The Case of Mistaken Divinity
Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
14:8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways;17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy." 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
When have you felt powerful? Impfactful? When have other people witnessed you in your element and, “get it, gurl! Yaaas!” Maybe even if you weren’t feeling it yourself?
I have felt this way when:
I finished the MS150 on my bike. I felt physically and mentally strong, generous, capable – and it helps me feels strong and powerful in the rest of my life.
When we get our kid off to school, on time, with a lunch in her bag, AND matching socks, AND no one cried or yelled
when I was leading a women’s retreat, and we were talking about seeing ourselves in the image of God and the disconnect so many of these women felt because the imagery is always male. I got to be the one who said, “no, that’s not true and here’s where you can find many many examples of God as feminine in the Bible” – as mother, as one who rejoices and one who weeps, as wisdom, as persistence - all of these femme depictions in our sacred stories. It felt soooo good introducing this room full of women to parts of scripture that had been hidden from them, knowing that it was Gospel, good news, that they desperately needed to hear and embody.
Now, I acknowledge that this moment was the work of the Holy Spirit – in calling me to this work of teacher and of pastor – this work of tending and caring for the souls of others, and giving me the particular gospel perspective of a woman, in providing me formal and informal teachers who revealed such affirmation and liberation to me, in bringing this community of women together, and lighting the fire of curiosity and longing for God and God’s image within us. But I also felt pretty darn smart for being able to pull those scripture references out, and felt pretty awesome about myself as one bad mamma jamma. That night, if someone called me Zeus or Hermes, sometimes I feel like….yeah, pretty close. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel good about ourselves, about the work God calls us to each day, and all the places of joy. Because we SHOULD celebrate and bask in those moments. But I think this text also shows us how tricky it can be to discern the direction for our worship and praise, our expectations, and our hope.
When have you felt powerful? Impfactful?
The question I'm beginning to ask myself is...When I’m feelin myself, feeling larger than life, is it because I’m living into God’s call for me, or society’s expectations for me? Do I feel this way because I’ve connected with the depths of my own soul, the Holy Spirit’s work in and for me? OR because it’s what makes sense to everyone around me as power and achievement? Because those can be two different things.
Saul (who will later be renamed Paul) and Barnabas are called by the Holy Spirit and blessed by their peers to teach and heal. Through the power of God, they do incredible things, seemingly impossible things. They are changing lives and hearts in powerful ways but the people around them can't imagine a God who would be willing to share such power, so they use the language and symbols of divinity that they know and understand to make sense of their experience. Jesus said that his followers would do even great things than he did and it's true. They are raising women like Tabitha from the dead and healing bodies and souls. But the story of Jesus - of his life, and promises, and resurrection...is not the only story being told.
There are other stories - stories where there are precious few on top and the best you can hope for is to have any connection you can to them, even if it's degrading; stories where you have to constantly hustle in order to be loved or even valued, and the dominant story is of power that serves itself, not one that is given away. This is how most of the people near Paul understand God to be and so they mistakenly place the identity and expectations of God on Paul and Barnabas because of the power and impact they display. At a 2000-year distance, we are tempted to laugh these people off as primitive or superstitious, but these were also human beings just like us - longing for God, longing for God to come close, and trying their best to make sense of their world and the divine.
We too can misplace the identity and expectation of God. We can place it on ourselves, others can place it on us, and we can place it on others. It's all striving, longing for God to be near us, to be present, which is true.
It’s not a huge jump between feeling close to God and reflective of God’s image and power, to believing the critical voice in the back of our heads, the crowds and culture that wants us to believe we ARE God, or we CAN be God…if we can just keep this up. And then, seemingly all of a sudden, our longing switches between longing for God and longing to maintain the exhausting façade of divinity, to be constantly at the top of our game. OR, we place our ultimate hope in another human being to fulfill us, make us whole, and love us in ways that only God can and so we end up frustrated and broken-hearted when we are reminded that they are indeed mortal and imperfect.
It's hard to untangle all these stories to reveal one that is true. But that true story endures.
Jesus is alive, God is present and active, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, through us, and sending us. Sometimes we don’t know what to call her, sometimes we call her by the names we are most familiar with, but aren’t quite right. But we keep searching for God and are surprised to find God already and always within us - the source of our power and calling, always and already among our people - speaking from the Holy Spirit as they bless and encourage us, already and always at work in the world - bringing Christ’s resurrection healing and love to all of creation in the ways it is most needed.
For the ways that God has called and empowered you to be one bad mamma jamma, I give so much thanks. For the communities God gives us to speak a divine word of blessing and encouragement over us, even and especially when we feel like we don't deserve it, I give thanks. For the blows to my ego and confrontation of my limitations that remind me that I'm not God, I...reluctantly but inevitably...give thanks. For the nurturing, wise, raw, and persistent Spirit of God, that wraps me in this enduring true story of Good News of love above all else, I give thanks. Amen.