Paula Northwood February 2, 2020
Scripture Acts 14:11–18
Have you ever sent the wrong message accidentally? In today’s world, with email, texting, tweeting and so forth, there are so many opportunities to send the wrong message. Back in the day, when we only sent paper letters through the mail, which was before some of you were born, sending the wrong message was not as easy. There are many other ways we send the wrong messages. Advertising firms struggle with this when working in other cultures.
For example, years ago, when Pepsi started marketing its products in China, they translated their slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life” literally. The slogan in Chinese became: “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave.” And when Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Instead, the company confused the word “embarrass” with “embarazar,” which means to impregnate, so the ad read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”
Sometimes through our body language and facial expressions, we send the wrong message. I’m sure we can all think of examples when someone asked, “Why are you looking like that?” Once someone from the congregation said that it looked like I didn’t agree with what was being said at the pulpit, and, after I thought about it for a moment, I had to confess that I hadn’t been listening. I was thinking about my upcoming Confirmation class. While our bodies and faces can send the wrong message, more often it is through the words that come out of our mouths. How often do we say, “I didn’t mean it that way”?
In our text this morning, we see Paul and Barnabas both doing and saying things that sent the wrong message. But let’s back up and set the stage. Earlier in the chapter, Paul and Barnabas have been successful in sharing the good news, and crowds were gathering to hear them. They would usually speak at synagogues. You might remember that Paul was trained as a Pharisee, so he was a welcomed teacher. But unbeknownst to his audience, he had converted. He, too, had joined the group that believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Just as a point of interest, if you have been reading the chapters for each week, you will have noticed in chapter 11 that it was in Antioch that people started calling these followers of Jesus the name Christians.
These meetings, with both Jewish and Greek audiences, are always surrounded by conflict. Not everyone believed that Jesus was the Messiah. In the city of Iconium, they are initially divided over the issue, but then they decided that Jesus was not the Messiah. Instead, they decided they should stone Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas narrowly escape and flee to Lyconia, where there is no synagogue, only the temple to the Greek god Zeus. On their way, they meet a man who had never walked, and, after hearing Paul’s words, this man stood and walked.
This story reminds me of one theologian Martin Buber told about his grandfather, who was lame. Once he asked his grandfather to tell a story about his teacher, and his grandfather related how his teacher used to hop and dance while he prayed. His grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he began to hop and dance to show how his teacher had done it. From that hour he was cured of his lameness. Words can be medicine; they transform, they heal.
When the crowds saw this man they knew walking for the first time, they cried out that Barnabas must be the incarnation of Zeus and Paul the incarnation of Hermes (the god of language). In attempting to share the good news they sent the wrong message, so Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes and shouted, “We are humans!” Tearing their clothes might send the wrong message to us but back in the day that it how you showed that you were really upset!
I have a couple of observations. First, how easily these people believed in incarnation: They easily understood that gods could appear as humans. The people wanted to make gods of these men. Even the priest from the Temple of Zeus wants to join in and offer sacrifices to these two men. My second observation is that there is something so profound about this message that it did give people new life, new meaning and even healed their deepest wounds. What is this message, this good news? And then, and maybe most importantly, my third observation is how easily this message is misunderstood and distorted. Why do people keep getting it wrong?
I think there is a clue in my first observation. It is easier to worship the messenger rather than embody the message. I have shared this parable before, but it is such a good example of what I am saying: An explorer returned to her native country from visiting a foreign territory beyond the great ocean. Her people were eager to learn all about the land beyond the great ocean. But how could the explorer ever put into words the feelings that flooded her heart when she saw the exotic flowers and heard the call of the wild birds, and observed the beauty of the mountains and the valleys in the land beyond the great ocean? “It is so beautiful; it is so wonderful; I have not the words to tell you,” said the explorer. “You must see for yourself. Here, let me give you a guidebook, my travel journal with descriptions and maps of the land beyond the great ocean. Take the guidebook; go on the journey; see for yourselves, first-hand.”
The people eagerly received the guidebook of the territory beyond the great ocean. They adored the explorer, believed in every word she said, and they admired the guidebook; they put a nice leather cover on it; they built a temple and then placed the book in it. They created a statue of her and celebrated her birthday and the day that she visited them. They read from the guidebook aloud. They simply adored her. After a time, they began to worship her image and the guidebook. But no one ever ventured forth to explore the land beyond the great ocean. They said, “Why should we leave home when we know all about it? We have no need to actually see the land, for we have read the guidebook.”
It is not the guidebook that saves, but rather the journey into truth that transforms the sojourner. The message that Paul was proclaiming was about Jesus, who said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” But rather than following the hard path, many choose instead to venerate the teacher. We call that the religion about Jesus as opposed to embodying the living Christ, the spirit of God. The objective of the spiritual life is to risk the journey yourself.
Instead, we discover a guidebook of the journey and prefer to read it rather than enter the territory. We worship the story and venerate the messenger. We shout, “Hosanna, hosanna! Save us! Save us!” And when we are not saved or transformed, we are quick to shout, “Crucify him! He’s a fraud, he’s an impostor; he’s doesn’t exist.” And we move on, in search of the next Messiah. It is easier to have someone die for our sins than do the hard work of forgiving ourselves and others.
Instead, we try sampling from the spiritual buffet and dabble in any number of traditions to which we have no intention of learning more deeply and committing our lives to. Someone has said it’s like spiritual pornography: all images; no real, deep, everlasting love. Or we satisfy ourselves to be perpetual seekers, never going deep enough to find the treasure.
The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says that rather than sample many spiritual paths, we would do better to choose one and dig deeply into that practice so that we might reveal our own souls. Better not to dig fifty holes one-foot deep but rather dig one hole fifty-feet deep and uncover what is buried there. I have come to believe that it is vital that we focus our spiritual life—however we see that life—to paying closer attention to what we practice, paying closer attention to the message.
The power of any religious practice lies not in what you “get” out of it in the short-term, but what meaning it gives your life, how it changes you, in the long-term. I have known hundreds, perhaps even thousands, who have come through the doors of our churches hungry for spiritual nourishment. That is, after all, one reason why we exist: to nourish the spirit. But sadly, we don’t understand the give and take of spiritual practice. We give and receive. And we miss the point that our spiritual life needs to grow in the context of community. We need each other, and that is the message of the early church.
It is in the beloved community that we embody the living Christ, the spirit of God—in communities such as this one. Here is the God of our own making, not in some spiritual abstraction, but in our hearts and in our hands. It is in the body of Christ, the faith community, that we practice forgiveness and healing. This is where we work it out. This is where we live the message.
To quote David Whyte, “I want to know if you know how to melt in that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing. I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequences of love and the bitter passion of your sure defeat. I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.” In the context of our lives together, we touch the sacred. It’s hard and messy and also joyful and healing and life-giving!
This is the home we have found, the body of Christ, the spirit of God, the dream we are yet to become, the slice of heaven we are trying to create, the justice we witness for, the food we serve, the comfort we offer, the love we share with each other and with our neighbors. It’s about nothing less than that.
We are the hope. We are the courage. We embody the love. That the message we are trying to love. And that is the right message. Is that the message being received? I hope so. Amen.
Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (Bantam, 1993).