The season of Easter lasts for 50 days, which means we have six Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. But our New Testament does not really have six Sundays worth of stories about what happens between Easter and Pentecost, and so we are fast-forwarding a bit. This morning's story also comes from the book of Acts, after the Holy Spirit has come upon the early church and the message is starting to spread. It is beginning to move beyond the geographic and cultural boundaries of Judaism, although most Jesus-followers at this point are still Jewish, which naturally causes tension between different groups of Jews. This is long before Christianity is endorsed by the empire. This rapidly growing movement is an underdog movement. It has no political or social or military power, no ability to force or coerce anyone to accept Jesus. The power of the movement is the powerful evidence of enthusiastically changed lives. Jerusalem is a hub but no one is really "in charge," although as in any movement, people who love the mission and are willing to serve are gaining responsibility and influence. Because there's very little infrastructure, every big change is instigated by the Holy Spirit and agreed on by the whole body of believers. In this morning's story we see an example of this kind of decision making and some of the challenges faced by the early church as they spread the message of Jesus.
"So let us listen know in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
Things don’t always work out exactly as we plan…and often they have an ironic or comedic twist.
A man wanted to take a vacation as cheaply as possible. He really wanted to either go to Dallas or to Seattle. He called the travel agent and began to make his travel arrangements. “Well, sir,” the travel agent said, “I can get you a flight to Dallas for $450. That’s not a bad price. The time of the flight isn’t the most convenient, but it’s a direct flight, no layovers.” The travel agent continued looking for other flights. “But I can get you a flight to Seattle for only $300.” The agent continued. “The timing is similar, and I can offer you one free checked bag if you’d like.” The man thought about it and replied, “Well Seattle sounds like a better option. I really had hoped to take my vacation in Dallas, but it sounds like Seattle may be the better choice.” The travel agent then went on to say, “This isn’t a direct flight, however, there is one layover. “Oh?” the man asked. “Where is the layover?” The answer came, “Dallas!”
When we think we know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, sometimes life throws us a twist.
Here are Barnabas and Paul – identified by the Holy Spirit from among a number of prophets, preachers, and teachers, as the ones to be commissioned through the laying on of hands and sent on their way. This small portion of the passage could become an entire message on its own. I remember not that long ago, a gathering that took place here, in this sanctuary. People gathered from many geographical locations, from several worshipping communities and faith traditions, from various ways of connecting with one another. And we all sang together, worshipped together, and layed hands on Pastor Beth, ordaining her and “sending her” on her way into ordained ministry. That moment was a culmination of years of prayer, conversations, doubts, questions, fears, more prayer, lots of papers, even more prayer, and a collective understanding that yes, the Holy Spirit was indeed calling Beth to this life of authorized and ordained ministry. God’s people gathered here to recognize, name, and celebrate what the Holy Spirit had set in motion for Pastor Beth and for God’s church. Now I know a little about Beth’s journey. So, I know that there were moments when, just like the man in my story, she was faced with some crazy situations and decisions. Often, she really wanted to go to Dallas, but was presented other options, with unexpected and ironic twists, like a cheaper flight to Seattle, with a layover in Dallas. The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways sometimes! And sometimes, our most challenging task as people of God is to discern, then trust, and then act on what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.
Back to Barnabas and Paul – They’ve been set apart, authorized by their faith community, and sent on their way. Their journey wasn’t a smooth one. They weren’t necessarily greeted warmly and with open arms everywhere they went. In fact, they ended up in Lystra because they had to make a hasty exit from Iconium before they were stoned by members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. Their message of inclusion and salvation for all was just too much for some people to accept.
Now the people of Lystra were the exact opposite. Not only did they accept and believe, they got so excited they started talking with one another in their native language, which Paul and Barnabas didn’t understand, and decided these two must actually be gods. Not just any gods, but Zeus and Hermes! Those were some pretty major gods in that time! And they started to follow their old customs and rituals and began to prepare a sacrifice to honor these two gods. But Paul and Barnabas are having none of it. In fact, their immediate reaction was their tradition’s sign of distress and grief – they began tearing their cloths. “What are you doing? “ they asked. “We’re not gods? We’re humans, just like you!” This wasn’t what they expected, and it wasn’t the reaction they were going for!
Their call, no matter how extraordinary their acts may have been, was to point the way to God, not to be seen as god.
I struggled with whether or not to use this example, but I do think it helps bring what this passage is telling us into a current context. We’ve all seen athletes who make gestures, do dances, or somehow celebrate when they have scored in a game. I’ve always been fond of basketball players who, after scoring a basket, will immediately point to the player who provided them with the assist. This indicator that they did not score the basket all on their own, but had support and assistance from another player, feels humble and relational to me. Then there’s the football players who, upon taking the ball into the endzone and scoring a touchdown will either drop to one knee and bow their head or will look to the sky and point to the heavens. Now I struggle with a theology of a God who devotes God-like energy on helping one athlete score points and helping one team win a game, especially when that implies that God was working against the other team. That’s not my God! But there is something to be said for an athlete who acknowledges, especially in our culture of hero worship and adoration, that the talents, skills, and gifts they have that allow them to play their sport as well as they do, are gifts from God. This acknowledgment that they did not achieve this superstar status on their own is important.
For all the visuals of tearing their clothes, stopping the sacrifices, and persuading the people of Lystra to abandon their old superstitions and embrace our Living God, I really think the basic message of Paul and Barnabas in this setting is this: They are not God. We are not God. None of us are God. God alone is God. Even though God allowed the earlier generations to go their own ways, just a look around at God’s creations, the rains that fall from the sky and the bounty that comes from the earth and sea will point us back to the glory that is our God. When our bellies are full and our hearts are happy, there is evidence of good beyond our doing.
God can, and does, do amazing things through us, when we are open to the calling of the Holy Spirit. Feeding ministries, offering a warm place on cold nights, sharing our resources with the wider church, these are just a few examples of how we use our God-given gifts and talents to serve God’s people as we are called to do. And these are really great ministries, ministries of which we should be proud. The key is remembering that it is the Holy Spirit that calls us and moves us. It is God working through us that brings the results from our ministries.
Like the athlete pointing to heaven after scoring a goal, perhaps one way we have of proclaiming the Good News, perhaps the most important way to proclaim the Good News, is to always see what we do as the finger pointing to God. So that in all we do and in all we say, we remind ourselves and we lead others to remember that we are not God. God alone is God. Thanks be to God!