There are two distinct aspects to this story which I would like us to look at today, both of which are concerned with people. The first involves Paul and Barnabas, and the second a man called Sergius Paulus who, we are told was the governor or proconsul of Cyprus at the time that Paul and Barnabas were visiting Cyprus.
The background to this episode in the expansion of the early Christian church is the setting apart of Barnabas and Paul, commissioned we are told by the Holy Spirit, to embark on what has subsequently become known as Pauls first missionary journey, which took him not only to Cyprus but onward to Turkey.
This was the start of a remarkable travelling ministry. On his second journey Paul took the gospel into Europe, about AD50. His third journey ended in arrest, but he finally reached Rome in AD62 and although a prisoner was still able to preach freely.
Paul wasnt the only one engaged on this missionary activity. Many others were preaching the gospel and helping the newly formed churches. By AD64, only some thirty-odd years after the death of Jesus, there were churches established in all the main centers of the Roman empire, and from these the gospel was spreading to surrounding areas.
I'm reminded of the early pioneers of our denominations and just how far these early preachers traveled in their desire to spread the gospel, both on foot or on horseback, to the point where not only their health but their family life was put in jeopardy.
These men and women were fired up with the conviction that they too were commissioned by God to do this work, and this was the source of their strength, endurance and enthusiasm for the task. As a result of their efforts we see the many non-conformist chapels in our villages and towns, a hopefully lasting tribute to the effect that a handful of faithful men and women can have on a nation.
When word got around that one of these preachers was visiting an area, people would gather from miles around to hear what they had to say. No doubt there was an element of curiosity, a love of oratory and a sense that this was a big social event in some of the more remoter parts of the countryside, but underneath it all there must have also been a yearning to know something about just what made these charismatic figures tick.
The effect that Paul and Barnabas had on the people of their day must have been similar, with interest spreading far beyond the towns within which they decided to stay.
While they were in Cyprus on that first monumental missionary journey, travelling the length and breadth of the island and preaching in the Jewish synagogues, the proconsul Sergius Paulus heard about their activities - a sign perhaps of the success of their mission. He seems to have been man with his finger on the pulse of life on the island, as might be expected in the highly organised Roman empire, and in this case seems to have been intrigued to hear about the message that Paul and Barnabas were preaching on his patch.
We are told that he was an intellegent man. An odd comment to make maybe, but we can infer perhaps that here was a thinking man, and an enquirer after the truth. He was a man of prominance and position, presumably enjoying a very sucessful and prosperous lifestyle within the particular social and political world in which he lived and moved.
In fact we can read between the lines of the story in Acts and go even further. Sergius Paulus was a man searching for something higher than the material satisfaction of his current position in life. He was searching for spiritual understanding in a world that had enough belief systems to satisfy everyone - ranging from the Jewish concept of God through to the Roman and Greek gods, family deities, and corruptions of all of them.
But was Sergius Paulus any different to people we know around us, or those we read about in the newspapers. Film or pop stars, footballers, politicians, wealthy and successful people who to our eyes at least seem to have everything that anyone could ever want - big house, money in the bank, holidays wherever and whenever they want in exotic places, influence and fame - and yet still seem to be searching for that missing something, for a spiritual dimension to their lives.
And where do they turn? To all manner of faiths and sects, to spiritual advisors, tarot cards, psychics and horoscopes.
But this is nothing new. If we go back to our reading what do we find - in the employment of Sergius Paulus is none other than Elymas, his spiritual advisor. As a Jew, Elymas would have been familiar with Old Testament scriptures, but from the little information we can gather later from the words of Paul, it would seem that he was twisting the words to his own ends. We can surmise that he was in it for the money.
Paul sees what Sergius Paulus was blind to. "You are a child of the devil," he tells the sorcerer. "And an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord."
So what does this story tell us so far? Well, firstly it reminds us that all men have a spiritual dimension to their nature. Theres more here than just flesh and blood, mind and intellect. I was told many years ago that theres a God shaped hole in each one of us, and many spend their lives trying to fill it with all manner of strange objects of desire.
But none will fit the hole completely, theres always a gap that yearns to be filled. This spiritual dimension to our personality is what the bible calls the soul.
Sergius Paulus had a position which fully occupied his mind and intellect, and supplied his material needs. But that didnt stop him from seeking spiritual answers to the great issues of life.
Secondly, because God made man a spiritual being, it means that he cant help but search for spiritual truth even if, like Sergius Paulus he looks in the wrong direction. And to me this does seem to be an area where the church today is failing in its mission. There are many thousands of people out there searching - and not finding something that is relevant to their needs. And yet how can that be, when we hold the only true answer to the questions they are asking.
Where theres a spiritual vacuum in peoples lives, they will seek to fill it in whatever way they can, and thats largely the explanation for the popularity of New Age philosophy, eastern religions, the growing interest in astrology, crystals, spiritism, witchcraft, paganism and a hundred and one other isms spring up today.
But back to our story and Sergius Paulus. This important official heard on the grapevine something about Paul and Barnabus that impressed him. By sending for the two Christian missionaries, the governor was indicating a genuine desire to seek truth; and the bible is clear on this point. God always loves a true seeker. Jeremiah 29 tells us "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."
God always honours the man, woman or child who is seeking him, and thats why he made it possible for Sergius Paulus to hear the Good News through the preaching of Barnabus and Paul.
Cant you see how much responsibility this places on us as believers. We cant rely on those who are genuinely seeking the truth plucking up the courage to enter this building and ask, however much we would love to see them and welcome them. These people are more likely to come into contact with us in our neighborhood, our place of work or within the social activities in which we or our children are involved on a weekly basis.
When that happens then the onus is one us, however uncomfortable we might feel about sharing our faith with someone else. And if someone could explain to me why it is so hard to find the words to share something so precious to us as our faith and our love of God, then Id be very grateful, because it should be the most natural thing in the world. I can only assume that its lack of practice. Jesus once said to the Pharisees that if his disciples stopped singing his praises, then even the stones would cry out. He also said that He who seeks will find. (Mat 7:8)
So it was that simple was it? Sergius Paulus heard tell of the Good News being preached, called for Paul and Barnabas, they shared their message with him, he believed and everyone lived happily ever after!
If only life were so simple. No sooner had the message been shared than Elymas the sorcerer saw his livelihood flash before his eyes. He did all he could to dissuade his master from changing allegiance and coming to faith in Christ. And isnt that just the way it happens? When were feeling close to God - perhaps even as we sit in our pew on a Sunday - along come those distracting thoughts, Did I turn the oven on? What is she wearing on her head? Wheres so-and-so? And before you know it, the feelings gone.
The book of Ephesians in chapter 6 tells us that "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." and goes on to tell us to make sure that we have on what it calls the "Full armour of God", that is truth, righteousness and a readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, together with faith, salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
So here was the clash of spiritual powers that the New Testament warns us about. In the red corner the power of Gods Holy Spirit working through Paul; in the blue corner the powers of darkness working through Elymas. The trophy they were fighting for was the soul of Sergius Paulus. Elymas knew full well that if the governor was converted to faith in Jesus then it was all over for him, and the cause he represented.
It was of course a predictable result. Paul, in the power of the Holy Spirit dealt with Elymas very effectively. "Now the hand of the Lord is against you," he tells him. "You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun." Then we are told that a mist and darkness came over him, and he had to have someone to guide him by the hand.
This spiritual warfare for the souls of men and women is going on all the time in our world. Believe me, Satan does not like to see men seeking after the truth, and will try any trickery or deceit to prevent them from hearing the word and accepting the salvation it offers.
On the one hand God says "I gave my son as a sacrifice for your sins and the sins of the world. Believe in me, accept the salvation that I offer and enter into my kingdom." To counter this, Satan answers "Dont believe all that nonsense about sin and salvation. Youre as good as the next man. Forget it, its not worth the effort. I can show you a much easier way"
And so the battle rages on.
Sergius Paulus heard the Good News, saw what happened to Elymas and believed. He saw and he heard. These two things must always go together. Proclamation of the truth and practice of the truth are the twin pillars of effective witness to God.
If Paul and Barnabas had not been obedient to the call of the Holy Spirit to make that first missionary journey, and had not been prepared to put their faith to the test, then Sergius Paulus would not have heard the Good News and may well have stayed under the power of Elymas the sorcerer - in other words, the battle would have been lost.
We are called to share the Good News, both in the pulpit and in our daily lives. If we arent prepared to accept our part in the great Comission of Matthew 28 "To go and make disciples of all nations" then how are people going to hear. For if they dont hear it from us, then they will hear the twisted story from others like Elymas, and we shall have lost the battle even before the bell has gone for the first round....and the pews in our churches and chapels will get emptier and emptier.