Marcus Borg guesses that about a third of Christians like the Apostle Paul, a third hold a mixed view, and a third dislike Paul. Should we take a show of hands? Maybe a vote on Barnabas, who traveled with Paul. How can you dislike one named “son of encouragement?” Borg believes many Christians misunderstand Paul.
Perhaps, as we think about being “sent” and read Acts, we might better understand Paul. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas escape a plot to stone them to death and flee to Lystra. They did not hop on a bus or even a mule. Lystra was 18 miles away and 5,000 feet above sea level. That is a good hike, especially carrying all your earthly possessions on your back. Paul carried his tent making tools – scissors, punches and awes- from city to city. Marcus Borg shares that Paul did not make tents for camping, like REI, or for nomadic herders, who made their own goatskin tents. Borg says that Paul made awnings. Awnings sold well in a Mediterranean climate without air conditioning or soap, and where tall city walls cut off the breeze! Paul supported 25 years of mission work and 10,000 miles of travel working as an artisan!
So when Paul suggested, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” (15:36) He was suggesting a multi-year 1200 mile trip with over half of it on foot; there was no Turkish train lines or Norwegian Cruise Lines. As deeply committed folks they engaged in strategic planning!
I always had a quaint notion of Paul and Barnabas visiting some ancient Mayberry or Lynchburg. However, Lystra was a Roman colony, a capital of the Roman Empire, full on marble courthouses. These were large cities thriving with trade, universities, and industry. I do not know the population of ancient Lystra, but Antioch population exceeded 200,000 people. 200,000 people living inside thick city walls circling less than two square miles. That population density surpasses modern Manhattan, without the benefit of skyscrapers, as ancient stone or wood framing technology stopped at four or five stories. I am re-considering the Biblical context as Think about the urban mission of the early church
Paul’s missionary parade did not slowly visit every little town between Antioch and Rome, it sailed and walked right past little Mayberries to get to Athens. They sought out regional education, commerce and travel hubs. The church went to where the people were. This early church urban strategy should guide the Methodist church today. We should pour our efforts and apportionments into cities, where people are moving, culture is arising, and cranes dot the skylines. That is where the Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas.
In the big city of Lystra, our team encounters a man who has never walked. Luke records that “Paul stared at him and saw that he believed he could be healed. Raising his voice, Paul said, ‘Stand up straight on your feet!’ The man jumped up and began to walk. Seeing what Paul had done, the crowd shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have taken human form and come down to visit us’’” They referred to Barnabas as Zeus and to Paul as Hermes, since Paul was the main speaker. When Barnabas and Paul heard about this, they tore their clothes in protest. Rending your tunic was a Jewish symbolic act showing deep grief as in a death. It speaks of a sense of woe. I wonder if the pagan crowd understood why these two jews ripped their shirts? Shocked by the crowds’ profound misunderstanding, Paul ripped his tunic and rushed out into the crowd shouting, “People, what are you doing?”
Do you think the church can miss cultural clues? Is it possible that Paul or we church folks today miss what is emerging around us? Paul was well suited for his outreach to the gentiles, having grow up as a diaspora Jew in the midst of a Greek culture in Tarsas. However, when the crowd call him “Hermes” , that commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.” surely played into his shock.. But, what appalled Paul might have been the Lystian praise language, as they associated Paul with their local gods!
Thursday, I worked Bonnaroo, my last act as Tullahoma Band Parent. I joined over 80,000 people at the music festival in Manchester TN. Bonnaroo has its own, “peace be with you”. When a glitter covered, much tattooed, and hipster bearded man, extended his palm for a high five, I raised my hand. He smiled “Happy Roo Man!” As our palms slapped over our heads I almost returned his call “Happy ROO man” with my ingrained response, “and with you.” Bonnaroo some possibly illegal smells and “you can’t unsee that” outfits for sure, but it held a strange beauty- general acceptance.
Bonnaroo made me wonder how well the church would welcome the Roo crowd? It seemed to me the Roo culture was singing and dancing to things a little less than God, kind of modern Hermes or Zeus, but still praise songs? I wondered if these young people boggey/ing down in Manchester would find the same acceptance and welcome, in the church? Would the church say “you are welcome here, but you need to change” If the same crowds came to church would they feel loved or excluded, labeled, categorized and condemned?
We can label the world as sinful and stay away in fear, we can welcome folks conditionally-expecting them to change for us, or we can love people and let them feel God wooing all of us into deeper faithfulness. Do not our baptism vows say “ All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price “? Love changes everything. Paul knew the deep life changing love of God.
Jesus was a good friend to the party people who had given up on church. Matthew 11:19) Church folks did not understand this. Love changes people. Love acceptances people, and that divine acceptance just opens us up to transformation. When we know we are loved by God, then wow, God’s love begins to fill us! So Jesus hung out with people- who in the eyes of the church were the wrong people-loving them. He saved his harsher words for the self-appointed judges within the church.
All that to say, Paul’s question “Friends, what are you doing?” is not a bad place to begin a sermon or begin a dialogue with the world! Paul observes the culture in Athens as well, walking around the city reading and then quoting the pagan idol inscriptions! He then can chat with the Greek poets and pundits.
Let us not not too easily judge these ancient inhabitants of Lystra for their antiquated pagan beliefs. Just watch some televangelists or nightly news anchors. You will find TV preachers and pundits defending the indefensible, like separating immigrant children from their parents. How do alleged Christians so stain the beautiful name of Jesus? How can hearts grow that hard? Maybe we might tear our shirts and rush into the streets weeping, “Christians, what are you doing?” Maybe some people finding not seeing love in the church have found their own groove!
When did we last ask our neighbors, “friends, what are you doing?” Heather, how do we share who Jesus is with the Bonnaroo, CMA, or Hillsboro Village crowd? Do we have words of hope, comfort, love and acceptance? Could people dance their heart dance here? Belmont, do you believe we need to hear what are neighbors are saying about the church and Jesus? Do we need to ask them “friends, what are you doing?” and listen? Do we think the American people need to join in a dialogue around a more accurate portrait of Jesus?
How did Paul and Barnabas’ preaching in Lystra go? Not too well, for in the next 5 verses, the story ends with the crowds dragging Paul, the main speaker, outside the city wall and almost stoning him to death. Evidently, Barnabas did not inflame the crowd like Paul. Heather, you escaped the pillaging. The next day Barnabas and Paul skedattle out of town.
It seems a great waste of time, perhaps because we read Acts like an action packed comic book with one scene flashing right into the next. However, the story unfolds over two decades, not 21 minutes. Luke tells one story, as the highlight of maybe a full year in Lystra. They will go back! Luke wraps up 1200 miles and two years saying, “Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the good news to the people and made many disciples.” How Long did that take? How many conversations at Pride, CMA, or the awning shop where Paul worked is that? Did Paul win Priscilla and Aquila as they made awning for weeks on end, in an ancient awning shop? How many cups of tea/ coffee at Fido is that? How many photos of Flat Wesley with a rainbow Bible at Bonnaroo is that? ( your teenage son making fun of you for it, that leads to a short conversation with eavesdropping people from Canada about our Reconciling church in Nashville?) How many small groups meeting in someone’s apartment? How many times did Lystra First close off the cul de sac and offer a street festival for the neighbors?
Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the good news to the people in Dedre and made many disciples.Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where they strengthened the disciples and urged them to remain firm in the faith. They told them, “If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles.” That does not sound like street corner preaching, or a big tent revival, or some prosperity pseudo-gospel that stays on the NYT bestseller list! Marcus Borg says that if we read between the lines and remember Paul’s work went on for 25 years, we will see that Paul was generally not a street corner preacher. Paul was incarnational, a Bible study leader, colleague, outsized overly talkative friend who, when the crowds tried to kill him, kept at his mission because in the end, Paul knew only faith, hope, and love endure forever, and the greatest of these is love!
Oh, let us, share the acceptance, love, hope, courage, peace, and joy we find in Jesus. I am deeply convinced the world longs to hear God’s love song sung in the church. Will we welcome everyone, trusting God will show up? Or will we preach a Gospel that says, “you are welcome, but you must know that…” while the crowds dance to Hermes and Zeus. Let us begin a slow loving dialogue with our neighbors. We might begin by asking, “Friends, what are you doing?” and we might win the chance to share with them how the Love of God is changing our lives.