Scripture: Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18
Scripture Reader: Alan M.
There are lots of stories in the Bible where someone’s name gets changed.
Abram becomes Abraham when God fulfills his promise to make Abraham the father of nations.
Jacob becomes Israel—“one who struggles with God”—after spending a night wrestling with his conscience, an angel, the spirit of the stream he’s camping beside, or God himself.
Jesus gives his disciple Simon son of John the nickname Peter, which means rock, and proclaims that it is on that rock he will build his church —leading to the Roman Catholic tradition that Peter was the first Pope.
Ruth’s mother-in-law changes her own name when tragedy befalls her and leaves her alone and hopeless: instead of Naomi, which means pleasant, she choose the name Mara, which means bitter.
It’s interesting, though, that through the rest of the story of Ruth and Naomi, nobody else ever calls her Mara.
There are lots of places in the Bible where people’s names get changed, usually because of a new reality in their lives.
In a lot of cases these name changes come directly from God.
But Paul is an exception.
If you were listening as the first part of our text was read this morning, you will have noticed that at the beginning we had Saul and Barnabas being ordained by the laying on of hands and sent out on their mission to evangelize the Gentiles.
Then, when we pick back up in Chapter 14, verse 8, the main characters are Paul and Barnabas.
What has happened?
Some will say that when Paul met Jesus on the Damascus Road, and Jesus told him that he’d been chosen to take the Good News to the Gentiles, Jesus then changed his name from Saul to Paul.
Remember that in all the other cases I mentioned, those names mean something.
Jacob, the Grasper or Supplanter, becomes Israel, the One Who Struggles with God.
Simon, whose name is a play on the Hebrew word for “hear,” shama, has his name changed to Peter, or in Aramaic, Cephas, both of which mean “rock.”
But we aren’t told of any meaning for Paul, nothing of significance that would explain why there was a name change.
And it turns out that’s because Jesus did not change Saul’s name to Paul.
Go back to Acts 9 and you’ll see this.
From there until chapter 13, verse 9, he’s still called Saul—and at that point, it doesn’t say anything about his name being changed; it just says, “Saul, also known as Paul…”
More likely, this man had always had two names, one Jewish (Sha’ul, after the first king of Israel), and one Roman (Paulus) —for he was both a devout Pharisaic Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.
As he began to move out into the Gentile world, he probably began to use his Roman name more than his Jewish one.
And some scholars think the “also known as Paul” notation in Acts 13:9 indicates that at that point Luke has picked up some source material that uses the name Paul, whereas the source material he was using before called him Saul.
As you might have figured out, the business about Paul’s supposed name change is a bit of a pet peeve for me, because it reads stuff into the text that isn’t actually there.
This is one reason Mike hates watching movies based on or documentaries about the Bible with me.
I have a really bad habit of yelling at the screen: “That’s not in the Book!”
Don’t even get me started on the story of David and Bathsheba, and how it’s come to be understood that Bathsheba somehow tempted David, perhaps because that’s how it’s portrayed in the classic movie starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman—but it’s not in the Book!
I think the stories in the Bible are interesting enough, really, without putting a bunch of stuff into adaptations of them that isn’t in the original versions.
Not only that, but given that most people in our society today don’t actually know what’s in the Book and what isn’t, I think those who adapt it for stage or screen have a responsibility to get it right. (Unfortunately, they don’t generally ask my opinion before writing their scripts and screenplays.)
I might not watch a movie about David and Bathsheba, but quite honestly I’d probably watch “The Adventures of Paul.”
There’s some good stuff in there.
Before he even gets to Antioch, where he and Barnabas are ordained in the beginning of today’s reading, he has to be smuggled out of a city in a basket lowered over the city wall.
He is forever getting beaten and thrown out of one city or another.
Like a lot of us preachers, Paul has trouble making a long story short, and one time a kid who was listening to him drone on late into the night nodded off, fell out the window he was sitting in, and died—and Paul brought him back to life!
(Most preachers, if we admit it, have occasionally put someone to sleep with a sermon, but I don’t think very many of us at all can say our preaching ever killed anyone!
But Paul’s did.)
In Acts we hear the story of Paul on an ocean voyage, with a shipwreck on a strange island, a snake biting him but not killing him, after the “if onlys” of his final journey to appeal his case to the Emperor —had he not asserted this right granted to him by his citizenship, he might have been set free, instead of being carried to Rome as a prisoner and ultimately being executed there.
Yeah, I think I could watch a movie about this guy—but let’s not put anything in there that isn’t in the Book; there’s plenty of interesting stuff without adding a lot of Hollywood dramatics and special effects.
Today we have a beginning of sorts for Paul.
It’s not the beginning, of course; that happened back in chapter 9, on the Damascus Road.
There Paul heard his call to ministry from Jesus himself; today we attended his ordination service.
Paul’s path to ordination was possibly even more bumpy than mine, or that of other pastors.
My friend Dan, who was ordained four years ago in Minneapolis, talked about finally answering his call to ministry after a series of “kicks in the backside.”
My friend Lauri, who was a year behind me in seminary and who did her internship at the same church where I did mine, the church of which we were both members, spoke of the process of turning from the path she wanted to take to the path toward ordained ministry as “God dropping bricks on my head.”
When he received his call to ministry on the Damascus Road, Paul went on into Damascus, where he learned a few things, and then went out—basically untrained, with the zeal of the new convert—to teach and preach himself.
And he immediately ran into trouble, trouble that came close to getting him killed.
When he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James and the other leaders of the church—at that time called “the Way”—they didn’t want anything to do with him.
They had heard of him and didn’t think he could be trusted, thought maybe his story of meeting Jesus was some kind of ploy to get in good with the disciples so he could do them harm.
It’s hard to blame them; after all, the last time they’d seen Paul he was with the people who stoned Stephen, cheering them on and holding their coats so they could throw their rocks more accurately.
Barnabas intervened with them on Paul’s behalf, but then again Paul got himself into trouble, arguing with the Hellenists (Jews of Greek ethnicity), until the believers had to sneak him out of Jerusalem so he could get back to his hometown of Tarsus, where he stayed.
There’s no indication that he did any preaching in Tarsus, or converted anybody to the Way; it’s almost as though he’s there wondering if that call to ministry was really real, or maybe he’d decided he’d failed and was no longer called.
Then the storyline shifts back to Peter, to the story we heard last week about Peter and Cornelius; and we don’t hear anything else about Paul until Barnabas goes to find him to help the Antioch church assimilate a huge group of new believers. And then the Holy Spirit speaks to that colorful, multi-ethnic congregation, confirming Paul’s original call to ministry and telling them to ordain Paul and Barnabas and send them out on their missionary journey.
The important thing to know about ordination is that it doesn’t really confer any special superpowers on us.
The laying on of hands and prayer that happen during an ordination—whether it be of an elder or a pastor—is the outward sign, confirmation, and blessing of the call to ministry that the person has already heard, as Paul did on the Damascus Road.
It doesn’t make us better than anyone else—after all, we pastors wear stoles that are meant to remind us of the towel Jesus tied around himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and that’s the example of leadership we’re supposed to be following.
And it sure isn’t supposed to make us godlike.
Some clever person once said that the most important lesson every pastor must learn as they prepare for ministry is, “There is a God, and it’s not me.”
So I can sort of understand why Paul and Barnabas got so upset when the people of Lystra called them Hermes and Zeus and wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
You put someone on a pedestal like that, and it’s only a matter of time before someone has to knock them off, when they show themselves to be mere mortals like everyone else.
Not only that, but as devout Jews, the notion of being called by the names of Greek gods, even the king of the gods and his chief messenger, would have felt very wrong.
These were men who prayed every day, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”
But these Gentiles didn’t know that prayer; they didn’t know that the LORD alone was God.
And Paul and Barnabas were going to have to figure out how to talk to them, if the ministry for which they had been ordained was going to be successful.
It doesn’t look like they did a very good job here, given that even after they tell the people about their God and the good news they have to share, they barely keep the Lystrans from bowing down to them and offering sacrifices.
It was early in their ministry, early in Paul’s ministry, at least; Barnabas appears to have been at it a bit longer.
They still had a lot to learn.
When Paul gets to Athens in Acts 17, he has figured out a better way to talk to the Gentiles about Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I find the fact that Paul made mistakes in his early ministry, that he was sent out to do that ministry when he still had a lot to learn, rather encouraging.
Isn’t that the way it is for all of us who belong to Jesus and have some ministry to which we’ve been called?
If you feel perfectly equipped for your ministry the moment you hear the call, you’re going to find out otherwise before too long.
There are quite a few Facebook groups for pastors; before Facebook we had e-mail lists.
These are places where we go to commiserate about the fact that, while seminaries are wonderful places to learn how to study the Bible, and gain some understanding of the history of Christianity from Jesus to the present day, and ground ourselves in theology, there are a lot of things we can’t possibly learn there.
I may have come out of three years of seminary with a master’s degree (not to mention five figures of student loan debt—which I am fortunate to have paid off now), but there was a lot I didn’t know.
There’s still a lot I don’t know.
The thing about ministry, though—whether it’s the ministry of a pastor or an elder, or that of a teacher, farmer, parent, nurse, or whatever—is that God doesn’t call those who are already equipped for their ministry.
Instead, usually on the fly, God’s Holy Spirit equips those who have been called
Whatever ministry you’re called to, in the name of Jesus, there’s no need to be afraid because your own ability is inadequate.
But God’s isn’t, and that’s what makes it possible.
Even Paul, who appears to have had a great intellect and some skill at preaching, didn’t have everything he needed.
But he had the Holy Spirit, and that was enough—as it is for you, and for me, and for all whom God calls.