1st Reading: Acts 14:8-20
Remember in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus is sending out the twelve disciples part of his instruction was, ‘If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.’ Toward the end of last week’s reading it said ‘so they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium.’ When Paul and Barnabas left Pisidian Antioch they arrive next at Iconium. We are not going to visit Iconium this morning but make reference to it only in passing. As I said last week it is important to mention these different places as the picture builds up of the early church and the work that was done. The ill will is growing, not only between Jew and Gentile against the apostles but there were others who sided with the Apostles. Paul and Barnabas continued in their work despite the minds of those coming to faith being poisoned and the people in the city becoming divided.
Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas included Jew and Gentile among their number and this group plotted to stone them. As we see in this morning’s reading those who support them want to proclaim them as gods. The cities mentioned during this journey are in a province of the Roman Empire called Galatia situated in what we now know as the central part of turkey. We have the letter written by Paul to the Galatians and it is these new churches in these cities we are hearing of now who were the recipients of that letter. New churches established by Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey.
2nd Reading Acts 14:21-28
Do you remember the sitcom ‘Allo, Allo’ set in WWII France? One of the catchphrases that has remained with us since the programme ended allows us to practise our poor French accent, ‘listen carefully, I will say this only once.’ It was usually said to make sure the hearer is paying particular attention. I don’t know about you but when Ingrid and I go out for a run in the car and we have no particular destination in mind we often make a deliberate choice to alter the return route so that we are not going the same roads and may see something different on that part of the journey.
Our second reading reminds us as Barnabas and Paul make their way back to Antioch that the journey of discipleship is continuous. As we embark on this journey it may not always be so straightforward that we only need to visit a place or a situation only once. We may need to be paying particular attention as things in life have a habit of passing us by only once. We may need to be paying particular attention to certain places or situations that we have found ourselves in that they need to be revisited either for our own reassurance or to build up the people we made that part of our journey of discipleship with. It is on this return leg of the journey Barnabas and Paul revisit the places they stopped at on the outward journey. They have made disciples in every city they have visited en-route. Here they take that opportunity, not always afforded us in life, of revisiting or retracing, if you like, the steps they had taken earlier.
The places they return to were not always welcoming places as the two men had been expelled from Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. But their determination to fulfil the mission is strong enough that they go back with the intention of building up the people they had placed as elders on their journey through. Once we establish people in the service of the kingdom it is good and proper that we don’t simply leave them to get on with things but let them know they are supported in their work. Remember these elders were themselves new to the faith. There were no old heads with years of experience everybody was in the same boat. It is here that we discover how all of this can come about. Not only in those first fledgling churches but right up to and including the church of today. We rely on the guiding of the Holy Spirit and the power of that Spirit to build us up that we become secure in the faith. Paul and Barnabas had been sent by the church in Antioch. Their mission journey had taken one year. Now on their return to their home church they give an account, a report, of all that has happened during that time and in those places. We do well to notice how this reporting is recorded. It was the work of God through them that achieved all these things. It was God who opened up the door to the Gentiles. We do well to notice this also, the Christians in Antioch had been praying for Paul and Barnabas. The missional work these men went on was also the work of all the Christians. A reminder that we do not all need to be doing the same thing but collectively by sticking to our strengths, gifts or talents and allowing our brothers and sisters in Christ to do likewise much more fruitful work can be achieved.
We do well never to underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit through prayerful Christian men and women. This first missionary journey was well served through the prayers of the church and the answering of these prayers by God.