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Priscilla & Aquilla: Tentmakers

Preached:  August 25, 2013
Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 18

The Emperor Claudius pronounced an edict in AD 49, ordering all Jews to leave Rome.  Jews lived throughout the Roman Empire. To the average Roman, the Jews seemed more peculiar than threatening.   But keeping the peace Pax Romana was crucial.

The Roman historian Suetonius writes that Claudius expelled the Jews: “Because the Jews in Rome cause continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, Claudius, the Caesar expelled them from Rome.”  Followers of Jesus had come to Rome preaching Christ in the Jewish synagogues, thus triggering a violent response from many Jews. Disputes arose between  Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who didn’t.

So, all the Jews left Rome, forbidden to return. Here we meet Priscilla & Aquila.  They journeyed east toward the Greek metropolis of Corinth, a busy, commercial port on a narrow isthmus, 400 miles from Rome. It must have been a traumatic time for them being refugees -uprooted from their home, and having to start all over again.

However, they were better off than many.   They were tentmakers with a portable business.   Priscilla and Aquila set up shop in a storefront in Corinth and began to rebuild their lives. We are not told explicitly that they were followers of Jesus in Rome, but they appear to have started a house church soon after arriving in Corinth so we could assume that they were perhaps followers of Jesus, followers of THE WAY in Rome.

A few years later, Paul arrives in Corinth. He is going through a rough time.

■         In Thessalonica, some Jews formed a mob in order to kill him.
■         He escaped to Berea, but was admonished to run away to Athens to escape again
■         Waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he talked to some Greek philosophers about their    monument to an unknown god.  His sermon receives a mixed reaction; a few want to hear more, but others sneer at him.

He arrives in Corinth alone and almost penniless. Silas and Timothy are back in Phillipi trying to raise money for the missionary journey. Paul remembers his skill set as a tentmaker and heads down to the marketplace, trying to find fellow tentmakers who might offer him a job.

At the marketplace discovers Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, also tentmakers.  They will become life-long friends, fellow-workers, and kindred spirits.  I imagine he opens up to them and tells them all about his journey, his successes and his travails.  I can imagine at some point the conversation turns and sounds something like this.

“Why don’t you come and stay with us for a time?” Priscilla and Aquila ask.
He doesn’t politely go through the motions:  “Oh no – I couldn’t possibly.
I wouldn’t want to put you out”?
No – Paul is too desperate, too humble and too God-reliant
to turn down their offer of hospitality. Instead he says, “That would be great!”

Priscilla and Aquilla invite Paul to join them in their business. Throughout the epistles Paul talks of ‘labour and toil, and working with our own hands’. He was literally referring to the hard work they did to make a living.   Priscilla’s & Aquila’s hospitality restores Paul, giving him new confidence and the three end up forming a close bond.

They grow the tentmaking business, while simultaneously growing the young Christian house churches in Corinth.  “Tent-making” has a rich double meaning in Paul’s work.  A tent is the space where God chose to dwell during the exodus.  Paul made tents for his customers, and helped create a new kind of tent—the Church—for God to dwell.

When Paul decided that it was time for him to leave Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila left their business behind and followed him. They are a highly mobile couple who keep popping up in Paul’s writings for the next 15 years.  The three of them head to Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila stay in Ephesus while Paul journeys back to Antioch.  Priscilla & Priscilla & Aquila quickly became leaders in the Christian community in Ephesus, where they stay for several years. Paul mentions them later when he writes one of his letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:9).

In 54 AD, Emperor Claudius died and his edict expelling the Jews from Rome died with him.  Priscilla and Aquila move from Ephesus back to their old city of Rome and a church starts meeting at their home.

Later, when Paul was in Corinth a second time, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome urging them to find unity as the Jewish-Christians returned.  In this letter, Paul sent a poignant hello to Priscilla and Aquila, noting that they had “risked their necks” for Paul and his work (Rom 16:3-4). He adds, “Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.”

Their stay in Rome was short-lived, probably because of the gruesome persecution of Christians under Nero. They return to Ephesus. It had been 16 years since Paul first met them. He is now in a Roman prison with his death imminent at the hands of Nero. In one of his last writings, he says: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila” (2 Tim 4:19). Paul is remembering his dear friends. It was just a brief, simple greeting. But Paul wanted to be remembered to them in the last hours of his life.

Priscilla and Aquila a huge impact in their time much like Billy Graham in our time.  They are always mentioned together – three times in Acts 18, and then referenced in Romans 16, 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Timothy 4.  Three times Priscilla is mentioned first.  What is curious is that we know that the Apostles had wives, but their names are never mentioned in Scripture.  We know Peter has a wife, but she will always remain “Peter’s wife”.  This makes the story of Priscilla & Aquila even more unique.

One thing is certain. Prisiclla & Aquila were a team. They were a married couple certainly, as well as business partners.  Ultimately, they were partners in ministry.   They had each other to lean on during good times and bad.  There is a funny story that illustrates being part of a team.

A guy who drove his car into a ditch accidentally. It was an isolated location and there was no cell phone reception to call for rescue. Thankfully, a local farmer saw it happen and brought his horse to help pull the car back on to the road.  The farmer hitched his horse
Buddy up to the car then yelled, “Pull, Nellie, pull!” Buddy didn’t move.
Once more the farmer hollered, “Pull, Nellie, pull!” Again, Buddy didn’t respond.
Then the farmer nonchalantly said, “Pull, Buddy, pull!” And Buddy dragged that car out of the ditch.
The motorist was very appreciative but he was also curious: “I am so grateful for your help.
I just have one question. Why did you call your horse by the wrong name? The farmer said,
“Oh, Buddy is blind – if he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t even try.”

Like “Buddy” we find motivation difficult if we think we are the only ones pulling. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out in teams of two by two.

The other aspect where I find hope in this story is the realization that people can come into our lives, into our hearts – at any moment, when we least expect it.  All of us go through loss – that is an inevitable part of life.  Loss of loved ones and friends.  It could be loss through death; it might be loss through a geographical move; it may be a loss because people’s lives change.  Whatever the reason, loss is never easy.  And we need to take time to grieve.  But we cannot grieve to the point where we close our hearts to anyone entering into our lives ever again.  I know when I am grieving, it is difficult to open my heart to new relationships.  We can look at Paul who is down and out, who has gone through a rough time.  He had no idea that life-long friends were going to come into his life.  May our hearts be open to be “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis writes.