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Sunday, July 15, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Creating a Stir
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Acts of the Apostles 13:1–3; 14:8–18
Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.
What a strange story this week’s scripture lesson leads us into. I suspect few of you have heard this particular part of Paul and Barnabas’s missionary activity, let alone heard anyone preach a sermon about it! It is a text that has abundance in it—abundant drama, abundant conviction, abundant challenges and abundant courage. And all of these dynamics make for a stirring potential as we continue our summer series on “Spirit Revolution.”
It will not surprise any of us that, as we have come to expect in the Acts of the Apostles, nothing begins without the initiation of the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabus are set apart for a new stage of mission. Their missionary journey is initiated and launched by the Spirit and confirmed by the church through fasting, praying, and laying on of hands. This is exactly what we do today with the ordination of a new deacon here at Fourth Church. And everything she does, as is the charge, will be done to glory of God. But what is also true about this story in Acts is that Paul and Barnabas have little idea what was in store for them. Like anyone starting out on a new venture, there is youthful enthusiasm and a measure of naivete.
Between chapter 13, verse 3 and the section from Acts 14 we read is a breathless journey to destinations in that ancient world far from the familiar turf through which Jesus journeyed. The reach of Paul’s journey as documented in Acts was likely as many as 10,000 miles all told! And it is not only the sheer number of miles but the encounters with distant cultures, languages, and awaiting snares and toils that make for a remarkably dramatic and an unquenchably interesting foundation on which the work of the contemporary church is laid!
In today’s passage, we find Paul and Barnabas in an area that was populated by Greeks and Romans. This is unfamiliar turf for them. Our story picks up post-ordination, having the Apostle Paul’s action echo the work of Jesus and Peter with a healing. In this case it is a man who was crippled from birth. Paul was proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus, and the man was listening. Something in the man caught Paul’s attention: this man seemed to Paul to have faith to be healed. And Paul was moved to heal. He said to the man, “Stand upright on your feet,” and the man not only stood but sprang up and began to walk. And this is where it gets very interesting: the drama ensues! The people observed what Paul had done and began to shout in their native tongue: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus and Paul they called Hermes.
What is not evident to us as we hear this story is that the people of Lystra would have been told since they were young a story in poetic form told by Roman poet Ovid. The mythological story was that an older couple was visited by Zeus and Hermes, who were in disguise. The couple extends hospitality, not knowing they were entertaining gods, and they were rewarded. Paul and Barnabas’s visit to Lystra and the subsequent dramatic healing might naturally make the people connect these outsiders to the gods.
Paul and Barnabas must have been shocked when out of nowhere the priest of Zeus, whose temple is just beyond the city gates, shows up with oxen to be sacrificed and garlands for these two. The pagan priest wants to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, whom he believe to be gods. The two of them are clearly very confused. There is a language and cultural barrier here in this remote area. Even more, there is also a keen resistance to any idea that they themselves are gods rather than bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul and Barnabas tear their clothing in distress and shout, “Why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you. Our message is that healing is an act of God’s grace and goodness for humanity. You who think this is a god moment—that is the small “g” god moment—need to think again.” What Paul and Barnabas hope to communicate is that the people should turn from the worthless things they are worshiping to the living God. This God made heaven and earth. This God is the one who has given a witness to the goodness of heaven and earth, the fruitful seasons and bounty of harvest. This God fills your hearts with joy.
But you know what? What they had to say had little effect on the crowd. Between the language barriers and the crowd’s craze, there was no stopping them. They were intent on offering sacrifices to the two of them.
In this portion of Acts those who experience the power of healing through the power of Christ mistake the gospel for magic or divine omnipotence. Indeed, dramatic healings draw crowds both at Lystra and also in religious communities around our country and the world. And even more than the dramatic healings, says William Willimon, “bearers of Christ’s power are always in danger of being mistaken as the sources of power themselves.” The point of this text is we must always be on guard for the misapprehension of the good work of the gospel of Jesus.
Paul and Barnabas had challenges to be sure! Peter and Paul were charged to plant the fragile and somewhat unruly early church with the potential to have the gospel continuously misconstrued. We see it earlier in Acts with the magician named Simon, who amazed people with magic: once he encounters the power of the Holy Spirit given through the laying on of hands, he wants to buy it, purchase it! Peter rebukes this. Or in the portion of chapter 13 of Acts when a magician and prophet named Bar-Jesus tries to use the name of Jesus as if it were a “magical incantation” (from www.workingpreacher.org).
In our days there are all sorts of things that masquerade for the gospel and also that locate the power in the person rather than in the Source of life, God made known in Jesus. Even more, there are all sorts of complex challenges to communicating the gospel in a multicultural, multireligious, worldwide-web universe. We also live at times when the great challenge of our day is finding a way to communicate what the gospel of Jesus is really about. It is not a prosperity gospel, where faith is rewarded with abundant financial reward. It is not a faith-healing gospel, where if you have enough faith you will be healed. It is not a works-righteousness gospel, where our works are our ticket to salvation. It is challenging to translate the gospel into our world at this time.
But rather than being overwhelmed by it, we might take the tact of seeing it as a great adventure. Finding creative ways of healing, harboring, holy work for our time is the missionary work. This is stirring work. It is work that creates a stir within us and outside of us. There will be times when that stir is quite misinterpreted, because the work of God’s Spirit awakens us to such a life as none can fully comprehend. That work also may create a stir because the anchors are at times pulled up and we are called to set sail for a voyage whose captain is God alone.
Since coming to Fourth Presbyterian Church I have been learning something of this congregation’s history and have been thinking of its future. This learning has not only focused on past successes and future potential but also on realizing that this congregation is in a sea change! I also suspect that the Fourth Church community is no different than any other congregation I have been a part of. The tangle of our faith questions may not be those of Paul or Barnabas as they tried to engage a world that was, for the most part, ignorant of the religious perspectives they were seeking to awaken, but I suspect that this community does have questions about how to live out the gospel at this time in the history of the world when there is a flourishing agnosticism about the power of the gospel for our time. You may wonder how the Holy Spirit is moving in this place. You may harbor uncertainty about how to love another person, whether friend or enemy, those who deeply hurt you, or those who have left you out in the cold. I suspect that some see this faith community that comes together each week to pray, to listen, to seek, to be found, by God as a rather foolish enterprise in a sophisticated and well-educated Chicago environment. Yet the stirring question of how we can be a community that loves one another, as the early church held as one of its hallmarks, is one of the most urgent questions on this crowded, depleting planet today. Even more to the point of this text, how can we find forms of engagement with this richly diverse and spiritually longing world?
We sometimes think this world is the first time in history that challenges of translation and misappropriation are present. But looking at the time in which the city of Chicago was being formed, the nineteenth-century American frontier presented problems for religious leaders. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their book American Grace, “People, especially young people, were spread out in far-flung communities, many of which were too new to have churches. And so both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests came up with an ingenious solution—the chapel car.” Train cars were “repurposed into mini-chapels to travel from town to town, holding services for the otherwise unchurched settlers on the frontier” (Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace, p. 161). Though largely forgotten today, this was a state-of-the-art development that brought religion to remote areas. In some ways it has resonance to today’s Internet churches, with their virtual worship experiences. Those engaging web worship can go to church without ever leaving home. They can connect with others online through chat rooms while watching the service.
The gospel doesn’t remove us from the world, but it plants us squarely in the world. It asks that we marvel at the wisdom and also act in ways that upset the assumed patterns that shake the foundations that seem so absolute. Some of the creative, engaging, and innovative ways that the gospel is made available to our world are worth exploring here at Fourth Church. Faith in God knows no bounds. Truly authentic faith in God enlists the most life-awakening, joyful, deeply engaging way of life we can know.
This is living our lives grounded in the power of the living Christ, unconstrained by anything that diminishes it. It is to create a stir, not for the stirring itself but for the power of life, the healing of the nations, the light that illumines all dark and dreary places. We hear the same call of Christ that was planted in Paul’s work in Asia Minor coming to us in our time to go to all parts of this great city, Chicago, and to attend to those who know within their hearts that God is asking us to embody an evangelists’ faith by saying, “Stand upright on your feet. . . . Throw off all that inhibits you to follow and stir your best energy for the sake of Jesus!” This is the staggering, joyful, tall order of the gospel’s aspirations, and this call asks that we create a stir for the sake of Christ. Though we may be misunderstood, our confidence and our courage arises from none other than the living God, who guides us every step of this pilgrimage. For this we must say nothing but thanks and glory to God. Amen.