Seeing and Being Seen

Today I’m sharing a sermon I preached this weekend at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Ogden, Utah. Trinity is a lovely congregation that meets in a beautiful building right at the foot of the mountains. The sermon focuses on the Paul and Barnabas’ healing of a man who could not walk in Acts 14:8-18. The Message translates the story this way:

Gods or Men?

8-10 There was a man in Lystra who couldn’t walk. He sat there, crippled since the day of his birth. He heard Paul talking, and Paul, looking him in the eye, saw that he was ripe for God’s work, ready to believe. So he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Up on your feet!” The man was up in a flash—jumped up and walked around as if he’d been walking all his life.

11-13 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they went wild, calling out in their Lyconian dialect, “The gods have come down! These men are gods!” They called Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes” (since Paul did most of the speaking). The priest of the local Zeus shrine got up a parade—bulls and banners and people lined right up to the gates, ready for the ritual of sacrifice.

14-15 When Barnabas and Paul finally realized what was going on, they stopped them. Waving their arms, they interrupted the parade, calling out, “What do you think you’re doing! We’re not gods! We are men just like you, and we’re here to bring you the Message, to persuade you to abandon these silly god-superstitions and embrace God himself, the living God. We don’t make God; he makes us, and all of this—sky, earth, sea, and everything in them.

16-18 “In the generations before us, God let all the different nations go their own way. But even then he didn’t leave them without a clue, for he made a good creation, poured down rain and gave bumper crops. When your bellies were full and your hearts happy, there was evidence of good beyond your doing.” Talking fast and hard like this, they prevented them from carrying out the sacrifice that would have honored them as gods—but just barely.

 

Our scriptural passage today is a comic scene. You’ve seen it in old Tarzan films and cartoons—some outsider drops into a culture and accidentally impresses the locals, causing them to think that he’s a god. It’s called the “Mighty Whitey” trope because, for much of early film and TV history, the hero was a white man who found himself among “primitive” people who misunderstood his advanced technology as supernatural powers. Today, we’re more likely to see this trope inverted in some way, with the Mighty Whitey exposed as a fraud or taught a lesson by his hosts. We see this kind of humor in films like The Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker and his friends have arrived on Endor. There, the Ewoks identify Luke’s robot concierge, C3PO, as “The Golden One.” The joke is that while C3PO is, technically, golden in color, he’s also a humble droid whose greatest pleasure is serving others. He definitely doesn’t have the personality of a deity. He’s not the authoritative and brave Princess Leia or the handsome and cocksure Han Solo or the earnest and good-hearted Luke or the fierce and strong Chewbacca. But he’s the one given the status of a deity, while all those other characters are threatened with being cooked on a spit for dinner. When we watch the film, we laugh at their predicament because we see how wrong the Ewoks are: if they wanted a strong, brave, clever, wise god, they picketed the wrong droid.

The story presented here in Acts is an earlier version of that silly TV and movie trope. Paul and Barnabas who up in town and heal a man who can’t walk. The locals are awestruck. Because the only thing that can imagine powering the kind of miracle is something supernatural, they assume that they are being visited by gods. And since the most powerful gods familiar to them are the ones from Greek mythology, they assume that Paul and Barnabas must be Hermes and Zeus. Zeus is the ruler of the Greek gods, and Hermes is his son and messenger.

Before Paul and Barnabas understand that there has been a misunderstanding, the priests of the Greek temple are throwing a parade/ They’re preparing a bull for sacrifice. They’re ready to celebrate—not just the healing of the man who couldn’t walk but the literal presence of their gods among them. They think they are witnessing an incarnation. Christians can understand their enthusiasm—to have God right in front of you, with you, and healing your people. Now wonder they responded with such an outpouring of gratitude and excitement!

And we can also understand Paul and Barnabas’ horror! They’re on a healing mission to glorify God, and the two ways this could go wrong is if 1) they didn’t heal people and 2) they didn’t point the glory for that healing to God.

We can imagine the scene—Paul and Barnabas being unwillingly hoisted on the shoulders of glad worshippers. Hands of the needy pawing at them, hoping just to touch them and perhaps receive healing from them. For two men used to be chased by angry mobs, this is a turn of events that isn’t really any less overwhelming and is a lot more theologically troubling for them.

See the source image

Above, Raphael’s The Sacrifice at Lystra, a tapestry, one of five such works that tell the life of Paul.

We don’t get any sense that they hesitate, however. They’re not tempted by the possibility of this power.

And let’s be honest, just for a moment—some of us might have hesitated, might have been tempted. I’d be tempted. Not to go too far. But it would be fun, just for a moment. Like, I would stop my devotees before they sacrifice livestock, but maybe after they’ve brought me a plate of tacos and pitcher of margaritas. Before the parade, but after the foot massage.

But Paul and Barnabas are better than that. They don’t want even a moment of being treated like mythological deities. “Stop!” they cry. “Don’t credit us—or the false gods of Greek mythology. We’re just men, just like you,” they explain.

But the people in the crowd struggles to understand this. They accept the healing of the man as a miracle, but they naturally credit it to the only supernatural things that they know. Paul and Barnabas, against their own and intentions, are making converts to paganism!

However, they understand that the people’s enthusiasm is a good sign. They reach the people where they are—affirming their desire to worship in response to healing. That response is appropriate, just as it is appropriate for all people, whatever they believe about God, to respond to the beauty of God’s world with delight. Paul and Barnabas affirm the people’s enthusiasm. And there is even better news, they say. To paraphrase verses 15-17:

Even when you didn’t know anything about God or God’s love for you, God never left you. Even when you didn’t recognize God, God was always there—and always will be. You have never been without a testimony of God’s goodness. You understand God’s care for you in your very body and in every part of creation. You were settling for less than this abundant love, but you don’t have to. And when you care for each other, you understand God’s love more.

In a few chapters, Paul will preach the same message in Athens, telling the people there, who are gaga for every deity they can find, that their desire to worship was, in fact, instilled in them by God. Even if it feels like they are groping, he says,  God “is not far from each of us, for in Him we live and move and exist.” They were created with this desire for goodness, and they are already dwelling in God’s care. They just don’t see it, because they’ve settled for less. Why? Because it is easier to believe in gods like us—petty gods who want sacrifices and tacos and foot massages—than to believe in a God who offers life and love without limitations and whose mercy demands that we answer it with mercy.

What good, good news this is—even better than having Zeus and Hermes with you for a day is having God always with you, not as a visitor but as the thing in which you dwell. There is no better news for these Greeks to hear! There is no better news for us to hear today!

But there is another lesson for those of us who already know this blessed assurance. It is that Paul and Barnabas shows us how to preach this message.

Look back to where this story begins. What triggers this case of mistaken identity?

Well, we know that the Greeks think that Paul and Barnabas are divine because they heal a man who, since birth, has never walked. The Greeks were not prepared for this miracle—not just because no one can expect such healing but because the Greek gods weren’t healing gods. In the stories from Greek mythology, we don’t see Zeus entering the human realm to help people. In those stories, Zeus descends from Mt. Olympus to mostly pursue his own pleasure and make trouble for mortals. The people petition the Greek gods to help them win wars and grow crops, but the Greek gods were not understood by their worshippers to love and heal them. So this miracle of healing really provides a contrast not just to the power of the Greek gods to the Lord of Heaven and Earth but also even to their intentions. When God is incarnated in Jesus, he comes to heal and liberate—a sharp contrast that had to surprise the Greeks. Imagine finding out that God loves and cares for people by witnessing a healing when your only expectation of the Greek gods was that they used people for their own ends.

But I don’t think that even this—the miracle of healing—is the starting point for this story. I think it starts in verse 9, which tells us that the man listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul looked at him intently and saw that he had the faith to be healed.

So none of this—not the healing, not the beautiful illustration of God’s love given to the Greeks who had no model for such divine tenderness—would have happened if Paul had not looked at and seen the man who could not walk. The Message translates the scene this way:

There was a man in Lystra who couldn’t walk. He sat there, crippled since the day of his birth. He heard Paul talking, and Paul looking at him in the eye, saw that he was ripe for God’s work, ready to believe.

Do not miss the importance of these words. Imagine the scene from the perspective of the man who had never walked. “He sat there,” The Message tells us. When do we look people in the eye? When they stand! So it would be rare for a person to look at this man in the eye, with all the vulnerability and authenticity and respect that this indicates. He would have seen the face of love  as his family cared for him, as his friends sat by his bedside. But, for the most part, he world would have been happening over his head and he would have been below the line of vision for people unless they made the effort to see him.

And here comes Paul and sees this man. He is seen as he perhaps has never been seen before. Paul is sensitive to something in this man, because Paul is on the lookout for those want to be healed, who are ready to believe. And when Paul senses that in this man, he turns to him for a deeper look.

See the source image

Above, Karel Dujardin’s depiction of Paul’s healing of the man. Note who else appears–women, children, and another man using crutches, all people who would have been on the margins of Greek society.

So I think this story of Greeks seeing God’s love and power in the world begins with two things: first, the man’s readiness to be healed and, second, Paul’s sensitivity to his readiness and his willingness to look deeply into the eyes of one who has suffered and who is ready for transformation. The miracle begins in this exchange—in the man’s willingness to be seen, which is an act of vulnerability, and in Paul’s willingness to look deeply at his pain, which is an act of compassion, of seeing and understanding, as much as possible, another’s pain. And Paul has every reason for hope for the man, because he knows that this man, like all of us, dwells in God.

As we go forth this week from this church service to a life of service, I encourage you to keep the challenges of this story from Acts in the front of our minds.

  1. Like the man who could not walk, will you allow yourself to vulnerable to those who love you and who love God? Will you say “yes” to the goodness that God has for you?
  2. Like Paul, will you look closely at the people God puts into your life? Will you let them show themselves to you? Will you help a vulnerable person be seen?
  3. Like the crowd, will you respond to God’s mercy and tenderness with joy and gratitude?

We might not sing like angels or preach like Paul, as the old Primitive Baptist song says,  but I believe that when the people of God listen and see others as Paul and Barnabas did, we will also invite miracles of love and kindness—miracles that may be unbelievable in a culture that expects so much less. And, like Paul and Barnabas, we can help others see a God whose call to seeing others transforms lives.

Rebecca

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