Wednesday 8 May 2024

Paul 11

 

And there they preached the gospel.  And there sat a certain man of Lystra impotent in his feet being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked.  The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him and perceiving that he had faith to be healed said with a loud voice ‘Stand upright on thy feet.’  And he leapt and walked. (Acts 14:7:10)

‘And there they preached the gospel’ – so runs the first line of our opening verse.  There they preached the gospel.

Preaching the gospel is really the central thrust of the Church; it was then and it is now.  How important preaching is we can discern from the attitude of the apostles, who made preaching their absolute priority, the apostles who from the very start when faced with an organisational problem of the church said: ‘It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.’

These days it’s all too common to hear church people insist that it is more important to open a food bank or to feed the hungry in their community than to go to church to hear the word of God.  But we have these words from the apostles, that statement, ‘It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables’, in other words: We should not give up preaching God’s message in order to serve at tables. (Acts 6:2) This statement arose from an organisational problem, from a specific controversy between the Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews of the early Church. It was claimed that the widows of the Hellenistic Jews were not being treated equally. From this problem, the primacy of preaching and prayer for the church going forward was established.  And it’s not that those in need were neglected.  It was always the case that those in need should be served and that was done, that was taken care of as an organisational question but those in the role of spiritual leadership said:

But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word (4)

The ministry of the word.  What a great expression – the ministry of the word. In his letter to the Romans (10: 17) Paul wrote:

 So faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.

So here we are shown the importance of the ministry of the word – faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.  The preacher then, is merely the messenger and as Paul says in his letter to the Romans (10: 15):

And how shall they preach except they be sent?  As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things.

I am reminded of the story from the Gospel of Luke (5: 11) where we find Jesus preaching by the lake of Galilee.

And it came to pass that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God he stood by the lake of Gennesaret.

They pressed upon him to hear the word of God – the emphasis on the word is writ large, so the emphasis in the Church is on the preaching of the word.  Again, the preaching of the word!  And so now we come back to our text.  We have followed Paul and Barnabas so far from Antioch Syria to Cyprus to Antioch in Pisidia, then to Iconium and now fleeing persecution and certain death in both Antioch and Iconium Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra some eighteen miles down the road.

Not a great distance at all, considering the growing number of enemies who wanted to kill them as a means of silencing them, but would they be silenced?  Well, our text says not.  They escaped certain death by stoning in Iconium and came to Lystra and ‘And there they preached the gospel!’

I mean, it wasn’t anything different than what they had preached in the other cities, the same message, winning some to Christ to this new and growing Christian movement and gaining some deadly enemies at the same time.  But, they did not falter. And It’s not as though they went to a marketing company or a communications company in an attempt to dress up or soften the Christian message in order to make it more palatable to Jewish or Pagan ears.  Can you imagine that?  It wasn’t possible for them to do that because the Christian message is really a ‘my way or the high way’ kind of message. What did Jesus say? 

I am the way the truth and the life.  No man comes to the Father but by me. (John 14:6)

This makes Christianity an exclusive religion.  There is no other, there is no other way.  If you are in any doubt this you have only to go to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (8)

But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.

When you think about those uncompromising words of Paul, you really do get that sense of Christianity as a ‘take it or leave it’ religion.  There really is no halfway house, these words of Jesus, these words of Paul are the scriptural foundation of the Christian faith.  But we never hear the churches reiterate the bedrock of its own teachings these days.  These days it is all about ‘moving with the times’ as they say - as these weak, pathetic church leaders put it.  They are not speaking for GOD, they are not preaching the gospel, they are speaking for the flesh, in no way are they speaking for Christ, they are speaking for the world.

As we know, these professing liberal Christians are really preaching a different gospel than Paul ever preached, that is why they, to use Paul’s words, 'they are accursed.'  So when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra they preached the gospel not to make themselves popular but to preach the word of God, not to talk about ‘inclusivity' or to preach ’diversity’ in the way that the world and its governments and tame Church leaders proclaim it today.  But to preach that uncompromising message that offends so many people today as it did then. Jesus is Lord. I mean, who really wants to hear that and who really wants to hear the word of God?  It’s safer of course to compromise, to make friends with the world, to tell them what they want to hear, but in the letter of James (4: 4) there are these words that read:

Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

 Or, as Paul in his preaching put it:

For do I now persuade men or God Or do I persuade to seek to please men?  For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.     (Galatians 1:10)

We know that Paul and Barnabas in their preaching exerted a tremendous power not just through their spoken word, but because God was with them, because they were granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

Incredible though that might seem, it is much more believable when we consider that the Judaeo-Christian God is a God who is active in the lives of his people.  If God ordains that something will happen, then it will. Thy will be done, as we say in that perfect prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. Thy Will be done. And so, we have this amazing story, this healing by Paul of a crippled man.  It came about as a result of Paul’s preaching in Lystra.  Let’s look at our text again:

And there sat a certain man of Lystra impotent in his feet being a cripple from his mother’s womb, who never had walked. 

So, we have this statement, it’s quite clear, straightforward, and unambiguous.  Here is a man who for some reason was born with some abnormality in his feet that would not allow him to walk.  We only have that information, we don’t know whether he could get about by leaning on someone else or on crutches or whether he just had to be carried about everywhere, but to be clear, as the text informs us, he had never walked.  And this man happened to be where Paul was preaching; and again, we don’t have the detail.  It appears that there was no synagogue in Lystra and it’s assumed that there was only a small Jewish population but there was a Temple just outside the city that was used for the worship of the Greek God Zeus.  We know for certain that Paul would not be preaching there.  We can be sure of that!

So, it’s very likely that the crippled man was basically attending an open-air meeting at which Paul was preaching, and if we look once more at the text, we have these words: 

The same heard Paul speak: who steadfastly beholding him and perceiving that he had faith to be healed

 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I think here we do get a very clear picture of the dynamics, of an interaction between the two men.  We have Paul preaching, a crowd, a crowd of listeners and the crippled man in close proximity to Paul, in his line of vision and essentially, we have Paul looking straight at the man.  Now we know that Paul, days after his experience of meeting the risen Christ at Damascus, chastened and humbled was anointed by the Holy Spirit. 

As to how it works Peter wrote these words:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time

Consider that phrase ‘that he may exalt you in due time.’  There is so much that depends on the grace of God.  Let us remember Paul and Barnabas at Iconium how giving on testimony to the word of God’s grace ‘that they were granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands (14: 3)

We might wonder what such signs and wonders what such occurrences may look like, or perhaps even wonder what they may feel like.  I would say that these signs and wonders are moments in time, as though a portal has suddenly opened in which God the Holy Spirit enters and brings all things together. They are moments of realisation.  Everything in one movement, one seamless transition, everything comes together, a holy moment of awe and majesty and the thing is done.  Paul preaching with the abandonment of humility totally given up to God and then that connection with the crippled man in the crowd who is somehow transmitting his own faith and openness who is then observed by Paul and then Paul saying with a loud voice

‘Stand upright on thy feet.’  And he leapt and walked.

Such were the powers, the miracles granted to the apostles of the early Church.  We have, you may know, the story of Peter and John (Acts 3: 3-11) in which again, a man, lame from birth, was begging for money at the Temple gate – the gate known as Beautiful.  Peter looked directly at the man and said ‘Look on us, and the man looked at Peter and John expecting to get some money, but Peter said:

‘Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I give to you – in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk’ Peter lifted him by the right arm and his feet and ankle bones received strength – he leapt up and walked into the Temple with them, And the people who saw that this man could walk were, ‘filled with wonder and amazement.’  We should not forget that it has often been argued that the book, this book from which we are taking our lesson, the Acts of the Apostles, could also be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  We should see this in the arrival of the Holy Spirit alighting upon the disciples at Jerusalem during Pentecost, perhaps more accurately we could say that the Acts of the Apostles describes a spirit filled ministry.  I said of the signs and wonders that they are moments in time when the Holy Spirit brings things together, brings them to completion.  We can think of that completion in the creation story, in the beginning ‘when darkness was upon the face of the deep and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ Moving things on and bringing them to completion. The action of the Holy Spirit.

Now as we close, returning once again to Paul and Barnabas in Lystra to their preaching to the signs and wonders that have been granted particularly to Paul and to his ministry, we may get a sense of the unfolding of God’s plan when. Of how important in God’s plan Paul was. Before Paul became an apostle, God said of Paul ‘He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the children of Israel.’ We cannot overestimate the power of God and the legacy of Paul’s ministry.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Scapegoat


 

Leviticus 16:20-23

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

 I will repeat that last verse that reads:

And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited; and he shall let the goat go into the wilderness.

Today we have turned to the Old Testament, to Leviticus, that book that deals with the old Jewish religious laws. 

What we have read deals with the ritual of that law, its description and how it was meant to be carried out.  The most obvious thing about this religion was that it was a sacrificial religion.  At one stage, we might say in the early development of Judaism as it arose from a pagan world, that it engaged not only in the sacrifice of animals but potentially, engaged in that of human sacrifice too.  In the book of Genesis 22 we have God’s initial instructions to Abraham to offer up his son Isaac to offer him up, to sacrifice his only son, as a burnt offering to God.  We know though that it was God’s intention that in the event this should not come to pass, because God uttered these words saying:

Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him. for now I know that thou fearest God seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me (22:12)

Thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. There’s a resonance here with a text from the New Testament a text that readily springs to mind, which are these words from the Gospel of John (3:16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

But there the similarity ends because Jesus’ death on the cross took place and was an act of sacrificial love.  We see this in the words of Jesus when he says:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends (15:13)

Or, I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.  10:11

What can we say about Abraham, Abraham who loved or feared God enough to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice?  I think we can say that in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac, that Abraham had a particular relationship with God, a relationship that I think would have evaded most of us, so perhaps we cannot make a judgement.  But we can say that that relationship of Abraham to God led to God’s judgement, a judgement as always, a judgement of infinite wisdom and love.  I think before we go any further it has to be said, though perhaps it hardly needs saying that Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac did not take place, and secondly the death of Christ on the cross was a once and for all sacrifice and as Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews (12:2)

Jesus endured the cross, despised the cross and is now set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So, having alluded to the story of Abraham and Isaac and the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ we stay with the theme of sacrifice, and we return to our reading from Leviticus - the story of the goat.

In fact, that particular ordinance described in the Mosaic law in Leviticus, is about the ritual slaughter and sacrifice of animals it was thus ordained that the priest, Aaron could only enter into the holy places of the tabernacle (the holy tent) after he had offered a young bullock as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering.

Later in that same ritual, at the same event, two goats would be presented before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation (7).  Then lots would be cast to decide which of the two goats would be ritually slaughtered as a sin offering. 

What we may ask now, becomes of the second goat? The goat on which the lot did not fall.  And herein lies the story of the scapegoat.  In modern life, of course, we have all heard that expression, ‘the scapegoat’, and we know what it means when it is said in day-to-day conversation, or on the news, we know what it means when they say that a particular person, a certain individual is being scapegoated for political or corporate failure.  In American slang that person becomes the “fall guy” for a failure, a failure that’s really integral to the organisation, or a failure caused by someone else’s poor decision making at the most powerful level or levels of the organization or the company or even the government. A fall guy, a scapegoat to take the blame.

 So, for those two poor goats waiting outside the tent of the Tabernacle there is no good news, one is going to be slaughtered and offered up as a sin offering before being eaten and the other is going to become the ‘fall guy’; the scapegoat. Now we come to a curious bit.

We know, don’t we, that William Tyndale (1494- 1536) was the first to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English?  Well, it was Tyndale who invented that word, the ‘scapegoat’, bringing it for the first time into the English language because actually there was no equivalent for the word in Hebrew.

So how does this scapegoat thing work out?  Well in Tyndale's, I suppose more humane reasoning, the goat who wins the lottery so to speak, (doesn’t get selected for immediate slaughter) becomes the scapegoat – it means the goat gets to escape, hence the term scapegoat.  But of course, the poor old goat doesn’t get off Scot free, because as we have seen the sins of Israel at that yearly event would be symbolically placed on a goat’s head by the priest and that goat would then be driven into the wilderness. 

To the assembled watching congregation, we can easily see that this very visual ritual, this powerful symbolic act, could help to unite people in their faith and to ease them, in the short term at least, from their perceived burden of sin, it could help to alleviate their troubled consciences.

That scapegoat carrying all their sins away.  A bit like standing at the window watching your wheelie bin being emptied and that dust cart carrying all your rubbish away – till next week.

But, back to the scapegoat, the fall guy in this scenario – the innocent animal that carries the sins of Israel, far away into the wilderness.  Now, there are other interpretations of this story, for example in Jewish legend a there’s tradition that says that the scapegoat did not get to be released into the wilderness but was thrown from a cliff and killed as a sacrifice to the demon Azazel the idea being that the sins committed are thus returned to Satan.  But I suppose, whichever way we look at this question, the blood of an innocent animal is still used to expiate the sins of the guilty.

The scapegoating mechanism is really fundamental to the human condition.  It exists in all times and places.  I once read a story of a country where when things went wrong, as they would, from time to time – that the common response would be then to blame the devil saying, “the devil’s in it”.  In that country, one day a farmer was driving a cart full of produce to market, when a wheel fell off the cart.  Without thinking the farmer shouted ‘the devil’s in it’ Later that day the farmer arrived at the market only to be met by the devil who asked him “Why did you blame me when the wheel came off your cart?  I’ve been told what you said, but I was nowhere near you at the time!” 

That simple story may give us pause for thought and to reflect on those words of William Shakespeare who wrote, and I paraphrase “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.

What do I mean? Well, I’m sure you’ve worked it out. When I say to you that when we cannot find an external solution to an inner problem when really the sin, the deficit, the mistake, call it what you will, belongs to and resides within each one of us, it’s always easier and more convenient to blame external forces or outside of our control. We conveniently forget that in some way we too need to look closer to home, to find the source of the problem, to look to ourselves and to shoulder the blame or responsibility. 

This blaming and looking down on others is really part of the hypocrisy of religion that Jesus confronted, but we are not done with the theme of sacrifice yet.  We do not forget that recurring Christian symbol, the holy lamb of God is the lamb who is sacrificed on the cross for our sins.  In the Gospel of John, verse 1:29, John the Baptist greeted Jesus’ arrival on the scene with these words:

Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!

If we examine that statement, we realise that the Lamb of God takes away not the sins of the world but the sin of the world and the sin of the world is to project our own sins or shortcomings onto others.  It’s called hypocrisy and it means when we blame others or point the finger at others we remain in the shadows of our own darkness and imperfection.  In other words, this is what Jesus meant when he said (8:12) 

I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.

The purpose of the light of the world was to reveal the glory of God to us, to see in that light, his perfect holiness and then see our own imperfections, in that pure light, see our own sins, and to repent.  Not sin that we can project on to the head of a sacrificial animal, or lay on someone else rather than ourselves, but rather our own sin which we need to own and to see that, through confession, through repentance, through believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, we may truly be reconciled to God and by His grace be forgiven.

That saying, “the lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world”.   I know, you might be sitting there trying to work it all out.  And Jesus knew that his disciples, ordinary people like you and me might have some difficulty in understanding so he summed up the blindness and hypocrisy, the sin of the world when he said:

They shall put you out of the synagogue yea the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.

And we can see that’s true, there are religious killings taking place today and everyday throughout the world by men who think that they are doing God’s work, killing others in the name of God because they too are in darkness.  You might say well, I’m not responsible for that, or well, I wasn’t there when they crucified the messenger, crucified the Lord Jesus Christ, I wasn’t there with the mob crying for his blood, but the question is where are you today, where are we today, as we look back at Easter now and remember Jesus’ cry from the cross:

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34) 

The question is this: have we turned to the light of Christ, have we been convicted of our own sin or are we still in the darkness? One word: repent!  Let us give thanks to God for Christ, the light of the world.

Photograph: William Holman Hunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Friday 1 March 2024


   A Spiritual Sketch
   On the passing of a godly man.

 
           David Stanley 1935-2024

I first met David Stanley at Flowery Field Free Christian Church in 2008.

He introduced himself to me shortly after the Sunday afternoon service and insisted on giving me a guided tour of the church building. Proclaiming his Trinitarian beliefs, he pointed out the crucifix on the wall.

Looking back after 15 years of friendship, I can say that David always remained the same open and forthright character that I met back then.  He could be blunt and outspoken, but he was never unkind, and there was underlying gentility and deep faith.

During my years of ministry I met David on many occasions and our friendship developed.           I remember one of our early contacts - a meeting of the Unitarian Christian Association, held at Stalybridge Church,  when he told me squarely that there were “no Christians at Unitarian Chapel Oldham.”

I suppose that’s really where David really stepped into the life of Unitarian Chapel Oldham.  Change was in the air as we reconsidered our place within the current Unitarian community, and started to become clearer about our spiritual foundations.

It was David who instigated the installation of a cross, placed prominently on the front wall of the chapel, directly above the reading desk from where the sermons are also preached.

Then in 2020 came Covid and the government’s lockdown policy, which had a major impact on the congregation.  Deep divisions arose between those who supported the government’s policy and those of us who felt keeping places of worship open was essential.   The eventual decision to remain open after the October lockdown resulted in a painful split in the congregation. Resignations and departures effectively brought to an end the Unitarian witness in Oldham, leaving a remnant that was in effect an overwhelmingly Christian congregation.

We were united not only by our opposition to the lockdown, but also to modern Unitarian thought, particularly the ‘anything goes’ attitude towards faith and ethical issues. In the end a  decision was made to separate completely from Unitarianism and to fully embrace a Trinitarian and conventionally Christian faith.

In 2023 we decided to drop the word ‘Unitarian’ from our title, and officially changed the name to simply ‘Oldham Chapel’. The chapel defines itself as Free Christian. In which way are we Free Christian? Only in the sense that we are not doctrinally bound to any church denomination. We believe that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. that Jesus is Lord and we believe in the sufficiency of scripture:

All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God be completely equipped for every good work.
                                                                                                                            (2 Timothy3:16-17)


It would have been unthinkable, when I first began my ministry at Oldham in 2010, that I should be writing this some fourteen years later. But all things come to pass according to God’s will. Thus, David came to us at a particular juncture in his life and at the time of God’s choosing.  As I’ve already said, David found his place in the Oldham congregation, a devout man, he encouraged others in the faith. He was loved and respected, but he would not hold back from rebuking anyone if he thought it necessary.

I have many personal memories of David, but if there were to be one outstanding memory then that would have to be the occasion when I first had the privilege of officiating at a service of Holy Communion at Flowery Field Church.  

David, along with other members of the church came to the altar rails to receive the bread and wine. On both knees he made the sign of the cross as I looked at him, before the table of Christ, so to speak, it was there I saw his sincerity, his devotion; his love of the Lord.

I have often thought about that moment, where I really saw David for the first time and afterwards reflected on what a blessing to me that moment had been.

I think also, of a favourite hymn we shared: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.


I recall him singing this hymn with others at an open air Whitsuntide service of worship at the   market ground in Mossley.

The other thing that comes to mind about David was his courageous battle against age, his        encroaching infirmity, his determination to press on and to get to worship whenever possible. There are times, I know, when perhaps he would have been better off staying in bed or staying at home in comfort, but he forced his weary body to get up to go to either church or chapel. I know that at Oldham Chapel, and at Flowery Field Church he will be deeply missed and we mourn for him. He will also be missed at the church of St Thomas in Hyde, where he regularly took Holy Communion on Tuesdays.

David is survived by his wife, Carol, his sons Robert and Christopher and his daughter Jill. Also his stepsons, Peter and Philip and his stepdaughter Suzanne.

Our prayers and thoughts are with all of David’s family at this time. We have all been blessed by knowing David and having him in our lives. May the Lord bless him and may the Lord comfort Carol and his family in their time of sorrow and loss.

Monday 22 January 2024

Paul 10

  


 

And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully and to stone them.  They were ware of it, and fled into Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia and unto the region that lieth round about:  And there they preached the Gospel. (Acts 14:5-7)

One of the things I have noticed in life is that knowledge or information can be difficult to remember, even stories can be. One of the most basic methods to help us remember is of course to make a list. Take for example, the stories of Paul’s life as described in the Acts of the Apostle’s. It is a long, complicated story and much of it is understated. In other words, there are details of his story we simply don’t have and there are some details available from other sources, not in the Bible, and there are things we can also surmise.  If we have a basic frame work, it can help us to remember the main points of Paul’s story. I am not going to give you a big list this but it might be helpful to you to remind you, as we go along, that so far, on Paul’s first missionary journey we have followed him from Antioch in Syria, sailing to Cyprus, and then from Cyprus he sailed to Asia Minor, (now known as Turkey) and there he travelled to Antioch Pisidia and from there to Iconium. That is as far as we have got.

Let’s turn that into a list of places Paul and Barnabas visited after leaving the church in Antioch, Syria.

1). Cyprus

2). Antioch (Asia Minor: Modern day Turkey)

3). Iconium (Asia Minor: Modern day Turkey)

Now, after Paul and Barnabas left Antioch, after they were expelled and facing persecution, they ‘shook off the dust of their feet’ as the Bible puts it, and they travelled on some 80 – 90 miles, west to Iconium.

In writing this sermon it occurred to me that, heroic as Paula and Barnabas no doubt were, they may not have made all their journeys by foot. Why I say this is because there is nothing in the New Testament that refers to their specific mode of travel. 

When we think about Paul, we do not have to think too deeply to recognise that Paul an extremely intelligent, shrewd, cultured and educated man, which he certainly was, would naturally use the existing available modes of transport as they were at that time to travel the distances that he did. 

Both he and Barnabas and whoever else was travelling in their entourage would have to a certain degree to be self-reliant, as far as possible, but they also relied on local hospitality and of course they would have relied on their supporters wherever they could find them, Preparation for travel, travel plans and security would be just as important then as they are today. 

At first, I wondered if they might use camels, if they Paul and Barnabas might travel by camel but I didn’t know, so I checked it on the internet -   The answer is that no one really knows.  It is a question of some debate.  The Jews, as you know, have their purity laws, and according to the Old Testament, the camel is an unclean animal.  According to the book of Leviticus (11 – 4):

‘… the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you’

However, I have also read that there might have been a cleansing ritual, that may have allowed Jewish travellers to ride camels – this is by no means certain.  In any case, there is a tradition for example that Paul was riding a horse on his famous journey to Damascus, I would say that he probably was, but that is only a guess. 

Cyprus, Antioch and now Iconium. We don’t know exactly how long Paul spent in Iconium, after he and Barnabas left Antioch but it was a relatively significant amount of time, as we know.

But the story moves on now, and you will recall how we have already reflected on the division that Paul’s gospel message had created in Iconium and so we are told:

And there was an assault made both of the Gentiles and also of the Jews with their rulers to use them despitefully and to stone them. (14:5)

So, we already know that Paul and Barnabas, as their preaching divided opinion in the city, we already know that they were facing an increasingly volatile situation.  Now as a student of the Bible, I am often obliged to use commentaries and other sources of information to help to bring detail to the stories of the Bible that I must preach.  One such very famous writer of such commentaries was the late William Barclay and so I’ve handed over to him, to his work, a description of the situation facing Saul and Barnabas at that time. Barclay wrote:

As usual they began in the Synagogue and as usual they had good success; but the jealous Jews stirred up the mob and once again Paul and Barnabas had to move on.  It has to be noted that Paul and Barnabas were more and more taking their lives in their hands.  What was proposed in Iconium was nothing other than a lynching.  The further on Paul and Barnabas went the further they got from civilisation.  In the more civilised cities, their lives at least were safe because Rome kept order and a lynching would have been speedily punished; but now, out in the wilds, Paul and Barnabas are to be ever under the threat of mob violence from the excitable Phrygian crowds stirred up by the Jews.  Whatever else these two men were, they were brave men.  It always takes courage to be a Christian because it always takes courage to take a way that’s different from the crowd.’

Now before coming to Iconium both men, as you know, were in Pisidian Antioch, and as I’ve already said, on leaving they ‘shook off the dust of their feet’ it was a sign of rejecting those who had rejected them,

So we can be in no doubt that the persecution that came to Paul and Barnabas in Antioch would be more than a gentle cautionary letter from the town council.  Raising up persecution against others looks a lot uglier than that, and one you would do well to escape from such a situation; relatively unscathed.  In Iconium however, the intended nature of this kind of persecution seems to be more explicit:

And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully and to stone them (15; 6)

What can we say about this, other than to say ‘it was a close-run thing.’  The attempt to lynch and to murder was already underway when news of the impending attack reached Paul and Barnabas. We don’t need to labour this point, other than to comment on the unity of the forces that were attempting to move in for the kill.  We could say also, that the instigators were all agreed on what might be termed, the A-B-C policy: Anything But Christian.

The disparate forces of evil coming together on this one unifying A-B-C idea.  You know that this Anything but Christian policy is increasingly prevalent today in the 21st century.  It’s not that we Christians have a persecution complex, that somehow, we just think that the world ‘has it in for us’ – it’s just that it happens to be true.  When Christ sent his apostles out to preach, we can read in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 10 the words of advice he gave to his disciples:

Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (16)

In the following verse we see the united forces of opposition of the Jews, the kings and the powers of this world and the gentiles. the pagans:

But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the councils and they will scourge you in their synagogues; (17)

But ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the gentiles. (18)

And finally, as we think of Paul and Barnabas facing the hostile mob and their departure from Iconium, again, we can consider these words of Jesus, his advice to his apostles in a hostile world.

But when they persecute you in their city, flee ye into another; for verily I say unto you, ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the son of Man be come. (10:23)

So, there we have it – ‘when they persecute you in their city,' said Jesus 'flee ye unto another.’

It is obvious from this text that Christians are not to go out and seek martyrdom just for the sake of it, but as our Lord implies, that rather, we are to act prudently. Remembering also those words, of Jesus, that we should be, ‘Wise as the serpent and harmless as doves.’  It is also clear that there are occasions when we will have no choice but to lay down our lives for Christ’s sake, for our faith and for all that we believe.  But Saul and Barnabas acted wisely when they were informed that thugs and killers were already committed to ‘use them despitefully and to stone them,’ and as stated in our text:

They were aware of it, and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth about.

I think as we consider the flight of Paul and Barnabas from Iconium there is one detail that we must not overlook and that is this - that stoning, as it is known, was a Jewish method of execution and thus we can see from that the persecution, the intended execution of Paul and Barnabas had been planned and instigated by the Jewish leaders, it was then that stirred up the gentiles and the civic leaders in Iconium

Perhaps the best-known story of stoning in the bible is the story of Jesus and the woman who was about to be stoned to death for adultery – its recorded in the Gospel of John (8: 1-11) and we have the unforgettable words of Jesus who said to the would-be killers:

‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.’

Jesus saved her from death by stoning, this ancient killing method is also known as lapidation.  By its very nature this lapidation this stoning is a brutal method of execution and it would take the victim or the offender anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to die.

According to Jewish tradition (Sanhedrin Ch 6 Mishnah 4) the offender was pushed off a cliff or a precipice – no more than about 12 feet high – he would be pushed by the hips so that he fell face first onto the rocks below.  He would then be turned on his back, and if he was still alive a huge rock would be dropped on his chest.  If he was still alive, then the crowd would pelt him with stones until he died. 

Once, Jesus preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, when an angry crowd tried to kill him in the same way.

And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way. (Luke 4:28-30)

Perhaps I digress, but at least we should be in no doubt concerning the prevalent or potential undercurrent of violence that preachers of the early church would have to face.  So, Paul and Barnabas prudently decided to leave Iconium. It was indeed a wise decision. We can also say that Paul and Barnabas did: ‘flee into Lystra and Derbe but they did not let the fear of their experience drive them underground. As we know, they were now in even more dangerous and lawless surroundings than they previously had been, but undeterred, they continued where they left off in Antioch and Iconium, they continued preaching the gospel.

There are two sayings that come to mind when we think of Saul and Barnabas and their fleeing Iconium, the first saying is that ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’ and the second is that, ‘A good general knows how to retreat as well as how to advance.’ The story of Paul and Barnabas and the early Christians is not a story of defeat, but rather quite the opposite and as Paul's story in the Acts of the Apostles continues, we will continue to see examples of his outstanding courage. Indeed, churches were established in the towns or cities from where Paul preached and from where he suffered persecution and expulsion, but he returned to visit those his churches established in these places to teach and to encourage. The Christian story is not a story of defeat but rather a story of victory and triumph. How could it be otherwise with a leader like Paul? There is a tradition that goes right back to the second century, of a man, named Onesimus, who lived in Iconium. who set out to meet Paul as he got near the city. He gave a description of Paul and it is written down like this:

And he saw Paul approaching, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, bad-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, full of grace, for at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of angel.

Let us give thanks to God for raising up such leaders as Paul and may continue to find his work a blessing and an inspiration to us.