May 12, 2019

“Only Human”
Acts 13:1-3, 14:8-18
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
May 12, 2019 (NL Easter 4) 

As you read the book of Acts, you can see that those were exciting days in the life of the early church.  Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.  Then the Holy Spirit came upon all the believers on the day of Pentecost.  The church went from 120 people gathered in one room to more than 3000 from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5).  As Acts unfolds, we see the fulfillment of Jesus’ commission to the disciples to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  

Last week we read about Peter and Cornelius’s conversion, an important turning point in the church’s mission.  Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile became a follower of Jesus after Peter shared the gospel with him.  Peter’s conversion was to the idea that the gospel was for Gentiles too.  The gospel began to travel beyond the family of Abraham and outward to the whole world that Jesus so loved. 

Our reading today shows what it took for the gospel to be taken to the ends of the earth.  It required human beings who were inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Mission is a joint effort between God and humans.  We often forget or neglect the fact that sharing the gospel is a collaborative effort between us and God.  But since the call of Abraham way back in Genesis 12, God has chosen to work with, and in, and through human beings to communicate God’s love to the world. 

When we take part in God’s mission in the world, we need to remember that we are only human, but not excuse ourselves because we are only human. 

We are only human.  We are not god.  Paul and Barnabas had to tell the people in Lystra this.   Today’s story strikes us as funny because the people reacted to the healing of the lame man by worshiping Paul and Barnabas.  They had never seen anything like that healing, so they interpreted it in the only way they knew.  They called Barnabas Zeus, and Paul, Hermes and began preparing to make sacrifices to them.  There was a local legend about a visit by Zeus and Hermes.  Only one poor couple extended hospitality to the gods when they went around knocking on doors.  Everyone except that couple perished in a great flood.  The people of Lystra didn’t want to repeat that mistake, so when they saw what they thought were gods, they began to gather bulls and wreaths to worship them.  Who else but a god could perform such a miracle? 

At first, Paul and Barnabas didn’t know what the people were saying because they were speaking in their native language.  But they soon figured out what was going on, and they tore their clothes, their own cultural way to show mourning and repentance.  They were not gods and didn’t want to be mistaken for them.  Herod had been hailed as a god, and because he didn’t correct the people and give praise to God, he was struck down and died (Acts 12:21-23). 

Paul was brilliant in his response and effort to get the people to stop sacrificing to him and Barnabas.  He acknowledged that they were human, too.  He appealed to their common humanity.  He pointed out the blessings they, as humans, had all received from God.  He told them to “turn…to the living God, who made the heavens and earth and the sea and everything in them” (v. 15).  If you’re going to worship anyone, worship the one who created this beautiful creation.  If you look at the heavens and earth and sea, you will see the Creator.  And this God has given you rain and crops in season, food to eat and joy to fill your hearts.  This all was evidence of God’s presence and blessing.  

Paul pointed the people to the living God.  He and Barnabas were only human, and the God who created all things was truly God and worthy to be praised.  They were only instruments of God, carriers of the good news. 

Taking part in God’s mission in the world requires that we understand this distinction.  God is God, and we are not.  We are only human, but God calls, empowers, equips us to take part in God’s ministry in the world. 

This distinction may be obvious, but there is always the danger of taking more credit than is due to us for the success in our ministries.  After all, we work hard to pull together details for our worship services, our service projects, our intergenerational programs and our fellowship activities.  We call upon our creativity and energy to make our activities inviting and meaningful for all who attend.  We give our time and effort to our ministries, don’t we?  But in the end, it’s God who provides, and inspires, and blesses our ministry.  It’s God who has given us spiritual gifts.  It’s God who brings guests to us and it’s the Holy Spirit who convicts people and draws them to the Lord.  We do our part, but the real work is God’s.  We are only human, and God invites us to participate in God’s mission. 

This is a challenge for many church leaders, especially ones who are successful in the eyes of people.  If you are able to draw large crowds to worship or if your ministry is significant, the danger is that people may begin to mistake you for a god.  When I was in seminary, this lesson was played out in a course that was offered by the School of World Missions.  A professor wanted to teach a class on signs and miracles.  This was important for those preparing for ministries in other countries where it was not unusual for people to seek alternative healing methods.  In many cultures, people would pray to their gods for healing and offer various sacrifices.  So how would someone from North America be able to minister in such a context? 

The professor teamed up with a local pastor known for his supernatural healing ministry.  The professor lectured on how God might use miracles to draw people into a relationship with Jesus.  After the lecture, they would hold a lab of sorts.  The pastor would ask the Holy Spirit to come and reveal any who had physical ailments, and he would pray for them and they would be healed. 

People from the community heard about the healings and began showing up for the class, and the pastor’s reputation as a healer grew.  The class grew so large that they had to change the location to a large church sanctuary near the seminary.  Many people who came didn’t realize that it was an actual seminary class.  People came to see and be in the presence of the healer rather than see and worship the living God.  Thankfully the pastor didn’t let it get to his head. 

Sometimes we have no power over what others think or how they react to our ministry.  But we as ministers need to remember that we are only human and that God is the one who is inspiring, empowering and blessing our ministry.  The credit and attention need to be given to God, and that is what Paul did. 

Remembering that we are only human can also be taken too far.  We can be led to think that because we are only human, and it’s God’s work to convert people, we can’t be used in Jesus’ Great Commission.  We are only human, so how can God expect us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth?  I can’t speak well like Paul.  I haven’t ever seen a miracle with my own eyes, so how can I minister to the sick?  I’m not going to travel the world to preach.  I have a job here and my family to take care of.  I can’t…I’m only human. 

There are so many things that prevent us from moving forward in our work to share the gospel.  People’s hearts are hard, and they are set against God and God’s ways.  The situation in our society and world are not conducive to asking people to set aside time to worship or to serve the needy.  We are only human, and the effort it would take to evangelize the whole world is beyond our human ability or reach.  

Our Scripture reading helps keep in check this idea that we are only human.  Some of the details in the story can help us to remember that we are only human, but not excuse ourselves because we are only human. 

The first detail in this human and divine partnership we observe is that Paul and Barnabas were called to the mission of God as the church worshiped, fasted and prayed, and sought God’s direction.  In chapter Acts 13:1-3 the leaders of the church, the prophets and teachers were gathered together for worship.  They were fasting and seeking the Lord when they heard the Holy Spirit speak.  Worship, prayer and fasting are important spiritual practices that remind us that God is in control and they help us to yield our control to God. 

I sometimes feel like I’m delaying making decisions because I need to pray first.  But as I pray, I am reminded to place my trust in God.  When we take the time to seek the Lord, the steps that need to be taken become clearer.  Sometimes the direction that we need to go changes a bit as we pray and as we wait for the Spirit to reveal what our next step might be.  It’s no use trying to move faster than God. 

I’m sure that the church could have used Barnabas and Paul in their local ministry in Antioch.  There were only five named prophets and teachers, and God was calling them to send two of them to the mission field!  But Simeon, Lucius and Manaen placed hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off with their blessing.  We need to trust that God knows what God is doing in calling people away to new ministries. 

In Lystra, Paul noticed the lame man.  He noticed that the man paid close attention to Paul as he spoke.  There was something in his eyes that told Paul that he had faith to be healed.  So he called the lame man to stand up, and he did.  Paul paid attention to the people to whom he was ministering, and he could sense when they were ready, when God was ready to do something miraculous.  Paul had to see the man and his faith before he could heal him.  

The people to whom we minister need our love and attention, and before we decide what they need, we need to spend time with them to really see them and get to know them.  When we build a relationship with them, we will then know how to minister with them, human to human. 

We are only human, but we are called to take part in God’s ministry in our families, in our communities, and in our world.  God has given us gifts to use and love to share to participate in the Great Commission.  But the results of this ministry are best left in God’s hands. 

If you read on to verses 19-20, you will see that the ministry in Lystra was not a huge success.  Opponents had followed the apostles from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium, and turned the crowd against Paul and Barnabas.   Paul was dragged outside the city and stoned, but he miraculously survived.  They moved on to Derbe.  

Barnabas and Paul eventually circled back to Lystra to encourage those who had become disciples of Jesus.  I’m not sure that I would have gone back to that city after all the misunderstanding and opposition and physical attack.  But the apostles continued to work with God to preach the gospel, and it did spread throughout the region and to the ends of the earth. 

Paul and Barnabas were only human, and yet because they allowed God to lead them, and trusted God to be with them in all situations, they were able to take the gospel far and wide.  Even though they were misunderstood and attacked, they persevered and connected with people to share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Friends, you are only human, but God wants to work in you, and with you to take the gospel into the world.  You are a human partner with the all-powerful maker of the universe, who will use you, empower and equip you to share God’s love with all people.  Thanks be to God!