When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they cried out in Lycaonian, "The gods have come down to us in human form." They called Barnabas "Zeus" and Paul Hermes," because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, for he together with the people intended to offer sacrifice.
Today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles recalls a comical moment when our boys were mistaken for gods. They had healed a man out of the goodness of their hearts -- a goodness which is one of our most ordinary characteristics -- but the Lycaonians were astounded.
I was reminded recently of the strangeness our faith by a cartoon about reincarnation. The concept is so bizarre it should not be recognized by my spellcheck! But there it is. Why would anyone believe a religious doctrine that floats above and apart from all human experience? Why would people believe "The gods have come down to us in human form?" when another, more reasonable explanation is close at hand?
The Evangelists -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- went to great lengths to assure their Christian congregations that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus really occurred in our world and in our time. In recounting the story of Jesus' birth, Saint Matthew recalls the time and place: "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod...."
Saint Luke gives us even more detail about the time: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Many of the readers and hearers of the Gospels would have remembered where they were and what they were doing when Caesar Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governor of Syria. Even by 21st century standards it was not that long ago. Other than some technological and philosophical changes, and despite twenty centuries of history, not much has changed! Death and taxes remain with us, as do war and the threat of war, hypocrisy, corruption, greed and indifference; fear, loathing and dread; kindness, courage, decency and compassion. We are still capable of wonder, and of misreading our wonder with banal explanations.
The most extraordinary thing about Jesus, other than his beautiful humanity, was his resurrection. We would not believe it if we had not seen it. It really happened and the men and women with him saw it. To doubt it would be to doubt the credibility of our own brothers and sisters, who risked and often lost their lives when they gave their testimony. We still believe it because the Holy Spirit continues to gather people to the Gospel and to invest us with that joyful spirit of martyrdom.
Tomorrow we'll hear the rest of the story: when the Lycaonians realized the disciples were not gods they stoned Saint Paul and left him for dead in the street. They were disappointed and upset that their old, superstitious beliefs could not explain the wonder they had seen.
Paul shook it off and went on to the next town. Perhaps some other missionary in some other time will persuade these people to live in the real world with the One God who gave us his Only Begotten Son.