Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18
Grace to you and peace in the living God, who created the heavens and the earth, and in Jesus Christ our saviour. Amen.
In the 1960’s, a young man spray-painted the words, “Clapton is God” on a wall in London. Even though there was no internet in the 60’s, the saying went viral – soon rock and roll fans all over England and America had posters and t-shirts that said, “Clapton is God.” So, in the TV show “That 70’s Show,” when a youth pastor asks Eric and his friend Hyde to draw what they think God looks like, they both draw the same thing – Eric Clapton.
In today’s reading we hear about the apostles Paul and Barnabas, who – just like Eric Clapton – are mistaken for gods by the people of a Greek city called Lystra. I guess human nature hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, has it?
Now this story is from the Book of Acts, which tells us about the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The plot of Acts is summarized by the risen Christ himself in the first chapter: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) So the book of Acts follows the apostles as they are sent out near and far to share the story of Jesus. And that word “to be sent” is actually crucial, because the word “apostle” means “one who is sent.”
Now today’s story is about a man who has two names: Saul and Paul. He’s got two names, because he has a foot in two worlds. He is a Jew, but he was born in the Greek city of Tarsus. So Saul is his Jewish name, and Paul is his Greek name.
Now Paul started out as an enemy of the church. He saw the message of Jesus as so blasphemous that he actually sought out Christians to punish them, and even execute them for following Jesus.
But Paul experiences a conversion on the road to Damascus, and it changes his life. The risen Christ meets Paul on the road. And Paul’s life is transformed. He is no longer an enemy of the church. Now he is an apostle.
Now Paul finds his way to the city of Antioch, where he meets another follow of Jesus named Barnabas. Antioch was a huge city on the border of modern Syria and Turkey. It became one of the major centres of Christianity, and the book of Acts tells us that it was at Antioch where the followers of Jesus first became known as Christians.
While Paul and Barnabas are worshiping one Sunday with the Christians there, the Holy Spirit speaks to the community, and says, “Set apart Paul and Barnabas – I have work for them to do.” So the Christians in Antioch equip Paul and Barnabas, and send them off to share the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
So when Paul and Barnabas enter a new city, they start by going to the synagogues. This seems like a good place to start. The people there know the Scriptures. They worship God. They’re waiting for the Messiah. There’s a good foundation there to share the good news of Jesus.
But when they get to Lystra, which is in the province of Galatia, in modern day Turkey, they don’t go to the synagogue. Instead, they start preaching to the Gentiles in the marketplace. These people don’t know the God that Paul and Barnabas worship. They don’t know the Scriptures. They aren’t waiting for a Messiah. They are a people of many gods – people who worship Zeus, and Hermes, and Apollo, and Aphrodite. So this is a new challenge for Paul and Barnabas: how do we share the good news of Jesus with these people? Where do we start?
Well, they start by healing someone. Great for the man who was healed, but it proves disastrous for Paul and Barnabas. Chaos ensues.
“The gods have come down in human form!!” the people shout! “This one must be Zeus! And this one talks a lot – he must be Hermes!” And before you know it, they’ve built an altar, and they’ve started a bonfire, and the local priest has brought out the garlands and the oxen, and the whole town is ready to make a sacrifice before their new gods – Paul and Barnabas!
And Paul and Barnabas are starting to say to one another, “This isn’t good!! The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me! If we don’t act quickly, this is not going to go well!”
So with the bonfire blazing and the oxen bleating and the local priest sharpening his knives, Paul calls out to the crowd: “Friends! What are you doing?? We are not gods! We are mortals – just like you!”
“But we do have a message for you. You have spend your lives worshiping idols – making sacrifices to these stone statues of Zeus and Apollo and Aphrodite. But these aren’t gods at all. They can’t save you. They’re just statues.
“But here’s the good news. There is a God who can save you – the living God who created the heavens and the earth, the same God that created each one of you. And this God who created you loves you beyond all measure, and wants to have a relationship with you.
“So you are right – God has come down in human form, in a person named Jesus, who lived, and died on a cross, and rose from the dead so that you may know God’s love, and receive the gift of everlasting life.
“So take down this altar, and extinguish the fire, and put away your knives, and take the oxen back to the barn. Because this God who created you and loves you has made the ultimate sacrifice for you, so that you may be freed from these idols, so that you may be free to live for God.”
Paul and Barnabas were called to translate the good news to a people who had never heard of God. People who had lived their lives serving idols of stone.
And I wonder if this challenge is also the challenge that we face as a church today.
We live in a secular world. A world that does not know God, or perhaps a world that has forgotten God. And in God’s place, our world has set up its own gods – idols that we worship, like rock stars and celebrities, or money or fast cars or big beautiful houses. Or fame or beauty or social media, or the latest tech. Or power, or greed. In some way, we all find ourselves worshiping false gods, whether we want to admit it or not.
So perhaps Paul’s message is a message for us and for our world as well: “These false gods cannot save you. But there is a living God – a God who created the universe, who created you, and calls you by name and loves you beyond measure. And this God has done the most amazing thing. This God became human, and lived and died and rose again, for you, so that you might believe in Jesus Christ, and have eternal life in his name.”