July 9, 2017 “Gods among Us” – Acts 14:8-28
“Gods among Us”
July 9, 2017 – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Caesar Augustus got the god ball rolling. To shore up Roman religion and morals, Augustus had his famous predecessor Julius declared a god and added to the pantheon for the public to worship. Thus began the Roman tradition of god-emperors, deified rulers. It was first a posthumous honor, applied after an emperor died. Augustus himself was deified upon his death and likewise his successor Tiberius.
In 37 A.D., as Christianity was just beginning, a crazy man took the reigns of Rome. Caligula was not content to wait until he died to be a god. He did his best to be worshipped as divine in his own lifetime. He dressed in regal robes and appeared for veneration by the people. He replaced heads of statues of gods, including female statues, throughout Rome with sculptures of his own head. He demanded that he be worshipped as an embodiment of the gods. He even planned to place a statue of himself as Zeus in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. That was wisely stopped by the intervention of Herod Agrippa, a personal friend of Caligula.
Caligula had been dead a few years when Paul and Barnabas entered the little Roman colony of Lystra early on their first missionary journey sometime between 45 and 50 A.D. The reigning emperor Claudius was more modest than his precursor, but the notion of deity in human form was firmly stuck in the popular imagination.
In the previous chapter, Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas left persecution in Antioch of Pisidia in the Turkish Lakes region and went to Iconium, a hundred miles southeast in the Roman province of Phrygia. There they were opposed again by the Jewish population, as you may read at the beginning of chapter 14. Nonetheless, they were able to stay awhile and make many converts among the Gentiles. Eventually, though, a plot was hatched to arrest and stone them. Verse 6 tells how they got wind of the plan and fled Iconium just a short distance into the hill country of Lycaonia to the small town of Lystra.
God decided it was time for a miracle. Verse 8 tells us there was in Lystra a man who could not walk. The writer Luke is a doctor. He knows some of his readers will wonder if the handicap was merely a temporary condition or if the healing was only a psychological event, not really a miracle at all. So Luke carefully records in verse 8 that the man was crippled in his feet, unable to walk from birth. This man on his feet was truly miraculous.
The apostle Peter healed like this, a lame man at the Temple in Acts chapter 3 and a man named Aeneas in chapter 9. Now Paul takes on the apostolic role and power. As the man listened to their preaching, Paul saw he had faith. So in verse 10 he simply calls out, “Stand upright on your feet!” The man immediately jumped up and began walking, just as the lame man did in Jerusalem and Aeneas did in Lydda.
Peter’s miracles were similar, but the result here was completely different. Peter had been among Jewish people. To their eyes a miracle meant the hand of God. Any human involved might be very special in God’s eyes, but still only human. But there were no Jews in Lystra. Paul and Barnabas were “not in Kansas anymore.” They were out in the country, among pagan people who knew no God but the gods of Greece and Rome. These people put their amazement into their own terms.
In the dialect of Lycaonia, which the apostles did not understand, the Lystrans exclaimed that the apostles were gods come to earth. Barnabas, maybe a bigger man, was Zeus, the ruling god of the Greek pantheon. Paul, who did all the talking, was Hermes, the messenger god. In verse 13, the priest of Zeus began to prepare a sacrifice in their honor.
To us the mistake seems like the ancient history it is. You and I can’t imagine such confusion. You know the people seated by you this morning are not gods, just weak, sleepy, fallible human beings like you. Yet in May we heard that ABC has picked up “American Idol” and it’s coming back on television. There will be auditions for the show in Portland on August 17 and around the country after that. You too can be a star, an idol.
Idolizing people is a natural human tendency. Romans did it with their emperors and so did the Japanese not all that long ago in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1984 Beth and I spent a week in meetings with members of the Unification Church, the followers of Sun Myung Moon. We were amazed how bright young people were willing to call Moon divine, the second coming of Jesus. Moon never directly and overtly claimed to be a god, but they made him one. With all their hearts, they wanted their leader to be divine.
We make idols out of people all the time. I sit in my office and look at a couple ready to be married. Usually at least one of them is completely love-blind to the humanity of the other. No matter how I try to get her to put passion aside and really think about living with his bad habits for the rest of her days, she can’t see it. No matter he learns about her sloppy housekeeping it falls on deaf ears for this immaculately dressed neat-freak sitting beside her. By the power of desire, faults are rendered invisible, the beloved becomes divine and an idol is made.
It starts young. You probably idolized a teacher in elementary school or a professor in college. You came home filled to overflowing with what Mr. That or Ms. This said or did in class that day. Unlike your parents, this teacher seemed to know everything, to understand life, to have all the answers you’ve been searching for. You found your idol.
It happens. We idolize each other—politicians, quarterbacks, film stars and singers. But not just celebrities. Fiancés, parents, teachers, even friends can become our gods. I certainly have not experienced it to any great degree, but it happens with pastors. It’s human nature. It’s a built-in desire. We want gods that are near us, among us.
The problem of course is that those among us are not gods. Fortunately, Paul and Barnabas resisted the temptation to be deified. Because of the difference in language, they had no idea what was being said and thought until they saw the Greek priest arriving with bulls draped in wreaths ready for an offering. Then they were horrified. Verse 14 says they rushed out tearing their clothes. That’s the ancient Jewish sign of distress when blasphemy is being perpetrated. They could not bear the thought that honor which belonged to the true God should be done to them.
Instead of letting the people honor them as gods, Paul took the occasion, starting in verse 15, to preach a sermon. It’s the first of only two recorded sermons Paul preached to purely pagan audiences. It’s completely different from what he preached in Antioch in chapter 13. There’s no mention of Jewish history, no recounting of the lineage of the Messiah, not even any word about Jesus. Instead, Paul starts where his listeners are, first by denying his own divinity, in verse 15 “We are mortals just like you.” Then he spoke of the natural revelation of the real God. These people needed to first know the Creator, “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them,” before they could know the Redeemer who came to save them.
Verse 16 explains that in the past the true God, the living God as opposed to the dead idols they worshipped, let everyone do just the sort of thing they wanted to do there, to create and set up their own gods: “he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways.” Then in verse 17, Paul told them of the God whose witness is seen in rain and crops and the gift of food to eat. His hand is seen even in their own hearts filled with joy. That God, said Paul, is the One they should be worshipping. But the people wanted their gods to be with them. Even with all his explanation, verse 18 says Paul barely restrained the people from offering a sacrifice to them.
We can learn a lot here from Paul and Barnabas. When a child or a spouse or an employee begins to put you on a pedestal and think you are perfectly divine, watch out. You are putting both yourself and them in spiritual danger. If they are going to know the real God, they must not have even a glimmer of a thought that you are divine.
That’s the other and darker side of this business of making each other into idols. It’s very tempting to be thought a god. For some, pride runs so deep that the honor will be accepted if offered. Those emperors and Sun Myung Moon show us it’s possible. But even the desire to be divine can ruin us. Friedrich Nietzsch said, “If gods existed, I could not tolerate not being one.” Nietzsche’s way of putting it is over the top, but most of us have some of that feeling. We want to be gods. We want to believe we are special, filled with abilities and strengths that set us apart from mere humanity. It’s a tempting thought.
Beth and I just went to see Wonder Woman last week. We’ll probably go see the new Spiderman soon. We think superhero films are lots of fun, but they also play off that same temptation many of us feel, especially when young, to think we too are special, godlike, stronger and smarter than others around us.
Fortunately, God constantly helps set us straight on this subject of our own divinity, if we only pay attention. Verse 19 tells how some of the persecuting Jews finally showed up from Antioch and Iconium, threw stones at Paul and left him for dead. No one, including Paul, was going to imagine any longer that he was a god.
God interrupts our pretensions at divinity. Caligula lasted a mere four years as emperor of Rome. 70 years ago in Japan on January 1, 1946 after World War II, Hirohito was forced to publicly deny “…the false conceptions that the Emperor is divine.” Nietzsche went literally insane. The story is that he was found out of his mind in the city street, with his arms wrapped around a horse’s neck. As professor Tom Morris writes, “It was the first time in history the two ends of a horse got together.”
No, if we will only face and admit it, death and illness and failure of all sorts eliminate any real possibility for us to pretend to be gods. That is good. It should be a relief. One of the catch phrases of the Spiderman comics and films is his Uncle Ben’s line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That responsibility torments Spiderman and many other superheroes. It’s their responsibility to keep on saving people, to save the world.
Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra to share the good news about the true Savior of humankind and of the world. Jesus came to take that responsibility off human shoulders. We do have responsibility to both our neighbors and our planet. We are called to do all we can to help one another and care for God’s creation. But that Savior job belongs to someone else. That’s why in our Gospel lesson Jesus said in Matthew 10:28 and 29,
“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls.”
That’s the message of this story about people trying to make gods out of mere men. There is a God, one God, who was gentle and humble enough to become a man. We do need to have a God near us, to have a God who is among us. In verse 11, when the Lystrans mistakenly shouted, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” they were very, very close to the truth. The gods had not come down in human form, but God had, the real God. He came to them and to you and me in the human form of the infant born in Bethlehem.
There are no gods among you and me. Those we live with and love and watch and idolize are not divine. Yet God is among us. As Paul preached in verse 17, “he has not left himself without a witness.” With the coming of Jesus Christ into our world, God is here beside and near anyone who will trust in Him. He is among us as we place our faith in Christ and offer up our worship and sacrifice to Him alone.
We are human, not divine. Returning to the churches planted there in Lystra and Iconium and Antioch, Paul and Barnabas encouraged them in verse 22 to remain true to the faith saying, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s human life, hardship and difficulty, not the ease and glory of gods upon earth.
We’re like the Lystrans, though. We keep looking for other gods, maybe even wanting to be gods ourselves. We keeping hoping for human saviors to make us great again somehow, to save us from terrorists, to save our jobs, to save our healthcare, to save our families. But there is no hope in those human gods. Even the best of them, even men like Paul and Barnabas will end up misunderstood and persecuted and failing. There aren’t any gods among us to save us, only fallible human beings.
Verse 23 tells how Paul and Barnabas appointed “elders,” pastors, “in each church.” Then, “with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” These were not all-knowing, super-powerful divine guides, but plain human leaders, who, by the humble act of praying and going without food a little while, put their faith in the Lord rather than in themselves.
That’s still how solid Christian churches work. I hope you will trust me and trust the other leaders you’ve elected to our Church Council. But I pray that most of all you will put your faith and trust in the one and only Savior of you and of the world, the one true and living God who came to us in Jesus Christ.
We see that same faith in Jesus, in God rather than ourselves, in the last few verses of chapter 14. Paul and Barnabas sailed back home to Antioch in Syria, “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed.” But when they gave their report in verse 27, they did not speak of their work. “When they arrived, they gathered the church together and related all that God had done with them.” Their report was about what God had done, not what they had done.
Our missionaries still come to us with that kind of report. In May we heard David and Joy talk about what God has been doing in China. Our missions committee keeps us posted on what God is doing in Colombia and India and western Africa. Last month at our congregation meeting we reported that attendance and giving is up this year. We approved several new members. But it was all with the understanding that this is what God has done, not us, not your pastor.
I urge you to place your faith and trust in the God who is among us, who came down to us in human form to be our only Savior. His yoke is easy and is burden is light for us, because He takes the responsibility for saving ourselves off our shoulders. We don’t have to find or be some other savior. He and He alone is the God among us. Trust in Him and not in a pastor, not in a president, not in any human being who might claim to have the power to save. Only Jesus has that power and only Jesus can save you. Let Him be your God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj