There are times when you wonder where people get the courage to do the things they do. That’s the case for Paul and Barnabas in this 14th chapter of Acts when they return to Lystra, a place from which they had been violently removed with stones hurled at them as they left. Yet here they are heading back to “the scene of the crime” to teach and strengthen the people’s faith and continue their testimony to the presence of the Risen Jesus in their lives.
Where did they get this pluck, this resolve? Granted a certain amount of natural grit in themselves, we’re also told the deeper reservoir for their courage was the all-sustaining gift Jesus had given them: The Holy Spirit, the up-closeness of the very Spirit that lives in Jesus and His Father. It’s this which moved them off the dime, took them past their fears, and propelled them outward to give witness to the presence of the Risen Lord both in their own lives and in the lives of the people living in that city.
We note that when they returned home, they didn’t boast of the amazing success they had met nor brag of their bravery. Rather they told of what God had done for them, how God’s Spirit had opened doors they knew they never could have opened by themselves. Not just the two of them operating on their own lights, they confessed the Spirit working through them to produce such courage and perseverance. When they stepped out into new and threatening regions they knew they were not out there by themselves. They had backup, the sustaining presence of the Spirit of the Risen Jesus.
Where might we come across such sustenance and accompaniment today? Might it appear in someone who hears from a neighbor how the Vincent de Paul Society visits distressed people in the neighborhood. This woman is attracted by the generosity of such an action, but backs away for fear of the unpredictability it brings. The attraction remains however, and eventually she fights through her hesitancy to sign up.
After the first few visits, things begin to happen. For one, the volunteer notices the depth of other people’s faith, the trust some homebound person places in God. Giving this food and bedding is not just some commercial transaction, she sees, but carries something of the care God gives. For another, the visitor notices something waking up in the backdrop of her own faith, some fresh breeze blowing through her feel for where God is in life.
“This experience of being a part of something bigger, this awareness that it’s not just me giving the sandwich– could it be that this same Holy Spirit which worked in Paul and Barnabas is working along with me? And even more to the point, when I stood at that edge of that decision about whether to join, what was it that moved me over that brink? Just my own sense of obligation, even guilt? Or something else, some accompanying presence that was more than me, that was coming from someplace beyond me?”
Everyday occurrences like these give everyday testimony: “I’ve seen something; I’ve tasted something; I’ve felt a strengthening that was more than the strength coming from within me.” What is it?
Early in John’s gospel, Jesus touches on this when he observes, “The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it. But you do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” (Jn 3:8) He’s attesting to the here-and-now of The Spirit’s activity.
That uncontrollable, strengthening presence is what Paul and Barnabas live from and testify to. But looking back at happenings in our own lives, might we too be able to attest to such a sustaining presence blowing through certain of our days. Might each of us with Paul and Barnabas be able to put our finger on the nearness of God’s Spirit as it moves through us and all around us.