+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
At the risk of sounding like a broken record – and not for the first time this year, I suspect – the story of the early church is a truly amazing story of transformation. Just think about the Scripture passages that we’ve read during the month of April: We started three weeks ago on Easter Sunday with the world-changing events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, continued with the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on that mountaintop in Galilee and their commission to go out into the world and proclaim the good news of God to every nation, and then heard the story of Peter’s Spirit-inspired vision that demonstrated how God was moving even among the Gentiles, people who had previously been considered outside the scope of God’s care and concern. Each of these narratives is the story of radical change – Jesus’ triumphant Passover from death into new life, the disciples’ transformation from terrified deserters to bold witnesses to the power of God in Christ, Peter’s new-found understanding that God shows no partiality and receives anyone who holds God in reverent awe – and each of them helped to expand the Gospel’s reach into new and different places.
Today we enter the final weeks of this year’s journey through the broad sweep of the Scriptures by taking time to consider the ministry of perhaps the most influential figure in the history of the early church – excepting Jesus, of course. That person, the man whose name is associated with half of the books of the New Testament, is the Apostle Paul, and the story of how he came to be in Lystra in today’s text is another one of these amazing stories of transformation.
Let’s back up a little bit to Acts Chapter 7, in which another early church leader named Stephen is brought before a crowd of angry religious leaders in Jerusalem to face trial. Stephen boldly proclaims the good news of Jesus, so inflaming the crowd that had gathered to pass judgment on him that they immediately dragged him outside the city walls and pummeled him with stones until he was killed. On the margins of that crowd was Paul, a young Pharisee who also bore the Hebrew name “Saul” and who wholeheartedly agreed with the stoning of Stephen. Before we can even blink, Paul is on his way north, to the city of Damascus in Syria, with a commission from the high priest to round up all of the Christians he can find and bring them back to Jerusalem to face trial. By this time, his reputation as one of the foremost persecutors of Jesus’ followers had spread far and wide, as he approached Damascus Acts tells us that he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Suddenly, Paul was blinded by an encounter with the risen Christ, and his life was turned upside down. Healed by a Christian in Damascus, Paul receives the good news about Jesus, is baptized into Christ, and becomes one of the most fervent preachers of the gospel message.
Following Peter’s vision and the baptism of the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius, the church in Jerusalem and this new apostle of Jesus come into conflict over the proclamation of the gospel to non-Jewish people. The Jerusalem church believed strongly that those who heard the gospel needed to accept the marks of Jewish identity, including circumcision and the kosher diet that forbid the eating of certain foods. Paul, whose conversion carried with it a commission to bring the good news to the Gentiles, was convinced that the message should be presented to all people freely, without the expectation that those who received it would need to become Jewish in order to be joined to Christ. After much debate, it was finally decided that Paul would take responsibility for the mission to the Gentiles, while Peter and the representatives of the church in Jerusalem would be responsible for proclaiming the good news to the people of Israel.
Fast forward again to Acts 13 and 14, where Paul (and his companion Barnabas) are preaching to the people of Lystra, a Greek city that was home to a large temple honoring the chief Greek God, Zeus. In the midst of his sermon to the curious crowds that had gathered to hear this stranger, Paul noticed a man who was unable to walk listening intently to his message, and he demonstrated the power of God in Christ by commanding the man to rise up and walk. To his horror, the people of the city misinterpreted what he had done, believing that Paul and Barnabas were incarnations of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and rushing to offer sacrifices to them. The apostles had to use everything at their disposal to convince the people that they were not gods, but mere mortals bringing a message of good news and salvation.
It’s sort of a funny story when you think about it, but it also demonstrates some really important things about the mission of Paul and the ministry that we share with him as people who gather in the name of Christ and belong to a community that bears the name of this apostle to the Gentiles.
First, this story provides a cautionary tale as we carry out the mission that God has given to each one of us in our baptism: We are merely messengers. Paul ran into trouble when people failed to see that he was pointing beyond himself to God, whose grace and favor was available to all people. It’s natural for us to fall into the trap of thinking that the good news is about us, and we feel good when we receive recognition from others for what we do in service to God. As followers of Christ, we are first and foremost recipients of God’s amazing grace, and the great gift of this life of faith is being able to share the source of that grace with others, so that they can experience the abundant life that God offers to us in Jesus.
Second, this story provides one of those great examples of Paul trying to meet people where they are in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. Paul invites the citizens of Lystra to look around, to recognize the signs of God’s goodness revealed in the constancy of the seasons, in the gifts of grain and fruit at harvest, in the wonder of nature that sustains them. Paul is willing to acknowledge the truth wherever he can find it in order to bring people to faith. In the same way, we are called to meet our friends and neighbors and families where they are, bearing witness to God’s presence with them in the midst of their concerns, their struggles, their joys and sorrows, showing them where God has already been active in their lives.
Finally, we need to remember the first part of today’s reading, the seemingly unremarkable verses that set up the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. In this short passage, we are reminded that Paul and Barnabas are not free agents acting on their own whims and by their own authority. The community of Christians at Antioch laid hands on them and blessed them for the ministry of the gospel, surrounded them with prayer, and sent them out to do the work that they believed God had called them to do. They went in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit given to them in baptism and affirmed by the community that sent them out in mission. In the same way, we who are joined to Christ in the waters of baptism are sent out each week with the blessing of God and the prayers of our congregation, filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit to carry out the ministries that God has given to each of us – ministries of friendship and companionship, fatherhood and motherhood and mentorship, teaching and learning, sharing and caring, supporting and praying, serving and loving, discovering and questioning, all of which help to make God known. Brothers and sisters in Christ, may you be encouraged by the knowledge that you are one of God’s witnesses this week, sent out to meet people where they are, and gifted with your own unique ministry by the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God! Amen.