If you were to look on a modern map for Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Perga, and Attalia, you’d have to look very carefully in the area of south central Turkey, for that is where Paul and Barnabas and other early Christian missionaries spent much of their time and energy. The gentile church took root there and survived for a long time. You’d also have to use a very old map.
Because of all those ancient cities and towns, only a few are still recognizable at all. Iconium is now Konya, Attalia is called Antalya. Tarsus, Paul’s home town, is still there, and there are ruins in Ephesus and other cities of Asia Minor once important as the Christian faith spread to the west. The rest are now mainly mounds of ruins.
So, you may rightly ask, what have such old ruined places to do with us here today? We remember them, basically, because it was there that the faith was planted, nurtured, and grew. Luke notes, almost in passing, that Paul and Barnabas “installed elders — presbyteroi, a word that eventually came to mean ‘priest’ — and with prayer and fasting, commended the people to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.”
And that is always how faith grows — rooted in the life and faith of the community, guided by leaders from among the community, through prayer and fasting. Well, though prayer, anyway. Fasting today has more to do with the Paleo Diet and other fads than the spread of Christianity. But in the gospel, we also hear of the bond that created and preserved that community — deep and inclusive love. It is the great commandment Jesus left us, in truth, his only commandment.
The second reading, from near the end of the Book of Revelation, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city that is God’s gift, not a human creation. We do not build this city of God! For one thing, it is very, very big — larger than any structure ever designed by a human being, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build. But that is another story. Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering. All that will be gone. And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in the simple phrase, “Look: I make all things new.”
God is the source and energy of originality, of freshness, the creator now making the world instant by instant, holding the universe in the palm of his hand. And we hear three times over in the New Testament, that universe was created in, for, and by Christ, in which it holds together. In Jesus, the risen Christ, God truly makes everything new and fresh.
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope. We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things. If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of regression. So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain and loss. War is what we do. Peace is what God does.