Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – The Birth of the Multicultural Church

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche – October 4, 2020

We are continuing in our sermon series: Borders, Bridges, and Bodies as we follow Paul and his companions through missionary journeys in the book of Acts to introduce the story of Jesus in various cross-cultural settings.

In some of these stories and settings, we will find Paul among existing believers, encouraging them to go further in their trust and loyalty to Jesus; in other settings, the Gospel that Paul is preaching will be a lightening rod for the culture or community resulting in rioting, imprisonment, beatings, or worse.

Paul’s answer to the divisive differences between human bodies and the power dynamics of culture, gender, government, and money is the bloody, disconcerting, riot-inducing reality of the crucified and resurrected Jesus’s body in all of its radical welcome.

Last week, we left Paul and his companion Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch preaching this core message of the Gospel:

38Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)

The Gentiles, who were looking for hope found hope in the message that Paul was preaching. But there was opposition to the message that through Jesus, and his crucifixion, that everyone who believes is set free from every sin.

So Paul and Barnabas are exiled from the region and make their way 100 miles East to Iconium. Here in Acts 14, we get a glimpse of the challenges of preaching the gospel in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world. We will discover that the words and deeds of Jesus’ disciples could easily be misunderstood by people with a wholly different set of presuppositions. “Signs and wonders” on their own are ambiguous and here we learn that they need interpretation.

This community in Acts 14 initially welcomes, then rejects, and ultimately plots to subdue and stone Paul and Barnabas for their gospel announcement.

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. 4The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7where they continued to preach the gospel.

In verse 3, Paul is pairing his Gospel declarations with demonstrations of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. The earliest disciples and followers of Jesus in Acts initially asked for power, power to defeat the Empire and to realize their nationalist dream of a nation-state. God answers their prayers, not with power to defeat their enemies, or even to overthrow the Empire, but with power to become witnesses to the resurrection. Because the resurrection invites a reordering.They wanted power over people, but they got power to become witnesses to people. That’s what we see here in Acts 14:3 — Paul and Barnabas spending considerable time with people declaring the truth of the Gospel and demonstrating that message of hope by performing signs and wonders.

Paul and Barnabas become the enemies of those who want to hold onto to power instead of sharing it, those who maintain and lock people into oppressive systems, instead of declaring liberation and freedom, those who partner with idolatry instead of condemning idols. When Paul and Barnabas announce the Gospel (that every who believes in Jesus can be set free) and demonstrate the in-breaking Kingdom of God, it disrupts these systems of oppression. Couple this with the anxieties that people who have lost their identity have, and you begin to understand what’s at stake. Why those in power would want to plot together to disrupt this message of hope, liberation, and freedom that the Gospel announces.

It seems to me its easy to find like-minded and like-looking communities.  Gods Spirit is interested in transforming us so that we can look past these things and develop deep roots and have true community not just all sitting together on the same bus (i.e. diversity without inclusion or racial diversity without multiethnicity as a culture).

These bodies, Jewish and Gentile, shouldn’t co-exist in this holy space. But that’s God’s vision. Salvation for the entire world. As the people of God when we show up in the places that humanize the dehumanized, that affirm the dignity of those who have been denigrated, we declare something truthful about God — that we participate in shared humanity are co-heirs in God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Before those in power can execute their schemes to stone Paul and Barnabas, they get wind and leave that city. They land in Lystra.

I’m reading in Acts 14:8

8In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. (Acts 14:8-10)

There is something very human about the exchange of this lame man and Paul. When you don’t experience belonging, one of the most healing things that can happen to hear that you do belong. There is something very powerful by what Paul does: He looks. He sees. He acts. That’s the gift of the multi-ethnic church. We shouldn’t exist. It’s actually really hard to do this kind of work because it constantly demands that we look, we see, we act.

The man looks at Paul, and Paul can see faith in this man. Then Paul commands him, “Stand to your feet.” There was hope in this exchange. Hope in healing, and a trust in the God being preached about. Paul is at it again, God has been faithful. You can trust a God who will keep His promises. This is the offer that Paul is presenting: a God who meets us and heals us.

We often focus on the healing as the miracle, but I want to draw your attention to the movement instead. When someone is healed consider that everything surrounding and leading up to the healing is ordinary. When someone prays for healing, its just two ordinary people, doing what the people of God have done since the beginning, talking to God. The miracle of the healing happens when God shows up. We just have to first believe that the kingdom and the King are present. This places us in a posture of openness, allowing the Holy Spirit to disrupt our everyday with the power, presence, and mercy of the in-breaking Kingdom. The Hoy Spirit might nudge you, might prompt you to pause and pay attention, or the Spirit might speak directly to you.

But something terrible happens, the people mistake Paul and Barnabas for gods…

11When the crowd 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 bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. 14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:11-17)

Because of the language barrier, it apparently takes some time for Paul and Barnabas to understand what is happening. When they do grasp what is taking place, they are quick to try and dispel the misunderstanding. They tear their clothes as a sign of grief and rush out into the crowd, shouting “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you” (4:14-15).

People might have missed all of what the Spirit is doing when the lame man was healed – what are people in our circles missing when we don’t embrace what the spirit is doing, not just the result of it, what about the process are we missing? How are we sharing the gospel message in our world like Paul and Barnabas and possibly forgetting to engage the communities we are in in a way that is understandable – what needs to be interpreted?

Even in the midst of this chaos, Paul finds an opportunity to bear witness, tailoring his message to his Gentile audience. Before he can tell them about Jesus the Messiah, he must tell them about the one true God. He urges them to “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” (14:15). There’s something that happens when Paul names the idols as worthless. He continues by saying that even though in the past God allowed the nations to “follow their own ways” (idolatry), God did not leave himself “without a witness,” for creation itself testifies to a benevolent Creator who showers humanity with blessings (14:16-17; cf. Romans 1:20).

18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. 19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. (Acts 14:14-20)

Acts draws a stark contrast between the authentic leadership of apostles and missionaries commissioned by the church and the dubious undertakings of other prophets, magicians, and wonder-workers. Jesus’ disciples are not motivated by personal gain of wealth, power, or status. Indeed, they put themselves at great risk and endure persecution for the sake of the gospel. They know that they cannot control or manipulate the gift of the Holy Spirit, but trust the Spirit to work through them as God sees fit. Their ministries do not draw attention to themselves, but point to the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus Christ.

As people of God are we demonstrating this core message with our gospel announcement? Are we willing to allow the Spirit to lead us as we serve those in our communities by abandoning self-centered agendas to engage humbly and creatively in this great adventure of translating and proclaiming the good news of the gospel in a world with stunning diversity.

Paul is clear: everyone, anyone who believes and repents, can be set free.

This is important for us to consider as we proclaim the gospel to those who matter the most to us, how will the gospel proclamation land in a pluralistic world? What’s the core message of the gospel for those without hope? What’s the core message of the gospel for those with competing voices and worldviews?