I have a cousin who suffers from bipolar disorder, which is a mental illness characterized by episodes of an elevated mood known as ‘mania’ that alternates with spells of depression. When she’s ‘high’ she has bursts of creativity and she’s able to churn out an entire novel over the course of a week. But when she’s ‘low’ she cuts herself. Sometime’s the cuts run too deep and she winds up in the hospital. The doctors have tried several medications; some have worked, others haven’t. One of the medications she tried alleviated the depression, but it also suppressed all of her positive emotions. She was left with a flat lined emotional response: no highs, no lows.
Many churches in Canada are like my cousin on the wrong medication – flat lined, with no highs and no lows. The early church, the one we read about in the book of Acts, is more like my cousin on no medication – bipolar. As we’ll read in Acts 14, the church came up against the devastating lows of persecution, division, even stoning(s), but it also experienced the thrilling highs of new converts to Christianity (14:4), miraculous healing (14:10) and disciples being
strengthened and encouraged (14:22).
IN ICONIUM (14:1-7)
The significance of Paul’s visit to the synagogue in Iconium cannot be overstated. “First to the Jew, then to the Gentile” was never just a theological construct. It started as an observable pattern based on the missionary journeys of Paul and his travelling companions. Paul took his message to the Jews first simply because it was their promises that were now fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s dangerous for us to equate the synagogue with our present day expressions of the Church. The synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship. It was the centre of Jewish community. Imagine our government offices, town halls, walk-in clinics, police stations and various other elements of civic life all rolled into one. With this understanding, it makes more sense why Paul’s message in the local synagogue was never simply a religious one. You would never have heard Paul speaking about a “personal relationship with God” or about “going to heaven when you die”. Paul’s message in the local synagogue was always: “that which you have longed for is here, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would” (Acts for Everyone, N. T. Wright). This begs the question: what is our society longing for? The answer is complex:
“Peace; justice; freedom; a voice and a vote which will count; health. Around and above all of those, love. Inside and through all of those: to satisfy the hunger of the heart, a hunger which no amount of money, fine houses, fast cars, luxury vacations and love affairs will ever begin to reach” (Acts for Everyone, N. T. Wright, 26).
The task of the Church is to be able to tell the story of Jesus in a way that addresses these deep longings.
IN LYSTRA AND DERBE (14:8-20)
Here, Paul’s audience is a ‘crowd’ instead of a synagogue. The city of Lystra was likely home to relatively few Jews, not enough to warrant a formal meeting place. It was here against this pagan backdrop that Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for gods after the dramatic healing of a man who was born lame. Paul tries to set them straight with a gentle critique of paganism. Paul’s sermon is simple: through creation God has revealed himself to all people at all times in all places. As far as sermons go, Paul’s was effective. Even still, the apostles quickly go from being the objects of worship to the targets of hatred fuelled violence.
THE RETURN TO ANTIOCH IN SYRIA
Notwithstanding Paul’s near death experience at their hands, he and Barnabas return to Lystra, “strengthening and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (14:22). The apostles incorporate a new idea into their preaching: “we must go though many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). God’s kingdom is coming, and in many ways it’s breaking into our present, but the journey is filled with trouble.
The point of this whole narrative section (chapters 13 and 14, which serve as the introduction to the entire second half of the book) is to show the explosive and confusing effects of taking the message of Jesus out into the wider world (Acts for Everyone, N.T. Wright). Our proclamation of the kingdom of God carries with it the revolutionary idea that certain other people are due for demotion. If Jesus is Lord, then Harper can’t be, and neither can Oprah or the balance of our bank account. As we take the message of Jesus from the church into the world we should expect a riot?
(thanks to Ben Wright who gave this talk & wrote this post)
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DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (small group)
1. What’s missing from Paul’s sermon in 14:15-17? What important components of a presentation of the gospel does Paul neglect? Why?
2. “Everywhere Paul went there was a riot; everywhere I go they serve tea” (Tom Wright). Does this quote reflect the way people respond to your expression of the Christian faith?
3. Why is it so easy to be a Christian in today’s culture?
4. Are you prepared to be part of a bipolar church that experiences miraculous highs and devastating lows?