There’s a lot going on in these chapters! We briefly meet Lydia, an independent businesswoman who we believe did a lot to spread the gospel along with her trade in luxury fabrics. In contrast there’s the unnamed slave-girl set free of a spirit in Philippi, much to her owners’ anger.
And this all takes place as the Jerusalem church gives its backing to Paul and Barnabas in the freeing of mission to the Gentiles.
Paul, Barnabas and Mark
I want to concentrate on a couple of incidents, though. The first is in 15:36-40, as Paul and Barnabas fall out and go their separate ways. Like so many church splits, it’s not about theology but about people. John Mark was keen to rejoin them on mission, having previously turned back. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance, which seems entirely in character with the generous-hearted disciple who first persuaded the believers in Jerusalem to take a chance on a dangerous and frightening former persecutor of the church called Saul. That Saul, now Paul, didn’t want to take a risk with someone on whom he couldn’t rely.
Luke, the author, is following Paul’s story, and perhaps for that reason it reads as though it’s Barnabas who is the argumentative one, who ‘took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus’. From what we’ve seen of the characters of Paul and Barnabas, I can’t help thinking that any stubbornness may not have been Barnabas’ fault…
The benefit of the split, of course, is that the gospel spreads faster and further. It’s also that Mark gets his second chance. Later on we’ll read of Paul at the end of his life asking Mark to come to him, a great support. And it’s to Mark that we credit the earliest written gospel. If Barnabas had given in to Paul, and left Mark behind, how much would the church and the world have lost?
It’s surely a reminder to us not to close the door on people too easily, but to give second (and third, and 490th) chances whenever we can. Let’s take a risk on people – after all, if the church doesn’t, who will?
Paul in Athens
Second, in 17:16-end, I’m fascinated by Paul’s approach to evangelism and mission in a new setting. As we’ve seen, mission among Jewish people has involved retelling the familiar story of God’s faithfulness, but with a new ending. Now Paul is out of his own comfort zone, speaking to people who probably know little and care less about Israel’s God and his faithful love.
Paul latches his address onto the altar ‘to an unknown God’ which he has seen in Athens. Starting from a different point to that he’d make in the synagogue, he relates the good news to the understanding of the Athenians. He doesn’t change the content of the message, so some scoff at the idea of resurrection. But nor does he attack their own prior beliefs. Instead he works with what’s there, and leads those who will listen from the partial truth they already recognise, and from their awareness of the gaps in their own spiritual understanding, into a deeper knowledge of truth through Jesus. He recognises that there is an integrity in the Greeks’ seeking after knowledge and understanding, and does not dismiss it. He then points them to the truth now revealed by God.
Going back to an awareness that we can no longer play our part in mission by appeal to a shared story or even set of values, I can’t help but see in Paul’s approach here something of an encouragement to relate to the acknowledged gaps and felt needs in the spiritual lives of those around us.
Where should we start?
Answers and suggestions welcome!