God's Story of Creative Purpose
There may be missteps in the journey of grace; but the destination is still a good one. Our lesson this morning follows the leaders of the early church as they move through modern-day Turkey, bringing the gospel with them as they go. Paul (who was once known as “Saul”) and Barnabas are the evangelists to the Gentiles, taking the word and promise of Jesus beyond the Jewish sect of Christians and out into the broader world.
As they depart Antioch and enter the city of Lystra, they encounter a crippled man whom Paul, somehow, recognizes as someone who believes he can be healed. And he is. The result, however, is not what they anticipated. First, the crowds are convinced that the gods have taken human form and begin to worship and sacrifice to them. Second, Paul and Barnabas do, indeed, take the opportunity to preach about Jesus; but the crowds pretty much ignore them. Third, our lesson stops short by one verse to what I see as the real crisis: the local Jewish community overwhelms the crowd, forcing Paul into a fate he once forced on others: he is barraged with stones and left for dead. Let’s just say that this day probably did not go the way Paul had hoped.
Have you ever had days like that? Have there been times when you can see the destination at hand, but the closer you get, unforeseen obstacles rise up to block your way? If not, then please leave, because you’re making the rest of us look bad!
I am pretty sure all of us have had those moments – whether in faith or in anything else – where the journey gets tough, to say the least. We know where it is we are headed, but as we approach, we lose footing. We are beset by something unexpected. Unanticipated crises knock us off course.
There are, for certain, missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, the promise is that the destination is a good one.
This, in a nutshell, is the whole story of faith we say we believe. Sin and grace battle it out. And while sin may lurch ahead in the short run, nothing can outpace the outrageous abundance of grace that surrounds us.
It’s there in the story of creation. God makes and calls good. The snake tempts and leads astray…but God stays faithful.
Then God makes promises to God’s people. They forget and throw their weight behind other gods…but God keeps God’s word, sending prophets to encourage and cajole them back toward faithfulness.
God’s people still don’t quite live up to their end of the bargain, so God decides to show up personally. And this Jesus loves, heals, graces, forgives. This perfect mercy, however, is too threatening. Jesus is betrayed, sentenced, sentenced to death, killed, and buried. But God isn’t finished yet – not by a long shot.
The long arc of salvation seems to be marked by this push and pull, even today. God stays faithful, and we are grateful. And then we forget and wander off…but God is committed to this promise, this trust that we are far more worthy than we seem to be able to demonstrate. When we are desperate, we call on God. When things are good, though, that’s when we think we can take a break from God…until things get bleak again. And our personal cycle from faith to distrust to pleading and back again continues.
And yet, if we look closely enough, we can see the key to staying in focus right there in our own fumblings. You see, no matter what, God believes in us. Despite all evidence to the contrary at times, God still believes in us! It’s as if when all we can see is an empty shell, God sees our purest selves and calls out in that still, small voice: “I’m not done with you, yet. There is far more good to be done.” At the times when we find ourselves stranded on the margins, whether by our own doing or by the doing of others, that’s when God comes to us, healing us, restoring us, loving us more than we think we deserve.
Our calling is to take that character of God we know in Jesus and to mirror it to the world around us.
That is exactly what Paul and Barnabas were doing in Lystra. They saw this man who, in all likelihood, had simply become part of the scenery in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this people had stopped even seeing this crippled man, so used were they to his injuries and imperfections. And yet, Paul immediately recognized him and his suffering, saw his faith and desire, and reached out in compassion to love and to heal.
That’s what the church is supposed to do: to see those whom others have stopped recognizing. We are supposed to reach out to those on the margins, to extend a helping and healing and praying hand of comfort and courage. This is why we do Habitat builds. This is why our hearts break when we read of massive earthquakes in Nepal and terrified refugees in Syria. This is why we are so distraught when the world doesn’t go the way it should: because we have that glimpse of God within us and know the world can be a better place than it seems to end up so often. We can sense God’s desire and feel God’s heartbreak for a broken world.
This is our call, friends: to be those instruments of grace, the hands and feet of Christ in a world that sometimes literally crumbles before our eyes. There are times when we move forward. And there are times when we are knocked back, when the missteps seem take over the journey. And yet, the destination is still in God’s hands and is one of goodness.
After Paul is left for dead on the streets of Lystra, he and Barnabas leave for Derbe, where they meet with more success in sharing the good news of Christ. From Derbe, they head back to Lystra, where we are told they encourage the believers. In the end, it seems, despite all evidence to the contrary, their initial work had actually paid off. Even though it first appeared that they had been ignored, and even though their lives had been threatened, the gospel had taken root after all. How? Was it the healed man, becoming God’s messenger and proof of God’s goodness? Was it the crowds who saw Paul lynched, moved to compassion and sympathy? Was it that the evangelists’ words of caution about Zeus and Hermes rang in the people’s ears long after Paul and Barnabas had left?
Whatever the case, despite the missteps and obstacles, they journey continued on toward goodness.
You see, that’s just the thing: what matters, among everything else, is that Paul and Barnabas are crystal clear about what it is that motivates and moves them. When they are greeted as gods in human form, when even the priest of Zeus is convinced that it’s best to break out the sacrifices, Paul and Barnabas remain steadfast in their devotion to God. They do not take the glory for themselves, but seize the opportunity to let the confused crowds know that it is the power of Christ within them that brings this healing. It may not have sunk in at first, but eventually, their witness bears great fruit.
Do we do this?
We might not ever be in the position of bringing a crippled man to dancing. And yet, we might be among those who bring healing to a fractured community. We might be among those who allow a struggling family to celebrate the gift of home ownership. We might be among those who extend a hand of compassion to those who are broken down. We might be among those who reach out in grace to those around whom the world is crumbling. Whatever it is, if someone were to ask us why we do what we do, would we be able to give an accounting? Could we point toward what it is we believe about God’s story of creative purpose? Can we speak to the hope of Christ within us, even when the world seems to be pointing in the other direction?
Friends, there may be missteps in the journey of grace. And yet, no matter what, the destination is still one of goodness. That much is sure. When we draw on our own strength, it is likely we will run dry. But when we lean into each other and God’s strength that knits us together, that is when we are likely to do signs and wonders that point far beyond us and to the God whom we worship, serve, and love.