Genesis 4:1-17: Cain and Abel

Reading: Genesis 4:1-17

Today our Sunday school lesson considered the events from Cain and Abel to God telling Noah there would be a flood. Last week, we talked about creation, and the Fall and somebody pointed out that Cain killing Abel must have been quite the shock to everybody; it would be the first human death, and evidence that humanity, left to decide what is right and wrong might make some seriously bad choices.

On the other hand, it is not so shocking to us. People kill other people, including close family members, every day. I would go so far as to point out that the story of Cain and Abel would not be so shocking to the original audience of Genesis. Think of how those who had survived slavery, and were threatened with genocide as the king ordered the midwives to kill the babies as soon as they were born.

When I compare the experiences of those who read the account of Cain and Abel to the narrative that describes how bad things were before the flood, that period of people whose hearts were focused on evil all the time sounds like a time of innocence. One murder, one assault, and two people killed in self-defense over a period of centuries isn’t exactly a description of a great evil filling the earth to a people who survived a genocide.

It also stands out to me that the story of Cain and Abel is not the story of ancestors. Noah and his family were of Seth’s line, so there are no descendants of Cain and Abel. This isn’t a family story, it does not give us a sense of a word that is much more evil than the one that we live in, nor would it give the nation of Israel a sense that the world before the flood was more evil than their own country. This makes me wonder why tell this story at all? There are so few stories chosen over a period of over a thousand years, so there must be a reason for the stories that are told.

Marcus Dobbs offered the explanation that this is significant because it is the first death, and therefore is the direct result of the fall. For Dobbs, the first death coming from sin going all the way from attitudes to murder, rather than from aging or accident, communicates the seriousness of sin. This would be constant with the idea that the “knowledge of good and evil” is not simply knowing the difference between right and wrong, but doing what is right in one’s own eyes; even if one manages to decide that murder is right.

I asked Karla what she thought of this story, and what stood out to her was that Cain and Abel are brothers; she observed that the first murder was about a conflict within family and that this passage is a reminder that when we harm others, we are most likely to harm those who are closest to us. If there is going to be a murder, it is most likely to be somebody close — by far the most common sort of violence in our world is domestic violence.

As a student back at Friends University, I had a teacher who was an Old Testament scholar who loved Archaeology, and he saw this as a story of the same conflict that Abraham’s family faced through the last half of Genesis — namely, that Abraham and his family were nomadic herdsmen and the great powers of the world, such as Egypt, fed themselves with grain from their farms.

While Abraham is using stone knives, Egypt is possibly the most developed nation on Earth. Egypt grows grains, they make tools out of metal, they have an irrigation system, a powerful military, and a trade network that includes the Assyrian and Hittite empires. Working metal is the key to Egypt’s power; without Bronze, there are no blades to cut wheels; so there is no pottery, no wagons, and no chariots. There is no metal to put a blade on a plow, nor to make a blade for a shovel. Widespread farming, extensive trade, imperial warfare, and I might add cities, cannot exist without metal.

Between the most ancient method of foraging and hunting for food and depending on farms for the bulk of the food, people started to domesticate animals. It proved easier to keep relatively gentle animals around and to make sure they were able to graze than to chase herds as they went from grazing area to grazing area. Life moved from chasing the herds to leading them, and nomad herdsmen developed a wealth of livestock that was passed down for generations. Just because people started plowing fields didn’t mean people stopped raising cattle; Without cattle, there is neither milk nor meat. We need fields for bread, and cattle for beef and cheese otherwise we have no cheeseburger.

If there was one thing Bronze age farmers hated though, it was migrant herdsmen bringing their animals anywhere close to fields. Farmers, as you know, are tied to the land. Farmers work the same land year after year and they live and die based on whether or not the land produces. Migrant herdsmen live by their livestock, but they have no attachment to the land. The herdsmen move on to fresh land once they used the old.

This fight, of course, didn’t exactly go away in the bronze age. When people talk about the history of the west, that history includes cattle drives that were very destructive to homesteaders who found crops destroyed as cowboys moved cattle across country to where they would be sold. Being from the old west, I grew up with the idea that one of the worst crimes that could be committed was cutting fences so that cattle could go onto a farmer’s field. The hostility was such that in 19th century Kansas, a number of cities forbid cowboys to enter the city.

These days, we use trains and trucks to drive cattle, and ranchers either own or lease the land their cattle live on so that the modern equivalent of cowboys drive trucks. The old fight between cowboys and farmers is a thing of the past; that being said if your cows get in your neighbor’s corn it is likely to strain your relationship with that neighbor.

Perhaps Moses felt it important to tell the story of Cain and Abel, because his ancestors settled in Egypt, and Egyptians, being farmers, hate herdsmen. Egypt was, at first, hospitable — they offered a place for Joseph’s family away from the Nile Valley where they farmed, but as Jacob’s family grew larger and more wealthy Pharaoh ordered every male child of Israel killed. Egypt attempted to kill Israel, just as the farmer Cain killed his brother Abel\ldots but God favored Israel. Egypt turned the power of its emperor on nomadic herdsmen turned slaves, and neither the bureaucracy nor the armies of Egypt could defeat Israel.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time four thousand years and sit down and talk with somebody about what we read in Genesis. Any commentary that I can find on this passage written long after the Bronze Age was forgotten. The oldest commentary I read asks questions such as why did God reject Cain’s offering? Early Christians felt that it was either because Cain sorted his offering, and offered God what was substandard while Abel gave what was precious; Augustine offered an alternative to this view, suggesting that Cain’s heart was in the wrong place, and as God cares about the heart first this made the gift unacceptable.

What I do know is when God asks: “where is Abel”, Cain answers: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain communicates the idea that he has no responsibility for his brother, and no interest in his brother’s well being. When I was a child, my parents taught me that this question is central in interpretation — because the correct answer is “yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” You see, if Cain had no personal interest in his brother’s well being, then it would not be necessary to kill him; it might be easier to just let him die easily.

You see if we believe that humanity is created in God’s image then we should value humanity. Refraining from the act of killing somebody else is not enough. One example of this truth is David, who was guilty of murdering his friend Uriah. Uriah, as you know died in battle at the hands of the enemy, but he died because he was abandoned where the enemy would kill him. Because we value the image of God, we don’t leave the image where it will be destroyed easily. We are our brother’s keeper. You see, once we move on to what Jesus says, and what we read in places such as the book of James — we don’t just care whether our actions harm another; we care about the needs of the other. We are called to love, we are called to care, we are called to do the work of Christ, to bring life and restoration.

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Genesis 1: In the Beginning

Reading: Genesis 1-2:4

In Seminary, I learned the phrase: “Canon within a canon” when speaking about the Bible. As you might know, our Bible is a list of Christian and Jewish writings that had been evaluated by committees of Christian leaders, and those that passed the tests of apostolic authority, correct doctrine, and accepted everywhere, from the beginning of the church. Every book in our Bible has been evaluated and recommended as something that all Christians should read — scripture is one of the things that connects us.

Our “canon within a canon” is that part of the Bible that we always read — it is our favorite books and passages; those things that we think of as central to our faith. I know it sounds like a bad thing, but any of us who have memorized scripture have put those portions that we memorized in a special place; it is safe to say that none of us memorized who begat who, nor how long they all lived. We all have parts of the Bible that inspire us, or are extra familiar to us; for my father, that part was Genesis; he felt that the origin stories had great lessons to teach us.

Because my father felt that way, he graphed the genealogy, he added up all of the ages people were when they had children. If I went through my dad’s box of papers, I would be able to find the charts he made showing who was alive, who was contemporary with whom, the commentaries he read, and extensive notes on the minutia one finds in Genesis. Unlike most of us, my dad’s canon within the canon very much included who begat who and how long they lived. My dad would find meaning in the fact that his figures told him that Methuselah, the man who My dad would find meaning in the fact that his figures told him that Methuselah, the man who lived the longest would have lived until the year of the flood.

My father is not alone in his interest in Genesis. Genesis is quoted or alluded to throughout the New Testament. When John starts his gospel: “In the beginning,” he is alluding to Genesis. When Jesus discusses Abraham, he is talking about what happens in Genesis. When Hebrews talks about the faith of the Patriarchs, their stories are found in Genesis. When Acts 15 commands that Christians refrain from eating blood, I believe that they are referring to God’s covenant with Noah after the flood. More to the point of this lesson, I believe that much of the book of James is about the practical implications of Genesis 1:27, which tells us that humanity is God’s image and that we should act like it — and of course, this verse, and New Testament commentary on this verse is a big part of my canon within a canon. If you ask me how we are to treat others, I’d answer that we should remember that humanity is created in God’s image, and if we act like it we will do what is right.

As you already know, images are powerful. I’ve mentioned that the image that we are most familiar with is our flag. The flag is an image of our nation — and even though it is only a piece of colored cloth, people get angry when the flag is treated disrespectfully because when you disrespect the flag, you symbolically disrespect the nation. Humanity is God’s image, so it is the same thing; what you do to another human being, you symbolically do to God.

As you also know, James is a special book to me, largely because of the hours I spent studying it as a teenager; James has extensive commentary on how we should act, knowing that we are created in God’s image. James 3 is the tongue chapter which tells us that watching the tongue is something that almost everybody needs to work on, and he writes on what we say about others:

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (James 3:7-11 NRSV)

James also talks about how our value does not come from our wealth, writing in James 2:5 “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” Humanity is created in God’s image, and that is where the value of each person lies.

Now, I’d like to move on from this and point out one of the problems that can come from our cannon within a cannon; there is a temptation to only read certain passages — those that support what we already think and feel. We have a temptation to stop reading before things get challenging. Remember, a verse is just a small part of a larger context, and sometimes a quote out of context means something very different than it sounds like in isolation.

This is one thing that I like about today’s Sunday School lesson — they chose to both talk about Humanity being created in God’s image, and also to talk about the original sin. There is a temptation to choose one and to not talk much about the other. It is tempting to talk about how God made humanity good, and try to avoid talking about how damaging sin has been to us individually, and to the world. Conversely, it is tempting to focus on sin, but to forget that humanity is God’s image, and to use our personal judgments about others to excuse our sinful behavior against them. I’ve noticed that when people focus on human sinfulness, they tend to focus on the sinfulness of others, which is a rather useless exercise.

The thing is, if we set original goodness against original sin, as if these are mutually exclusive, we miss what scripture intends to teach us. If we focus on original sin and the depravity of human nature and we deny the inherent goodness that comes from being created in God’s image, we miss many of the moral teachings of scripture, and we fail to see ourselves and others for what they truly are. If we ignore sin, then we have to deny the very things we see with our eyes and experience in life. Our lives are deeply damaged by sinfulness, our communities are torn about by sinfulness, and people suffer from the effects of sin.

That canon within a canon that we all have is something we cannot avoid; it happens naturally. It is good that we have passages memorized, it is good that passages have spoken to us and that we have meditated and studied these passages — but we also need to challenge ourselves with those parts that we think about less. We need to consider the implications that everybody that we meet is valuable because they are God’s image. We need to know that how we treat the people we see, and what we say about others is, symbolically, the way we treat and what we say about God. We also need to know that humanity has a major sin problem, and many of our behaviors are self-destructive. We need to know that we desperately need to be saved from ourselves.

Acts 26: Paul before Herod

Reading: Acts 25:23-26:32

This passage takes place when Felix was recalled to Rome facing accusations of badly handling a riot in Cesarea, and Felix is replaced as governor by Festus. It only takes 3 days for the Sanhedrin to ask Festus to turn Paul over to them for justice because they say that he deserves death. Festus quickly learns that Paul had been held for the past 2 years without charges, so he asks Paul if he is willing to be turned over to the Sanhedrin for trial. Paul, of course, refuses as he already went through the relevant hearings, and the Roman authorities already determined that there were no substantial charges against him. Paul, held for 2 years without charges and asked to do what a hearing said he didn’t have to do appealed to Caesar. Needless to say, none of this was very fair.

Festus consulted with Herod Antipas, King of The Jews, because the situation was not reasonable. Festus said to King Herod that it is not reasonable to send a prisoner without clear charges, and Herod said that he would like to hear Paul’s testimony. When Paul spoke to Herod, he gave an account of his history, how he persecuted the Christians, and how he met Jesus on the road and became a Christian. He really didn’t say anything that would count for evidence in a court of law, because there were no charges against him.

Herod responded to this by saying to Festus that if Paul had not asked to appeal his case before Caesar, then the right thing to do would be to release him immediately, as there was nothing about this situation that justified imprisoning Paul, nor trying him to put him to death. When Paul appealed to Caesar, it was because he had no intention of being tried before a court that already decided the outcome, regardless of whether there was was a crime to charge him with. Paul appealed to Caesar, because he was already held for two years without charges, and asked to submit to the judgment of an authority that had no jurisdiction over him.

I cannot imagine what I would do if I were sent to Herod Antipas II for a non-binding hearing. Herod was serving only in an advisory role, and without charges, there really wasn’t anything that Herod could have said other than “there is no reason to execute, nor even imprison him.” I can imagine that Festus knew full well why Felix was recalled and was more than willing to send somebody who had the type of grievance against his predecessor that showed that Felix mishandled more than one riot. As there were no charges against Paul, there was nothing for Caesar to hear in Rome other than how Felix mistreated his case; and as he was already recalled, this makes Paul a material witness.

So, when Paul testifies, he speaks more like one would speak at a revival meeting than before a court of law. Paul tells what was good news for him so that Herod can hear what it meant for Jesus to meet Paul on the road and offer Paul salvation. Paul meeting Jesus was nothing short of a miracle because if you looked at Paul, he really didn’t see why Jesus was necessary. Paul grew up a good kid, he followed the rules, and he was one of the most religious men in the country.

Paul’s devotion leads him to oppose the people who followed Jesus. There was something about Jesus and this new sect that was seen as a danger to the established order of things. While Jesus was still alive, the Sadducees and Pharisees together decided that Jesus needed to die, in the words of the Chief Priest Caiaphas, so that the nation might be saved. Killing Jesus, however, did not end the dangerous teachings; it wasn’t two months before Peter was every bit as public as Jesus once was, and there were new followers added every day. Paul became one of the people involved in the persecution of this new sect — he watched the belongings of the people who stoned Stephen, and then he chased a good number of the followers of Jesus out of Judea.

Chasing the Jesus followers out of Judea so they became refugees in places such as Syria was not enough; there was still something in their teaching that was so dangerous that Paul thought it important to travel with letters of extradition to bring the refugees back to Jerusalem and face the justice of the council.

While on the way to Damascus, in Syria, Paul met Jesus on the road. Paul was blinded, and he saying he was Jesus and telling him that he would be saved to preach the good news of the forgiveness of sin to both Jews and Gentiles. The voice specifically told Paul that he was to open people’s eyes so that they may turn to the light and be made holy.

Paul continued by telling Herod that he had been obedient to that vision, first sharing his story in Damascus, to ironically the very people he came to drag back to their deaths, and then he traveled the world, sharing the good news with the people of Jerusalem, of Judea, and of modern-day Turkey. Paul then told Herod that this good news that Jesus was raised from the dead — and the hope that we will also be raised from the dead was the dangerous teaching he was arrested for.

Festus at this point said “Paul, you are crazy.” Paul’s answer is that he speaks the sober truth, and then addresses Herod directly and refers Herod to the prophets, saying: “I know you believe the prophets.” Paul was reminding Herod of the messianic prophecies which match Jesus to the point where a common theme in the gospels is: “This fulfills the word of the prophet…” Paul was also reminding Herod that the prophets speak of restoration and resurrection so that the gospel of Christ is the gospel taught and promised by the prophets. Perhaps Paul was also self-identifying as somebody God spoke to, and he was pointing out that his Damascus road experience was just as believable as the way God spoke to Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah.

What stands out to me is Herod’s response: “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” This makes me think that Paul’s testimony of how God spoke to him and gave him a message to proclaim makes him a prophet — if Paul is a prophet, than his message is something that demands a hearing. As Pharisees in the Sanhedrin asked 2 years ago: “What if his vision on the road to Damascus was the real thing?” If you believe in prophecy, if you believe in miracles, you have to accept that as rare as they are, sometimes they happen.

Reading this, I ask the question, what was good news for Paul? If I put the question in salvation terms, what was Paul saved from? Paul was not somebody who looked like he needed saving. Paul followed the law carefully. Paul was religious. Paul did what was right and avoided what was wrong. There is no doubt that Paul was respected, and gaining the respect of his peers. I’m quite sure that the last thing that Paul was thinking while planning his trip to Damascus was that he needed saving from something.

I might say that Paul was saved from his pride, or his self-righteousness, and given a new perspective when he realized that it is possible to be zealous about the wrong things. People can be passionate, insightful, and even brilliant while being completely wrong. I could also look at this and notice that Paul was passionate about preserving a past that was about to come to an end. Remember, the reason the two major parties worked together against Jesus is that they were afraid of a change that would remove them from power. The thing is, change comes whether we like it or not; perhaps Paul was saved from throwing away his life for something that was futile. Paul specifically mentioned blindness and being led into the light. Being saved from being wrong is really nice, though, even after meeting Jesus we have a lot of things to be wrong about.

I think, what was the biggest thing for Paul was the promise of resurrection. The resurrection of the dead was a pretty important debate in Paul’s time, and he was from the group that believed that the messianic kingdom would include a resurrection. What Paul saw on the road was evidence that this belief was true — just as Christ was raised, he could also look forward to resurrection. Of course, good news is often paired with bad news; the bad news is that if Jesus is establishing the messianic kingdom, the current kingdom isn’t it.

I think that this was good news to Paul — that the messianic kingdom was announced with a resurrection, and that Paul was called to be its prophet, and to prophecy that the good news was not for just one people, but for the whole world. Paul, who was both Jew and Roman, now had a faith that welcomed him no matter his identity. Paul was extremely devout, he worked hard for his faith — and it was good news that instead of futilely fighting against inevitable change and staying faithful to the death of his way of life, he found a calling to something new and fresh that would sweep the entire world. I’m not Paul, so hearing the call to be a prophet would not be good news for me; but when I read Paul’s writing, I am convinced that this was good news for him — even as he knew what he must suffer.

What I do know is that Paul’s message is good news for me — it is good news for all of us. We are those who were far off, those who were excluded from God’s kingdom. Our ancestors are the people who were excluded because they were born in the wrong place. The good news that Paul brings us is that the Kingdom of God has no borders that we can draw on the map. No longer are any of us born in the wrong place, or the wrong parents; Jesus has a place for us.

Paul’s arrest and trials: Acts 21-25

Reading: Acts 21-25

What is often called “Paul’s third journey” is something that both needs read completely in one sitting, and also something that deserves to give individual attention to a number of the details. The details run from Paul’s return to Jerusalem until they end with Paul in Rome. Our Sunday School lesson has us studying some points that we can learn from, but it also leaves out important details that help us understand what is going on. Today, I will summarize the narrative.

During the second missionary journey, Paul brought some Greek Christians with him. When they got back to Jerusalem, there was a bit of a controversy, because there were rumors going around that Paul was teaching people to ignore the details of the law. James and other elders in the Christian community suggested that Paul go through a purification ritual, and sacrifice in the temple to demonstrate that he had not abandoned the customs of the Jews.

When Paul went to the Temple, he was recognized by Jews from Asia, and who also knew that he traveled with Greeks. These Jews from Asia accused Paul of defiling the Temple by bringing his Greek companions inside of the temple. Between the rumors that Paul was teaching people to abandon the law, the rumors that Paul brought Greeks into the temple, against the law, and the known facts that seem to support these rumors, a riot developed and people sought to kill Paul.

The Roman soldiers, needing to keep peace found a riot in progress, and Paul was in the center of it. Paul was, unsurprisingly arrested. Paul had a few words to say in his defense, but the mob was calling for Paul’s death. The officer in charge ordered Paul to be taken to the barracks, whipped, and interrogated. When Paul was tied up to be whipped, he pointed out to the centurion that he was a Roman citizen, and that it was illegal to beat a citizen who was not convicted of a crime.

The officer in charge of the occupying force was afraid because he ordered his forces to do something illegal, but he also still had to figure out what was going on, so he took Paul before the Sanhedrin and observed Paul’s trial before the local government. The officer listened to the members of the council arguing about the minutia of religion, and nothing that deserved punishment. Somebody informed the officer that there was a plot to kill Paul, and he already saw people trying to kill Paul in a public place, so he sent Paul to Caesarea where his case could be examined, and Paul could be protected.

Felix set up a hearing, and after a few days the chief priest, a prosecutor, and witnesses came to bring their charges. Felix ordered that Paul be held in Roman custody, but also that he be given a degree of liberty. Felix didn’t release Paul, because he did not want to offend Jewish leaders who accused Paul, but he also never convicted Paul of any crime. Paul remained in custody for two years before Felix was no longer governor and Festus replaced him.

When Festus became the new governor, representatives of the Sanhedrin requested that Paul be turned over to them so he could stand trial. Festus asked Paul if he was willing to do this, and Paul refused, appealing to the Emperor. Festus consulted with Herod Agrippa because nothing that the Sanhedrin accused Paul of was, in the eyes of Rome, crimes — and it seemed wrong to send a prisoner to Rome with no charges. Paul spoke to Agrippa offering his defense and telling about his conversion, and Agrippa reported back to Festus that Paul could be released if he had not demanded to see the Emperor.

At this point, Paul’s appeal to the Emperor has nothing to do with Paul’s crimes, but instead, it had to do with Paul’s grievances. Paul was, according to Acts, ordered to be beaten without being convicted of any crime, held for 2 years without being charged with a crime, and Acts 24:26 tells us that Felix sought a bribe from Paul.

One of the things that confused me the first times that I read Acts is why a prisoner such as Paul would have such good treatment when he was ferried to Rome; Romans are not known for their kindness to prisoners. When I realized that Paul was not the defendant, but the plaintiff in what was effectively a lawsuit it made much more sense. Paul had a valid complaint against the former governor, Felix. Paul was well treated in his journey to Rome because neither Festus nor the soldiers who took Paul to Rome wanted to be included in Paul’s complaint to the emperor.

Too often people talk about privilege like the word is an accusation, or that it means that nothing bad can happen, or if it is something to be ashamed of. Paul was very privileged; if the same thing happened to Peter or one of the other disciples the outcome would have been far different — another disciple could not have claimed the rights of a citizen to avoid being flogged without a conviction. Another disciple would not have been protected from the mob as Paul was protected from the mob. Another disciple’s grievances would not even be considered, let alone would another disciple have been allowed an audience with the Emperor himself.

Paul had privilege, and he used it. His privilege did not keep him from getting attacked by a mob, nor did it prevent the order to beat him without a trial, nor did it keep him from being falsely imprisoned. Paul’s privilege, however, prevented the unlawful beating with the mere words `I am a citizen’, it caused the Roman authorities to protect him from the local government rather than turning him over in order to improve relations with them, and it sent him to Rome, simply because he claimed the right to bring his case before the Emperor.

Paul used his privilege to continue to be a leader of the fledgling gentile Church; while he was in prison, he wrote letters, and these letters are an important part of our scripture. Paul also used his privilege to take himself to Rome, where he could talk with the Roman Christians. Between Paul’s trip to Rome and his audience with the Emperor, Paul was able to live in freedom, in a house that he personally paid for. On the trip, when the ship was damaged in the storm, Paul used his privilege to save the lives of the prisoners that he traveled with.

What I learn from this is that instead of arguing about who has which advantages, and which advantages are the most beneficial, it is better to use what I have for good. If we have any sense, we are not competing for who has the most interesting biography that tells the story of overcoming the most difficult odds. I would not wish an interesting biography on my worst enemy — those things that make an interesting read are quite unpleasant to live through. Paul had an unpleasantly interesting biography, and he also had many privileges that other Christian leaders did not have, these are not mutually exclusive.

The one thing that we must keep learning is community. We compare pains or argue about who has the most advantages because we want to compete with each other. It is too easy to always think about the individual without caring for the community. We need to think about things in terms of community and society rather than merely ourselves. Whatever privilege we have is something to share with those who don’t have it. If we have a voice, scripture teaches us that we are to speak for those who have none. This is what Paul did — he used his special voice to spread the gospel and defend not only himself but all those Christians whose voices would never be heard.

Acts 15:36-16 — Paul’s second Journey

Reading: Acts 15:36-16

Paul’s second missionary journey was a much bigger event than his first. The travelogue of it starts when Paul and Barnabas start planning it in Acts 15:36, and it continues through chapter 18, and following there are some longer accounts of what happened during the trip. We have no plans of going through the entire travelogue. I am guessing none of us has the knowledge of first century Asia and Europe to make reading the text nearly as helpful as looking at a map that clearly shows the route taken — I know that I get more out of looking at a map than reading a list of place-names.

A look at the map tells us several things: First: Unlike the first trip, Paul leaves Jerusalem, hits Damascus and Antioch, and then goes directly to his hometown, which is a place that he missed on his first journey. The second thing that we see is that this is a much bigger trip than the first one taking Paul all the way to Europe, as he goes through modern-day Greece. Another thing that we should see, looking at the map, is city and province names that match Paul’s epistles such as Philippians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians. — this trip is something that we could either rush over with a brief introduction, or we could give each stop its own day and stay in Acts for the rest of the year. I’m going to follow the choice our Sunday School material did, and go with the quick introduction, skipping most of the travelogue.

I’m going to start off with a quick overview of the first missionary journey. The first missionary journey followed a revelation to the Church of Antioch that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews. A committee appointed Paul and Barnabas to travel to modern-day Turkey and to the island of Cyprus. Paul and Barnabas took a young man, John Mark to accompany them on their journey, but he abandoned the mission right after leaving Cyprus and landing in Asia Minor. Paul and Barnabas continued on their missionary journey until they were mistaken for gods, and then stoned as soon as the crowds were convinced that they were not gods.

After Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, there was a bit of a controversy about what to do with the Gentile Christians. The church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch were not united in what was necessary to join the church, so they had a multi-church business meeting where they discussed what needed to be done with the Gentile Christians. The result of this meeting was an affirmation of Gentile Christianity, allowing for a great expansion of Christianity.

Here is where today’s reading starts; in the words immediately after the epistle telling about the decision, Paul and Barnabas start talking about making a second trip to visit to visit the places where they went in their first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas get in an argument because Barnabas wants to take John Mark, and Paul does not. The result of the argument is that Barnabas travels with Mark and Paul travels with Silas.

Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, where the first missionary journey began, and if you recall his hometown. Unfortunately, Acts does not tell me anything about the journey of Barnabas and Mark. I can’t tell you what happened after Barnabas left, beyond tradition has mentioned Barnabas visiting Rome and Alexandria, suggesting that he might have journeyed as far as Paul did, and it also says that he was martyred in Cyprus, which makes sense if he settled there.

Paul took Silas, who carried the letter from Jerusalem to Antioch, and they ministered first in Syria and Paul’s home province of Cilicia. When they went to Lystra in the province of Galatia they picked up Timothy, and they ministered `from town to town.’ and eventually Paul had a vision calling him to go all the way to Macedonia, which is part of what we now call Greece, and he even made it to Athens. Paul’s second missionary journey brought Christianity to Europe.

This trip covered over 2500 miles, one way, and it is believed to have taken seven years. While Paul is traveling, he writes a number of epistles, including I Thessalonians, he corresponded with the church in Corinth, he wrote Galatians, and he wrote an epistle to the Romans, telling them that he hoped to make it all the way to Rome. In the first journey, Paul and Barnabas went to places relatively close to their own homes — this second journey would be quite the expedition even with modern technology, in the second journey Paul felt called west, and he went much further than I would have imagined possible — and he felt called to go even further west.

This story of Paul Silas and Timothy going halfway to the end of the Earth, along with Barnabas and Mark’s departure for their own untold adventure is epic. The part of Acts that follows Acts 15 is something that we can reference when we study the Epistles so we can get a bit of the narrative related to the epistle. What we are studying now is the context of Paul’s letters.

Instead of trying to expand the travelogue until it is a book, where every stop forms its own chapter, I think I’ll step back and reflect on the lessons that I learn from the story that has unfolded from the beginning of Acts to this point. I will start by observing that we are now in the part of Acts where the church is obeying the great commission, and bringing the gospel to the ends of the Earth. Let us consider what it for this obedience to happen.

After Pentecost, the disciples were perfectly content to stay in Jerusalem, and it took persecution for them to leave, fortunately, because of persecution they took the gospel to places such as Antioch and Damascus, and other places with a significant Jewish population. It took almost two decades before there was a deliberate, planned missionary journey — and that planned missionary journey was followed by extreme controversy. The church in Jerusalem and the Church in Antioch had a significantly different vision.

The difference in mission led to a joint business meeting between the Jerusalem and Antioch churches. A decision was made that made it clear that there was a place for Gentile Christianity, and by extension a special mission to the Gentile. What Acts does not tell us about is something that we see in Paul’s letters — a business meeting is not the end of the argument. Most of Paul’s letters mention the people who travel to Christian communities and try to tell them that they need to be circumcised and stop eating pork even though there was an agreement that none of this was necessary. The only way I can describe this is that there was a church split between those who accepted the results of the business meeting and those who did not.

When Jesus told His disciples to go to the ends of the Earth making disciples, it didn’t come easy. It took persecution to get out of Jerusalem. It took God miraculously showing himself both to church leaders, and an outsider who would devote his life to the mission, it took heated arguments, hurt feelings and even a church split.

It seems like everything that drove the church to take its mission more seriously was something that one would think of as a major threat or a bad sign. The thing I take away from this is that God was working with the church, even when they felt like they would be destroyed from the outside. God was working with the church, even when they were too consumed with prejudice to even think about obeying Christ’s commands to bring the gospel to the world. God worked with the church when they fought to the point of breaking relationships and church unity. To quote Paul, Christ is faithful to the church, even when the people of the church are faithless.

Another thing that I take away from this is that Christ kept meeting the church where it was at. When the church was founded, it took them almost two decades before they were ready to accept that Jesus really meant the ends of the Earth. Acts show us a series of crisis points where the church accepted a wider mission than they had before, and they expanded their vision. There was a push to go forward, but nobody was called to Athens in the first few years after the Pentecost. This is a lesson that is hard for me; you see I’m impatient. I want everybody to be ready for heaven now, live a life defined by love, and eager to preach the gospel throughout the world and accept those who profess Christianity as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, I know I am one of the people from the ends of the Earth. The bulk of my ancestry were the barbarians who lived on the edges of the Roman empire; many of them lived in places outside the control of the Empire. I have friends who come from even more distant places than my ancestors did. I am perfectly aware that the Gospel has been heard even in the ends of the Earth. My ancestors lived on the edges, and even outside the Roman world — my wife’s ancestors lived in a place the Romans didn’t know existed; we’re doing pretty good at that one now.

We are not much better, however, at living out Christ commandment to love one another than Peter and Paul were.  We are not much better at being gracious, or forgiving than leaders in the early church.  The good news is that God does not ask us to be perfect before we can serve God.  God meets us where we are at, and leads us into obedience as we grow in Christ.  I see Good News in how Paul was both faithful, and yet at times ungracious.  They were not yet perfect, even as we are not yet perfect — but God kept leading them forward, showing them a more complete vision.  It is good news that God keeps working with us and challenging us to grow as well.

Romans 12-13 Church and State

Reading: Romans 12:8-13:14

On Monday and Tuesday, the Southern Baptists held their annual convention and passed a resolution on migrant children being separated from their parents. On Wednesday, the Catholic bishops issued a very similar statement. On Thursday, Jeff Sessions spoke at Fort Wayne Indiana, and spend a good deal of his time offering a rebuttal to these statements based on a few verses in Romans 13. I don’t appreciate government officials arguing that our faith needs altering to fit the political needs of our government.

Of course, these statements and the rebuttal didn’t come out of nowhere. In May, Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy that would separate children from their parents. Since the beginning of May 2000 children have been taken away. Right now we have over 10,000 children in custody, and the few reports we have of the conditions that these children are held in telling us that it is unacceptable. There really isn’t enough information, to tell details but there is enough to know that this is deliberate cruelty.

Unwarranted family separation is traumatic to both children and their parents. Last week, I heard the story of Marco Antonio Muñoz who died in custody on May 13. This was a father who entered in the US at a place where people often come to ask for Asylum. When he and his wife came, they were separated from their 3-year-old child and the family was broken up and detained. He was distraught, as you might imagine, he was considered an unruly prisoner, and we are told that he committed suicide while in custody. Remember, it is not illegal to ask for asylum. This family was broken up, and a distressed father died over something that is completely legal.

This is father’s day, and because two thousand children were taken due to an arbitrary decision, hundreds of fathers are facing the same distress that Marco Antonio faced. Nobody makes the decision to leave home and start a new life in a new country lightly. People leave because they are desperate to find a place that is safe for their kids. We have rules that allow people to ask for a safe place to live for a reason and, what we are looking at is children being used as a weapon to punish parents for asking.

I was not surprised by these statements, nor was I surprised that they made the news. There are about 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States, and over 1 in 5 Americans are Catholic. Such religious groups are large enough that whenever they make statements, the statements make the news. I was deeply surprised, however, when Jeff Sessions decided to offer a rebuttal to “our church friends”, where he cited scripture and attempted to argue against these statements. I am deeply concerned that a government authority felt it was necessary to critique the theological views of Church leaders and suggest that we interpret scripture differently. Specifically, he suggested that Romans 13:1-7 means that we are to support what the government does as God’s will, because God ordained the government, and he recommends that churches support his policy.

An attorney General has broad authority to direct federal law enforcement policy, but zero authority to talk about church teaching. He has no standing to tell us that the positions of our Church are unbiblical, but the challenge is made. Jeff Sessions, speaking in the role of Attorney General, found a passage of scripture where Paul tells us to obey the government because the government does God’s work. Because of this, we must struggle with the question of which interpretation is valid: that of Christian scholars or a government official. Does Romans 13 mean that what the government does is God’s will and it is the place of the Christian to accept it, and not to criticize it?

The belief that Christians should always support the actions of the government is antithetical to the stories that we tell each other. One example I grew up with is the story published in Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place which tells the story of a family who felt that a law was unjust, and so they built a hidden room where they hid people who were illegally evading arrest and they helped them escape the government. The Ten Boom family was eventually caught, arrested, and most of them died in a prison camp. Corrie ten Boon survived and traveled the world telling the story about how they worked to save Jews from the Nazis, she wrote a book in 1971 that sold 6 million copies before a movie was released in 1975.

If we accept that Romans 13 means that what the government does is God’s will, and the church has no right to criticize, then we believe that Corrie ten Boom was disobedient to God when she and her family saved Jews from the Nazis. Everybody I know celebrates the courage of the ten Boon family. I was privileged to go to her house in Harlaam Netherlands, and to see the secret room where Jews were hidden. I know we don’t believe that Romans 13 means that what the Nazis did was God’s will because I hear Christians celebrating Corrie ten Boom.

If we look back in our own history, we see that we don’t believe that everything the government does is right. I’m sure that everybody knows the name Levi Coffin. Levi Coffin, like Corrie ten Boom worked to smuggle people to safety against the laws of the government. Coffin was part of the network of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find freedom and safety in Canada, and in his memoir, he estimates that he helped about 3000 people escape and that he never heard of any who passed through his home being caught. The Levi Coffin house is now a museum that is less than an hour’s drive from us; so if anybody wants to see what it looks like to hide fugitives from an oppressive government, we can go to the Coffin house in Fountain City.

Christian history does not allow us to interpret Romans 13 as God’s blank check to the government. Our heritage is one of being an illegal people. If we look at Quaker history, Friends are one of the groups that might be described as a free church. Free churches are all denominational groups who rejected the idea of a state church. Governments passed laws banning free churches from meeting. Attending a Baptist, or a Quaker or a Mennonite church was, in much of Europe illegal. Quakers and other nonconformists were imprisoned and even killed both in the old world and the new world because of laws that established a state church and forbid other denominations. The very existence of our church depends on an interpretation of Romans 13, other than blind obedience to the government.

If I go back further in Christian history to the time when the Bible was being written, I see some other issues. The first issue I see is Acts 5, where Peter is commanded to stop speaking by the authorities. Peter did not say: “I must obey men rather than God”, but instead he continued to preach and face arrest. The Christian message was only spread through disobedience to authorities.

As Christianity spread, there were several laws that they habitually broke. Laws were passed that forbid them to meet together, but they met together and scripture commands that they do not forsake meeting together. Laws were passed that required Christians to sacrifice to Caesar, and say Caesar is Lord — Christians refused, and those who would not refuse were kicked out of the church. Laws were passed calling on people to take part in community life, including civil sacrifice and idol worship — Christians refused to take part, disobeying the law. If Romans 13 were interpreted to mean that we support the government in all things, there would be no Christianity anywhere. All Christians have the heritage of being an illegal people, and we should remember when we were illegals.

Finally, consider the context of Romans itself. Romans 13:1-7 is not isolated, but comes in a section of scripture that talks about Christian’s relationship with society. This section includes Romans 12 as well as Romans 13. The argument that what the government does is God’s will, and should not be questioned by Christians depends on reading Romans 13:1-7 in isolation of their context. Even if we do not know not remember the audience of the book were an illegal people in Nero’s Rome, we see that the words preceding and following what was quoted leave no room for blindly following governments.

Romans 12 begins by telling us not to be conformed to this world. Paul is not telling the Christians to be good Romans who treat Nero’s every word as God’s law, he is calling them to non-conformity. The rest of chapter 12 talks about compassion and humility. The last part of chapter 12 gives many quotes from the sermon on the mount, ending with the words:

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 NRSV)

Romans 13 continues to give a hint to the limits of the command to obey the government immediately after the section that is quoted. Paul moves from talking about why we should pay taxes and respect the authority of governing authorities to quoting Jesus saying:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

We are not called to conform, nor to let the world tell us what is right. It is true that we are called to pay our taxes, but above that we are called to live according to the law of love, to take care of those who need help (including enemies) and to do nothing to harm our neighbors. You need to stop reading at the correct place or you realize that Paul does not recognize the legitimacy of laws that require harming another person. Is it loving to rip children from parents who committed no crime but simply came to ask for refuge? In Romans 12 Christians are called to offer hospitality to those who need it. Does this policy harm a neighbor, yes it harms a neighbor. By Paul’s logic, by our nation’s laws, and by all that is right in the world, what is being done is illegal.

What are we to do? What Paul wrote at the end of Romans 13 is good advice, and I will end my message with the words of scripture:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in day, not reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV)

Acts 13-14 — Committees

Reading: Acts 13-14

The first twelve chapters of Acts are very different than what we generally experience — everything was unplanned. While Jesus gave the disciples the great commission, there was no plan to fulfill it, people just went where fate put them and they said and did what came to them. The Holy Spirit was active, and everything was exciting — but it seemed like it took an act of the Holy Spirit to get people to take what Jesus taught and commanded them seriously.

Suddenly, we are getting to something that paints a very different picture. Acts 13, 14, and later 15 shows us a picture of something that we are far more familiar with, committee meetings and business meetings. After seeing God giving visions to Peter to tell him where to preach next, it seems rather pedestrian to see something planned by committee; there is a part of me that wonders what happened to the spectacular miracles and visions. Another part of me realizes that it took a miracle for Peter to preach the Gospel to the gentiles — but, now that the miracle happened, the walls were torn down and people were acting according to the new reality.

Acts 13 begins with the Antioch church forming a missions board so that they can send out an expedition. One thing that stands out about this missions board is that they are not the refugees who escaped from Jerusalem; they are instead an international community that somehow settled in Alexandria independently of the persecution that spread Christianity to the city. This committee was a Cosmopolitan committee; its members were not provincial but were citizens of the world. Simeon and Lucius were Africans, possibly both from Cyrene which is in modern-day Libya. Barnabas, in spite of his Aramaic name, was from the Greek Island of Cyprus. Manaen was a member of Herod’s court and was a trusted friend of Herod Antipas since his childhood, and of course, Saul of Tarsus was from a Roman city in Asia Minor which is modern day Turkey.

The committee chose two of its members, Paul and Barnabas, who were especially qualified for this trip — the trip was a trip to their homelands, Cyprus and Asia Minor. They chose two people who lived their entire lives with one foot in the Jewish world, and another foot in the Greek world. Paul not only grew up in a Greek culture, but he was born in a Roman colony and enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship. Paul and Barnabas were fluent in the language and thoughts of the Greeks, and also fluent in the language and thoughts of the Jews.

The trip was also somewhat successful — the proconsul of Cyprus wanted to hear what Paul and Barnabas had to say, and Acts 13:12 tells us that he believed. When they went to Asia Minor, they were invited to preach at the synagogue after the reading of the law and prophets — and when they preached the resurrection of Christ they were invited to preach again the following week. The second week, they were not as well received at the synagogue, but they very deliberately preached the Gospel among the Gentiles and had a number of conversions.

The trip, however, ended badly. In Lystra, they healed a lame man, and the people thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods; they decided that Barnabas must be Zeus, the king of the gods and that Paul must be Hermes, the divine messenger. A priest of Zeus prepared offerings to sacrifice in the honor of Barnabas/Zeus, and of course Paul and Barnabas did everything in their power to communicate that there were men, not gods. Eventually, the Jewish community managed to convince the Lystrans that these were men, so the crowds responded to this revelation by throwing rocks at them until they were convinced that they had killed them; after this, they returned home.

 

What stands out to me is that this is what we might call the birth of the institutional church. I know that people groan at committees and business meetings, and we don’t see them as exciting, but God’s work can happen in church meetings. I know that we often look at the work of the Spirit, and the work of institutions as going against each other — but, Acts reminds me that institutions are powerful. One man with a vision is limited by what that single man can do. Institutions pool resources and share the work. Institutions make missionary efforts possible, they make church plantings possible, they make it possible to build a support network, they make relief and long-term charitable efforts possible. I know there are people who don’t much like organized religion, nor the work of organizing — but, I’ve started to notice that there isn’t really non-organized religion so much as poorly organized religion. Everything that the Church does and everything the church is called to do requires organization — the mission of the church is the mission of an assembly of people, not the mission of individuals. Without committees, there are no church plants, no hospitals, no schools, no food banks nor soup kitchens nor missions. All of these things are too big for an individual with a calling and a vision.

I know that we glamorize Paul and Barnabas, who actually went, but we should not forget that the background work that made this trip possible was done by the whole committee: Simeon, Lucius, and Manaen were all involved in this work, even though they did not make the trip themselves. As difficult as it is to get excited about committee meetings, they are important. Without committees, those things that are too hard for one person don’t get done.