Pastor Brian’s sermon preached at a service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2020:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thank you to Bishop Braxton and Father Flannery for the invitation to deliver the sermon this morning. It is truly an honor for me to do so.
When I received Father Flannery’s email and phone call, and looked at the text from Acts that would be the theme for today’s service, I felt like it was one of those moments when the Holy Spirit gives me a “wink and a nudge.” I say that because each week I lead a Protestant worship service and ecumenical Bible study out at the Esquiline, the senior living community at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and just last week, we happened to conclude a six and a half month study of the book of Acts. So one week ago today I sat around a table with three Presbyterians, an Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic, a member of the United Church of Christ, three Methodists, a Baptist and another Lutheran besides myself, and we studied this very text. How cool is that?
So Acts 28:2 says, “They showed us unusual kindness.” “Extraordinary hospitality” is how it’s translated sometimes. The Greek word from which it’s translated is philanthropian, defined as “affectionate concern for and interest in humanity,” and from which comes of course, our English word “philanthropy.” The shipwreck survivors were welcomed and a fire was lit for them because it was raining and cold. A day like today helps us to appreciate that all the more, I think. We don’t get any more detail of what was done for them at that time; in the later verses we hear about Paul and the others being received warmly by the island’s chief and given the provisions they needed, but all of that is after they think Paul is a “god” because he survived the snakebite and then healed all on the island who were sick. It’s natural that Paul and his companions would be treated well after all of that, so I want to return to the “unusual kindness” shown when they first came to shore, and ask this question: why was the kindness “unusual?”
Well, it could be that it struck Paul and his companions as unusual or extraordinary simply because they were so desperately in need of such kindness at that moment. Kind of like when you’re really hungry, any food might taste like the best meal ever. But I think it’s more likely that the kindness struck them as unusual because of its source. Most translations I looked at use the term “natives” or simply “islanders” to describe the hospitable residents of Malta. But the original Greek is telling. The word Luke used for the people of Malta was barbaroi. Generally at that time, the word meant non-Greek speaking foreigners; people who spoke presumably their own native language and not the Greek that was the lingua franca, if you will, of the Mediterranean region. Thus these were people who were simply not part of any of the main cultures of the world, but by extension, we can make the reasonable assertion that the barbaroi were thought of as uncivilized, uneducated, even inferior. It’s then not a far leap to understand how barbaroi became the word from whence comes our English word, barbarian. So at least to the very well-educated and well-traveled Paul and Luke may have found the fact that they were receiving such kindness and hospitality from the likes of barbaroi to be most unusual, unexpected, and indeed, extraordinary.
As we gather here for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I can’t help but wonder if the Spirit is challenging us through this text to consider who in our lives we think of as barbaroi. Who are the individuals or groups we consciously or even instinctively think of as uncivilized, uneducated, even inferior. Further this text should prompt us to consider how that way of thinking not only prevents us from offering unusual kindness, but also creates a barrier to our receiving such kindness as well.
All of us gathered here represent a number of Christian denominations who over the course of our respective histories have thought of one another as barbaroi: uncivilized, uneducated, even inferior. This has resulted not merely in missed opportunities to share and receive kindness, but far, far too often, the opposite has occurred: thinking of one another as barbaroi has and continues to produce intolerance, distrust, and sometimes even hatred, violence, and death.
But our presence together here, now, even if it’s a remembrance that lasts for a week, a day, or just one hour – this should remind us of the unusual kindness God in Christ has offered to all of us – across any denominational lines we have drawn. The religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day – the “civilized” and “educated” members of his society – they refused to see God’s philanthropian extended to them in the person of that babaros from Nazareth.
Friends, this week is a reminder to us not to make the same mistake they did. This week is a reminder not to close ourselves off from the philanthropian we can offer to and receive from others who, though different in expression, still share the mandate from Christ to love one another as he has loved us. This week should be a springboard from which we, together, can welcome those shipwrecked by the storms of life in difficult and dangerous places, those soaked in tragedy and chilled to the bone by division and disillusion; we can declare in our words and actions that we will not be separated by our differences and we will bound by the very thing that brings us together today: the love of God in Christ that makes us one: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, “sophisticate” or “barbarian.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
– The Rev. Brian Robison, Cathedral of St. Peter’s, January 23, 2020