My research of the Acts of the Apostles for the last year and a half has given me new respect for the first century church. I’m continually amazed by the wisdom and practicality of the apostles and early believers as their newfound faith developed form and structure.
One of the most interesting and controversial figures in Acts is the Apostle Paul. In today’s vernacular, he was a hater, turned by the Lord himself on the road to Damascus. Paul became a living firebrand for the Christian faith. He was a traveler, an expatriate, and he took some legendary road trips. For that task, God equipped him with tremendous faith, wits, courage, and friends.
Reading about Paul’s journeys rekindled my memories of my own trip to one of his expat assignments, the island of Cyprus. Barnabas was from there (Acts 4:36), others too, including persecuted refugees who fled to Cyprus in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 11:19-20; 21:16). Paul, Barnabas and John Mark traveled the island together from Salamis to Paphos (Acts 13:4-13), where the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus was converted. Barnabas and John Mark later returned to the island after parting ways with Paul (Acts 15:39). The evidence of their presence is still apparent in Cyprus culture. Archaeological remains speak of the influence of these early missionaries. The impact of their visits is a tribute to the power of gospel message. As I walked the old towns and explored the ancient ruins, I realized I was walking where Paul and Barnabas walked. I shared their view of the rugged coastline and the brilliant blue Mediterranean Sea.
My memories of my visit to Cyprus caused me to consider the parallels between these first missionaries and my own expatriate life.
Like them, I am a traveler, encountering strange cultures, other religions and different schools of thought. I too need my faith, wits, courage and community to navigate my way. Paul’s letters speak of his love and concern for the people he met and the relationships he forged during his journeys. We expatriates do the same thing. We meet, we get to know one another, we serve together, we move on but our relationships remain. Our bond is a special one, shared and understood in a special way.
I can also relate to the stresses they were under. Acts 15:39 speaks of a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas regarding whether or not John Mark should continue on as their traveling companion. Any married expatriate couple knows about the strain on relationships and the fortitude it takes to maintain a healthy one. Hashing things out, making difficult decisions and compromise are all part of the deal.
Paul faced many traveling hazards. He was shipwrecked, stranded, sick and often dependent on the kindness of others. He encountered legal problems and security issues. He was beaten and run out of town a number of times. As and expatriate living abroad, I identify with some of his struggles, but a reading of 2 Corinthians 11 makes me never want to complain about my own circumstances. Yet Paul never lost sight of what God had purposed him to do. He was resourceful and determined to overcome the obstacles he faced with a single-mindedness that I envy.
Paul’s tenacity encouraged me this week. The threat of protests loomed over Port Moresby and effectively (but unnecessarily) restricted my travel. I struggled to overcome some physical ailments. Calls from loved ones and photos on Facebook left me feeling homesick and discouraged. But in the midst of my isolation, I found solace in the camaraderie of the men and women that God has placed in my life. I am thankful for the group of faithful women who share this life with me, both in fellowship and in prayer. I am thankful for the voices of my home group lifted in praise and worship to the music of John Sutton’s guitar, for Linda Sutton’s comforting presence and her curious theological mind, and for the joyful disposition of Graham, the itinerant Australian pastor who visited our home on Tuesday night.
Paul and his companions did not know where the Lord would lead them next, they just knew that He would lead…and He would supply the means to go. I know the Lord who loves me will do the same on my behalf.
Acts 17: 24-29 – “The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.”