Acts 14: 19-28
If you close your eyes for a moment you might be able to find yourself looking at a map of the north eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. There scattered along the coast and somewhat inland you’ll find on your map some of the cities we hear about in tonight’s lesson from The Acts of the Apostles: Antioch and Iconium, Derbe and Lystra, Pisidia and Perga and Pamphylia. Most of us would be hard pressed to find these actual places on a map, but there tucked up in that corner of the Mediterranean that today comprises south eastern Turkey and north western Syria, you’ll find them, all within a few hundred miles of each other. It is a part of the world that Paul and Barnabas knew well and back and forth, and around, and back again they went. It is as if you or I spent our time going from here to Newburyport, over to Lawrence and up to Manchester and Concord, over to Portsmouth and down to Plymouth and back to Cambridge, then up again to Lawrence: back and forth, up and down, over and through. In each place, Paul and Barnabas stopped. In some they found a ready welcome. In others confusion and uncertainty. In some they found curiosity, and in others hostility. Yet back and forth they went, over and over again.
These missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas were the stuff of legend in the early church. So much so in fact that they are the backbone of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. And still, nearly two thousand years later we read and marvel at Paul and Barnabas’ foolhardy determination. How many of us would be crazy, or indeed foolish, enough to walk willingly into some of the situations that they did. Looking back on his life, Paul wrote to the Corinthians what he had been forced to endure:
Five times I have received … the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
Yet he seems to have regretted nothing. Now, either Paul and Barnabas were nuts, or they were men of grit and determination. Or perhaps a little of both.
But what was it that propelled, and compelled, and drove them to do what they did? Why go out time and again only to be beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, held up, endangered, starved, parched, frozen and stripped? Why do this once, never mind dozens of times? For fun? For entertainment? To prove a point?
We say in our Rule of Life that “[p]eople are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. As we take turns to preach in the liturgy we remember our primary calling as witnesses and messengers of that good news.”
The world is no different today than was the world of Paul and Barnabas. People are hungry: hungry for food that endures and news that is good.
Like Paul and Barnabas, we live in a bad news world. Many then, and many now, and perhaps even many here tonight live lives of sorrow, grief and loss. How many of us are told, or tell ourselves, or are even just afraid that our lives are nothing short of meaningless. The world then as now, aches for a word of hope, a word of joy, a word that is good. The world then and now longs to know that life is full of meaning. And that was Paul’s mission: to proclaim the good news that life is indeed full of meaning in union with God. It was this that propelled and compelled and drove him from place to place.
In a world where life was often solitary, Paul reminded people that life was full of meaning. In a world where life was often poor, Paul reminded people that life was full of meaning. In a world life was often nasty, Paul reminded people that life was full of meaning. In a world where life was often brutish, Paul reminded people that life was full of meaning. In a world where life was often short, Paul reminded people that life was full of meaning. In a world where life was often meaningless, Paul reminded people that life was in fact full of meaning in union with God. This was the good news which he proclaimed from place to place, and this was the good news for which he was willing to endure much suffering and hardship.
Many today, and many then know from experience that what Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 about life is true: that the life of humanity is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. But Paul had discovered something else on the road to Damascus; as had Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus; and Peter and John at the Empty Tomb; and Mary Magdalene in the Garden; and you and I in the font. Life is anything but nasty, brutish and short. Rather it is in fact full of meaning when lived in union with God.
Now, like then, people crave to know that life has meaning and so young people join gangs, adults work 80 hours a week and the lost seek to find themselves in groups, and clubs and sects that supposedly give purpose, meaning and identity to their lives.
But the good news of God in Jesus is that by its very nature life is full of meaning for the God who said “let there be light” also proclaimed it good. And the God who said “let us make humankind” also blessed us and proclaimed us to be very good indeed. To find meaning in life we don’t need to join a gang, or work 80 hours, or find our identity in a group, or club or sect. We simply need to know our own inherent goodness as women and men made in the image and likeness of God who desires for us life in all its abundance.
This good news that life is full of meaning when lived in union with God drew people to Paul and Barnabas, as it had drawn people to Jesus, as it continues to draw people today. It was what propelled and compelled and drove Paul and Barnabas to endure much.
Today, like the days of Paul, people need to hear that same good news. Like the people of Antioch and Iconium, Derbe and Lystra, Pisidia and Perga and Pamphylia the people of Newburyport and Lawrence, Manchester and Concord, Portsmouth and Plymouth and Cambridge also need to know the good news that life is full of meaning when lived in union with God. And today, you are Paul, you are Barnabas, you are Cleopas and Peter and John and Mary Magdalene. It is your job to go and tell all that you have seen and heard on the road to Damascus, and Emmaus, in the Empty Tomb and in the Garden and in the font. It is your job to go and tell the good news that you know to be true so that others may hear, and believe and be strengthened by all that God has done.
The world is hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. And it is our job to remember our calling as witnesses and messengers of that same good news.
So go and tell that life is not nasty, brutish and short but abundant and full of meaning when lived in union with God.
Paul knew this to be true. And so do you. So go and tell. Barnabas knew this to be true. And so do you. So go and tell. Cleopas and his companion knew this to be true. And so do you. So go and tell. Peter and John knew this to be true. And so do you. So go and tell. Mary Magdalene knew this to be true. And so do you. So go and tell.
So go. Tell. Life indeed is full of meaning when lived in union with God. You know this to be true. So go and tell and you will be amazed to discover all that God is doing, not only in your life, but in the life of the world as well.
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