When Paul and Barnabas depart from Antioch of Pisidia at the end of Acts 13, they heed the command given by Jesus in Luke 9: 'Wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.'
50 Then the Jews stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city, and they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town.51 So they shook the dust from their feet as a sign of rejection and went to the town of Iconium. 52 And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
This response differs greatly from James and John's response, also in Luke 9, when the Samaritans don't show hospitality to Jesus. Instead of shaking the dust off their feet and moving on, James and John say, 'Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?'
By the time Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, having been driven out of yet another town in Acts 14:1-7, perhaps they, too, are tempted to call down fire on those who reject them. Instead, Paul and Barnabas turn their attention to a man with a disability.
8 While they were at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man with crippled feet. He had been that way from birth, so he had never walked. He was sitting 9 and listening as Paul preached.
Imagine yourself at the scene:
Imagine you’re a resident of Lystra. You see two men come into your town, and instead of walking right past the crippled man, who has become a fixture by the gate, they stop and address him. And this strikes you. One of them crouches down and stares straight into his eyes. You can’t tell if there are any words being exchanged, but all of a sudden you hear the visitor shout, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Stand up!”
And here see is the man, who has always been sitting or lying—you’ve never seen him in any other posture—rocking back, then leaning forward. He is on his hands and knees, and then he lifts one leg up underneath him. He stares in shock at the stranger, and then plants one foot on the ground. He rocks to his side and puts the other foot on the ground. He steadies himself. They’re still eye to eye, but now he’s in the same crouched position as the stranger. Then, in one motion, the man stands to his feet.
By now, a large crowd has gathered around, and you can hear them start to murmur about the strangers. They’re saying, “This must be Zeus visiting us in human form, and his companion must be Hermes."
You recognize this reference immediately from a story you’ve heard. It’s the story from the famous Roman poet Ovid. The story, as you remember it, goes like this:
There were once two strangers who visited this region, and they came seeking a place to rest and eat. But every house they approached turned them away until they arrived in the poorest part of the town. They knocked on the door of a shabby dwelling. The house belonged to Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple who barely had enough to support themselves, let alone two guests, but they invited the strangers in.
As the story goes, they shared what little food they had with the strangers. They poured what little remained of their wine, yet it never emptied. Glass after glass, the wine never ran dry. That’s when they realized they were in the presence of the gods in human form.
After the dinner, the god-strangers, Zeus and Hermes, took a walk with the elderly couple. They left the city and started to ascend the foothills outside of town. When they had reached a certain height, the god-strangers told Baucis and Philemon to look back and see what had become of the place they’d left. What they saw was no longer a town; the gods had condemned the city to the flood. As the story goes, everyone in the town perished, and only Baucis and Philemon were spared, and they were given a richly adorned palace to return to.
And here you are, watching the man whom you’ve never seen move from his place near the gate. The crippled man pushes through the crowd, walking right past you. He extends a hand to your chest to steady himself as he stumbles by, walking for the first time and moving as though he may never stop.
Yes, you think, these strangers must be gods in human form.
Soon the priests are parading livestock past you, preparing to offer sacrifice to the god-strangers. The same stranger who told the crippled man to stand up is shouting again, but this time it’s in anger. You look up to where the visitors are standing, and see that they’ve begun to tear their clothes. They insist that the crowd stop; they say that they are here to tell you good news about a living God who created the sea and earth. Over the next few days, you’ll hear more about this God. He is the one responsible for the rain and the crops, who sustains your very existence, who gives you joy.
A few days later, another group arrives, and they spread the word that the visitors are telling lies. Many people remain upset that the two men refused the town’s hospitality and rebuked the priests. A mob forms, and they go after the one they had called Zeus.
You watch as the mob hurls stones at the god-stranger who, just a few days prior, had knelt next to the crippled man at the gate. When he falls to the ground, they drag him out of town and leave him for dead. But you stay, looking at his battered body, thinking they've killed him.
He lies unconscious for a long while, but then he stirs. You can tell he’s in pain as he sits up, rocks back, and then leans forward. He is on his hands and knees, and then he lifts one leg underneath him. He plants one foot on the ground. He rocks to his side and puts the other foot on the ground. Then, at once, he stands to his feet.
'Maybe he’ll walk away,' you think. Like Zeus and Hermes leading Philemon and Baucis, he’ll walk a distance, and by the time he turns around, you’ll be fighting to keep your head above water as he orders a flood to roll over your town.
Just then, the god-stranger extends a hand to your chest to steady himself as he stumbles past. To your amazement, instead of walking away, he walks back toward the town. You watch as he staggers back, bloodied, to the people who had stoned him and left him for dead.
If ever there was a picture of Christlikeness, it’s Paul limping back into the city that tried to kill him. The risen Christ, like Paul in this story, returns to the scene of the crime committed against him.
Maybe a relationship has run roughshod over you. Maybe you feel like it’s dead, or that it has nearly killed you.
Maybe you feel abandoned, or like there’s no hope in your present circumstance, like you’re trapped and can't move.
Maybe you’ve received a diagnosis that you feel has left you for dead.
In Acts 14 Paul is acting like Christ. When we see Paul in this story, we see Jesus returning to the scene of the crime committed against him. Christ is not just returning someday, but he’s always coming back.
When the disciples leave a place and shake the dust off their feet, they are leaving it to God’s judgment. But I think one of the most powerful images of this story in Acts 14 is that they’re not leaving it to be destroyed by God, but to make room for God to come again and bring renewal.
Shaking the dust off their feet is a symbol of trust, of handing a situation over to God’s justice. We don’t serve a god who walks away and sends floodwaters rolling over the inhospitable parts of us. Nor do we serve a God who calls down fire on what seems to be dead. We serve a God who is always acting to redeem and restore. We serve a God who is always returning to the scene of the crime committed against him.