This week a Pew research study came out saying that Christianity is declining in America – there was a big drop in the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians.
That was followed by a flurry of interpretive pieces- it’s not declining, there are less closet atheists now, or it is just a shedding of the dead weight of all the churches and denominations that used to be Christian that have left true Christianity. Or it’s because churches are not doing enough to reach millennials; or because churches are too engaged politically, or not engaged enough politically, or because people are more independent, and less comfortable with labels and membership. And there are dire predictions of what it means in the future, as Christianity loses ground to other religion and to the “nones”, with some even saying things like “the decline of Christianity in America could lead to a collapse like the Roman Empire.”
Against this backdrop comes the story of Paul and Barnabus’ almost comedic encounter with the people of Lystra. Our passage today reminds me a bit of any number of movies I’ve seen where someone arrives washed up on a supposed deserted island only to be lauded as a god by the locals – like the Ewoks welcoming Princess Leia and worshiping C3PO as a golden deity, or Tom Hanks in Joe vs the Volcano, or Garfield in that movie where he goes to Hawaii – (and I know there are many more but for some reason those are the three that come to mind). After healing a man who had never been able to walk, Paul and Barnabas are assumed to be gods come down to earth. But because of a language barrier, it takes these two a little while to figure out what is happening, and when they finally do it is almost impossible to correct the misconception. And it gets even more dramatic and funnier when you glimpse the events leading up to and following this encounter.
We are now something like 18 years after Jesus sent the disciples into all the world. I want to let that sink in for a minute, because in reading these things in the bible, highlights without the spaces in between, they seem closer together than that, and in following something like the narrative lectionary, where we take huge leaps through books, it can feel even faster.
But this is like an entire childhood later; let’s just say that if their “go and make disciples” was born around Pentecost, it could vote by now. 18 years ago right now cds were cutting edge, everyone used paper maps in their cars to get places, and 97% of phones were still plugged into walls. 18 years is a long time, and a lot happened in that time, not all of it worth reporting.
When we look at the whole thing from where we are – a couple thousand years and a few thousand miles away, it looks like the gospel spread to all the world so thoroughly and effectively that there is no actual global center to Christianity –it truly is in every place. It might be easy to assume that it went along like a fabulously executed strategic plan, the disciples got their marching orders and obeyed, Paul had his Damascus road conversion, and then went on to convert the world. From this far away, it’s pretty clean, systematic, even.
But on the ground, up close and in the moment, it looks a lot messier than that. Like, for example, the fact that Paul and the others are getting beat up repeatedly, even occasionally stoned and left for dead, and it often appears that almost nothing goes as planned.
Our story of the incident in Lystra is sandwiched right between episodes of beatings, misunderstandings and scuffles, and throughout this portion of Acts we keep seeing a dogged group of religious Jews racing between paragraphs and ducking under page turns to catch up to Paul and Barnabus in each of the places they go, deliberately undoing what they’re doing. Convinced that Paul and Barnabus are corrupting the true faith, these ardent believers keep arriving in towns right after them calling them dangerous and getting the townspeople to violently drive them off. So if you imagine that is par for the course for them, then the reception they receive in Lystra must be positively exhilarating.
At first they must be thrilled! Elated! This guy is healed and everyone is responding! This is how it feels when things go well! Look how excited they are! They get how great the gospel is! They’re getting it! Look how many are getting it!
Through the cheering and the garlands they rejoice, laughing along with the euphoric people right up until it starts to dawn on them that something is not right… that, wait a minute, what’s happening… are they getting ready to slaughter that animal to us?? Oh no, wait, do they, do they think we are gods… ??
And it turns on a dime. Now they’re devastated – how could it have gone so wrong?
This is pretty much the opposite of what they are trying to communicate! This is not what God wants at all! In fact, God wants the people to turn away from these practices, and recognize the God who has been revealing Godself to them all along, caring for them and feeding and nurturing them and filling their hearts with joy! Paul and Barnabus are merely fellow recipients of this grace, bearers of good news of the true God who did indeed become human. But despite all their screaming and clothes-ripping and desperate explaining, they still scarcely restrain the crowds from sacrificing an animal to them in worship.
And the verses immediately following this incident show that once the crowds calm down, that group of naysayers hot on their heels catches up to them and convinces the people of Lystra that Paul and Barnabus are shysters, and they once again get driven from the city, (this time Paul is stoned and left for dead). So they’re back on familiar turf, anyway.
But there is an even stronger thread that runs through it all, and that is this: They continue rejoicing. They keep coming back among other disciples of the way and giving thanks to God, rejoicing together, praying together, seeking God’s direction, celebrating and then jauntily setting out on another journey, joyful and filled with a sense of purpose.
Why? Well, they weren’t in it for the fame – obviously. They were horrified by the response of the people in Lystra.
And they weren’t in it for a scorecard. They seemed to lose people as fast as they gained them; let’s just say their methods begged for a corporate strategy assessment, anyway.
But they kept going, forward, and looping back, revisiting communities, supporting those who had joined the Way, building them up with encouragement, receiving their encouragement and care, and moving on to new territory, undaunted by the many troubles and complications.
There is a resilient and enduring dependence on God, a reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a TRUST that God really is leading and doing something out there in the world calling them to come see, come and share, and it keeps them going.
In the face of disappointment, fear, hunger, rejection, danger, this is what gives them strength. This is what defines reality for them, not those things.
Every time they return to a community for prayer, fasting and discernment, every time they share their experiences, their joys and struggles, they get grounded again in the real reality, the big picture, the kingdom of God, this force of love that looks really different than the way of fear. They meet at the table and break bread and encounter again the risen Jesus through their shared stories of Jesus, recounting his words and deeds, remembering resurrection appearances, through weeping together, laughing together, praying together, and then, regrounded in the life of God, they head out to each new adventure. And each new adventure and all the judgments and obstacles they encounter, rather than tearing them down, only served to increase their trust that they are indeed joining in the cosmic shift already underway.
They trust that God who led them there, would meet them there, and would take it from there. God is doing it. Not them, not their own strength or skill or great cultural savvy or stunning presentation. And then that kind of trust is exactly what they are inviting others into.
They really, to their very core, believe and trust that this is God’s ministry – and they are just participating. And they want to give their whole lives to participating in this force of love because God is wooing the whole world, and how could they miss out on this?
And so trusting the Holy Spirit means that they go out in anticipation, that in each place, at any moment, God is bringing them to see what God has been up to, that God is leading them to meet people whose lives God has been stirring, who are ready to hear just what it is Paul and Barnabas are coming to say.
Here in Lystra, it’s this one man, this man who stops Paul in his tracks, and in whose eyes Paul, when peering intently, sees something he recognizes: faith, a trust already in God’s power to heal, so Paul goes where God is and meets him in that place of faith. And God heals the man. As one biblical scholar explains, “This is the nature of faith in Acts: trust in a God who will keep God’s promises. So also this is the nature of God in Acts: a God who meets us and heals us.” (Eric Barretto)
Is Christianity in America is dying? I don’t know. But I do know that any time we make it about ourselves, the institutions we build, the work we do, the labels we accept or give to others, the us and them battle where we recruit people for our side and tally our cosmic scorecard, the number of people in our pews or money in our bank accounts or trends on a graph or great skills or cultural savvy, any time we use the world’s rejection and stoning or praise and glory to dictate to us what is true about what God is doing in the world, we are being guided by the way of fear, not trusting in the big picture, the real reality.
God doesn’t care about our thriving institutions, our crumbling traditions, our labels, or our successes and failures. All of the things we use to make us feel secure, to reassure ourselves that we are on the right track, are simply distractions from the Kingdom of God, which always comes in weak and backwards and upside down and often very messy ways, and will never stop wooing hearts and changing lives and pulling us into trust and hope.
It simply will not.
The real reality is that Jesus is already out there in the world, doing what Jesus does, and inviting us to come and see, come and share. That is how the love of God works- it is an unstoppable force that is holding the universe together and bringing new life relentlessly. And every one of us needs to be converted again and again – it never ends, like we saw last week with Peter. God keeps drawing us into deeper relationship and greater openness to meet Jesus in the unexpected places and unlikely people, trusting that God leads us there, will meet us there, and will take it from there.
This week, another reality was unfolding alongside all the grandiose and distressed predictions of Christian doom. It was this little thing called a “Love flash mob” – a once a year, online tradition where a small group of volunteers hold up a family or two in need and ask people to pitch in for their need. The rule is that nobody can donate more than $25, because it’s an act of trust in God’s love, and faith that if we all join in a little bit, big things can happen.
This year they dreamed bigger, and instead of one or two families, they lifted up 176 people beginning with three: a large foster family that needs a van, a wounded vet’s family that needs a washing machine and a car, and a little girl that needs legs, yes, legs, because she was born without. And they kicked off the love flash mob, and the donations and words of encouragement from started pouring in. After two hours, ordinary people all over the country, giving less than $25, raised $82,000 and those three needs were met.
Then they held up a 9 year old girl who, after a conversation with a homeless person two years ago, began growing vegetables to share with the homeless people in her community, and as she got to know them, began expanding ways she helped until now is part of a movement to build small houses- so more strangers rose up and supported her. Then, for a mama with a spinal injury who uses leg braces and crutches and struggles getting her little kids in and out of the car to go places, who love going to the park together, more strangers bought a yard playset for them.
And then for an incredibly inspiring bus driver who has encouraged countless kids and families, and who is dying of cancer, people who did not know her provided those families the means to celebrate her and care for her in her final days, and the list goes on and on.
And it seemed impossible and ridiculous but in a little over 24 hours, over $268,000 was raised to do something meaningful and personal for 176 different people, to show them that they are seen and loved. The average donation amount from over 15,000 different people was $17. And one volunteer’s young daughter, watching all this unfold, commented, ““Mom, it’s so cool that we already know that in the end Love wins, so we can always make sure we’re on the right team.”
Sisters and brothers, we already know the end.
So which reality will lead us? What way we will we live?
Because whatever the state of the “church” is in America, the Body of Christ is alive and well, the Church – those who live forgiven and free in the love of Jesus and share that love with others - is steadily, messily doing its thing, and every day we get to join in the cosmic shift already and always underway.
But it’s easy to get distracted from that truth. So we keep coming back among other disciples of the Way to get grounded again in the real reality, to meet Jesus together by giving thanks to God, rejoicing together, praying together, sharing our joys and struggles, seeking God’s direction, celebrating and then jauntily setting out again on our journey in anticipation, to see what God is up to out there and listen for how the Spirit is calling us to respond.
And it is my fervent prayer that in all of this we too, really, to our very core, trust that this is God’s ministry – and we are just participating. And that we will want to give our whole lives to participating in this force of love, because God is wooing the whole world, and how could we miss out on this?