Acts 14:1-7: The outreach mission of Paul and Barnabas continues, now in Iconium. They preach in the synagogue. Some Jews and some Gentiles become a part of the Jesus movement, the Jesus community, the Christian church – while others, Jew and Gentile choose not to become a part of that movement/community. Sometimes the reaction of those who chose not to become a part of the Jesus movement is outright hostility. Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas continue to share their message (a word of grace) and do so accompanied by signs and wonders. To my mind, the most impressive signs and wonders in any day and time are lives that are made different by the word of grace, the word about God’s grace and love for humankind in Jesus. Change in lives is not always greeted warmly, and opposition to the work of Paul and Barnabas remains strong, eventually erupting in a plot, a plot including imperial officials, to have them mistreated and stoned. In this case, rather than confront that threat head-on, the apostles flee.
Acts 14:8-20: Preaching, signs and wonders continue in this new location. Here a healing story is told, with Paul as the one who proclaims healing. A man, crippled from birth, is not crippled inside when he hears Paul – rather he has faith. The healing is at first interpreted by the local people within the framework of another religious tradition – Greek religion. Paul and Barnabas are proclaimed “gods” – Hermes and Zeus respectively. “The idea that gods would disguise themselves as humans and roam the earth incognito was a common pagan idea” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Zeus and Hermes visit an elderly couple and the couple is rewarded for their kindness to these gods in disguise. The people of Lystra don’t want to miss their opportunity to entertain the gods.
Paul and Barnabas react strongly. Paul begins by asserting that he and Barnabas, while they have an important message are but human beings. Their message is about the living God, and the evidence for this God can be found in the world Paul and Barnabas share with their fellow humans. Paul invites them to know this God better as they respond to his message.
Rivals with a similar message about the one living God, some Jews from Antioch and Iconium, come and convince the crowds by their message. Paul was stoned, dragged out of the city and supposed for dead. Disciples surrounded him and Paul recovered, but he did not stay long in Lystra.
Notice how in these few verses three religious traditions come together. The first century was a time of lively religious pluralism, probably closer to our own time than to the America of the last century where Christianity predominated in the United States, especially in the first half of that century. While we may hope for a much less hostile religious pluralism and even a pluralism from which we can learn, we should also ask what we, as Christians have to offer. We need not be hostile to other traditions to share what we believe to be the gifts of the Christian tradition. In fact, there is something deep in our tradition which moves us to share the gifts of our tradition. We need not believe every other tradition is substantively deficient in order to offer what we have.
Acts 14:21-28: Paul and Barnabas have been in Derbe, but then return to Lystra, to Inconium and Antioch. “There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith.” Faith is something that always seems amenable to growth. Paul and Barnabas also begin to provide some structure for these new Christian communities, appointing elders in each church. The journey of mission and ministry continues to other locations before Paul and Barnabas return to their home base in Antioch (of Syria) to share what had been happening. They stay there for some time. In these verses we find a model for what it means to be the church – reaching out into the world, returning to celebrate and to have one’s own faith nurtured and nourished.