In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds 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 oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them. Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18 NRSV.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord; and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our Helper, and our Sustainer. Amen.
We continue this week in the Acts of the Apostles. Or, perhaps, it is better named the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Because, as we saw in last week’s story, it is the Holy Spirit that is the primary character of the Acts narrative - the primary character in forming and shaping the people of God into the church.
Last week, we heard the story of Peter and Cornelius in Caesarea, located some 78 miles northwest of Jerusalem, along the Mediterranean coast. Today’s story begins in Antioch, which is another 300 miles north of Caesarea, also along the Mediterranean coast.
It’s important for us to understand that, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples initially remained in Judea, the province where Jerusalem was located. Continuing to share what they had witnessed with their own eyes. They did this mostly in the temple and the synagogues simply because they were Jewish. This was their community. However, it wasn’t before this became a problem for the religious leaders. Things escalated. And, eventually, one of the apostles - Stephen - was stoned to death.
It was Stephen’s stoning that scattered and drove the disciples out of Judea in fear. Yet, we know that even in the midst of fear and darkness, God is always at work. Bringing about new life. So, as the disciples were being driven to places further away, their mission continued. And churches were planted along the way.
One of those churches was the church in Antioch. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city located in the Roman province of Syria. It was the capital city, a center of Greek culture, and a commercial hub. After Stephen’s stoning, many Greek followers fled to Antioch, introducing Christianity to the large population of the Jewish diaspora who lived there. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were first named “Christians.” Because of this growing community, Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to guide the believers in Antioch.
The Antioch church was diverse. We see that in the opening verses of chapter 13. Names that reflect many different cultures: Barnabus, from Cyprus - a Greek island off the Mediterranean coast. Simeon, nicknamed Niger, of African descent. Lucius, from Cyrene, a North African. Manaen, a foster brother of Herod Antipas, killer John the Baptist and ruler at the time of Jesus’ death. And Saul, whom we also know as Paul, which is his Jewish name - Saul being his Roman name. He had been brought to the church in Antioch by Barnabas, from his hometown of Tarsus, which is where he, too, had escaped under his own threat of persecution.
Our story opens with the community worshiping and fasting. Then, present their midst, the Holy Spirit tells them, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to do my work.” They continue their fast and worship and it is then, after they have finished, that they lay their hands on Barnabus and Saul and send them on their way into the unknown to share their own stories of faith - their own stories of meeting Jesus.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about being sent. We live in a time that is very different, yet very similar to that of the early church. The church, as we know it, is in a period of decline as the reality of Christendom - where the church was once central to society and culture - is no more. As Christendom disappears, the church is being pushed to the margins. We are no longer an accepted part of the culture. We are moving into a time and place that is very similar to that of the early church. This can feel challenging. We might wonder how, in the midst of this upheaval and change, we are to continue to do God’s mission? As fewer and fewer people walk in the front doors of our church, how are we to continue to do God’s mission?
Last week, we talked about sharing our story - the story of this place. Grace & Glory. And how this community has, from its very beginning, like the Antioch church, been a place of inclusivity. Where difference and diversity are celebrated. Where those on the margins of society are welcomed and valued.
Today, our focus is on sharing your story. Yes, I said, sharing your story. Each one of us, like Paul and Barnabas, has a story to share. A story or stories of when we have met Jesus in our lives. Perhaps it was in a moment of utter darkness and, maybe, it wasn’t until years later that we recognized Jesus present. Beside us. Or perhaps it was in moments of light and Jesus’ presence was immediately clear to us. Whatever those moments, I, without hesitation, believe that each of us have stories to share of when we have met Jesus. Stories that, if they are shared, become life-giving stories in which God’s mission of sharing the good news is carried out.
Yet, I think it only fair that, before I can ask you to share your stories, I must share one of mine.
It happened in the summer 2006. I was in my first year of seminary. With a group of students - none of whom I knew beforehand - I went to a small village in Italy for three weeks to study medieval theology, spirituality and worship. One day, early in the trip, I met a fellow student - a young woman named Cari. She has given me permission to share this story. Now Cari had grown up in the Salvation Army. This is a church that does wonderful work in our world, but it is also a church with very fundamentalist beliefs. Cari’s family had been in the Salvation Army for generations. Her grandparents were important leaders nationally in this church. Cari had been involved in it from early on and had been active as a youth leader and a summer camp director. She was on a trajectory to become an important leader in the Salvation Army.
But, there was one problem. Cari was gay. And, as much as she tried to fight and to deny it, eventually, to be her authentic self, she had to come out. And when she did, she was shunned by her church. By her own family. And by any community she had really ever known. This resulted in a deep depression, a suicide attempt, and a resulting 3 month hospitalization. By the time I met her in Italy, she had only been out of the hospital for a few weeks. And she was searching. Trying to make sense of everything. Trying especially to understand where or if, in the midst of this darkness, God existed.
Now, before I go further, there is a part of my own story that I need to share with you. A part that is immensely painful for me and that brings up a vast amount of shame and sadness. I’ve mentioned before to you that my father died when I was 14. What I have left out of the story is how how he died. Which was by suicide. Now, there is much to this story, but it’s important that you understand two things. First, he was dealing with mental health issues, which is often true with those attempting suicide. Second, at the time he died, suicide was not discussed. Unlike today, where we have finally began to speak about it more openly, it was a taboo subject at the time. And so, because of that, there was and still is for me a lot of shame connected to his death.
So, that day in Italy, when Cari shared her story with me, I felt as though the Holy Spirit was nudging me to share my story with her. To share my story of my own father’s suicide, so that she would know that she was not alone. And that, even though it might feel to her that God had abandoned her as her church and family had, God had not. I wanted to share with her that God had created her in her own uniqueness. That God loved her - a love reflected in Jesus' death on the cross. And that God would always be present with her, bringing new life for her out of this dark place. All these gifts of our Lutheran tradition that had taken me years to fully understand - I was being called to share this with her.
But, I was afraid. Because I had never witnessed like this before. I had never evangelized like this before. It was terrifying, because it required me to be deeply vulnerable with her. To share my shame-filled story with her, not knowing how she might respond, or think of me. And I was uncertain of even what words to say. Yet, somehow, the Holy Spirit put words into my mouth and I shared my story and God’s story with her.
Each of us have stories to share. Stories of darkness where we have wondered where God is. Stories where, often in hindsight, we see that it was in the midst in those dark times where we truly met Jesus. Jesus, who knows our suffering. And our shame. Jesus, who brings us out of death to life.
What is your story? You - me - like Barnabas and Paul, we are called to share it. And, as we do, things may not happen exactly as we expect, as we heard in the second half of today’s story. Yet, somehow, even in the midst of our human messiness, the Spirit continues to work. Through us. Giving us the words so that others might meet Jesus, just as we have met him.
May God give you the courage and the words to share your story. Amen.
Preached May 12, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18; Matthew 10:40-42