The Preaching of Paul and a Punk Rock Song: Acts 13 and 14
- May 6th, 2019
This week’s Scripture reading reminds me of a punk rock song.
Belfast’s own Stiff Little Fingers has a song called “Nobody’s Hero.” It’s a (loud, angry) reminder that human beings have a habit of trusting too much in mere mortals.
But the thing is: you don’t need a punk rock song to remind you of that. You can just ask the Apostle Paul.
Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The 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. 14When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15‘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. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17yet 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.’18Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Love him (which I sort of do) or hate him (which lots of progressive Christians seem to do), Saul/Paul is THE central figure in the life and theology of the 1st generation of Christians. Like the wheat field on the bear hunt, Paul’s theology is something we cannot go over or under –only through.
And Saul/Paul’s own story is the key to his theology. He was a zealous young religious leader who believed that God was glorified in his persecution of Christians. But when the Risen Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road, he joined the movement he had hounded. (The change in his name—from Saul to Paul—is an outward symbol of his conversion to an entirely new identity in Christ).
Sau/Paul became a faithful member of the Christian church in Antioch, a Greek city located in modern day Turkey. In today’s reading, we hear how he and Barnabas are identified, set apart and sent out to do the work for which Saul/Paul will become famous: starting church, specifically churches for Gentile followers of Jesus Christ.
But the rest of the passage demonstrates just how difficult it will be to work with non-Jewish (“pagan” folks). For one thing, some of them are very polytheistic –something that no doubt offends Saul/Paul’s Jewish sensibilities.
So, in the city of Lystra, Saul/Paul performs a healing. But then he and Barnabas are mistaken for gods; the people try to worship them. Horrified, Saul/Paul preaches a little sermon in which he insists that he and Barnabas are “mortals just like you.” (Literally, “of the same nature as you”).
And this brings me back to the punk rock song.
Religion is notorious for generating cults of personality. (OK, not, strictly speaking, a punk band but still a pretty great song). Congregations, denominations, whole traditions gather around some one charismatic figure. But in response to just such a situation, Saul/Paul preaches his own version of Paul Tillich’s Protestant Principle. We are fallible; we are just like you. Turn away from us and from all idols in favor of the living God.
(I find it interesting, in this brief snippet of Paul’s peaching, that there is no specifically Christian content. He could have said all of that before his Damascus Road experience. But that is another blog post for another day).
This is why I am a progressive Christian generally and a Congregational Christian specifically. So many facets of our life—the role of doubt and critical thought in the life of faith, our insistence that church most basically happens at the level of the local congregation, our deep commitment to social justice work—many facets of our life can be seen as corollaries or entailments from our basic belief in our own fallibility and limitations.
As we move through the Easter season, I find myself wondering what it means for my leadership and for our shared experience of life at Plymouth that none of us is divine; we are all mortal and, perhaps, nobody’s hero.
But the great foolishness of God is to work in and with and through –us!