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Sunday, July 15, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Paul and Barnabas on the Move
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Acts 13:1–3, 14:8–18
Christian worship is an act of human imagination that voices, advocates, and insists upon a gospel perception of all lived reality.
I want to start this morning with a quick follow-up from last week’s sermon. If you were unable to be present last week, here is all you need to know: In the sermon, I spoke of a recent experience of the Davidson College men’s basketball team. The coach of that team, Bob McKillop, took his entire team to Auschwitz in the hopes that they would never forget the importance of learning to advocate for and preserve the dignity of all people, that they would bring those lessons back.
At the end of the sermon, I told you I would reach out to Coach McKillop and ask him to encourage his team to write down their reflections and to send them to us. I did that last Sunday afternoon, and beautifully I had an email response from the coach by Sunday evening. He wrote that after he received my note, he took the initiative to send our sermon and request to the entire team. This week, I have begun to hear from the players. As we expected, their worldviews have been shaken up by their intentional work of stepping into that historical space of suffering and violence.
They are trying to figure out what they might do with all of the strong emotions the trip evoked. That trip gave the students new categories for interpreting not just history but also current events, as well as renewed motivation for going deeper in their own lives of faith, if faith is important to them. From what I have heard thus far, for some of them their experience in Auschwitz helped to open them up to being changed by God and perhaps to even live differently here because of that change. I look forward to receiving more reflections.
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When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra that day, they found themselves confronted by new categories of interpretation and some unfamiliar ways of processing current events. But before we move to what was different for them in that place, let’s back up to the first part of the reading—the one from the thirteenth chapter. I realize it sounded like I was simply reading the names off of the information pad they passed down the pews, but let’s explore it for a moment, because that list gives us all kinds of clues as to what God hopes will always be in the DNA of church.
Princeton Seminary professor Eric Barreto writes this:
Acts 13 opens with a naming of various prophets and leaders in the church in Antioch. These lists are significant . . . for they are suggestive of the character of the communities they represent. So, for instance, we learn about a certain “Simeon who was called Niger.” Why was he called Niger? Was it because of his origins or ancestry? Do we have here named an African man, whose presence in the church in Antioch needs no explanation or rationalization? [We then hear about] Lucius of Cyrene, another individual not local to Antioch, as well as Manaen, named as a member of the court of Herod the ruler.
We remember who Herod was, right, and how the family of the Herods behaved towards Jesus and his first followers? What do we make of the fact that one of the leaders in this growing early church came from that powerful group?
Barreto continues: “From the courts of the powerful to the foreign sojourners we find [in this list of Acts 13] a community whose God has drawn people from the ends of the earth” (Eric Baretto, “Commentary on Acts 13:1–3, 14:8–18, Narrative Lectionary, www.workingpreacher.org).
I wanted us to pause here before moving to Lystra, because it strikes me that even as this very young church continues to get itself organized, it is already embodying the challenge of the Great Commission: to make disciples from all nations. As our own Session begins a strategic listening campaign, I find it instructive to notice that the leaders of the early church did not wait until they had figured everything out; they did not wait until they had written all of the policy and procedure manuals; they did not wait until after they had voted on the meticulously written long-range plan with its five primary initiatives and twenty work objectives; they did not wait for any of that to get perfected before they started experimenting with how they could best spread the good news of the love of Jesus Christ and intentionally grow their faith community both in size and in diversity. Remember the list from Acts 13.
Rather, they organized themselves as they did the work of evangelizing and ministry. Or, as our own staff member Marty Sherrod might put it, those early church leaders chose to build the plane as they flew it. In today’s management lingo we might say they were adaptive leaders, agile in the way they responded to new challenges and opportunities. If their efforts failed, they tried to just fail forward. You see that attitude all throughout this book of Acts. But what today’s business culture might call agile or adaptive, we could also call faithful and trusting. “Building the plane as we fly it” might just be an excellent metaphor for the life of faith, for the way a church’s life can be.
It seems to be in Acts, for who ended up being one of the most agile and adaptive leaders of all, learning how to improvise when things did not go exactly as he had hoped? Singing in jail cells? Getting back up and trying again after being stoned by adversaries and driven out of town? Working with the culture in which he found himself, translating the gospel in some ways new to him but in ways the people might be able to understand? Who did all that? Paul.
Indeed, notice we have changed whom we are following since our reading last week in chapter 10. Peter, the one from whom we’ve learned in the first part of this summer, has exited stage left, and Paul, sometimes still also known as Saul, will now be the one we watch for the majority of the rest of the book. I believe this change of focus enables us to remember just who is the main character in the book of Acts. And who is it? The Holy Spirit. And the Sprit was and is bound and determined to keep drawing the circle of the church wider and wider, including all kinds of different people into the family.
Furthermore, the choice of Paul is brilliant, for who else could be a better choice to spread the news of the gospel to more and more unlikely Jesus followers than the one who was the most unlikeliest disciple ever: the devout Jewish Pharisee with the strong pedigree, Ivy League degrees, and black belt experience in persecuting Christians—Paul! If concentrating on the Pharisee-turned-disciple Paul did not convince you of the life-changing power of the gospel, then nothing would! So while we watched Peter slowly branch out in his preaching and teaching for the first twelve chapters, we will now watch Paul blow the doors off of the place from chapter 13 through chapter 28.
In today’s section from chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas are just getting started, but as I mentioned earlier, they find themselves in a totally new situation—a context they had not encountered before. Their ability to be adaptive was about to be tested. They have made their way on their missionary journey to Lystra, an ancient city located now in what is modern Turkey. What made Lystra different, however, than the other places where Paul had visited and preached was that it apparently had no synagogue. There was no holy place of worship that signaled a significant Jewish community.
Therefore, for the first time in his mission work, Paul finds himself trying to reach Gentiles with the gospel of Jesus Christ without being able to approach them through the common ground of Judaism. This is radically different for him. As we have learned, so much of the tension in the first part of this book of Acts centered on how Jewish the Gentiles needed to become in order to be Christian. Did they have to get circumcised? Did they have to follow dietary laws?
Up until this point in the church’s expansion, the early church leaders could at least expect a shared belief system or shared theological categories with those to whom they were preaching the gospel. Even if they were building the plane as they flew it, at least they had some common technical language and blueprints. But here in Lystra, none of that is a given. These Gentiles had never heard the Torah. They knew nothing of the creation poetry; the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; the cries of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah. They had never heard of the prophetic promise of the messiah and the long-hoped-for restoration of the Davidic kingdom. For the first time, Paul realized he could not use any kind of “insider” church/synagogue language with those who had come to hear him, because none of those gathered around him had those same categories. His challenge reminds me of a time when a clergy friend in California was speaking with a non-church member friend about getting ready to administer a baptism. “What is baptism?” her friend asked her. No shared insider language at all.
That was the situation in Lystra, which is why, after the man was healed, everyone assumed that Paul and Barnabas were actually the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus in disguise. Greek mythology was what gave those from Lystra the language for the divine, and a popular legend from Ovid was the lens through which they interpreted the healing. Poor Paul and Barnabas, though, for whom this was a new experience, were so distressed by the people’s reaction that they tore their own clothes in order to show the people they were not Greek gods in disguise but human beings just like them. They pointed to the living God, but they were not the living God themselves.
This whole experience must have put Paul’s agile leadership instincts to the test. Suddenly everything he and Barnabas did and said he had to start carefully thinking about through the eyes and ears of total outsiders, people with no knowledge of God or of God’s love for them, no knowledge of God’s desire to embrace the world. Here in Lystra they were starting from scratch—sort of. That “sort of” is critically important, for even if the people of Lystra had only the categories of Greek mythology through which to interpret God’s work, that did not mean God was not at work. Indeed, the author highlights that Paul saw faith in the eyes of the man who wanted to be healed, and it was what they saw in that man’s eyes that taught Paul and Barnabas that God was already present there and active in that place. You heard that conviction in the sermon Paul preached. Do you think that discovery surprised them? Did they initially feel they were bringing God with them on their journey rather than meeting their God who was already there?
If they did, they would not be alone. For centuries, Christian missiology assumed that our missionaries brought God with them to “heathen places and heathen people,” saving them from lives devoid of the presence of the Holy One. Think Poisonwood Bible, for example. But in the last fifty years or so, at least in Presbyterian missionary circles, we have come to understand what Paul and Barnabas discovered that day in Lystra: God is always already present wherever we are going to preach, teach, and serve.
Our job is not to bring God with us. Our job is to discover God’s presence, to point it out, perhaps to interpret God’s work through the lens of what we know in Jesus Christ. Then we are to learn together from and with our mission partners what God is up to in that place, allowing whatever we learn to shape and reshape our theological categories and assumptions, to mess with our blueprints about what church should be. Through our mission partnerships we are challenged to become more agile and adaptive, allowing the insights God gives us to change us and any stereotypes we might have unconsciously brought along with us in our suitcases. I believe it is what Paul and Barnabas had to learn too. It is similar to what the Davidson college kids had to discover, as well.
It is what we will be doing when forty of us head to South Africa this week. We are not bringing God with us to the cradle of civilization. Rather, we are going to meet God in South Africa, to make music with South Africans, and to learn from our Christian siblings there about the powerful ways the Spirit continues to inspire life and love and justice, truth-telling and efforts towards antiracism, healing, and reconciliation. We go hoping we might be a little like Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra: open enough to be changed by what we learn; agile and adaptive enough to integrate our experience back into our lives and our leadership here. We go, like Paul and Barnabas went, remembering the list from Acts 13, excitedly anticipating that we, too, still have much to discover about the way God’s Holy Spirit continues to draw the circle of the church wider and wider, including all kinds of different people into the family, even us.
Even though every Sunday is a challenge for the preachers, I am so glad we are on this journey through Acts together this summer, for it is exciting to follow our early church leaders and to watch as they discover just how expansive God’s hope and love for this world truly is. It is invigorating to realize that so much of what they learned is still important and applicable for us as church in our day and time. Frankly, it is assuring to realize we are not the first ones to build the plane as we fly it. As a matter of fact, taking those kinds of energetic risks might just be the way God is still calling us into our future. Amen.