The apostles did not seek the spotlight. When they reached out with compassion and became God’s hands of healing to the broken around them, the crowds wanted to engage in the ultimate act of hero-worship – to call them gods. In a way, there was truth to what the crowds recognized – not that Paul and Barnabas were gods, but that the healing was the work of God the Holy Spirit who dwelled in and worked through these men.
But Paul and Barnabas knew this was God, not them, who performed miracles. They knew their job was not to point to themselves but to point to God, a God who could dwell in those around them through the Holy Spirit to transform each of them into vessels of healing in their own way. So Paul and Barnabas tear their garments in despair at this attention, calling the crowd not to hero worship but to open their hearts and lives to the living Spirit of Christ.
Their humbleness and willingness to point away from themselves to Christ is the mark of true ministry. That said, it is not always what Christians model. I think of the recent big-name TV preacher who went on a campaign asking his church & his TV audience to help raise funds for a private jet. I think of the many sermons I heard growing up both in the Adventist-style Church of God I grew up in and many Charismatic churches I visited about not touching God’s anointed, a phrase which was too often used to say “remember who’s in church – your pastor. Don’t question me”.
Yet it’s not just this kind of spiritual abuse and manipulation of leaders. We Christians get this way ourselves. Right now in my state and many states in the south & mid-West some Christians are fighting for the legal right to discriminate against people whose families and choices their denomination or personal piety says is wrong through religious exemption laws. Some are rallying for Christianity to be treated as the religion of the country, to the exception of other faiths. Some try to push their brand of Christianity in the school system through teaching “intelligent design” and suppressing scientific theories like evolution.
At heart of these approaches is forgetting we believers, we ministers, and yes even the Church is not God. We rather are vessels for the Sacred. But we only succeed at being such vessels when we allow ourselves to exercise the mixture of compassion and also humility which Paul and Barnabas exhibit. Ultimately others around us who are not part of our faith or a part of our “in-group” can also become Vessels for the Sacred too, if they are open to God as they experience God. We need to focus less on ourselves, our importance, preserving our privilege, and more on being vessels of grace to others.
And I’m not whistling Dixie here,
Your progressive redneck preacher,