Paul’s First Journey – 5th Sunday of Easter

520354406Last Sunday, we heard about Paul’s first missionary journey as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles. Accompanied by his friend Barnabas, they travel into modern day Turkey and preach the word. Things seem to be going well until they run into some serious opposition in the town of Antioch in Pisidia. The local Jewish leaders want nothing to do with this “new way” stuff, and contradict Paul with “violent abuse,” which sounds like a couple of debates I’ve seen recently.
So Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles, who quickly embrace them. The local Jewish leaders, however, continue to lobby against our dynamic duo, and they are soon kicked out of town. They head off to Iconium and we take up the story as they move through Lystra to Derbe.We’re told that they made a considerable number of disciples in Derbe. We’re not told how long they stayed there, but for reasons unknown, they decide to backtrack and head for home. So they go back through Lystra, then Iconium, then to Antioch of Pisidia, the town they were just kicked out of. Can you imagine what the local Jewish leaders were thinking when they heard that Paul and Barnabas were back in town? But notice what Paul and Barnabas do – they appoint local leaders in each town to keep things going and, on the way out of town, Paul promises to write. The name of this region? Galatia. Does Paul write? You bet – his letter to the Galatians is evidence that he did.

Finally, Paul and Barnabas continue on their loop South toward the sea, eventually picking up a boat back to the “other” Antioch, located in present day Syria. This all takes place in roughly 45- 46 AD, when Paul is in his early 40’s. He’s got a lot more traveling to do, at least two more missionary trips, before he ends up in Rome, where he is executed some 20 years later. So here’s the interesting question, “Why?” What is driving this man?

There is no doubt that Paul was a very intelligent, well educated, devout Jew. He was so devoted to his faith that he couldn’t bear to listen to any contrary message, even if it meant hounding these heretics to the ends of the earth. Paul was a scary guy, and his reputation among the Christians was notorious. And then Jesus struck. Isn’t it interesting? Paul, at the very minimum, is an accomplice to murder (he admits this readily). He held the cloaks of the guys who were stoning St. Stephen to death shortly after the resurrection. I’m sure that the early Christians were praying about Paul – they were probably praying that he’d get knocked off his horse and stomped on. Jesus met them halfway, knocked Paul off his horse, and showed him the truth, blinded him with the truth. What’s the truth? As we hear in Revelation today, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

When someone has a conversion experience, we tend to say, “He’s a changed man”. But that’s not quite accurate. Paul is still Paul. He is just as intelligent, just as devout, just as driven as before. What’s different? Paul has been redirected, been fine-tuned so to speak. He’s got new marching orders, orders written on his inner being. This can’t be emphasized enough. When Paul preaches about Jesus, he doesn’t have a Bible, nor Gospels, nor New Testament. All he has is his Jewish tradition and his sure knowledge of Christ, a knowledge so deep that Paul speaks of being in Christ, as if Christ is enveloping him in all his being.

But being in Christ doesn’t mean that Paul the person has been lost. Paul is still very much front and center, and this is particularly evident in his willingness to change directions. He not only changes his geographical direction, the particular sequence of towns he visits, but beyond that, he makes a radical decision to abandon his mission to his Jewish brothers and sisters. This could not have been easy for Paul, but he listens to that inner voice and strides forward in great confidence. Note that he’s not a lone wolf here. At the end of the reading, we’re told that he heads back to Antioch in Syria to report on his mission, to rejoice in his new found converts.

There’s something about acting in truth that is completely energizing – it sets you on fire. Have you ever felt that energy? Don’t be too quick to say no. Here are some truths most of us encounter at various points in our life:

  •   At the age of 1, “I can walk!” Look out, world! Mom and Dad cringe.
  •   Some point in our teens, “I’m a grown-up!” (At least, I think I am!)
  •   S/he (fill in the pronoun of choice) loves me! Notice that requited love is energizing;unrequited love is just the opposite!
  •   It’s my first paycheck! I’m rich!
  •   I’m on my own, finally! The world is my oyster!

You get the idea. Notice however, that every one of these aha moments happens fairly early in life. They’re milestones of realization, of potentiality. We see the truth of ourselves in a broader context – we’re okay and the world is there for the taking. And then, for many of us, life steps in. It’s not that our hopes are dashed necessarily, it’s just that the essential things of life take over. We go to work, we get married, we have kids, we struggle with aging parents, we struggle with our own health and well-being. We have debts, we have stuff, and before we know it, we’re wondering what happened to that idealistic youth who couldn’t wait to engage the world. Is that person still in there? Do you retain the capacity to be energized by truth? Maybe it’s time to get knocked off our horse!

For many of us, this comes as a sort of mid-life crisis. I remember when my Dad was 46 he bought a Ford LTD convertible. My Mom’s reaction? “Better a new car than a new woman!” Now I understand that those of us with young families to raise find it hard to get through the day we have in front of us, let alone consider something more. But please try to avoid the trap of eternal parenting! At some point, despite the vast wisdom you have accrued over the ages, you need to let your adult kids screw up on their own. Time to get re-energized!

I’m not talking about a new job, although it could be. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it does have to fire you up. Are there invitations out there, just for you? Which ones are of God? Here’s some ways to think about it:

  •   Are there news stories that seem to jump off the page? Or the eReader or the Internet? What do you click on to find out more? Obviously, I’m not talking about stuff to buy or idiotic Hollywood gossip or a sports team. That’s just junk food for the brain. I’m talking about bigger issues. For me, it’s prison reform and criminal justice.
  •   Does the issue or need call you to compassion? Perhaps you’re particularly touched by homeless families or women with an unwanted pregnancy. Maybe your frustration mounts as you see the way we treat people with mental illness? Many of us have been horrified by the plight of refugee families struggling to escape endless violence. I don’t know about you, but the quickest way to break my heart is a frightened, hurting child.
  •   Does the issue keep coming back to your consciousness? Is it persistent? Do you find yourself saying, “You know, some day I’m going to do something about that!”
  •   Is it going to cost you something to act? There’s nothing wrong with donating money, but remember that’s the easiest way to respond. Action in the name of God engages our entire being. It sent St. Paul on a tour of the Mediterranean, and he wasn’t on a cruise ship.

So, don’t let fear keep you tied to your horse. Don’t let preconceived notions lock you in your house. Don’t let a lack of imagination kill your options. Don’t let well-meaning friends and family define your future. You are a child of God, a human being no more or less than St. Paul, a person with boundless potential for seeing the truth, for seeing a way to act in compassion and love. Yes, you can change the world. There. You have been given permission to fall off your horse. Look around.

It’s time to make all things new.

© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach


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