Sermon for Evensong on the 9th Sunday after Trinity, 13th August 2017

Acts 14:8-20 – see


I love the adventure stories in the Acts of the Apostles. They’ve got elements of a road movie – Paul and his companions make various journeys to exotic places, dangerously, and have exciting encounters on the way. The good guys are our hero Paul and his team. Their task, their mission, is to spread the word about Jesus.

The bad guys – hmm, who are the bad guys in this? If you say, simply, ‘The Jews’, it might well lead you into antisemitism or Nazism. It’s more complicated. Paul was a Jew – a leading Jew, a Pharisee. And the first disciples were all Jews. Indeed Jesus himself was a Jew. But Paul saw his mission as being the apostle, the man sent out as a messenger, to what the Bible calls the ‘nations’, to the non-Jews. Paul remembers the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 42:6-8:


I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;…. I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.


At one and the same time the Jews are God’s chosen people, the ones who received the prophecies, but also the prophecy is that the Lord will make his chosen Messiah ‘a light of the Gentiles’. (There is also a wonderful message of liberation and social justice in Isaiah 42, but that’s for another day.)


In the previous chapter in Acts, before our lesson tonight, in chapter 13, Paul preaches in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, rehearsing the story of the Jews and linking it with the story of Jesus, his baptism by John, his death and resurrection.


Let me read you a bit of what Paul said: [13:32-39, NEB] He told them that, after Jesus had suffered, been crucified and then resurrected from the dead, appearing to the disciples over a lengthy period, ‘They [the disciples] are now his witnesses before our nation; and we are here to give you the good news that God, who made the promise to the fathers, has fulfilled it for the children by raising Jesus from the dead, as indeed it stands written, in the second Psalm: “You are my son; this day have I begotten you.” Again, that he raised him from the dead, never again to revert to corruption, he declares in these words: “I will give you the blessings promised to David, holy and sure.” This is borne out by another passage: “Thou wilt not let thy loyal servant suffer corruption.” As for David, when he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, he died, and was gathered to his fathers, and suffered corruption; but the one whom God raised up did not suffer corruption; and you must understand, my brothers, that it is through him that forgiveness of sins is now being proclaimed to you. It is through him that everyone who has faith is acquitted of everything for which there was no acquittal under the Law of Moses.’


Listening to him was a mixed congregation, of Jews and ‘Gentiles’, non-Jews; we can identify with them, because we – or most of us – are not Jews. In this context, we are Gentiles. As the passage continues, we learn that the Gentiles ‘got’ it, and ‘those who were marked out for eternal life became believers’ (13:48).


But the Jews weren’t convinced: they ‘stirred up feeling among the women of standing who were worshippers, and among the leading men of the city’. The women were not the Christian women, but worshippers in the synagogue. Interesting that they were thought important enough, in this patriarchal world, to be canvassed by the anti-Christian Jews. So the two Apostles beat a hasty retreat and moved on, to Iconium and then to Lystra (this is all in what is now modern Turkey), where, in Lystra, not only did they preach, but Paul healed a crippled man, lame from birth, who had never walked in his life beforehand.


And that brought out an extraordinary reaction from the Lycaonian people, the people of Lystra, who, we are told, spoke a local Lycaonian language. I wonder if this is an echo of the Greek historian Herodotus, who distinguished Greeks and βάρβαροι, people who spoke in languages that sounded like grunts, ‘bar-bar’ – barbarians. If so, we are meant to think of these people in Lystra as being really rustic, really uncivilised.


But I wonder if that is right: because what the Lycaonians did was to hail Paul and Barnabas as gods, Greek gods. Interestingly, they said that not Paul, but Barnabas was the father of the Greek Gods, Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, and Paul was Hermes, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, because he was ‘the bringer of the word’.


You’ll remember that Paul falls foul of Greek gods again, in Ephesus, where there is a cult of the goddess Diana, or Artemis in Greek, the huntress. ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ they shouted, against Paul and his companions.


In Lystra, when the locals hailed Paul and Barnabas as gods, and especially when the priest of the local temple of Jupiter appeared with garlands and some oxen which he was about to sacrifice, they ran into the crowd and made a big fuss. ‘We are just human, who feel the same feelings as you do. We want you to turn away from ‘these follies’ (NEB), or ‘these vanities’ (AV) to ‘the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein’.


It was the same contrast as you get in the Old Testament, between gods who are just idols, just statues or other man-made objects, and the One True God, creator of heaven and earth. Psalm 135 (page 522 in your Prayer Books) has a picturesque way of putting it: it says


As for the images of the heathen, they are but silver and gold
the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, and speak not
eyes have they, but they see not.
They have ears, and yet they hear not
neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them
and so are all they that put their trust in them.


The point is that the Greek gods, according to the Jewish understanding of them, are not real. They are just images, statues, idols. They can’t do anything. There is no reality standing behind them.


But I wonder whether we ought not to think again about the Greek gods, and perhaps not be quite so ready to dismiss them. What were the people who worshipped those gods doing, when they built temples and made sacrifices to those gods?


If it were really the case that they were just empty images which couldn’t do anything, would these sophisticated people – who were not just Bar-Bars – have built all those temples and made all those sacrifices? There were of course creation stories before Judaism – the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. So god, or gods collectively, as a force for creation, and as being immortal, and as all-knowing – ‘immortal, invisible, God only wise’, would square with the Greeks’ understanding of their gods, just as much as it does with the Jewish ‘One true God’.


The only difference is that in the Greek heaven, the Pantheon, literally the ‘Every God Place’, on Mount Olympus, there was not one God but several gods, who all had different ‘portfolios’. We’re quite fierce on saying that the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is one, a single God: but I think there could be a sense in which the Greek pantheistic idea, of departmental gods, if you like, is reminiscent of the Trinity.


Our worship, our services, and our idea of sacraments, the ‘outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace’, are surely similar to what the Greeks – and in earlier civilisations before them, in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates, modern Iraq – modern Mosul, sadly – practised. What is the Eucharist, if not a symbolic sacrifice, in one sense?


Nowadays, would we be as definite as Paul and Barnabas? Would we, if someone got hold of Professor André Simon and his team at Harefield Hospital just after he had saved someone’s life, someone impossibly ill, as my brother was, and said, ‘You are medical gods, you are Asclepius and Hippocrates’, would we say, ‘Oh no, that doesn’t square with what we know about God.’ Those guys, André Simon and co, they’re just ordinary men.


Well, think about it. What do we know about God? It’s interesting that Paul, when he wanted to describe, and give evidence of, the One True God, said this:


The living God, … made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In past ages he allowed all nations to go their own way; and yet he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows: he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’ (Acts 14:15-17)


He didn’t mention Jesus – except of course that Jesus was the absolute heart, the centre, of Paul’s message. But in this instance it was almost like one of those debates you might have with a New Atheist, a Richard Dawkins, say. You can still attest to the existence of a creator, an ‘unmoved mover’ such as Aristotle posited in his Metaphysics (Λ 7, 1072a21-26)[τοινυν έστι τι ό ού κινουμενον κινεί ,…]. You can point to creation, and to the apparent benevolence – at least in part – of the creator: he ‘he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’


But, as Bishop John Robinson said in his great little book ‘Honest to God’, these days we generally believe that God isn’t ‘a supreme Being, the grand Architect, who exists somewhere out beyond the world – like a rich aunt in Australia – who started it all going, periodically intervenes in its running, and generally gives evidence of his benevolent interest in it.’ [Robinson, J., 1963 (50th Anniversary edition, 2013), ‘Honest to God’, London, SCM Press, p.15].


I think we’re pretty sure that God is more than that. If we are Christians, our picture of God depends much more on our perception of Jesus. ‘He that seeth me seeth him that sent me’, John 12:45. But I daresay that if I put you all on the spot, and said, ‘OK, I’ll give you ten minutes to think about it, and then please tell me all about ‘your God’, your idea of God,’ you would understandably feel rather challenged – although of course I’m checking for theologians and philosophers in tonight’s congregation, because you never know who might have come in tonight!


But these days, in certain circumstances, not to be able precisely to describe God might be quite dangerous. What if a Moslem or a Jew challenged us, on their ‘home turf’? What if they got the idea that you had changed, changed religion, away from what they see as the ‘true faith’? Well, it might not happen to us, but what if you were a person who had become a Christian in Pakistan, or Iran?


We sometimes say that Christians, Jews and Moslems are all ‘people of the Book’, that book being the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which all three religions use. But sometimes that’s not accepted – for instance, when Christians are accused of blasphemy or apostasy. Do you think we should bone up on some more theology? What would you have said if you had been one of the well-meaning Lycaonians?