The Wind of God Blows New Life
Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18; Micah 6:6a and 8
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The theme of this morning’s service,
splashed across the top of our bulletin,
is a bit of a slippery slope.
I’ll read it to you, but watch your step.
“The Spirit of Jesus Sends Witnesses.”
Okay . . . what’s so slippery about that?
What dangerous territory might we fall into,
by embracing that idea that the Spirit sends witnesses?
Well, if we could ask Paul and Barnabas,
they’d have something to say about it.
In fact, Paul did talk about it in 2 Corinthians, at length
listing all the ways he suffered for the Gospel—
he’d been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, jailed, and more.
But that’s not the danger I speak of.
I mean a danger that sounds like the opposite of suffering.
It’s the danger of honor, recognition, and respect.
But before we go there, let’s take a few steps back,
to the start of this story from Acts,
where Paul and Barnabas were chosen, by the Spirit,
and sent, by the Spirit and the church, to be witnesses.
Guess where that happens?
In the same community we talked about a lot this winter
in our study of Matthew—Antioch of Syria.
But this is a very different time.
Matthew’s Gospel emerged in that community
around or after 70 A.D.,
when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire.
So we read that Gospel in light of the severe trauma
the Jewish and Christian community had endured together.
But by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written down and shared,
the apostle Paul was already dead and gone.
This story from Acts happens a full 25 years earlier—
a whole generation before Matthew was compiled.
So what was the church at Antioch like at this earlier time,
around 45 A.D.?
We don’t have many details, but we can speculate,
based on what we know about early church life,
that the group of Jesus-followers in Antioch
that commissioned Paul and Barnabas
and sent them out as witnesses,
was a lively and diverse group of people,
most of whom were practicing Jews
and members of the local synagogue,
but also included Gentile believers.
Paul, as you might recall, was a zealous Pharisee,
who actively persecuted Jesus followers.
He was transformed when he met Jesus
in a vision on the road to Damascus.
Then he spent a decade
being discipled into a Jesus-follower himself.
Most of that was in Jerusalem,
but eventually, he landed in Antioch.
There, he and Barnabas were among a cohort
of gifted and educated young believers,
living in a community where
Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers co-existed,
attempting to build a vibrant faith community.
That’s the context for the beginning of today’s scripture.
The believers in Antioch sensed, by the Holy Spirit,
that Paul and Barnabas were being called to go out
to other communities around the Empire,
where the scattered Jews, the diaspora,
were living and trying to make a life in a highly Greek culture.
So the believers in Antioch fasted and prayed,
and laid hands on Paul and Barnabas
and sent them off to preach the Good News.
We skipped over part of chapter 13, where
Paul and Barnabas ran into resistance immediately.
Some welcomed their message.
But others, threatened by it, stirred up the people,
and they got run off time and again,
once with an attempted stoning.
Given Paul’s history as a persecutor, himself,
that wouldn’t have surprised him.
But then, they got to Lystra, and their fortunes changed.
They met a man lame from birth,
then let the Holy Spirit work through them,
and the man sprang up and walked.
And the crowds swarmed on them.
But instead of rushing at them with stones,
they rushed at them with flowers.
They thought they were gods come to them in human form.
The crowds were ready to make sacrifice—
to Barnabas, as Zeus; and to Paul, as Hermes.
The children this morning already showed us this chaotic scene.
You know what I find so remarkable about this story?
Not the healing itself.
Not even the outpouring of love and adoration by the crowds.
Those things you might expect.
What I don’t necessarily expect—
especially when I lay this story
alongside the history of Christian mission in the West—
is how Paul and Barnabas responded
to this outpouring of honor and admiration.
They instantly threw a fit.
They mounted a loud public protest.
They tore their clothing, it said,
the ultimate act of desperation and public humility—
all in response to them being loved and adored!
Their loud refrain was,
“No, no! Don’t think that way!
We are just like you!”
That’s exactly what they said, “We are just like you!”
What if those were the words
Christian missionaries were known for
throughout the history of the church?
“We are just like you.”
“No, don’t treat us any different.”
“We are human like you.”
“Our needs and desires and rights and worth,
is no more important than
your needs and desires and rights and worth.”
The global family of Jesus-followers
would look very different today, I think,
if that had been our Christian mission history.
My grandparents, who I loved and respected deeply,
were missionaries to India from the late 1920s to the early 40s.
They operated out of a model that was handed to them.
In the core of their being, I know
they were humble and compassionate and self-giving people,
and I’ve been told personally,
by some Indian Mennonites who remember them,
that Lloy and Elizabeth Kniss had a reputation of being
kind, approachable, willing to get
down in the dirt with their neighbors,
unlike some other American missionaries.
my grandparents did what their predecessors did.
They moved into the gated missionary compound,
already there from the previous missionaries,
built seven years earlier by our Mennonite mission board.
They lived in that large cement house with tile roof,
larger and safer and more comfortable, by far,
than any homes for miles around.
I have that 90-year-old panoramic photo
of the house and compound
on the wall of my home office,
as a reminder of where I came from.
A missionary compoundin those days,
was more than a home.
It was a base of operations from which
missionaries dispensed services
that our mission board determined was needed:
and much more.
It was primarily a one-way transaction.
We have what you need.
And we are here to give it to you.
And like the people in Lystra,
many of the local people
related to missionaries like gods in human form.
They didn’t literally bow down in worship.
But they did lower themselves in deference.
Because clearly, these Americans were not
the kind of human beings THEY were.
The local population was indeed poor,
and lacked adequate health care.
The missionaries seemed mysterious and transcendent.
Unimaginable wealth and resources at their fingertips.
They could make the sick well.
They could build strong buildings.
They could make things happen.
I’m grateful that today our mission agencies think differently.
MCC, Mennonite Mission Network, VMMissions,
for the most part, would be abhorred
by the idea of sending people into a new setting
like some god deserving reverence.
I know a number of young families today,
connected to our mission agencies,
living in other countries and cultures, with their children.
They’ve been there for years,
just living out lives of faith,
learning from their hosts.
Grace and Yugo in Indonesia, for instance,
were just here sharing their story of few weeks ago.
Working alongside slum residents, and living among them.
And there are many other examples. Many, many!
Through their lives and their words,
this generation of mission workers are saying,
kind of like Paul and Barnabas,
We are just like you!
We have the same needs.
We have the same human struggles.
Let us learn together how to overcome them.
Show us how to build houses like yours.
Show us how to eat food like yours.
Teach us your language.
Teach us your ways.
Share your wisdom with us.
Then maybe later we’ll share ours with you.
And together, we’ll see where it leads us.
But this is not just a sermon about our theology and practice
of global mission.
It hits a lot closer home.
It applies whenever we get involved in the lives of others,
be they our co-workers,
the immigrant community,
those dealing with food-insecurity,
those with chronic mental illness,
and yes, the children and families in our church neighborhood
through Kids Club or Block Parties or what have you . . .
we should always ask ourselves . . .
Does the message we’re sending sound anything like,
“We have what you need—
what you’ve been waiting for, even if you didn’t know it.”
Or is more like the refrain of Paul and Barnabas:
“We are just like you!”
Just. Like. You.
We need you as much as you need us.
We need each other, to be whole.
The Jesus we try to emulate came as Emmanuel—
God with us—God like us—
God that identifies with us.
If that’s who we worship, and who we follow,
shouldn’t we live with that very same posture of deep humility.
No matter what our interactions with our neighbors, with each other,
we should be doing all we can to identify with the other,
not to distance from the other.
May God help us.
Please join me in a prayer of confession, if you will.
one God, without whom . . . nothing.
We owe all we are and all we have to you.
Our identity comes from you.
Our vocation comes from you.
all Forgive us our self-doubt. Forgive us our self-worship.
one Grace us with humility and confidence.
May we live as unassuming servants
Who know their inestimable worth.
all Lord, we are your servants.
one Go where God sends you. Remember who you are.
Bear witness to the Good News to all who are ready to receive it.
—Phil Kniss, April 30, 2023
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