Created in the image of God

by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

Text: Acts 14:8-19

It is always an honor to preach the Gospel. Today’s scripture is a strange passage to speak on for any preacher. Yet, a wise, old preacher named Glen Wiberg coached me to preach out of the lectionary especially when it feels uncomfortable. Glen taught that the Holy Spirit moves in wonderful ways when we submit to the Word of God, rather than trying to make the Bible fit what we want to say.

Our passage tells the story of a pair of preachers named Paul and Barnabas. They experience the tension that all preachers must face. When things are going well, preachers get too much credit. When things are going poorly, preachers get too much blame. All preachers can relate to that tension, just not the extremes that we read about in today’s text. Paul and Barnabas are worshipped as gods in Lystra! By the end of the story, the crowds are pelting Paul with stones and dragging him out of the city, abandoning him for dead. It certainly would be easier to preach on John 3:16!

Why did the people of Lystra assume that Paul and Barnabas were Zeus and Hermes? First, they had never seen such a dramatic healing. Second, the locals only spoke a little Greek, so they didn’t understand everything Paul was saying. Third, archeologists have discovered several statues of Zeus and Hermes in Lystra, so these were probably the primary idols of the region. Fourth, there is an old myth set in Lystra about Zeus and Hermes paying a deadly visit.

According to the myth, one day Zeus and Hermes came to Lystra. They visited all the houses in town looking for hospitality. Everyone refused to help them, except for an elderly couple named Philemon and Baucis. They had few possessions, but Philemon and Baucis shared freely with the Olympians. They used the last of their firewood to build a fire. They used the last of their food and wine to feed their guests. Zeus rewarded their hospitality by transforming their humble home into a dazzling temple. According to the myth, a mighty flood wiped out all other life in Lystra.

When Paul and Barnabas healed the man who could not walk, the crowd instinctively jumped to the conclusion that Zeus and Hermes were back to test them again. The people of Lystra wanted to pass the divine examination this time! The priest of Zeus brought out a sacrificial ox covered in wool garlands. They were going to kill the beast, and have a feast! No one would ever again accuse Lystra of failing to show proper hospitality to the gods!

Paul and Barnabas ripped their clothes. No matter where you lived in the ancient world, tearing your clothes expresses that you are unhappy about what was going on. The Jewish people were particularly sensitive to blasphemy, and so they shredded their clothes to protest this pagan idolatry. Paul and Barnabas may also have been trying to show their bare skin to prove that they were human beings, unworthy of worship.

Paul started preaching about the One True God. The three top gods in the Greek pantheon were Zeus, who ruled the skies; Hades who ruled the underworld; and their brother Poseidon, who ruled the oceans. Paul declares that the One True God created the heavens, the earth, and the waters, and everything that lives in them. His point is that the people of Lystra did not need to pray to a pantheon of gods. They don’t need to worry about Zeus and Hermes paying them a sneaky visit in disguise. Only one God matters: the Creator of heaven and earth.

Christians tend to dismiss Greeks and Romans mythology as silly superstitions. After all, the Olympic gods seduced mortals, carried on extramarital affairs, murdered people, and even went to war against each other. It all seems rather laughable! The early Christians won a lot of people to the Gospel precisely because the old pagan stories were so immoral. But let’s be careful about chuckling at the idolatry of others. America has its own pantheon of false gods.

We don’t call it worship, but we do stick people on pedestals until they inevitably come crashing down. Instead of Aphrodite the love goddess, we fill People magazine with movie stars until they lose their beauty. Instead of Hercules the macho god the Olympics, we fill Sports Illustrated with jocks until they get old and retire. Instead of Athena the goddess of wisdom, we fill the Atlantic Monthly with brilliant scholars who tickle our brains until their brilliance fades. Instead of Zeus, the king of the gods, we fill Time magazine with politicians who promise salvation, and always fail to deliver. American idolatry is not so different from the paganism criticized in the Bible. No actor, athlete, professor, politician, and no preacher stays on the pedestal for very long. We all come tumbling down!

That’s actually a good thing! None of us have any business rising above the crowds. When Paul and Barnabas were treated as gods, they did not laugh or take advantage. They ripped off their clothes in grief and humility to demonstrate that they were just like everybody else. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. The crowds turned on Paul and very nearly killed him. There are actually two miracles in this story: the healing of a crippled man, and Paul’s survival after he was stoned and left for dead. Both of these miracles celebrate the God of our salvation, not the strength or the resilience of the men who were saved.

Book cover: Crying for my Mother

Wesley Nelson was a pastor who found strength in preaching about his own vulnerability. I first knew Nelson’s name as the author of my confirmation book. I later knew him as a retired preaching professor at North Park University, and I attended North Park Covenant Church when he served as interim pastor. I read his book Crying for My Mother in seminary. I’m afraid that I was too young, too proud, and too foolish to fully appreciate the book at that time. I recently reread the book, and I was deeply moved.

Wesley Nelson strips away all the glory and honor of his ministry accomplishments, like Paul and Barnabas ripping their clothes in Lystra. He is painfully honest about the humiliations of his childhood; sexual assault, his struggle to give and receive affection, his lifelong depression, and even his thoughts of suicide. Crying for My Mother is not a heroic mythology, but rather a vulnerable testimony of how he gradually discovered God’s grace.

When heroes are stuck on pedestals, their imperfections are covered in smooth marble. When heroes are captured in portraits, their flawed humanity is covered in thick paint. Saints, on the other hand, belong in stained glass windows. Their beauty comes from the light pouring through them. Wesley Nelson refused to play the hero in his biography or on any pedestal. I see him as a saint because the Gospel of Jesus Christ radiated through him. That same light still shines in the lives of countless people influenced by Nelson.

Pastors get too much credit and too much blame. It’s dehumanizing to put a pastor on a pedestal; it’s dehumanizing to toss stones at a pastor when their back is turned. Christian community only works when we cherish and protect everyone equally as image bearers of God. Dehumanization is at the heart of our modern American idolatry that perpetuates racism, sexism, homophobia, shooting children at the doorstep, and all manner of hatefulness. The Gospel teaches us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves…even our enemies.

Consider again the words that Paul and Barnabas preached to the people of Lystra: “We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God.” Paul and Barnabas had to tear their clothes, bare their skin, and revel in their full humanity in order for the Light of Christ to shine through them! That’s what it looks like to be a saint, in Paul’s day, in Wesley Nelson’s day, and even today.