I have been told by my nearest and dearest that at times I have an unhealthy obsession with team sports. I don’t quite see it that way myself (although I would say that). It’s not so much the participating in team sports (although I still like to lace up my football boots from time-to-time when family life allows) nor the watching of them (although having two sons who are increasingly obsessed with football and cricket is one of life’s great pleasures). For me, I have always been fascinated by the dynamics of teams – of how people come together to discover and achieve common goals. And while there are plenty of examples out there of how that’s done – in the military, in business, in the arts – I do find myself coming back whenever I can to the lessons we can learn from sports. A documentary about a great basketball team? Count me in. A book about cricket captaincy? There’s always space for another one on the shelf. A story about the highs and lows of my favourite football club? You’ve got my attention. I realise already that some of you may be switched off by a paragraph celebrating basketball, cricket and football! I accept other sports are available and other pastimes can be equally enjoyable – so do stay with me for the rest of the article.
We’re just coming to the end of our Adventures in Acts series at All Nations Church. It has been a wild ride. We have learnt about how the Holy Spirit inspires ordinary believers like you and me to play our part in completing the great commission that the Lord Jesus gave us to make disciples of all nations (see Matthew 28:18-20). We have been inspired and challenged to give ourselves to prayer, to wield the weapon of praise, to not be disobedient to or distracted from the heavenly vision we have received. One of the things that has struck me as I’ve read through Acts a few times over the last months (and as I’ve prepared some of the messages that have comprised the series) is how often the Holy Spirit inspired believers to work together. It’s not always the case – Philip finds himself alone in Samaria and Paul finds himself alone in Athens, for example – but, more often than not, the Holy Spirit inspires people to work together to complete the great commission. It’s clear from the pages of Acts (at least to me) that God loves collaboration; he loves to see people working together. Teamwork is at the heart of God’s work. And so perhaps my obsession with team sports is not so unhealthy after all.
Let’s consider for a moment two of the most prominent human figures we meet in the Book of Acts: Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul bestride the pages of the New Testament like two colossuses. Peter is one of the major characters in each of the gospels – probably the most prominent of Jesus’ followers. The early chapters of Acts see him in the thick of the action. Then Paul comes along and the majority of the rest of the book focuses on him. What’s more, he is the author of more letters in the New Testament than everyone else put together. And yet, we regularly find them travelling and working alongside others: for Peter, it’s his fellow former fisherman, John; for Paul it’s a whole host of characters like Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila. I want to suggest to you – without diminishing their own ministries one little bit – that by working together with others, Peter and Paul multiplied and magnified their service of God. Just think back to the day that Peter and John went to the temple for prayer in Acts 3. Coming to the beautiful gate, they meet a man lame from birth who asks for alms. Peter responds, ‘Look at us’ (Acts 3:4), not ‘look at me’. Sure, in a moment, Peter will say ‘what I have I give to you’ (Acts 3:6) but he begins by acknowledging to the lame man that he’s associated with the apostle standing next to him. And so, Peter and John stick together as Peter preaches to the crowd, as they get arrested, give their defence and get released. It was the boldness of both that the council took note of (Acts 4:13), not just the boldness of one of them. And Peter and John continued to be effective together – travelling down to Samaria in Acts 8 to bring new believers into the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Peter and John had history: they had been partners, along with both of their brothers, in a fishing business before they left it all behind to follow Jesus. They had travelled together with Jesus and the other disciples, had worked together and, at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, been assigned by Jesus to prepare the passover meal together that, unbeknownst to them, became the Last Supper (see Luke 22:8). Consider your life right now: no doubt there are people you work with, live with, travel with, complete practical tasks with. What a gift from God they are to you – and perhaps you hadn’t realised it yet! What great things for God you may yet do together. Don’t resist and don’t despise relationships God is using the every day stuff of life to form you for his purpose.
The people Paul partnered with didn’t have the same history with him as Peter and John, but the bonds between them were nonetheless strong. Paul had a real talent for personal relationships. The biblical scholar FF Bruce observed:
Paul attracted friends around him as a magnet attracts iron filings. His genius for friendship has been spoken of so often that it has become proverbial – almost a cliche, in fact. […] Although he was nothing much to look at, he plainly had that warm and outgoing personality which draws out people’s good will and affection. The other side of the coin is shown by those who could not stand him at any price: people were rarely neutral towards him.
Let’s take one example – Paul’s travelling companion on his first missionary journey, in Acts 13-14, Barnabas. Barnabas is among the great characters in the Bible (like Peter) who have their names changed. Originally called Joseph, he is christened Barnabas by the apostles – a name which means ‘son of encouragement’. Tom Wright said of him:
Some people have the gift of enabling others to flourish. Barnabas was one of those.
Barnabas certainly enabled Paul to flourish. He stood alone and stood up for Paul in Jerusalem when no one else was convinced of his conversion. He brought Paul to Antioch and together they taught the church for a year. And while Peter’s name is always listed before John (before any of the other twelve disciples in fact), Barnabas and Saul/Paul’s names are interchangeable in the middle chapter of Acts. Barnabas was happy to play second fiddle to Paul when necessary; he neither sought the limelight nor stopped his one time protege from doing the same.
What a gift a true teammate is. What a thrill it is to have a genuine friend. To live and work alongside someone who is comfortable in their own skin and pleased not only with their progress but with yours as well. Barnabas was such a man. In fact, it was his confidence in other people that ultimately led to his separation from Paul. Believing there was still good to come from John Mark (the young man who had abandoned Paul and Barnabas halfway through their missionary journey), Barnabas wanted to take him on another journey with Paul, while Paul refused. It all came good in the end though, with Paul sending for Mark towards the end of his life (see 2Timothy 4:11).
It was said of the late great John Wimber, leader of the Vineyard Movement, that he was ambitious for everyone around him, but not for himself. He wanted to see friends and family, brothers and sisters in Christ thrive in their service of the Master. He understood, as so many true servants of God have understood, that labour together is far more fulfilling than the frustration of labouring alone. Mother Teresa put it this way:
You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.
May the days ahead for you not only be filled with adventures but also filled with friends that you can have those adventures with.