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Title: “Paul at Lystra”
Preacher: Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader
Date: 13 August 2023, The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: I Kings 11:41-12:20; Acts 14:8-20
When I was growing up it was customary that copies of the Bible (the King James version of course) had a set of maps at the back. I was always fascinated by the map that showed Paul’s missionary journeys. The countries and places he visited at that time seemed as far away as a distant planet to me. Now of course many of us have holidayed in Turkey and Greece and in better times even in Syria. Some of us will have been to those cities he visited where people became the earliest Christian disciples.
Today’s New Testament reading drops us into the middle of Paul’s first missionary journey. He had set off from Antioch in northern Syria, sailed to Cyprus and then to the coast of southern Turkey, from there he made his way north to a different Antioch and then on to Iconium before coming to Lystra where we find him probably in the marketplace. Near to Lystra was another city called Derbe. Reading this I am always reminded of our own east midland cities – Leicester and Derby.
We find Paul in the marketplace because unlike the other cities there was no synagogue there. Until Lystra, Paul’s pattern had always been to go first to the synagogue, there he would find himself amongst people with whom he had much in common. They were Jews and so they had a common belief in the one God, who was the only living God, and they had a shared history and worldview.
And although there were some Jews living in Lystra along with some Romans and some Greeks it was basically its own community of Lycaonian people. They had their own language, their own culture, and their own beliefs about God, or more accurately the gods. It was a belief system that had managed to incorporate pretty much everything that was going around.
There was a local legend, which we can read about in Ovid, about an occasion when Jupiter and Mercury came to earth, they were disguised as peasants and knocked on many doors in a town north of Lystra looking for somewhere to stay the night. No one wanted to know them until they knocked on the door of a rustic cottage, the home of an elderly couple called Philemon and Baucis. They did welcome these strangers into their home, they fed and watered them. They began to suspect that these were gods. And it was to their surprise that Jupiter and Mercury told the couple they needed to leave the house because they were going to destroy the city on account of its inhospitality. They climbed a nearby mountain, and when they looked back they saw city had been destroyed by a flood, apart from their cottage which had become a temple, and they later became the guardians of that temple.
So, there being no synagogue we find Paul and Barnabas in a public square. And the first thing that we read about is what happened when they were confronted by someone whom Dr Luke tells us had never walked because he had been disabled from the day of his birth. It would seem that this man must have heard something about these itinerant preachers, perhaps of the healing miracles that had taken place when they spoke about Jesus. Because Paul can see the light and longing in his eyes he tells him to stand up, which he does, and for the first time in his life he walks.
The result of that is pandemonium. People are not accustomed to seeing such a dramatic change in somebody they know and they can only believe that once again the gods have come to town. Zeus and Hermes are the direct Greek equivalents of Jupiter and Mercury. And so they call them and so they treat them. There would have been temples to many gods in and about that city, but it is when the priest of the temple of Zeus hears about it, he comes along ready with the crowd to make sacrifices to the apostles.
Of course the apostles were horrified, and want to explain to them – first that they are not gods, second that there are no gods but only one God, the living and true God and third that they need to turn from their current muddled beliefs and practices to that one true living God.
The outcome was not good. Although on all his journeys there were many who did begin to follow Jesus as a result of Paul’s teaching, but there were always many who opposed him – the good news about Jesus challenged people’s beliefs, and in those days, as even now, it can have an impact upon local commercial life, and upon local culture, and those in positions of power were not prepared to tolerate that sort of challenge. So they sought to silence him, to the extent of being prepared to stone him to death. They didn’t even stop their attempts to silence him when he left their area. We read here that people had come from Antioch and Iconium to try and carry through their original intentions of stoning Paul. And that’s what they did there in Lystra, leaving him they believed for dead.
So what can we see here that might help us living as Christian disciples almost 2000 years later.
I think some of us will identify with Paul needing to adapt his approach where there was no synagogue. Many of us perhaps grew up at a time when across society and among the people we knew there was a common shared religious understanding. There was a basic belief that there was one God, and there was some understanding of the Christian storyline. So if we spoke about Jesus, there was a basic knowledge of his life story. Of course there was much more that people needed to learn and to do if there were to become followers of Jesus. But there was a springboard for us in what they already knew.
That has now pretty much all gone. Insofar as there is any knowledge it is very much about a Jesus being one of the many options if you’re one of those people who must have or wants to have faith.
So perhaps we can learn from Paul, that when you don’t have a common base to start from, you begin by meeting human need as you find it around you.
And that is a real part of the mission of the church today. We know the potential effect from research that was carried out a year ago by the National Churches Trust. They were wanting to calculate the social value provided by churches in its campaign to raise money and perhaps persuade the government to give money so that churches could continue to be open and do that work. They calculated the cost of replacing the provision of social good provided by churches at £8.3 billion a year.
We can see that locally here in York. Churches have a significant involvement in food banks. In relation to homelessness there is the amazing work done by the Restore (York) Trust, providing accommodation and support for people who would otherwise be homeless; in most cases helping them to move on into independent living themselves. And there is the work of Christians against Poverty helping those in serious debt to get back in control of their lives. All these things can bring about dramatic changes in people’s lives, just as the disabled man in our lesson had his life changed.
But equally important is what many of us do on a one-to-one basis in our local neighbourhoods and other communities we are a part of. It’s not possible to overstate either the need for or the effect of that. Last Sunday I visited not Lystra but Leicester and talked with my cousin who is a social worker there. She was telling me about the massive spike in levels of anxiety since the pandemic. Many of us know of that, some of us have experience of it ourselves, many people find their lives were dramatically affected – not only through the loss of loved ones, but through the shaking of everything that was normal, and finding there is now no normality anymore. And we see and hear regular reports of impact of all this on children and education.
So being there with people and for people, listening to them, and perhaps helping them to begin to re-establish patterns of life may not be so very far away from changing the pattern of the life of the man disabled from birth.
But what about the speaking part in mission? What are we to challenge today, in the way that Paul challenged the belief in many gods. In challenging that belief Paul is at pains to talk about the grace and goodness of God to all people. We need to speak about God’s unconditional love for all people, whoever they are, wherever they come from, and whatever they have done. It is that message that will bring comfort and hope to many, but will undoubtedly also bring opposition from those to whom it is a real challenge.
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