This past week, Doan and I continued our travel, this time to Virginia Theological Seminary, where I attended an unofficial class reunion. About half the class was able to be there, and the seminary was kind enough to offer us a fairly packed schedule of educational opportunities. My favorite workshop was the unfortunately named Ministry Slam, at which we threw out a topic and talked about the best practices we have learned. During that time and others, I heard much about where my seminary friends had been, what they have seen, the gifts that have been uncovered.
Not surprisingly, none of my classmates had uncovered the gift of performing miracles, though we’re only eight years out, so one never knows what could happen. The Apostles performed miracles all the time, and though that’s pretty awesome for the people they healed and raised from the dead, most of the time it caused nothing but trouble for them.
Today’s episode from the Acts of the Apostles is just such an occasion. Paul and Barnabas were on their evangelistic travels, and they entered the city of Lystra, pretty much in the middle of what is now Turkey. “Lystra owed its importance, and the attention which Paul paid to it, to the fact that it had been made a Roman colonia by Augustus, and was therefore, in the time of Paul, a center of education and enlightenment.”1
But they hadn’t seen anything like St. Paul. Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas notice that a crippled man had noticed them, and that he was listening intently to the sermons and teaching of Paul. And so Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped and walked.
“The crowd’s response to the miracle shows both total excitement and total lack of comprehension. They cry out in Lycaonian, their heart language, that the gods Zeus and Hermes have come in human form. They repeatedly address Paul and Barnabas with divine homage. This is not surprising, for Ovid the Roman poet relates a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality. Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in. The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. The couple’s shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests.
“The crowd’s reaction to Paul and Barnabas, then, is understandable. They want to avoid punishment and garner any blessings that the gods may desire to dispense. They see Zeus, the weather god, and Hermes his messenger as the providers of fruitful harvests.
“Paul and Barnabas react with intense disgust. In Jewish fashion they show their revulsion at this blasphemous false worship by tearing their clothes. They rush out into the crowd, insisting that the worship stop.”2
It did, for the most part, and Paul and Barnabas used the incident, used the locals reverence for their false gods, as a starting point for preaching the one true and living God. Great work was done in Lystra, Christ was proclaimed and God was glorified, and then what happened? Under the influence of some Jews who didn’t like the Apostles preaching the Good News, the people of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead. But thanks for the miracle of making the lame walk.
So perhaps it’s for the best that no one in my seminary class has been performing miracles, at least for them and for me. It seems that miracles, those attention-grabbing instances when God’s will is done on Earth RIGHT NOW, those times when this sinful world of ours gets to see what God had always intended for us, are difficult for us to handle. They’re so difficult we stone the prophets and kill those God sends to us. Paul being stoned in Lystra teaches us that, even if we’re not pulling off actual miracles, just “being an instrument of God’s saving blessing to others…is no guarantee that we will be immune from persecution, including physical suffering.”3 But as our collect today said, we have a God who hast prepared for those who love (Him) such good things as pass our understanding, both here on Earth and in His heaven, which exceeds all that we can desire. Being an agent of divine grace can be a dangerous gig, but it’s worth the risk.