I had the privilege this week of presenting Christianity to a sociology class in a public university studying Myth, Ritual and Magic. I surveyed this class to see how much knowledge or experience with Christianity or the church the students had. One woman had some while nearly everyone else had near zero. Through my presentation I touched on what I assumed to be some of the most common Bible stories, the Garden of Eden, Abraham, the parable of the prodigal son. Most knew nothing of any of it.
The most fun of the two hours for me was sharing some Bible stories with them that for them were completely fresh and new. The story of Abraham’s learning to trust God through the drama of Isaac. The group was riveted by the story of the Prodigal son. They all anticipated the punchline of the parable of the unforgiving servant. In short, it was a delight.
In a Brian McLaren book I remember an observation by a person that Christianity will be valued by those outside of its tribe by the amount of recognizable value it brings to those outside of it’s borders.
Tim Keller commented once that the church should be the kind of institution that pours so much value into its community that if the church went away the city would have to raise taxes to provide needed and valued services to offset the loss.
In Luke 16 the parable following the famous parable of the Prodigal Son deals with a master letting a crooked steward off the hook. Why? Because the master was zealous for his reputation. The point Jesus made was that God wants his generosity to be known and he wants to be praised for it.
In the movie The Color Purple Shug tells Celie that more than anything God wants admiration. It pisses God off when we walk by the color purple and we don’t notice it. “Are you saying God is vain?” “No, he’s just trying to share a good thing.”
If Christians are the ambassadors of the creator God, our first impression ought to be hospitality and generosity.
After the shipwreck on Paul’s journey to Rome the passengers, soldiers, sailors and prisoners land on the Island of Malta. Luke uses the word “barbarian” to refer to those on the island.
Luke isn’t being rude or dismissive by the use of the word, it is a Greek word used to describe those who couldn’t speak Greek, or were outside of the Roman cultural world. It was someone synonymous to how Jews used the word “Gentile”, or how we might use the word “foreigner”. These are people outside of our social network.
The people of the island built fires for the survivors of the shipwreck to recuperate. Luke says that the “barbarians” showed us “extraordinary kindness”.
In Luke 10 Jesus sends out his disciples two by two. They are told to seek out a town or house of “peace” which essentially means a place that receives them and extends hospitality to them. This passage in Acts essentially serves as an illustration for the passage in Luke.
The story in Acts 28 unfolds as Paul is bitten by a snake. The “barbarians” interpret their world through the filter of what I call “common religion”. Common religion asserts something similar to the notion of karma. Do good things, good things happen to you. Do bad things, bad things happen to you. It was commonly assumed that shipwrecks happened to people who deserved judgment from the gods. The idea is similar to the film series “Final Destination” where death stalks young people who have somehow managed to avoid its first attempt. Paul escaped from the shipwreck only to be bit by a snake. Surely he must have done something evil to deserve this.
There is a lot of common popularity around karma today. I find a lot of people are attracted to it because it seems to offer a path to good fortune. If you are moral or generous, then somehow you can assure yourself of good fortune.
This isn’t terribly different from a lot of Christian thinking, possibly misapplying Luke 10 by imagining that Christian obedience is a recipe for receiving God’s favor.
This kind of thinking may seem harmless, but if indulged in the long run reinforces entitlement thinking “I didn’t deserve the unwelcome circumstances that have come to me”
Last week when meeting with an Indian Christian who ministers to the Sikh community he noted that many who actually believe more strenuously than the thin American version are plagued by guilt when bad things happen to them.
It also sets up assertions that many in the West find offensive, like birth defects are cause by past life wrongs someone has gotten away with.
The “barbarians” of Malta first imagine Paul to have been a murderer, when the snake bite doesn’t amount to anything they think him a god.
A Sacramental View
What Paul does is bless the island and its people. This is first manifest when Paul is received into the home of Publius, the island’s “first” resident. Upon seeing that the man’s father was ill Paul laid hands on him and healed him. Upon hearing of this many other sick of the island came to Paul and were healed.
There is no description of founding a church. Later church tradition will assert that Publius became the first bishop of Malta but Luke is silent about it.
What we see, however, is that in a place completely devoid of any overt experience with Jesus Paul becomes Jesus’ ambassador and offers this ministry of peace. Paul washes up on the shore with little or no possessions, but what he has is more than enough, and the story ends with the “barbarians” honoring Paul and meeting his needs.
What the Gospel Is
Is flat out good news. There will be a time and a place for having to get into the mess that unraveling the sin and brokenness in our lives require, but we ought not to lose sight of the flat out good news that Jesus proclaims to a world of hospitable barbarians. In fact in Luke’s passage Jesus notes that it is often those who have far away, and have only known the poverty of common religion or the cruelty of the age of decay that initially see most clearly the purity of the gift.
In the documentary “The Finger of God” the movie maker spends a lot of time exploring the ministry of healing the deaf in Mozambique. The stories aren’t perfect or necessarily glowing. The ministry is messy and complex, but it is often in places where there is no knowledge of the gospel where the flat out gifts of God are lavished in miraculous ways.
English gerunds are wonderfully ambiguous.
Some Loving Barbarians outshine those who are supposed to have their feet shod with the gospel of peace. CS Lewis observed that any goodness we have comes from God. Jesus makes the same point in Luke 10. If the barbarians are loving, it is because God has graced them with the gift of love. Gospel ministry to them simply amplifies and enhances what God has already done through what we call “common grace”.
Loving Barbarians is also what Jesus sends his disciples to do, and Paul and Luke do so well in the story. They bring peace to a house that already has some peace and peace flourishes.
The gospel is first, and foremost, good news. Grace upon grace.