meets. 

And the final time we hear about them is from Paul again, towards the end of his life, when he writes to his friend Timothy, who is somewhere in Asia, continuing to spread the news of Jesus. And guess who’s with Timothy? it’s Priscilla and Aquila again, once more on the road. The reason? Almost certainly the Nero’s early tolerance has turned, and this time it’s not the Jews, but the Christians who have to flee, amongst them our friends Priscilla and Aquila.

And that’s all we know about them. This faithful, generous couple, who were ready to stay in the background, and to do what needed to be done for others, and who in doing so became a key part in the unfolding story of the church - a story which we continue to be part of here, so many miles from Corinth, and so many years later. 

And I want to tease out a couple of things that we can learn from them, as we continue to explore what it means for us, here in Goudhurst, to be called by God.

Let’s notice first the fact that we hear nothing about any great call made to Priscilla and Aquila - no burning bushes, no moments up a tree, no lights in the sky. Instead they seem to do what they do, and to discover where God is at work as things happen. They didn’t plan to leave Rome, but because an Emperor issued a law they did, and because they ended up in Corinth, they were able to meet Paul and to support him as he preached and taught. And they didn’t set out to equip a great missionary teacher by sifting through the CV’s of all the learned people of Alexandria; they just happened to be in the synagogue the day that Apollos stood up to speak, and recognised that there was something they could do to help. And because they were full of faith, and because they were bold, they invited him round for a meal, and told him about Jesus. And as a result, he went on to be one of the great early missionaries of the church.

And because they were generous, they opened their house in Rome. And just think what came from that - what starts out as a few people in Priscilla and Aquila’s living room, will become St Peter’s church, and an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics today. Not bad for a couple who offered their house as a a small group meeting place.

God doesn’t want great heroes - he wants us to do what we do, to expect him to be at work, and to be ready to respond. The word ‘mission’ can strike fear into people’s hearts - with all the weight it carries about having to go to scary places to tell people about God. But the best definition of mission that I know is ‘Seeing where God is at work and joining in’. Priscilla and Aquila were masters of that kind of mission. There are no stories of them standing in public squares and preaching, no stories of them braving storms and stonings. They just got on with being tent makers, and welcomed people into their home, and watched and waited to see where God was at work, and joined in.

I am sure that there are people in our church that God will call to do something genuinely heroic. But there are many more that he is calling to watch, and to see where he is at work, and then to join in. Maybe by spotting someone with a real gift, and encouraging and nurturing them. Perhaps there’s one of the children or young people in our church community who you could mentor, or someone you’ve got to know that you can imagine stepping up to a leadership role, or to preach, or to lead a ministry of prayer or healing, that you can encourage.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful, if our church community was full of people who are looking out for the gifts that God has given others, and praying ‘Lord, show me how I should support them.’

Or maybe you are being called to share your money, your time or your home with others in a new way, and in doing so to be part of something glorious. Something that seems small and unimportant, but which is part of God’s great work to build his kingdom. 

Or maybe your calling is to listen to the movements of the spirit, in your own life and the life of the community, and to be ready to share them with others - to tell others in the church that there’s someone who needs support, or that there is an opportunity emerging to tell a new part of the local community about Jesus.

Or maybe you don’t know what God is calling you to, and at the moment you’re meant to watch and to wait and to see what emerges.

God doesn’t want great heroes, who drop everything to follow him to crazy places, to do extraordinary things. He wants faithful disciples, like Priscilla and Aquila, who keep their eyes and hearts open and who are ready to join him in what he’s doing.

May we follow their example, as we seek God’s calling together.



Going deeper

  1. In the sermon 'Mission' is defined as 'Seeing where God is at work and joining in'. What would it mean for you to be missional in this way?
  2. What helps you to 'See where God is at work?' What would help you to grow in this area of your faith life? What helps you to 'join in'? What would help you join in more fully?
  3. Who supported you in your journey of faith? Who did God send to play the role that Priscilla and Aquila played in Apollos' life?
  4. Who might God be calling you to support and encourage to grow in faith at the moment?
Posted: 31/01/2016 at 14:29
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