Seventy years ago, Colonial Records released a recording of Deacon Andy Griffith telling a folksy yarn about being a country boy who heads into the town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and getting swept along in a crowd of people.
Andy tells of accidentally making his way through the North Gate even though he didn’t have a ticket. He ended up in the stands, looking down at a pretty little green cow pasture that somebody had drawn white lines all over and drove posts into. He says there were five or six convicts running up and down and blowing whistles. Then more men came out and began to fight because they all wanted to play with a funny looking pumpkin. Soon the men were having the awfulest fight he had ever seen.
About that time someone said to Andy, “Friend you are going to have to leave because you don’t have a ticket.” So, he did.
He concludes: I don’t know, friends, to this day what it was that they was a-doin’ down there…. I think it was that it’s some kinda contest where they see which bunch-full of them men can take that punkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without gettin’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.
The title of the 1949 record was, of course, “What it was, was football.” (1)
Griffith is onto the reality that our understanding of new things is limited by our old experiences.
It’s a human reality that confronts Paul and Barnabas throughout their missionary journeys in the first century. Because of it, the story told in Acts 14 is about as amusing as Andy Griffith’s story.
When Paul – who by all accounts was a pretty funny looking man – and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, they meet a man who has been lame all this life. Paul sees the man has faith to be healed and calls out to him “Stand upright on your feet.” The lame man jumps up and starts walking.
Those who witness this misinterpret what they see, based on what they know. Only the Greek gods that are already familiar to them could have such amazing power to change a life so the town is ready to worship the two missionaries.
Paul and Barnabas are forced to explain: “Hey, we are just human beings like you!” They go on to describe that they do not come from gods who sit on little shelves as statues to be worshipped. They come from a living God.
Paul and Barnabas take the time to go back and reinterpret what the people have seen in the healing of a man’s life. They reveal the life that God has been offering to all of them all the time – in rain and sun, planting and growing, good food and joy. What it is, Paul and Barnabas say, is the living God.
Knowing only the context of Greek legends, Paul and Barnabas are misinterpreted. It’s people who had never seen a football but know what a fight looks like. The people of Lystra interpreted the new experience according to what they already knew about life and God.
It is the same with us today. Whenever anything new comes into our lives, welcome or unwelcome, it is inevitable that we will interpret it according to our past. We are entirely likely to do it with our theology – like any other area of our experience.
A young pastor serving in her first congregation, tells how she misinterpreted the man who was the moderator of the board of deacons in her church based on her past experience. The man had been preparing for ordained ministry when he was called to serve in the Vietnam War. When he returned, though, he didn’t go back to seminary but took up significant leadership in his congregation. The pastor was sure the man was second-guessing her all the time and undervaluing her authority. She experienced him as a thorn in her side. One evening, at a meeting, she mentioned that she had written 48 notes to people who didn’t attend anymore. The man asked, “Who paid for the stamps?” She thought, “what is this? I’m trying to build relationships and you are worried about the cost of stamps?” but she answered, “I did” “huh” said the thorn. The next day, he dropped by the church with 100 stamps and said, “keep writing.” Turns out he’s one of the most generous people in the congregation in time and talent and money. He’s passionate about the ministry of his congregation and is glad that she is, too. She saw a threat when an advocate was being revealed. What it was, was the living God. (2)
In another church, in a bible study on our passage, a woman shared that she had an experienced a similar miracle as the lame man in Lystra. As a teenager, she had been in a car accident and been badly injured. She was in a back brace, in pain and had to have surgery. A priest came and prayed for her healing. When she went back to the doctor, her back was fine. No one could explain it. Decades later she said, her brother was dying of cancer and she asked to pray for him. He told her, she could pray for his healing, but when she prayed, she should make sure she prayed for God’s will to be done. He said God might not want the same kind of healing for him that God had wanted for her. Out of her own experience, healing was for the body, but her brother saw hope in all things. What it was, was the living God. (3)
In this congregation, as in many others, we saw Sunday school dwindle in size. Families are very busy, and time together is precious. There are great expectations of children and parents. Increasingly we recognize that different children learn differently. In any case, a model that worked for a couple of centuries seems to no longer offer faith formation. It can look like a failure if we make certain forms of Christian education our idols instead of wondering what new thing God is bringing about. Instead, with other adventurous congregations Faith is trying out new pathways to spiritual development – Godly Play, online resources for Passing Along the Faith in the 21st Century and blessing milestones of faith through the life of a child. It may not be able to fit it into categories we have known before, but it is revealing the good news about Jesus. What it is, is the living God.
Paul and Barnabas were not old gods bringing familiar messages or even familiar miracles to Lystra. They were ordinary regular human beings revealing the ever-new spirit of Jesus Christ. Who that is, is the living God.
You are doing that, also. The God who has always been with you, who has shown kindness to you, who has sent the rain from heaven and food for the table, is here now. What might surprise us or alarm us is another way of knowing new life in Jesus Christ.
Like Paul and Barnabas, we are prepared for new forms of mission. We are the messengers speaking the good news of new life to every generation, in every time and in every place. Who it is, is the living God.
(1) Andy Griffith: “What It Was, Was Football” | Our State …. https://www.ourstate.com/andy-on-football/
(2) from a Facebook post by Barbara Hesse, on May 10, 2019; used with permission
(3) Measuring by tears | The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-08/measuring-tears