That first reading, about Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, comes up rarely, and it is worth lingering over. And since the portion in our Lectionary ends in a kind of cliff-hanger, I will take us ten verses beyond the portion so that we get the point.
Half way through the first mission trip, Paul and Barnabas cause such an uproar in Iconium that a crowd of Jews and gentiles runs them out of town in an attempt to stone them. They move on to Lystra, where they preach the good news and at first experience amazing success.
Like the time in Acts 3, when Peter and John encountered the man born lame at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, and heal him in the name of the risen Jesus, so Paul and Barnabas encounter another man lame from birth. Seeing that he has faith to be healed, Paul commands him to stand up. Like the guy at the Temple gate, this man not only stands. He jumps. When the locals witness this, they take Paul and Barnabas to be gods. Amazingly, they take Barnabas to be the top god, Zeus, and Paul, because he is doing the speaking, they take to be Hermes, the messenger of Zeus. The local Zeus priest springs into action with oxen and garlands to perform a worship service on the spot!
Also like Peter and John, after the healing of the lame Temple beggar, Paul and Barnabas try to refocus this enthusiasm and insist that the healing occurred not through any power of theirs but through the living God, the same God they have known through the rains and the fruitfulness of the earth. This only increases the crowd’s enthusiasm for offering sacrifice to them.
But the point of the narrative really isn’t clear if you stop right there, where today’s first reading stops in the Lectionary. For the next verses tell us that the would-be stoners from Iconium and Pisidian Antioch catch up with Paul and Barnabas and win that enthusiastic crowd over to their side. As Luke tells it, the very people who had been ready to worship Paul and Barnabas pitch in to stone Paul who is dragged out of the city and left for dead. Remarkably, when disciples gather around him, he is able to get up. After a night’s rest, they proceed to Derbe, where their evangelization makes “a considerable number of disciples.” Most amazingly of all, they then have the gumption to return to the very towns where rejection had trumped their successes, to strengthen the spirits of the disciples they had mode. They encourage them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” They then appoint leaders in these budding and vulnerable communities and pray with them. When they get back to their home base, Antioch of Syria, they report to the church “what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
The point of Luke’s narrative is to demonstrate that the power of the risen Lord Jesus works through ordinary human beings in a way that can be rejected, not stopped, and is much deeper than either the mindless enthusiasm or the violent rejection of the crowds in Lystra. What the Gospel of John speaks of as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of Father and Son, Luke portrays in his narrative about the formation of stable communities in the midst of that chaos. The same dynamic occurs in the mission of the church in our world today. Life after the resurrection of Jesus does not mean smooth sailing. It means entering the kingdom through many hardships; but it also means that the risen Lord does indeed open doors and enable healing, conversion and courage in the face of rejection.
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