Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Failure, Follower, Success

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 13:1-5:

Today is going to be one of those messages in which I am going to be dumping some knowledge on you all. If there was another way to tell you about Paul’s missionary journeys I would do that, but I couldn’t think of why, but I’m going to try and make it interesting, or at least hope to make it interesting. What we just heard in today’s passage from Acts was how Luke recounts Paul being set apart for what is commonly referred to as Paul’s first missionary journey. But, as we’ll find out in just a moment, it was actually Paul’s second missionary journey.

There are two ways we know of Paul and his travels.  The first is from his own letters.  They certainly tell us about the communities he visited but they don’t tell us a lot about how or when he went to those cities.  We would be able to piece together some things from his letters, but there would simply be a lot that we would not know.  We get more information from the book of Acts which tells us a lot about Paul’s travels.  But one of the problems with Acts, which is written by Luke, is that there are some discrepencies between what Luke tells us about Paul and what Paul says about himself.  Now when these discrepancies appear we have to try and decide who is telling us the truth.  In these situation we assume, as you might guess, that we should trust Paul’s accounts of his own life over those of Luke, and one of those discrepancies relates to what Paul does immediately after his Damascus road experience.

If you were here when we begin this series on Paul, you might remember that he is a pharisaic Jew who is persecuting the earliest followers of Jesus, including overseeing the stoning of Stephen who is the first martyr of the church.  But after that event, according to Luke, as Paul is making his way back to Damascus, the risen Christ appears and asks Paul why he is persecuting him.  Paul is struck blind and then escorted to Damascus, where he spends three days.  In Acts, Luke says that after Paul regains his sight he goes to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples.  But that stands in stark contrast to what Paul himself writes, “When God… called me through his grace, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.  Then after three years did I go up to Jerusalem...” And then Paul, as if predicting what Luke will later write, concludes “in what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie.”  (Gal. 1:15-20)  So it’s generally assumed that Luke’s account is wrong, and that Paul is correct, after all Paul should know, but that is where the extent of our knowledge ends.  We are then left with the question where exactly is Arabia for Paul and what did Paul do there? 

Some say that Paul went out into the desert in order to study, some speculating that Jesus himself taught him, some say that he went out to sort of meditate and ponder what he was being called to do, and others have claimed that Paul running away from his call, sort of like Jonah.  Based on my understanding of who Paul is, I don’t think any of those are accurate.  Paul is not really a person of contemplation, he was a man of action.  He wants to be out doing, not sitting around waiting for something to happen.  I am persuaded by the argument of some scholars that when Paul says he went to Arabia that he went to become a missionary to Nabateans who lived immediately to the east of Israel in the Roman province of Petraea, which the Romans considered Arabia.

Paul would have had some good reason for going to the Nabateans, one of them being their proximity.  In addition, if you remember the old saying that all roads lead to Rome, roman roads were incredibly important not only for the success of the empire, but also for the success of Paul’s missionary activities, and there was a roman road in Patraea. But it just so happened that Paul went to evangelize this group at the wrong time, and the events of history worked against him dooming his missionary activities to failure.

Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, had married Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV, who was ruler of the Nabateans, but the marriage wasn’t to last very long.  Herod divorced Phasaelis in order to marry Herodias, which did not make King Aretas very happy.  To give just a little more biblical context to connect some dots.  Herodias’ daughter was Salome, who then went on to ask Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Anyway, Aretas bided his time to retaliate, and then in 36 CE, just at the time that Paul was in Arabia, Aretas attacked Israel, taking all the territories east of the Jordan River, and sometime after this Aretas also took Damascus.  Just at the time that Paul was doing his work among the Nabateans was also the time that being a Jewish evangelist in this territory would not have been a good thing, and in fact put Paul’s life in danger, and this we know because of a story from both Paul and Luke.

“In Damascus,” Paul says, “the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.” (2 Cor. 11:32-33)  So at the end of his first missionary journey Paul escapes from Damascus and Aretas, a little embarrasingly, and then he goes back to Cilicia, presumably to Tarsus, with his tail between his legs and licking his wounds.  His first missionary journey was done and it was an absolute failure.  Luke does not even record this first trip, and all we know from Paul is that it took place.  Paul the greatest evangelist in the history of Christianity was an absolute failure in his first attempt, and depending on what dating of Paul’s life you use he may have spent as much as the next eight years back at home in Tarsus, not doing anything that we are aware of.  This is not the image of the great apostle that we normally imagine.

Just before the passage we heard today, Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement,” had gone up to Tarsus and encouraged Paul  to come back to work with him in Antioch, where the Christian community was booming, and we are even told it is Antioch that followers of Jesus are first referred to as Christians.  Several times in the past few months we have talked about the importance of where a name occurs in a list in scripture.  In today’s passage, Paul’s name is not listed first, as we might expect, but instead he is listed last.  Barnabas is named first, and he is to be the head of this missionary activity that they are to embark upon.  We know this again not only because Barnabas is listed first but also because of an encounter they have in Lystra.

While there, Paul heals a man who cannot walk, and then we are told “when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.”  (Acts 14:11-12)  Now who is greater, Zeus or Hermes?  So the Lycaonians understood that Barnabas, not Paul, was in control.  While on this missionary journey, Barnabas’ strategy is to city hop along the major roads.  They travel to Seleucia, Cyrpus, Salamis, Paphos, Perga, Pamphylia, Antioch of Pisidia, and then Iconium, where they encounter difficulties and flee to Lystra and Derbe, where even though they are called gods, they are later stoned, and again leave, returning by their prior route to strengthen the communities they worked with before, and then return to Antioch of Syria, where they report on their activities to the church, before moving on to Jerusalem to participate in the first council of the church.

After returning from Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul intend to set out on another journey, but Barnabas and Paul argue over whether to have John Mark accompany them.  John Mark had been with them on the first journey, but had left in the middle, and so Paul is opposed to having him join them again, and Paul decides to set out on his own.  Although others like, timothy and Silas travel with him, Paul is now clearly in charge, and he is going to do things differently than how Barnabas had done it.  Whereas Barnabas focused on going through the towns along trade routes, Paul wanted to go to the towns that had never before had missionaries, and also those towns that were capital cities.  He may have down this out of personal preference or comfort, after all his is from Tarsus, the capital city of Cilicia, and then had lived in Antioch, the capital city of Syria, but it’s also possible that he needs to be in large towns in order to make a living as a tent-maker.

So Paul sets out from Antioch on what is called his second missionary journey, although really it’s his third, and goes through Asia, which is modern day Turkey, and then based on a dream, crosses over into Macedonia, stepping foot for the first time in what today we consider Europe, traveling to Philippi.  He then moves on to Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, founding a community.  He preaches unsuccessfully in Athens, then moves on to Corinth, the capital city of Achaia, then to Ephesus, the capital of Lycia in Asia Minor, and then back into Palestine, with stops in Caesarea Maritima then to Jerusalem.

Now I just covered three years of Paul’s life in about five seconds, and didn’t really mention, as we tend to forget, that these were not easy journeys for Paul.  Paul and his companions were continually met with opposition wherever they went.  Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not.  They were imprisoned, beaten, kicked out of cities, and were even in constant turmoil with the communities they established as we see so often in Paul’s letters.  Paul’s famous phrase from 1 Corinthians 13, in which he says “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love,” is not some beautiful phrase that Paul was writing for the Corinthians to use in wedding ceremonies, it was instead a rebuke to the community over what was going on.

After spending some time in Jerusalem, Paul sets out again, traveling through Syria and Cilicia and then into Asia Minor returning to Ephesus where he stays for more than two years.  After Paul’s preaching causes a riot occurs in Ephesus, which you can read more about, as well as Paul’s travels in Acts chapters 13-20, Paul travels through Macedonia and Greece visiting the communities he had already established, including visiting Corinth where it is believed that he wrote his letter to the Romans in preparation for what he hopes will be his fourth missionary journey.  But before moving onto Rome and then to Spain, Paul needs to return to Jerusalem in order to deliver an offering he has collected for the community there.  It while Paul is in Jerusalem for this visit that he is arrested and then sent to Rome, possibly to his death, which we will cover that next week.

As I have said before, it is widely agreed that Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity besides for Jesus.  He is perhaps the most successful missionary and evangelist in the history of the church.  He is a giant of the faith, the super-apostle, and yet what I hope you just heard in this brief history of his journies, and there will be a test next week in which I’ll ask you to name all the cities Paul went to and in which order, is that this was not an easy thing for Paul.  His first missionary activity was such an absolute disaster, that Paul had to flee for his life by being lowered in a basket out a window in the town wall in order to escape and then he disappears for maybe up to eight years.  The greatest evangelist of all time failed utterly in his first undertaking at doing what he knew that God had called him to do.  How often has the same thing happened to us?  How often has our first attempt at something been such an utter failure that we have retreated with our tail between our legs and never attempted to do it again?

It is said that Thomas Edison failed at least 1000 times before he finally found an effective filament for a light bulb.  When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail that many times, Edison said “I didn’t fail a thousand times, I simply found a thousand ways not to do,” or according to other reports he said, “The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”  WH Macy had seven stores fail under him, before he was successful.  Henry Ford went bankrupt five times, before he was successful.  One of the reasons I love baseball is because it is much more about failure and overcoming adversity than it is about winning and being successful.  The best hitters in the game fail nearly seventy percent of the time, and even the best teams will lose nearly 1/3 of their games.  But what baseball also shows us is that you have to keep playing because tomorrow is another day, with a clean record, and a new start, and what we find when we have failed in some endeavor is that when we finally succeed that the accomplishment is that much greater because of what we went through in order to get there.

Paul was an utter failure his first time out, and then his second time, rather than fighting and saying that he had to be in charge and that Barnabas had to do things his way, instead Paul took a secondary position to such a degree that the residents of Lystra said that Barnabas was like Zeus, the one truly in charge, while Paul was like Hermes, the spokesman.Now there are a lot of things wrong with seniority systems in which things are often based on how long you have been there, rather than competence, and we’ve certainly seen that in the church, but there are also strengths as well in that sometimes we have to learn our skills and crafts, no matter how talented we are, or think we are, by studying them at the feet of others who are wiser, older and who have more experience."We learn by taking a backseat and allowing others to show us the way, even if it is a way with which we disagree.

Once Paul had separated from Barnabas he did things differently, he followed his own path, but to a large degree he was able to do this because he had failed, because he had followed others, because he had been willing to make mistakes and was willing to learn from those who took the time to teach him, show him, and encourage him.  And this is a two-way street.  Just as we must be willing to learn from others, we must also be willing to teach others, to pass on the wisdom and knowledge that we have accumulated, knowledge often learned from our own mistakes and failures, and once we have passed on that knowledge, done what we can, we must also be willing to let others go their own way and follow their own path recognizing that our way is not the only way.

In the end Paul’s missionary efforts were hugely successful.  Without him the history of Chrsitianity would be very different, but that success did not come without pain, sacrifice and struggle.  Paul was constantly being opposed, he was in constant struggle seemingly everywhere he went, sometimes being imprisoned, sometimes being beaten literally within inches of his life, and sometimes being run out of town.  He was opposed not only by those who did not want him proclaiming the gospel message, but was also opposed by those who said that he was proclaiming it in the wrong way or to the wrong people.  But even though he failed, even though he was in constant conflict, even though he sometimes had to take a backseat to others, he never gave up.

What Paul’s missionary journeys show us is that even when what we have been called to do turns out in utter failure, if we trust in God, then the future is not over. We need to be willing to admit our mistakes, and learn from them, notice that Paul never goes back to Arabia, and we must also be humble enough to be able to learn from others, to learn from their mistakes, to take from them what can work for us and then to be strong enough and wise enough to know what won’t work and to make our own way.  And we must also know that even though we meet opposition, sometimes fierce opposition, it does not mean that we are wrong and or that we will never succeed.  Instead it means that we should trust in God knowing that God’s grace is sufficient, that because of the Holy Spirit that we are given what – power, and that, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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