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Mistaken for Pagans | sermon

Brooding storm clouds against a small patch of blue over the beach

Sermon for St Edward’s Church 16 June 2024 / Reading: Acts 14:8-20

Last week we looked at Saul/Paul’s conversion and then there follows a few chapters of him getting out there and spreading the gospel message. On Tuesday we looked at Barnabas as it was his feast day and we saw how he and Paul were ministering together. In Ch 13 we see how God sets Paul and Barnabas apart to continue to do so:

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

So here we are in Ch 14 and they are doing just that and it isn’t going smoothly! So far their journey has been mixed with some Jews accepting their teaching, others not, but also with  some gentiles wanting to know more. And in the previous few verses we read how when they went to Iconium, both gentiles and Jews tried to stone them…

So now they have arrived in Lystra. Variously described as a village, town or city, it was in what is today part of Turkey and in 60 BCE it had been made a Roman colony. It was connected by road to cities like Iconium.  It would therefore have had a diverse population of native Lycaonians, Roman soldiers, Greeks, Jews. We know that the Lycaonian identity was still strong because the people cried out in their own language (v 11) but we also know that pagan worship was central – the Roman influence there – there was a temple to Zeus just outside the city walls.

It is thought by many scholars that the church in Lystra is one of those that the letter to the Galatians is written to. And clearly a Christian church does get established here despite what happens to Paul, because a few chapters later Paul revisits and meets Timothy who is ‘a believer’ and is well spoken of by believers in the area.

So what is going on here? well we need to know that there was a legend that was popular in the area, of how Roman Gods Mercury and Jupiter (which were equated by Romans with the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes), and in this legend the gods are thought to have appeared to local villagers in human form. So it is highly likely locals knew this story and then when Paul and Barnabas perform a miracle, the locals have no understanding yet of a Christian God so they go to what they know – it must be Zeus and Hermes – remember they have a temple to Zeus just outside the city. It’s actually quite a natural reaction, but of course Paul and Barnabas are there to say these other gods are not real, but let me tell you about the one true God – Jesus. Not part of the plan. Paul, it is clear, was speaking to a crowd, he must have been preaching the gospel and talking about Jesus and when the opportune moment came to show them it was real – this one true God is real – he healed the man who couldn’t walk.  But the crowds immediately go to what they know and shout out ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’.

At which point you can almost imagine Paul face palming! NOOO! Have you not been listening?

But this crowd is insistent. They call them Zeus and Hermes. They want to sacrifice to them, in a great show of pagan worship.

And Paul and Barnabas try with all they have, to explain to the crowd, and just when it seems to be going a bit better see v 18, we see in v 19 Jews from Iconium and Antioch appear – where Paul has already visited. They must have been incensed with him preaching in their towns so now they have heard he is stirring up on Lystra and they are not happy. So they then gee up the crowd, spurring them on – and winning the crowds over even inciting them to stoning Paul and Barnabas.

It is the perfect example of how preaching the gospel is not just about ‘this is what the Bible says’. Or ‘let me tell you about Jesus’, it’s so much more than that – explanation, exegesis, helping others to understand. How many times have you read a bible passage and thought ‘no idea what that is about’ – or is only when you’ve heard someone speak on a passage that you realise, ‘ohhhh ok that’s what it means!’

In the Jewish tradition the rabbis used what is called ‘midrash’, an oral tradition of taking the scriptures and expanding on them to help people understand. They recognised that people needed a bit of leading sometimes to get what the meaning. But for whatever reason Paul hasn’t quite hit the mark here or read the prevailing culture right, so the people get the wrong idea… As Tom Wright says: it’s ‘remarkable what can happen to a message when the hearers insist on inserting it firmly into their own worldview’.

I wonder how often that statement could be said about people now? 

I just want to mention that as we see Paul is stoned and left for dead outside the city walls – and whilst the text doesn’t say this I just wonder if they left him at Zeus’s temple? Because it’s interesting that the text twice mentions ‘outside the city’. The ultimate insult to lay him at the temple of the god they thought he was and who he was preaching against. 

Anyway, we read that the disciples gather around him , v20 and he got up and went off. What do you think they were doing while they surrounded him?


I don’t think they were just there saying oh no how awful what’s happened, lamenting, I think they were praying for him to live! And he does…

Now, this is sort of a 2 part sermon this morning and I want to take what we have looked at so far and expand on it – a bit of midrash if you like. So here we have had the example of Paul’s teaching being misunderstood and the crowd thinking he is a Greek or Roman god. Where they are teaching a Christian message, the crowd take it with a pagan understanding. In trying to persuade them otherwise Paul talks of ‘the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them’ which is a key part of Jewish belief – this God who created the world. And cleverly the inks to Zeus who was the king of gods, but also the god of sky and thunder. Paul’s saying who they think is Zeus is, is actually the one true God. He’s taking pagan thought and pointing it to Christ.

And you know that made me think of how similarly, that for some Christians any sort of ecological view of the Bible is too pagan or new age.  We are quite happy talking about a God of creation, but worship outside can be idolatry, we’re worshipping nature for example. But I believe that creation points to Christ too, not just a vague sense of God the creator. And those who take the view that is it all too pagan are doing exactly what that crowd did in Lystra – misunderstanding, & getting the wrong idea.

As part of my MA I am looking at eco theology – theology around creation – and specifically looking at a Christological view of creation – ie: where is Christ in the creation story.  Because I want to do what Paul was doing here, explaining – no, this is the God of creation!

You know, there is plenty of history and tradition of connecting with God in creation, as we see just from what Paul says here, but more than this historically, St Francis is a prime example, medical mystics, and of course the Orthodox Church is far more accepting of God and creation/ ecotheology. But I want to focus here on scripture, the word of God. And there are several verses we could look at as to where do we see Christ in creation. 

For example when I was preaching through Revelation I talked about Christ as a model for the resurrection of creation, in the very end – that this heaven and earth will not be destroyed but will be resurrected just as Christ was resurrected. 

There are passages in Paul’s writing too:

 He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created… things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together

Colossians 1:15-18

In Christ, Paul says, all things in heaven and earth were created. What does that mean if not Christ having a role in creation? He goes on: He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Christ holds all things together – what does that mean for creation if not that Christ is a key component in it, if you like?

And a key passage here is the start of John 1 – John’s prologue. A really well known passage. John’s gospel is quite different to the other 3, academics agree that his sole purpose throughout the gospel is to convince the reader that Christ is the Son of God; with every aspect of Jesus’ life depicted pointing to this central theme. John pretty much says this himself later in the gospel – 20:31

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

So John’s core purpose is for people to know that Jesus is God’s son. So when he opens his gospel he does so with this in mind – putting Christ within the creation narrative. The opening verses say:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

John 1:1-3

Firstly, the word refers to Jesus, so John is saying Christ has always been – was there at the very beginning and is God. The word was with God and the word was God. And more that all things came into being through him. The question is what does ‘through him’ mean, but essentially academics agree it points to Jesus having a role in and at creation.

Now we need to do a bit of Greek here – as some of you know the word John uses for word is ‘logos’. Logos was originally a Greek word, philosophically used to signify word, not as a written word but as reason or a spoken expression of thought. Again thought is divided on what John meant by using this word but I don’t think we can get away from this idea of spoken expression of thought as we know God spoke creation into being – and God said we read on each day… Now some say that this word points to Jesus as a sort of agent of creation – had a hand in it but not THE creator. And there are links here with the Jewish thought on wisdom/ Sophia, but I’m not going to go into those this morning.

Now, the opening line is also interesting because it forms an obvious echo to the first verse of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. 

Genesis 1:1

John writes:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God

John 1:1-2

Now if you remember when I was talking about Revelation I talked about how John who wrote Revelation (debateable whether he is the same John who wrote the gospel..) used Jewish / Hebrew scriptures to make his points afresh. It is the same here. He has deliberately drawn a parallel with the very opening verses of the Hebrew scriptures because he is highlighting that Jesus is Messiah, the son of God, the same God as at creation. So John in my view is essentially saying Christ was there at the very creation of the world, had a role in it, a key role, that remains to this day.

Now we should note that at the time of writing the doctrine of the Trinity was a way off. What John is doing in equating Christ with God is actually ahead of his time, could be the start of this kind of thinking.

This is just a whistle stop of a couple of the key verses on this. 

So what does all this mean? Well I believe that this and other passages point us to Christ’s key role in creation and as John and Paul both highlight an ongoing role in creation. Which means that for us, that there is nothing new age or pagan about seeking God in creation, because it is so deeply connected to Christ.

Often people talk about ‘thin places’ or finding a connection to God in nature – I count myself within that bracket – and I wonder if it is helpful for us to think rather than a nebulous creator in nature, but of Christ himself. If Christ remains present in creation then is it him we are connecting to when out in creation?

Fr John Chryssavgis, priest and theologian in the orthodox church suggests that creation is a sacarament – a place where Christ is revealed. St Catherine of Siena that earth is God’s cathedral. St Francis believed that in coming to know Christ as our brother, we can enter a true relationship with all creation and know our connectedness to it. 

I believe if we miss out on any sense of worship in creation, if we ignore it, or believe it is too pagan, then we are missing out on a deeper connection to God. Just as the crowd in Lystra missed out on the one true God because they misunderstood the message.

So I know I’ve given you a lot but I encourage you to reflect on this some more. What might it mean to you to connect to God in creation, to Christ in creation and the Spirit in creation?

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