This sermon was part of a series preached on the book of Acts, in this case Acts chapter 14. It’s a good idea to read that first, and have it alongside you as read this post.
Power is powerful. It has a capacity to attract gravitational pull towards itself or repel with similar force. It’s been the subject of the stories people tell since people started telling stories. When we come face to face with a person who holds power, it’s easy for us to find ourselves paying attention to the trappings of power as opposed to the person themselves. So when someone like Ghandi comes along, divesting himself of the trappings of power, his message becomes exponentially more attractive and subversive.
In Acts 14, covering the second half of Paul’s first missionary journey, we see the extent to which power – in this case, spiritual power – is both available to all of us but can also provoke wildly divergent reactions … ultimately laying bare the essence of our reactions to God Himself.
The chapter gives a quick overview of Paul and Barnabas’ experience in a number of different places. In each instance, though, we see that the power of God is available and active. God is at work in a real, direct, powerful sense – in such a way as to be described as miraculous. So in 14:3 we read that ‘miraculous signs and wonders’ confirm the preaching of the news about Jesus. The same thing is repeated in a different city in 14:8-10 – a man crippled from birth is healed by Paul after he has heard the message preached. It bears many similarities with the first healing miracle in the book, recorded in Acts 3 – a man crippled since the day of his birth, the apostle looking him directly in the eye, the man jumping as he’s healed.
A similar thing happens at the end of Paul’s time Lystra. Paul is stoned and described as being ‘left for dead’ (14:19). The Christians gather round him (14:20), and he’s able to walk back into town. We need to pause here to let sink in what actually happens. The people who stone Paul here know how to stone someone to death – it’s part of their tradition. They knew what a person who had been stoned to death looked like – so when they drag Paul outside the walls of the city, they really think he’s dead. There’s not going to be any doubt in their minds. The disciples gather round the apparently dead Paul – a turn of phrase which commentators tend to agree represents another way of saying they prayed for him – and the man who was previously assumed to be dead is able to get back and walk under his own power back into the city. There’s only one way that’s possible – the power of God.
The fact is that Paul would go on to write about this in his letters to the churches. There’s more than one list of the gifts given to the church by the Holy Spirit in the letters we attribute to Paul – they overlap and fill in gaps in one another. Look at just one – probably the most famous in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 and we find gifts of the miraculous and healing are right in there. It happens with Old Testament prophets (think, for example, of Elijah); throughout the life of Jesus; throughout Acts and on into the life of the early church. Records start with Iraneus, Bishop of Lyons in 200 C.E. referring to people healing in the name of Jesus, and carries on – in every era of the church, there are people discovering and rediscovering the power of God to heal. Nothing in the Bible or church history realistically allows us to think that gifts of healing and the miraculous died out with the apostles.
Now we know that we don’t live in a perfect world; we don’t see all the answers to prayers we want to because we live in war zone, waiting for the return of the king who will remake creation so that sickness, pain, tears and death are no more (Revelation 21:4). But it’s very clear from the Bible that God’s power is available to us to heal now – to demonstrate that what’s written in the Bible is still powerful, that God really is the same now as He was then, to pull back the curtain of eternity and give us a glimpse of what it will be like when the King returns. So it continues – I’ve prayed for people to be healed and not seen the answer we’d longed for. I’ve prayed for people and seen the deaf have hearing restored, withered muscles restored and pain subside. The power of God is here.
But people like you and me are nothing if not stubborn, and Acts 14 shows the variety of different reactions we can have to God’s power.
There can be outright opposition (14:2-3, 4-5), coming from the same hard hearts and jealousy which we saw at work in chapter 13 last week. There’s also, in Lystra, the sort of opposition that comes from misunderstanding. Lystra was the centre around the cult of the god Zeus; he was believed to have visited the city with his spokesman Hermes, to be recognised by only one elderly couple. His devotees in the city were determined not to make the same mistake again, so when Paul and Barnabas arrive speaking of a God and engaging in the miraculous they assume it’s Zeus returning and try to offer sacrifices. (14:11ff). It’s all the two missionaries can do to stop the townsfolk from making sacrifices to them.
Before we dismiss the Zeus-loving Lystrans we – followers of Jesus and atheists alike – should pay careful heed. Do we ever see one thing and let our assumptions lead us to one conclusion? Or do we stop to consider – that if there is a God, isn’t it possible, indeed likely, that He may do some things which we find hard to explain without moving to a more ‘rational’ explanation?
Either way, Paul and Barnabas’ reaction is in sharp contrast to Herod’s – they point away themselves, towards the God of heaven and earth, the God of Jesus. Herod, (12:21ff) hearing the crowd acclaiming him in his finery as a god, accepts the praise – and pays the terrible consequence. Herod’s all for taking all the acclaim and power he can get; Paul, by stark contrast, goes from Lystra back through other cities already visited (14:21-28), releasing other leaders, building them up and delegating power, giving it away, passing it on. It’s not his to hold on to – he’s there merely to hand it to others.
So the power of God is real and it is here. It is here to break into our lives. It is here to heal. It is here to demonstrate that what is written in the pages of the Bible still makes a difference now. It is here to give us a glimpse of what’s to come. So seek it. Use it point away from yourself to Jesus; use it demonstrate the only one with any power that counts isn’t you or me but God Himself. Seek it, and give it away.
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 18th November 2012. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text. The sermon was not recorded.