Summary: Acts 14:8-20
Sermon 8th August 1999: Acts 14:8-20
Good Evening. They say that if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again; and if at first you havn’t bored the congregation totally rigid, then you get a second chance to come and practice preaching. So we come together in the name of the +Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The sweep of the Bible means that it is a work of many different parts and styles - part hymnbook, part rulebook, part poetic, part mystic, and particularly in the books of Mark and Acts, part Thriller: yes, a cracking story told at a ripping pace, packed with action, adventure and the touch of the divine. In tonight’s thrilling episode, we see Paul and Barnabus perform a miracle, a miracle just like one of their many miracles recorded in Acts and none the less miraculous for that, a miracle that was clearly impressive for the people of Lystria. There is much to be learnt from this short episode.
It is a miracle which is deliberately written to echo Peter’s first miracle outside the temple early on in Acts Chapter 3 and therefore to establish in the minds of early readers the parallels and the equality between these two early Fathers of the Church: one whose Ministry was based in Jerusalem and was primarily for the Jews, and one who was the itinerant missionary evangelising the Gentiles; both however, were key.
These are not ordinary miracles: they are special miracles: this was a personal encounter rather than an act of mechanical charity – the passage tells us that they looked directly at the lame man. They are a direct encounter with the Gospel of Christ: The healing itself echoes many of Christ’s own miracles, by which it is the faith of the lame man which makes him well: Paul and Barnabus are merely conduits for God’s grace, which is what makes the reaction of the locals even more disappointing.
The people of Lystria were distracted from the message Paul and Barnabus carried: more willing to fit the event into their own world view: in this case hellenic paganism. They concluded therefore in their little world, that Barnabus was Zeus and Paul was Hermes.
This fits with an ancient story about these same two gods visiting a town in the area. They were not recognized and received only a cool reception. In anger they destroyed the town that had been so inhospitable. With such a folk-tale circulating in this region, it is hardly any wonder that the crowd reacted in the way that they did, bringing forth a bull and wreathes and wanting to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas after a simple healing. The legend also helps to explain why they assumed the visitors were those particular gods rather than a god of healing, as might have been expected from the events themselves. The crowd, when excited, spoke in their native language. The language barrier may in part explain why the people so easily misunderstood the apostles’ message and why the apostles had so much trouble discouraging the sacrifice. Once they realised through the fog of miscommunication what the locals were trying to do, they tore their clothes, which throughout the ancient world was understood as a gesture of deep sorrow or self-humiliation. I am therefore the not surprised that the people of Lystria got upset when Paul and Barnabus emphasised their human nature: the opportunity for a good party taken from them: no bull sacrifices tonight, I’m afraid, because the message of Christ has arrived in town.
How often do we find ourselves witnessing the goodness and the grace of our Lord, and how often do we ignore it, trivialise it, put it down to chance or even worse, try to fit it into some not-quite-secular, not-quite-pagan and certainly less than Christian world view. Mystic Meg and her kind holds far too centre-a-stage in current thinking. Too often, we neglect to see the impact that God has on our lives, taking credit ourselves for the blessings he rains down on us, preferring instead to take on the advice of Iago from probably my favourite play, Othello “’Tis within ourselves that we are thus or thus”.
Therein lies the contradiction of the “self-made” man, for man can create little for himself, except perhaps the misery of others (something which he has great skill in creating): but, as we say in thanksgiving for the Offertory “All things come from you”. Those that do seek, much like Iago, to be self-made, quickly find themselves in he depths of unhappiness; and increasingly this search is played out in the quasi-religious, the New Age, the Cult: much like the Lystraonians, the easy explanation and justification of self is sought away from God, however, in the words of one of the great Fathers of the Church, himself a former cult member, St Augustine: "Seek for yourself, O man; search for your true self. He who seeks shall find himself in God."