When God Comes to Town

The Narrative Lectionary points us to Acts 13:1-3 – the appointment of Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to carry the gospel to the known world. It also connects us to Acts 14:8-18 (although why not to vs 20? That seems a fitting caption to the pericope. Alas, they did not ask me). This is one of two Acts texts for the Easter season, then we move into Romans. The two Acts texts encounter the two main characters of Acts: Peter and Paul. But there’s not much time to develop anything about the spreading flame of Christianity. We will reverse course and visit Acts 2 in a few weeks, but that is for Pentecost and a suggested text. I will be focused delightedly on Romans. But back to this week’s texts.

The Antioch Missionaries

The appointment of missionaries in the diverse Antiochian church must have been an extraordinarily exciting time. It was during a time of worshiping and fasting that the Holy Spirit instructed them to send Paul and Barnabas on a journey of sharing the gospel with the surrounding provinces. Several elements make this account worth noting. The church at Antioch was filled with people from a variety of locations and backgrounds. This is evident even among the four mentioned prophets and teachers. Barnabas was from Cypress and a part of the mother church in Jerusalem made up of Jews. “Simeon who was called Niger” was perhaps a black gentile from Africa. There was Lucius who was from Cyrene, modern-day Libya. Manaen was connected with Herod in some manner, a Greek who had been reached with the Gospel. And Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of Pharisees who encountered the living Christ and gave his life to Him. (Saul’s inclusion here is interesting in that Barnabas had to stand up for him in order for the other Apostles to recognize him as a genuine convert. Now They’ll be partners in missions!) They were appointed through the impetus of the Holy Spirit during a period of worship and fasting. After hearing from the Holy Spirit they fasted and prayed more, then sent them on their journey with the laying on of hands.

That alone is sufficient for a sermon text. The diversity of the church being united as one under the direction of the Holy Spirit is a needed message for today. The encounter with the living God through worship, fasting, and prayer is another theme that could be developed. And the rootedness of the missionary purpose of the church is evident here as well. Any of those three could make a fine sermon. However, we not only have this text but the encounter in Lystra to deal with, if we accept the entire text. But perhaps a brief overview of this section could inform the rest of the text.

Encounter at Lystra

It is these Holy-Spirit-Sent men who encounter a lame man who had never walked. He listened to Paul preaching and was inspired to have faith in Christ. Paul could see that he had faith to be healed. Was this a miraculous knowledge that Paul had, or did the man just have such an expression of expectation? We will never know. Paul healed the man with a loud voice and there was an enthusiastic response from the crowd that had gathered. But remember that Paul and Barnabas were sent into territory where the gospel had not yet been preached.

The gods have come down to us in human form! – Acts 18:11

Not just any gods, but this kind of miracle required the two greatest gods! Zeus and his son Hermes. Evidently just outside the city was a temple to Zeus and the priest of that temple was impressed enough to start celebrating with sacrifices. I wonder if some miracle workers today would be happy to receive the worship of the crowds? Not Paul and Barnabas. So, Hermes, I mean Paul, shouted to the crowd that they were actually not Greek gods and only human beings. More, they were human beings who were encouraging people to turn away from worthless mythologies to the “Living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Their presentation was brief but pointed:

*We represent the God who created the world – not the imaginary gods you’ve been serving.

*We represent the God who has witnessed to you through many sustaining works such as rain, seasons, food, and joy.

*Unlike the arbitrary and impulsive gods you have adopted, our God is the real God.

This is a pretty basic message but it does get to the root of where the people live and how they need to shift their faith away from myth to reality (evidenced by the walking formerly lame man). It seems the people weren’t really listening very well. Outside of our text, some Jews from Antioch came and talked the crowds into taking Paul outside the city to stone him to death. He didn’t die, but he was maybe near it. The next day they went on further to the next city.

In this section the preacher could focus on the message of Paul for the Greek-influenced crowd. But we are only given a sketch of this message and it doesn’t seem to be the main message of the text. What does seem to be the main message here is the dedication of these first missionaries. If you read from chapter 13 to this point, they have encountered several life-threatening situations. Yet they continued on to bring the good news of the Gospel to the lost world, even at great expense to themselves.

Fire in their Hearts.

Ministers in America today can mope for a week about a critical remark about their sermon. What if they were left for dead outside the city gates? Would that be enough to extinguish the missionary zeal in their hearts? Just this week an Assembly of God minister in Burkina Faso was executed along with five others in this West African nation. (LINK) I’m afraid ministers today quit the ministry for much

Paul and Barnabas aren’t through – the fire in their hearts was lit aflame by the Holy Spirit back in Antioch and they could not be dissuaded. Paul would later write…

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

– Romans 8:18

That might be the major lesson of this text. It’s a long journey emotionally from the Spirit-Filled joy of Antioch to the beaten and painfully stoned dirt outside the Lystra city gate. But the empowerment of faith and love for lost souls makes paying the price worth it, when God comes to town.

You’re invited to join in sharing resources and sermon ideas on the weekly text at my Facebook Group called Narrative Lectionarians. Thanks for reading and sharing. JED