While the believers were worshiping God and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Paul for the work to which I have called them.” So let there be no mistake regarding who’s really behind this. The ministry of Barnabas and Paul is authorized and commissioned by the Holy Spirit herself, no kidding.
The book of Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. We don’t know who wrote Luke and Acts. We do know, whoever did was smitten by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who filled Elizabeth when she was pregnant with John. Once the baby was born it was the Holy Spirit that brought Zechariah back to prophesying. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary turning her pregnant. It was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness and back out again. The Holy Spirit filled the believers on Pentecost making them speak and understand each other.
These days, the Spirit is how we know God is not an established fixture in the universe, not an official monument demanding our homage. Instead, God is still speaking. He is still dancing. God is lavishing mercy on the troublemakers, and God is laughing with us when we take ourselves too seriously. If you have ever tried to tell the truth of the LORD while looking right at her, the Holy Spirit will smile and ask you, “Oh really? Is that what you think?”
The Holy Spirit is like the driver of a getaway car who just realized he has a tail, and you better believe he’s going to shake it. And here you are riding shotgun! And it’s not your fault! And all we can do is hold on because what if God has gone and lost his mind. And every time the Holy Spirit gets exactly where she means to go, Hallelujah. And every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray. We will have to.
In the scripture we just heard, after Paul and Barnabas are commissioned by the Holy Spirit, they arrive in Lystra where they see a man who cannot walk. Paul looks at him intently and sees his faith, so Paul tells the man to get up and walk, and he does.
I don’t know about you, already, my defenses are going up. In my mind, this scene conjures up an old tent revival where a preacher takes the stage to perform a publicity stunt disguised as a faith healing. Have you seen these on TV? There’s a lot that’s wrong with this. Some of these preachers really were con artists. One scam involved having a plant in the audience who pretended to need a wheelchair and then became “instantly cured” when Jesus was called upon.
Even when a preacher is not intending to run a con and genuinely wants to showcase God’s power, these performances still treat God like a party trick. They exploit those who are most vulnerable and teach that if you just believe hard enough, Tinkerbell won’t die, I mean God will cure you.
So you can see why scripture has me worried, but that’s not entirely fair to Barnabas and Paul. They were not running a con. They were following in the way of Jesus who really did heal people, who really did see the wholeness and the holiness of the people he healed. What Paul did was look at a man and see his faith. When he told the man to walk, he got up in front of everyone. Maybe I should not be so worried about this public healing.
I should be worried about what happens next, because hold on, this story takes a breakneck turn! Paul and Barnabas don’t speak Lycaonian, but many in the crowd do, so translation confusion ensued. Once the people saw the man start walking, they believed Paul and Barnabas were really Zeus and Hermes. The priest of Zeus was summoned. He came bringing oxen and garlands. Now what was supposed to be a rally for Christ turned into pandemonium praising the Greek gods!
To make matters worse, there was a group from the Jewish community in Antioch who opposed the early Christians. They arrived on the scene and managed to stop the crowd from offering sacrifice which is good news, I guess? The bad news is this same group began stoning Paul and dragged him out of the city.
Now I know it was the Holy Spirit who commissioned Barnabas and Paul, but any way you look at this day, it was an epic fail! This could not have gone according to plan. The apostles were trying to illuminate the power and promise of God. The people did not get it; the church failed.
You and I know, this is not the only time that’s happened. Often, our failure comes from making God too small. We mean to invoke the creator of heaven and earth, but the people hear us calling for sacrifices to smaller gods.
The church failed when preachers said, “If you believe hard enough, God will cure you.”
The church failed when its leaders proclaimed that slaves should obey their masters. Did you know in eighteen-o-seven, something called a Slave Bible was issued to those who were enslaved in the Caribbean. What made it a Slave Bible was that it had significant portions removed — ninety percent of the Old Testament and fifty percent of the New Testament. Its curators cut out the parts of the Bible that had to do with God’s promise of liberation. When the church pronounced this empty Bible as the word of God, the church failed.
The church has practiced and preached that child abuse is acceptable, that women should keep silent and submit, that people who are gay are deviant and in need of correction. The church has proclaimed a God who is too small. The church has failed.
Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, I am pretty sure. At one time or another, the church has failed you.
It could be that you have been abused in the name of Jesus.
It could be that your identity has been shamed instead of honored.
Maybe you’ve come here hungry only to find that we’ll proclaim the feast of God then hand you a wafer. Maybe you’ve come here hungry for a word of hope only to find yourself going back into the world empty-handed. We can still find ourselves preaching a God that is too small, and oh my dear church, you and I know. We can still fail.
And here’s the thing. Our faith is more than our failure. Our faith gives us the power to be honest, to see how we have fallen short, to acknowledge our failure out loud, then make a new choice.
For all the things the church has gotten wrong, something the church has gotten spectacularly right is carving out a channel for confession and repentance. I’m telling you. If this is the only gift we Christians give to the world, it would be enough. Imagine if the church could lead the world in learning to say: Here is how I have failed. I’m sorry. I want to hear how I hurt you. I want to make a new choice.
More than anything, this is the work of becoming ferociously honest with ourselves. And there’s no way to find our own truth and not hear the truth of God. It’s like our own honesty brings us into harmony with the honesty of the Holy Spirit. The truth is this:
The power of God is grace.
The promise of God is forgiveness.
Once we begin to notice how the compassion of the Holy Spirit is on the loose in our world, it will break our hearts and save our lives, and if we have gone and gotten into the car that God is driving —then all bets are off. Hallelujah and hold on.
The power of the Holy Spirit commissioned Barnabas and Paul. The rally in Lystra was an epic fail; Paul nearly got stoned to death! But the next day, Paul got up and went with Barnabas to Derbe to preach the Gospel there.
When church leaders tried to stop slaves from reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit found black people in the church of the brush arbors. Those in bondage learned how to read, they read the whole Bible, and they proclaimed God’s promise of liberation until even white people began to hear it.
When the church abused children for generations in secret, the Holy Spirit would not stay quiet. Now a light is shining into every corner of the church exposing the hurt and harm. Now survivors are seeking healing; each one who does makes healing more possible for others.
When the church tried to keep women submissive and silent, well it doesn’t seem to be working.
When the church tells lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans folks that who they love is a result of their sin, we know that’s a lie. The Holy Spirit won’t let us stay quiet, praise God.
Once you hear us telling the truth of our own brokenness, the harm we have caused and the harm we have carried, you will hear us begin to tell the truth of God. You will hear the grace of God.
No matter how hard we try to make God smaller, or more easily understood, or more of a party trick, or more professionally appropriate, the Holy Spirit isn’t having any of it. The Spirit is not deterred by our failure, and you know the Spirit is not done commissioning people. If that scares you more than a little, me too.
Here we mean to follow Jesus and we find ourselves getting into the car with God at the wheel. And I’m not sure where we’ll end up or whether we’ll walk away from this unarrested. And every time I can promise you that God will get us wherever it is that we’re going. And every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray. We will have to. Amen.