“Lord, let me know and understand which comes first, to call upon you or to praise you, to know you or to call upon you? But who could call upon you without knowing you?  For without knowing it, he might call upon another instead of you.  Or rather must you be called upon to be known?  But how can they call upon him in whom they have not believed?  And how can they come to believe, without a preacher?” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 1).

These questions come to us from Augustine, a 4th century pagan turned Christian theologian, in his deeply inspired book, Confessions.  Augustine was working out in his mind the process by which individuals come to faith in God.  Augustine wanted to know does someone call God first or do they need to know him first? Does someone praise God before calling upon God?  Or is it in calling God that a believer comes to know God?  Augustine provided no answers to his own question.  But Augustine did provide one critical observation in the process of one individual coming to faith.  Augustine asked, “And how can they come to believe, how can someone come to faith, without a preacher?”  The answer to this question is they cannot.

Augustine’s questions and conclusion that a preacher is indispensable in the process of coming to faith are not original.  Augustine’s questions come from the Apostle Paul in a letter to the Romans.  Paul wrote, “12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:12-14).  Paul’s point, echoed by Augustine, is that preaching is an indispensable part of people coming to faith.  Preaching does not only mean that someone stands in front of group and shares the good news of Jesus.  To preach means to share Jesus.  To share Jesus in a conversation between two friends is preaching.  In this context, every believer is to be a preacher.

          And so, this week we continue to explore the life of two preachers.  One was named Barnabas.  The other preacher was named Saul, who was also known as Paul.  As we come to explore today’s passage, we might note that whenever these two preachers were mentioned together Luke would write, “Barnabas and Saul (or Paul).”  Barnabas’ name always appeared before Saul or Paul.  The reason for that is that in ancient writing, and generally in modern writing, the more important character appears first.  Barnabas was given this priority status over Saul.  Now that we are coming to Iconium, the roles are reversed for Luke wrote, “1At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1).  Paul and Barnabas had walked into Iconium to preach the good news of Jesus.  As usual, they began their preaching at the synagogue, only this time Paul was the primary speaker with support coming from Barnabas.  What did Paul say to these people in Iconium,  We don’t have exactly what was said but it probably followed closely to what Paul had told the people in the last city they visited which was:  23 “God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised….26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.  32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus…34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay...38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:23, 26-33a, 34a, 38-39).

          Paul and Barnabas’ message was quite simple.  God has given the world the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. Sadly, the religious leaders and Romans did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and instead conspired, killed Jesus, and buried Jesus’ body.  Yet, God would not be mocked, and God’s plan would not be defeated.  And so, God raised Jesus from the dead.  Anyone who believes in Jesus stands before God free of all sin.  The response to Paul’s preaching in Iconium was immediate in that “a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1b).

          What had happened?  Two strangers walked into the city of Iconium and spoke about Jesus, his life, his mission, his death, his resurrection from the death, and the offer of salvation from God to all who would believe in Jesus.  They spoke first to the devote Jews and to the Greeks who feared God but who were not Jews.  These strangers, Paul and Barnabas, spoke with passion, conviction, and authority. They did not speak as though they were inviting people to join them on a new exciting once in a lifetime adventure or to join a social movement of some sort.  Paul and Barnabas pleaded with the people to accept God’s salvation for their lives.  It was not a once in a lifetime message, it was a once in all eternity message.  It was if Paul was saying “Please don’t turn away from Jesus, he is your only chance to not just escape eternal punishment but also gain the right to be called a child of God and be with God forever.” So deeply convicted was Paul about this message that he was able to show his listeners the marks of abuse, whippings and beatings with rods, he had received because he dared to share God’s good news in Jesus.  When I think about Paul and Barnabas as they shared Jesus, I am embarrassed by weakness in my own attempts to reach people for Christ.

          In response to Paul’s pleadings, his listeners believed. These people were told by Paul and Barnabas that once their believed they were a new creation in Christ.

          Let’s think about that expression, a new creation in Christ.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the message, I was recently reading the writings of Augustine, a 4th century theologian from North Africa. Augustine wrote about his life as an infant.  He said that as an infant he would have cried when he wanted food and cried for discomfort in his body.  He do so as every other baby does so that an adult can address their complaint.  Augustine said, when crying was not enough, as an infant he would have wailed to make the adults do his bidding.  He would have acted with jealousy and selfish impatience to get others to do his bidding.  But then Augustine said this about his behavior as an infant.  “What does it matter to me now, when I cannot recall a trace of it?”  Augustine had no memory of being an infant.  This is the heart of Paul’s message about salvation from our sins of the past.  “What does it (our sin) matter now, when God cannot recall a trace of it?”  In accepting Christ, we become a new creation, as though our infancy jealous and selfish impatient behavior is now long ago dead and yet we are still alive.

          Paul’s listeners believed, leaving behind their old lives, and leaving behind their old ways of thinking with allegiances to people and organizations that went with it all.  “3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.”   Paul and Barnabas showed no signs of moving on and instead likely were making plans to formalize a church in Iconium to help raise these new creations.

          But.  There is always a but.  “2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers (Paul and Barnabas as well as the new disciples)…4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them (Paul and Barnabas) and stone them” (Acts 14:2, 4-5).  And there is it once again.  A plot was formed against the Christians.  This is the pattern.  The leaders conspire to get someone to make serious charges against the Christians and make a demand for justice.  The leaders then help usher those claims before a court or council they control. A verdict is made against the accused and the leaders stand back and say the accused had his day and we respect the decision of the jury, court, or council.  This was done to Jesus, it was done to Stephen, and now was being planned for Paul and Barnabas in Iconium.

          Why did the leaders react this way toward Paul and Barnabas?  In many respects they did not react to Paul and Barnabas at all.  Instead, they were reacting to Jesus.  As did the religious leaders in Jerusalem rejected Jesus, here in Iconium the religious leaders rejected Jesus.  The leaders could not see Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah, the chosen one that Moses had spoken about.  They were looking for a grand and great leader not a humble servant. They were looking for someone who would affirm them and their steadfast adherence to the sacrificial practices, their fasting, and hard application of the law.  Jesus did none of that.  Instead, Jesus challenged their lack of mercy and their belief that they could do anything so long as they sacrificed for their sins.  These leaders who had waited so long to become leaders could not imagine losing that status and so they plotted and conspired to kill the messenger rather than change.

          Luke said that the existence of the plot became known to Paul and Barnabas, and they left Iconium to continue to preach in the neighboring towns and countryside.  The preaching must continue otherwise how will the people come to faith in Jesus.

          What then do we learn for ourselves from this passage of Scripture?  First and foremost, we are reminded that God has a salvation plan for you, me, our family members, our neighbors, and the strangers we will meet and the people we will never meet.  No one is excluded from God’s plan.  And God’s plan is simple.  God sent his Son as the truth, the truth about God.  He sent his Son as the Way, the way to God, He sent his Son as the Life, the life in the present and the life eternal.  To complete the plan, God’s Son paid the price by going to the cross for the sin that would keep us from God.  And to show the power of God over life to fulfil the promises of this plan and demonstrate that life is eternal, God raised Jesus from the dead. And finally, Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the good news of God’s plan brought to all people through God’s own Son so that in believing in him we would become new creations with God having no recollection of our sins.  You and I are here because someone cared enough about us to share with us the good news, the message of eternal life.  Someone cared enough about us that they wanted us to be saved and safe not just for a day, a week, a month, a year, or even for our lifetime but for all eternity.

          What then is our obligation having received and believed in God’s Son and his message of truth, way, and the life?  It is to live by imitating Jesus and to share the good news of Jesus with our family, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  As new people come to faith, we are to help make them become Jesus’ disciples able to share the good news with others.  What we are called to do is simple, but we need to like Nike says, “Just Do It.”

          In this country we are blessed that we can do our part of God’s plan without fear of being stoned, whipped, beaten with rods, or any other act of physical violence.  We can do our part of God’s plan without fear of losing our jobs, our homes, or our property.  What do we risk then in sharing the Jesus?  We might risk some strange looks or a few hateful comments.  What is to be gained?  Eternity for those who come to faith.  We need to be like Paul and Barnabas.  We all need to be preachers, deeply convicted preachers of God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ.  Sounds like we need to “Just Do It.”  Amen and Amen.