May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
I don’t think we every truly appreciate the work of St Paul, his indefatigable zest for spreading the gospel, the distances he travelled to do this and the toll it must have taken on both his mental and physical well-being.
This evening we meet Paul right at the beginning of his ministry, on their first missionary journey., Having been recruited by Barnabas who saw in the ex-persecutor a person with sound teaching for the growing church, Saul and Barnabas return to Antioch from Jerusalem, after being sent by the church to deliver alms there, and along with John Mark, travel to and across Cyprus, to reach Pisidian Antioch.
And what a cosmopolitan bunch of companions they must have made. Barnabas from Cyprus, Simeon from Africa, Lucius from North Africa, Manaen who was brought up with Herod Agripa and Saul from Tarsus in Cilicia. When Jesus sent out his disciples in twos it would be good to think that he paired them up carefully and the two leaders Barnabas and Saul, although being completely different from each other, do have complementary gifts.
Saul an active, single-minded and intellectually sharp individual and Barnabas a more relaxed and accepting character, generous and affirming. However, they were to fall out over John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, whom Saul regarded as a coward and deserter; but who knows, maybe he was just homesick or resentful of Saul being so bossy, and who leaves them at this point.
Whatever the reason we see Saul taking over the lead from Barnabas, and Luke, the writer of Acts has also only just told us that Saul from this point on will be known as Paul. A Jew by birth and also a Roman citizen, travelling now almost exclusively among Gentiles, it is natural that he should use his Roman name.
However, it is to the Jewish synagogue that they make their way on the Sabbath, being the quickest way to meet people of their own kind, who read the scriptures and worship the one true God, and Paul is invited to say a few words of exhortation after the scriptures have been read.
His Jewish audience may not have been fully aware of the underlying mission and so he gives them a potted history of the Mosaic Faith starting from the Exodus, thorough Judges and Kings, leaping to John as the forerunner of Jesus, to Jesus himself, his treatment at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities, his death and subsequent resurrection, confirmation of the Good News promised by God, with a warning, just as the people of Isaiah were being warned of the consequences of their actions, that they could choose to ignore at their peril!
And we bring you the good news, that what God promised to our ancestors
he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus
Luke goes on to say that Paul’s message excites great interest, with requests to hear it repeated, while others become hostile. By the following Sabbath, the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch have publicly rejected Paul and thus a determination to reach out almost exclusively to the Gentiles is borne.
This interaction with people who should be prepared to at least consider the truth of what Paul was saying, begs us to ask what does it take to convince someone about the good news of Jesus and how should we go about it?
Perhaps you simply need to tell stories – it’s a start, because if you don’t hear or are told about something then how can you know about it? But stories can be made up and depending on who is telling them you may get a different version of events and ‘facts’ How can you tell if its fake news or not.
Maybe autobiographies give us as close a true story you can get, but it is still subject to what they might want to tell you. Far better then to have an account of first-hand witnesses. Even then these may differ as we each of us look at things from our own point of view and pick up on some things and not others.
What we all need to be is more evangelical, and before you raise your eyebrows and throw up your hands in horror…. horror or praise?… take a moment to consider what that word really means. What makes us so afraid of the idea of being more evangelical. At its very heart it simply means sharing the message of God’s love and hope.
Forget standing up in a pulpit and preaching to the converted majority. Reach out to all those who will ‘hear and see the good news through your words and actions. How you speak to and treat people, how you live your lives, the relationships you form, the love that you show to both friend and stranger. Each of us can tell our own personal story, all that is needed is to be ourselves in all our saintliness and sinfulness.
So as we spend this time in Advent watching and waiting may we do all we can to offer people the chance to be amazed and not cynical, to complete the mission that God started, that Paul advanced and which we are called to continue until Christ comes again. Amen.