I’d like us to focus this morning on a story of 2 people, Priscilla and Aquila, who are only mentioned 7 times in the New Testament. I particularly love this story, because it’s a wee gem and I think we can learn much from it about how we can build each other up in our relationship with Jesus here at All Hallows, and also our approach to making new friends at work, home, and in our neighbourhood.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul travels tirelessly to tell people the Good News about Jesus. Even though Jesus was no longer on the earth, Paul has a deep love and commitment to Jesus and wants to share the friendship he has with Jesus with others. Jesus wants to make himself known to others and offer ordinary people forgiveness for their wrong doing (what we often call sin) through Jesus’ death and resurrection … this was the simple message of friendship that Paul eagerly wishes to share far and wide. Paul often chooses to join together with people, who have a similar love for Jesus, and works in team with them to share Jesus with others, who don’t know him.
Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple living in Italy face the tragic and deeply unsettling fact that they are not wanted in their home country. In Acts 18:2 we see that Priscilla and Aquila are Jews and unfortunately Claudius, who is the Roman emperor of Italy, decides he no longer wants Jewish people living in the country. So Priscilla and Aquila are forced to leave their home and country, and flee across the Ionian Sea to Corinth in Greece. They are refugees, forced against their wishes to leave their home country because of their race and settle in a country which is strange and foreign to them.
From verse 3, we see that Priscilla and Aquila make tents for a living, a common way of earning a living in their day. The verse also says that Paul makes tents, and from verse 1 Paul happens to be in Corinth on one of his many travels sharing his friendship with Jesus with others. Paul meets Priscilla and Aquila at work and chooses to make friends with them. They’re working together … Priscilla and Aquila are undoubtedly vulnerable and struggling to find their feet having been kicked out of their home country … Paul as a Roman citizen knows of the harshness of the regime back home … and whilst he has visited Corinth in the past, he too is a visitor – or a stranger in a strange land.
Scholars who’ve studied this passage, reckon in verses 4 and 18 that Paul stays in Corinth for around 18 months and deepens his friendship with Priscila and Aquila. Undoubtedly they share their stories, Priscilla and Aquila coming to terms with rejection and the injustice of being forced to leave their home … and at some point they talk about the deeper things of life. It’s interesting to imagine conversations around the nature of God. As Jews Priscilla and Aquila have a belief in God and go regularly to the synagogue, their place of worship, to learn more about God from Old Testament writings. However I expect that their view of God is challenged as their world has been turned upside down! If God is caring and compassionate then how can God allow these things to happen to us, to be forced to leave our home and country? Fair questions to ask. Paul shares about his friendship with Jesus, God’s Son, and how Jesus wants to extend this friendship to Priscilla and Aquila right where they are at – in their vulnerability, confusion and uncertainty about the future. From verse 4, Paul is eager to share Jesus with others too – both Jews and Greeks, the indigenous people of Corinth. As Priscilla and Aquila discover their own friendship with Jesus, Paul’s example of sharing Jesus’ love with everyone, including people of other races and beliefs, rubs off on them.
In verse 18 we see that Paul decides his time is up in Corinth for now and decides to set sail for Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, to continue on his travels wishing to share Jesus with others. He persuades Priscilla and Aquila to come with him. At first may be we are surprised that they decide to get up and leave Corinth? What do you think? If as the scholars reckon, Paul has been in Corinth with Priscilla and Aquila for just 18 months, why would they decide to go with Paul? They’re just finding their feet, got some work, able to put food on the table, getting used to living in a new place with new Greek neighbours. Why leave? It’s safe to say that as Priscilla and Aquila have come to know Jesus for themselves, this new found friendship with the Son of God and His offer of forgiveness for wrong doing, needs to be shared with others. Already refugees themselves and not rooted in Corinth, Paul makes them an offer to travel to tell a new group of people about Jesus and maybe it’s quite natural for Priscilla and Aquila to say: “yes, we’re up for that.”
Ephesus is in modern day Turkey (in New Testament times called Asia Minor) and when they arrive they find that people have not heard of their friend Jesus. I know it’s stating the obvious, but it’s so easy for us to forget with modern day communications in mobile phones, email, Facebook, and so on – that news back then would be carried by word of mouth or messengers delivering an important letter. So Paul again uses the synagogue to start talking about Jesus in verse 19 … and astonishingly in the same verse he leaves Priscilla and Aquila to get on with the job of sharing Jesus’ love with more people. Now at this point we really need to pause and reflect! Priscilla and Aquila have no formal training in how to start a church, they are not clever academic people who know the Old Testament, and are wet behind the ears in knowing Jesus. What is Paul thinking? Surely he should stay in Ephesus and spend more time with them? How does he know that Priscilla and Aquila will be okay in themselves in another strange place, let alone talking to others about Jesus?
Well the answer comes in verse 26, where we read about Priscilla and Aquila inviting Apollos to their new home in Ephesus. Apollos is a clever chap, knows the Old Testament well, is a Jew so shares the same background as Priscilla and Aquila … and yet he chooses to spend time with these lovely refugees who are not as clever and wise, because He sees in them a friendship with Jesus that is attractive and contagious! Perhaps not surprisingly to us this time, Apollos himself also goes off to the region of Achaia, back in Greece (includes the cities of Corinth and Athens) and is a great encouragement to other friends of Jesus and a challenge to those who don’t yet know Jesus, verses 27 and 28.
So how can we take this gem of a story of Priscilla and Aquila, learn from it and apply it in own situation?
Firstly how we start to share Jesus is an interesting question. It starts with us and our own friendship with Jesus and confidence in following Him. A theologian called Baxter Kruger was here in Leeds last weekend and his claim to fame is that he unpacks the thinking behind this wonderful book The Shack, which is now in the all-time 100 bestsellers. The Shack is a novel following a man’s story of tragedy and how he comes to meet with God in person to work through his grief, doubts and deep questions of life. Anyway, Kruger says that we hear many lies and untruths and calls these “I am not …” statements. These are said to us by Jesus’ enemy, Satan. So for example: “I am not lovable, I am not intelligent, I am not successful, I am not going to make it …” and so on. Sadly these lies are repeated over and over again until they sink deep into our inner being. They shape what we think about ourselves, what we think we are capable of, and even who we think God is – some domineering, distant, cold being, who doesn’t really care about us. Kruger says that these lies from Satan can only be broken when our friendship with Jesus is woken up inside us. Jesus is in the business of telling us “I am …” statements – so turning the earlier examples on their head: “I am lovable … I am intelligent, I am successful, I am going to make it in this life.” In a similar way we need to hear these I am statements over and over again, allowing them to sink deep into us and affect how we think and act.
The reason I share this is that we can really help and encourage each other in our own friendship with Jesus. We’ve been discussing recently as a church about wanting to go deeper with God – on Sundays, at mid-week meetings, hanging out in the café next door. Let’s use these occasions to positively affirm each other. You are lovable, you are intelligent, you are successful, you are going to make it in this life. Of course it’s more than just gatherings in church, it’s getting to know one another, like last week at our picnic lunch in Hyde Park – and realising that we are built to be in friendship with one another, and this is an important way that Jesus affirms who we are.
Secondly, in the gospel reading Jesus invites us as His friends to make disciples. This is what Jesus wants us to do. A disciple is someone who follows Jesus and shares Jesus’ teachings with others. I am absolutely convinced that this is the task that Jesus asks us to keep at the top of our priority list. Jesus is not the first one to ask us to make disciples – Jesus is simply reiterating what His Father said all the way back in Genesis 12 to Abraham – I bless you with my friendship so that you can bless others with my friendship. Priscilla and Aquila come to know Jesus as a friend through Paul, and then they themselves decide to follow Jesus as His disciples. What we also see is that Priscilla and Aquila respond to Jesus, because they are His friends, and out of love for Jesus and say they want to follow you. What does this mean? Help us to know what you want us to do? Jesus asks Priscilla and Aquila to do the same as Paul has done for them … go and help other people awaken their friendship with me. So I guess what I’m saying here is that as we get to know Jesus better here in our various gatherings, and friendships … it should have a natural and intended outward response. As we repeatedly are encouraged and affirmed in our friendship with Jesus … then another I am statement emerges “I am able to share my friendship with Jesus with others.” I haven’t time to unpack this today – but I am a great believer in Frances of Assisi’s way that much of our sharing of friendship is through our loving actions as much as words. Either way our loving actions, or words, or indeed both, catalyse a response from others to find their own friendship with Jesus and decide to follow Him. Remember that our friendship with Jesus is attractive to others. Our friends, family, people we work with, our neighbours do see a difference in us.
Thirdly who does Jesus use to invite others to be our friends? The answer is simple. “All of us.” It’s not just for Heston & Lydia, or Paul, or Andrea, as those appointed to lead and serve our church, and not just the wider PCC – but all of us.
Two interesting aspects to us sharing Jesus with others. I said earlier that Priscilla and Aquila are only mentioned 7 times in the Bible. It’s wonderful to me that in 5 of those 7 times, Paul mentions Priscilla first. In the culture of the day, Priscilla as the woman is considered second place to the man, her husband Aquila. This is apparent when people are introduced and greeted. It is usual to introduce the man first. Paul clearly has an affection for Priscilla and a belief in Priscilla as a friend of Jesus leading others to follow Jesus that makes Paul intentionally mention her first.
Also Paul sees the potential in Priscilla and Aquila to go make others as friends of Jesus. Perhaps it’s not despite of their tragic life journey, but perhaps it’s exactly because of their story that Paul takes risk with them, leaving them to do the work in Ephesus. Paul also leads by example. Priscilla and Aquila learn from Paul to share Jesus with others. Priscilla and Aquila copy Paul … and in turn Apollos learns from them how to share Jesus … the snowball effect. So Paul makes friends with Priscilla and Aquila. He helps them to get to know Jesus, sharing Jesus’ teaching and leading by example encourages them to do the same. So we too can follow Paul, and Priscilla and Aquila’s example helping those we know to discover their own friendship in Jesus. How important it is to show them that there is no need to wait to share Jesus with others! Jesus is able to use all of us, whether we’ve known Him as our friend for just 5 weeks or 5 years, to start sharing His love with those we meet day-to-day. Sometimes our time is limited too. What if we only have 18months as Paul did with Priscilla & Aquila? As we hang out with our friends at work, relaxing over a coffee or a beer, we can make the most of every opportunity to be and do Jesus.
As Paul, Priscilla and Aquila made tents for a living, it’s appropriate to finish with a tent analogy. Isaiah encourages us at All Hallows to strengthen its stakes as we meet on Sundays, Wednesdays and other times deepening our own friendship with Jesus. Isaiah then challenges us to open the tent wide and encourage others to discover friendship with Jesus.