September 11, 2011

Facing Opposition

Last month, we left Saul in Antioch preaching the Gospel and being well received by the people. He and Barnabas probably thought they had a nice long term position there. The Holy Spirit had other plans. “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (Acts 13:2) Saul and Barnabas with the other leaders in Antioch (Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen) heard the call because they were spending time with God by ‘worshipping and fasting’.

Barnabas and Saul head to Seleucia, a city on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. There they sail across the 50 mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus. The 3 men (‘John was with them) started their mission in Salamis on the south eastern side of the island where “they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” (Acts 13:5) Then the trio of apostles starts to tour the island. At the opposite end of Cyprus is the city of Paphos. Here they encounter the proconsul of the island, Sergius Paulus, who “wanted to hear the word of God” and a “Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus (son of Jesus/Joshua) who was also known as Elymas (meaning wizard). Sergius Paulus in interested, but Elymas “opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”

Can’t you just imagine the scene-Saul, never known for his patience, confronts the magician saying, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” (Acts 13:9-11). It is very dramatic and “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord.” Meanwhile the sorcerer, “went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand.” This painting by Raphael shows the moment of Elymas’ blindness while the proconsul looks on in amazement.

Soon the apostles “set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia” (on the southern coast of Turkey, a couple hundred miles west of Seleucia). From here they head inland about 100 miles to Antioch of Pisidia. They go to the synagogue where the “officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.’ So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak.” (Acts 13:13-16)

His training as a Pharisee helps Saul/Paul when he preaches to the Jewish community. Paul recites the salvation history of the Jews starting with the Exodus and leading up to King David. Cleverly he links David to Jesus, Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised…the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him…But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus…Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:23-39) Paul brings his sermon full circle by telling the congregation that they cannot be redeemed by the Law of Moses.

Paul’s recitation intrigued the people and they “urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath…[meanwhile] many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

The warm welcome turns sour within a week, though. “The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles’…When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” (Acts 13:44-48)

After preaching mainly to the Jewish population, Paul now accepts his call to be missionary to the Gentiles. Rather than being discouraged when “the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region,” the apostles “went to Iconium” (about 100 miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch). We hear the “the word of God spread through the region.” (Acts 13:49-52)

Saul/Paul and Barnabas set out on this journey because they were anointed by the Holy Spirit for the task. When we need direction, we would do well to gather friends around us to pray, and even fast, so that the Holy Spirit can speak. Paul and Barnabas listened to the Lord and didn’t become discouraged when it seemed they reached a dead end, they simply moved on, leaving behind seed to grow and flourish. The opposition of their native faith community (the Jews) did not deter them, either. Because they walked in the power of the Holy Spirit, they simply preached to those who were receptive and moved on when necessary.

As we will see over the next few weeks, this becomes a cycle. In each place that Paul goes and preaches, he finds opposition. Never discouraged, he moves on to the next town and the next.

When you (and I) think we have a calling from God, do we gather friends around to pray for discernment-or do we, more often, just jump in? Jesus told his disciples “where 2 or 3 are gathered together, I am in the midst.” (Matthew 18:20) We are meant to have a community of supporters.

When we face opposition to our message, whether from family, faith community, friends, or strangers, do we turn to Jesus and keep going or do we give up? Over and over in the Epistles we are reminded that “even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me." (Romans 15:3) and “though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

Are we willing to plant the seed (of faith) and then move on to let it germinate and grow, or do we feel like we have to hover over the plant until our attention stifles it? Paul learned throughout his travels that his job was to plant. In I Corinthians 3:6 he says “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

Next week we will continue with Paul on his journeys around Asia Minor and see how he met and defeated those who were against his mission to the Gentiles.

On this Tenth Anniversary of 9/11, let us pray for the families who lost loved ones that day and for the healing of our nation and for peace in the world.
These sections of some of the Trade Center beams were incorporated into a bell tower at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque. Thousands of miles from NYC, they keep silent vigil to remind us of the events of that day. Our actions each day, living into our individual callings, can help with the healing and peace needed today between people and nations.

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