Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
Last week, we heard the story about how Peter recognized, through his vision of the clean and unclean animals and his visit with Cornelius, that God poured out the Holy Spirit not only on Jewish people, but also on Gentiles. In chapter 11, Peter got called up on the carpet by the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem for eating with the Gentiles, and so he had to explain his actions to them. He described his vision and how the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the Gentiles, and when the believers in Jerusalem heard his story, they were silenced. And then they praised God in wonder and awe, because God had decided to save Gentiles as well as Jews. With this, a wall began to break, and people began telling both Jewish people and Gentile people about Jesus, and more and more people became believers. One city, called Antioch, located in Syria, soon became a center for the early Christians, and the church there grew enough so that, when there was a famine back in Judea, this new congregation sent goods to the believers in Jerusalem to help them out. But things were still not safe for the early Christians. King Herod began to persecute them, and he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. Next, Luke tells us, Herod imprisoned Peter, but, in one of the funnier stories in Acts, God sends an angel to break him out of jail. When the guards couldn’t find him the next morning, Herod had them put to death. But Herod got his in the end: read the end of Acts 12 to find out about the gruesome death that he suffered.
And with that, Luke brings us back to Paul in chapter 13, who is with the believers in Jesus in the Antioch congregation. One day when the group was worshiping, the Holy Spirit told the congregation to set aside Barnabas and Saul—by the way, Saul is the same man as Paul; Saul is the Hebrew name and Paul is the Greek name—for the work that God had called them to. Thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey. Our reading today skips over the first stops on Paul’s journey. He and Barnabas first go to Seleucia, which was the port city closest to Antioch, and they set sail for Cyprus, which is the island south of what is today known as Turkey that is still fought over by Greece and Turkey. They have some adventures on Cyprus as they speak the word of God, including blinding a magician who tried to turn a Roman official aside from believing in Jesus. Then they sail from Cyprus and land in the southern part of Asia Minor, which is today known as Turkey. They continue preaching Jesus, first in the synagogues and then to the Gentiles. Luke includes a sample of their preaching in another Antioch, this one in the region of Pisidia. But they get run off from Antioch by people who don’t believe what they are preaching, and they travel next to Iconium, where the same thing happens. And so, they come to the town of Lystra, where today’s story takes place.
And this is where the story gets really funny. Paul, seeing a man who had been crippled from birth, and seeing that he had faith to be healed, tells the man to stand up on his feet. And the Holy Spirit works through Paul and heals the man. But the crowds in Lystra are largely non-Jewish, and so they have a different response to the healing than Jewish crowds would. Steeped in a culture that worshiped many gods, and that had many stories of those gods coming down to earth to visit human beings, the crowds interpret this healing to mean that the gods had once more come down to earth. They thought that Paul was Hermes, the god of communication—yes, even the crowds back then thought Paul talked a lot!!—and they thought that Barnabas was Zeus. Well, this is a huge problem for Paul and Barnabas—as good Jews, they know better than to claim that they are gods. And so, they tear their clothes as a sign of mourning for the blasphemy of the crowds, and they frantically tell the crowds that they are not gods, but that they bring good news of the living God, the one God who created them all. But even then, they barely keep the crowds from offering sacrifices to them.
The question now is, what are the things that we can learn from this story? It seems as though Paul and Barnabas failed in their missionary work here, as the crowds did not have the proper framework for interpreting what happened to the man who had been crippled from birth. There are two things that I see that we can learn, and these things are tied together in the way that we are called to witness to others about Jesus Christ. One thing is this: we need to learn to communicate to people in ways that they can understand. The other thing is this: we need to be brave and to use words to tell people about Jesus, and not just depend on the nice things that we do.
Let’s talk about communicating with people in ways that they can understand first. When the people of Lystra saw what Paul did in healing the crippled man and interpreted it to mean that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and when Paul and Barnabas saw that the people were about to offer sacrifices to them, Paul talked to them in general terms about the one, living God. He knew that these were not Jewish people, and he knew that he could not refer back to Moses and the prophets to tell them about Jesus, because they would not have heard of Moses and the prophets. All the people knew were those Greek gods that even we, today, had to learn about in school. So Paul says this: “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things (that is, the pagan gods) to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” In other words, Paul chooses the most basic thing that he, a Jew, and this group of Gentiles have in common: God created them both, and not the pagan gods.
When we are witnessing to people outside the church, we need to find the most basic thing that we have in common with them so that we have the best chance of understanding one another. Many people in our society today have not grown up going to church. They are not going to understand what is sometimes called church-y language, or church speak. The word “sin” may not be in their vocabulary, let alone justification by grace through faith. Their question is not going to be, “How do I get to heaven when I die?” but rather it is going to be something along the lines of, “How do I live a good life?” Or, “What is it that makes life worth living?” Therefore, we need to be thinking of answers to those questions that start at the most basic thing we have in common, but that move towards speaking of Jesus and why Jesus is important to us. For example, it could be something like this: “You know, I’ve asked those questions in my life, too. And I find meaning by helping other people, especially when I have things that I can share, like food and clothes. But I do this not because I think I am a good person, but because I believe in Jesus and his love for me. Jesus loved me so much that he died on the cross for me, and so I share his love for me through helping others however I can.” This starts at something basic that I have in common with the other person—I’ve asked those same questions—moves to something that the other person can probably understand—sharing things with those in need—and finally moves on to why I do this—because of Jesus.
And this brings me to the second lesson that we learn from Paul and Barnabas today. There is a quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” First, St. Francis never said it. I don’t know how or why it was attributed to him, but it isn’t in any of his writings. And second, it’s a bad saying. Don’t ever say it again. Your actions, no matter how good they may be, can always be misinterpreted. Paul did a good thing by healing the crippled man, but it turns out, his actions were misinterpreted, and the people decided they wanted to worship him and Barnabas as gods. And I think the philosophy behind this saying is why our congregations are in the situation that we’re in. Too often, we have worked in our social ministries and helped others, hoping that our actions would prompt people to ask us about Jesus. Well, that didn’t happen. And so now we need to get bold and talk to people about why we are doing the good works we are doing. When people come into our buildings for food and clothes, we can strike up a conversation with them and ask them if we can pray for them. And don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you,” stop and pray with the person, right there, if they are okay with it. Let’s invite people to our worship service, and not just a “Come to church on Sunday,” but rather a specific, “Come and worship with me this Sunday. Do you need a ride? I’ll come and get you. And, I’ll sit with you and help you through the service if you’re confused about what’s going on.” This is how we build relationships with people.
Our reading from Acts today ends with what seems like failure on the part of Paul and Barnabas. But the Holy Spirit never fails. Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the city, and Paul was stoned, but he did not die. He and Barnabas continued on to Derbe and made many disciples there. They then returned to Lystra, and there they found believers in Christ. Some people were obviously affected by the words that Paul spoke, even though he was driven out of the town. Today there are ruins near where Lystra was, and a large part of the site remains unexcavated. But, in the ruins that can be seen, there is a church building. The Holy Spirit works, but often does not work on our timetable. So, keep witnessing to others about Jesus and build relationships. You may not see any results, but you never know if you will be planting a seed that will grow long after your initial encounter with the other person. Do not be discouraged, for the Holy Spirit is with you and is working in you. Amen.