Paul and Barnabas had set out on their first missionary journey after the Holy Spirit inspired the church in Jerusalem to set them aside for a special purpose. After arriving in Antioch in Pisidia, they came to the synagogue on the sabbath to join in the worship. The synagogue official invited them to address the assembly, which Paul did at length. The 13th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles relates Paul’s entire address but which is omitted in the passage we read today. It was possibly also the first time many of his Jewish audience heard a vigorous defense of Jesus Christ in the context of Israel’s story. I am not familiar with Jewish services so I’m not sure how this all unfolded. But when Paul finished, the synagogue official didn’t seem opposed to them returning the following sabbath to speak again.
And the following sabbath, it appears they returned to a much larger audience. Now some in the assembly who must have heard Paul speak the previous week or had heard about it from someone else were determined to oppose him. The account we read summarizes the confrontation in three concise verses, from the jealousy and violent abuse to which Paul and Barnabas were subjected, to their bold defense of what the Holy Spirit had sent them to do, to their public announcement they were shifting their missionary efforts from the Jewish community to the gentiles. We don’t know what all went into the decision-making, but this was a radical shift. It didn’t help that Paul made no apologies for putting the blame for Jesus’ unjust death squarely at the feet of Israel’s religious leaders. And despite a good number of those gathered were Jewish expats living deep in gentile territory which is in present-day Turkey, they just found Paul’s message difficult to accept. And they made sure he knew. And Paul snapped.
“But since you reject [the word of God spoken to you] and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” I think Paul was much younger then than I am now, so he might have dealt with jealousy and violent abuse differently if this happened later in his mission work. But he was also more passionate and creative than I will ever be, so that might be exactly how the Holy Spirit chose to bring about the inauguration of his mission of announcing the gospel to the gentiles.
It is so much easier to form a negative opinion about chaos and perpetrators of chaos when we are beneficiaries of the status quo. But that day in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, it was Jesus’ teachings and way of life that were subversive and unconventional and revolutionary. Would their unhappy audience have warmed up to the gospel gradually if Paul and Barnabas engaged them in constructive dialogue over cocktails and a potluck dinner? Would the War for Independence been prevented if the opposing sides sat down to hash out their differences in a less hostile setting? Could the conflict between Russia and Ukraine been avoided entirely if cooler heads prevailed? Would everything have turned out much better if you and I were actually involved? There’s just no way for us to tell. The question we should address is where do we go from here?
Clearly Jesus foresaw his disciples would be subject to similar conflicts that arise when people were deeply passionate about their convictions. But if it truly was Jesus we listened to and followed, we shouldn’t stray too far, and we would likely arrive at a resolution consistent with our baptismal dignity and Christian discipleship. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” And if we were dealing with hostile outside forces unwilling to dialogue or insistent on causing injury, Jesus assures us we are in his care, and “no one can take [us] out of [his] hand because he and the Father are one. And no one can take [us] out of the Father’s hand.
It is troubling that we see tremendous volatility in civic and church life today. There is an unfortunate erosion of trust in our neighbor and in many public institutions. But the challenges we face are not unique to our time. The flaws and limitations of our human nature have been around way longer than any of us. Yet God still bestows his healing and transforming grace upon his people. We can be effective agents of God’s healing and transforming grace if we are attentive to our Shepherd’s voice, and sincerely desired the good that God desires for our neighbor. I am not a parent but I know it would give mom and dad great pleasure for their children to work out their differences patiently, respectfully, peacefully. And wise parents know when to stay away while we duked it out and when to intervene. The best outcome is ultimately that we learn to get along and that we do as good a job if not better raising the next generation as they did raising us.
So listen for the Shepherd’s voice. Follow his lead. And stop making trouble for one another. Don’t give the Good Shepherd heartburn please. Instead be an agent of God’s grace.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022