James and Paul play politics

Reading: Acts 21-23

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned my dislike for church politics. Specifically, I compared what happened in the Acts 15 Business meeting with what what really happened; specifically, the people who wanted the business meeting to go differently basically ignored the results.

Paul’s plan for his second missionary journey was, as you recall, to encourage the new Christians, and to let everybody know the results of the meeting. The second journey was quite successful, as long as we don’t judge it according to the original goals. Paul left with one set of plans, and God had another plan.

In the passages we miss, Paul finishes his second journey successfully, returns to Jerusalem, and then he leaves on his third missionary journey, and our Sunday School lesson started with him back in Jerusalem for the last time. We skip forward likely about 8 years — and what our Sunday School book skips is largely a travelogue, but there are some things that I want to mention.

First thing I want to mention is that at this Paul went to Jerusalem knowing that this would be the last time he’d go back home. Acts tells me that the Holy Spirit let Paul know what was coming, that when he returned, he would be arrested. Paul went back to Jerusalem with his eyes wide open.

Second thing I want to mention is that the Gentile church, by this time, was established. Paul had a special meeting with the leaders of the Ephesian church where he said his goodbyes to them, and there were many tears as Paul went to the boat sailing in the direction of Jerusalem. After a couple layovers, Paul landed in the Phoenician city of Tyre, which is in modern day Lebanon.

Paul spent a week with the Christian community in Phoenicia; and members of this community warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem, but Paul continued his journey, stopping at Caesarea where he stayed at Philip’s house. While he was at Philip’s house, the prophet Agabus prophesied that Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the gentiles. Again, the Christian community begged him not to go but Paul replied:

What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:13-14 NRSV)

When Paul made it to Jerusalem, he was welcomed back, but in the morning he faced a meeting with James and the church leaders over those parking lot discussions, and how to deal with them. Yes, the church leadership was happy about how successful Paul’s ministry was — by this time, there was a well established Gentile church in what we now call Turkey. New leaders were trained, and the church was expanding in a way that it had never expanded before. James and the church leaders praised God for this good news.

James however related to Paul that there were thousands of people who were angry about Paul’s ministry to the gentiles. In the years that passed, those parking lot conversations became a real problem. They spread rumors about Paul, saying that he taught Jews to forsake the law of Moses, to ignore their customs and to stop circumcising their children. James suggested a political gesture: Join, and sponsor 4 men who were taking a vow — most likely a vow not to drink wine, or cut their hair, or come in contact with a grave, a corpse, or a structure where there is a dead body for a month. James felt that this assurance that Paul was not against Jewish customs, along with the decision of the joint business meeting years ago would be enough to calm down the situation that was threatening the unity of the church.

I don’t know how many of you have tried to make other people happy; it really doesn’t work if those people don’t want to be happy. James was asking Paul to do all the compromising, hoping that the people who complained because they were afraid of change would stop complaining. I’ve never seen this strategy work; there are some people who are never going to be happy no matter what you do — and, the people who say nothing in business meeting, but spend the following decade complaining about the results in the parking lot are clearly people who are never going to be impressed by a gesture.

Part of the process of taking this vow was to spend a purification week visiting the temple, and going through ceremonies. During this week, instead of being impressed with Paul’s devotion and commitment to customs, he was accused of defiling the temple, and bringing his Greek traveling companions into the temple. This accusation caused a riot — Paul tried speaking to the crowd, but the crowd was determined to kill him. The result of this is that he was arrested by the Roman authorities and was ordered to be “examined by flogging.” When Paul was tied up, pointed out that this was a violation of his rights under Roman law, a citizen cannot be flogged unless found guilty of a crime. The result of this was that the soldiers, especially the tribune who ordered the flogging, were a bit afraid because they mistreated a citizen.

The tribune then called the Sanhedrin to have them examine Paul, because he was curious why there was a riot surrounding a Roman Citizen. When Paul was put in front of the Sanhedrin, he recognized that he would be able to use politics to his advantage, and professed that he was a Pharisee, and the core reason for all of this was that he had hope in the Resurrection of the dead. This distracted the council, and they ended up arguing about what happens after death. This argument got so heated that the tribune decided to return him to the barracks.

There were people in Jerusalem who wanted Paul dead so much that 40 men swore they would not eat or drink until Paul died. They planned to kill him on his way to the Sanhedrin. Paul’s nephew heard about this conspiracy, and managed to visit Paul and tell him this. Paul told his nephew to tell the Roman authorities, and the tribune heard this message and the boy not to repeat this to anybody.

The tribune, Claudius, sent a report of what happened to the governor Felix and sent Paul to Caesarea. Granted, this report did not mention that he bound Paul, nor that he was going to have him flogged — but instead that Paul was a Roman citizen who was about to be killed by a mob; the local authorities held a hearing, and the man wasn’t guilty of anything deserving death or imprisonment, but there was a plot to kill him.

Felix held Paul in custody and promised to try him when his accusers arrived. They held a hearing, and just like the tribune listening to the Sanhedrin, Felix also heard nothing to accuse Paul of. Felix, however, ordered that Paul be detained — even though there were not even charges to hold him; he did this hoping that the people who wanted Paul out of their lives would appreciate him being held. He also tried to get Paul, or Paul’s friends to bribe him. Felix held Paul, illegally, without him being charged of any crime, for two years.

Everything that happened in this Jerusalem trip was about politics — those people in the parking lot complaining managed to cause real problems. They formed a mob, they convinced James to call for concessions. They even convinced the Roman governor to illegally imprison a Roman citizen, hoping it would make them happy. If I take any lesson from this, it is to ignore the parking lot discussions; no good can come from that sort of politics. There is nothing you can do to make the grumblers happy; this is why I hate politics — so much of it is about appeasing people who refuse to be satisfied. In the case of Paul, there is no compromise with people who want him dead.

Another lesson though is one that I can take from Paul’s attitude. Paul had a pretty good idea what would happen before he entered Jerusalem. Paul was ready to accept what would happen before it happened. When Paul was being held, he used the time to write. He didn’t give up, he didn’t lose hope, and what he wrote while imprisoned shaped Christianity; and still shapes our faith.

One final lesson that I offer is one that I can’t take from the story, but I can take from history. 8 years after the business meeting the issue was still not resolved. If anything, the issue escalated — those who were not happy about Gentile Christianity definitely were not happy about it growing, and there being a major new Christian center in a Gentile community rather than the original issue with Gentile Christians joining a Refugee Jewish-Christian community.

In a dozen years, Jerusalem would fall. Jerusalem would move from being seen as the mother church to eventually becoming an honorary appointment for Greek bishops. I would say, just from reading Acts, that Antioch was already more important than Jerusalem. As much trouble as those who grumbled against God’s vision of the church caused, their fight against change and against God was fruitless. The church has spread to the ends of the Earth — we live in the Ends of the Earth. Our Lord’s last instructions were to make His church global, and Christ’s church is global. Yes, in the short, and even in the medium term the grumblers were destructive, but, in the long term the Church thrived.

This last lesson is especially important to me because I sometimes feel like I’m living in this Jerusalem church, filled with people who oppose God’s call because it asks them to be uncomfortable or to accept change. God’s global mission excites me, and I love to see people with different customs than my own praying to God in languages I don’t know. When I hear my friend Jared, a pastor in Kansas City, talking about the refugees from the Congo who now make up half of his congregation, I am excited about the potential of the future of the church. Sometimes, I’m afraid that our self imposed isolation will kill us — but, I find much hope when I am reminded that many embrace Jesus’ vision for the church. The Jerusalem church faded into obscurity; and it deserved its fate, but Christianity became global. Christianity is alive, and it has a message that the world needs to hear — ourselves included, but sometimes what Jesus teaches us makes us uncomfortable. We have a choice, listen to Jesus or seek our own comfort. The good news is, the gospel wins out in the end; whether we work for it or against it.

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Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark

Reading: Acts 15:36-41

As you recall, Paul’s first missionary journey did not go as planned; not only did they have trouble that seemed to follow them wherever they went, but one of the team members, John Mark, abandoned the mission and went home. I have to say, I have a lot of respect for Paul and Barnabas — if I had the same experiences they did, I don’t think I’d be eager to do it again.

When they plan the second trip, John Mark wants to go again Paul wants to say no, and Barnabas wants to say yes. The result of the disagreement between the two is that Barnabas and Paul go on different trips, Barnabas taking John Mark with him while Paul takes Silas.

One thing that I’m going to observe is that Barnabas was right about John Mark. I know that Barnabas was right because tradition tells us that this is the same Mark that Paul mentioned in his epistles; and considering that Paul asked for Mark to come to Rome, because he would be a great help tells me that as Mark developed, Paul’s opinion of him changed as well.

Tradition further tells us that John Mark became a companion to Peter. Second century tradition tells us that John Mark served as Peter’s interpreter, and thus knew Peter’s preaching and teaching intimately. If this sounds like something you heard me say before, it is because tradition holds that John Mark wrote the gospel of Mark based on Peter’s teaching.

Barnabas was right about Mark — he was right that it was worthwhile to invest time and energy in this young man, even if his first expedition did not go well, and even if Mark didn’t live up to expectations. Mark became one of the most influential Christians of his time — and is still deeply influential now. The investment that Barnabas put into Mark paid off greatly; can we imagine Peter without his interpreter, or our Bibles without the gospel according to Mark?

Oddly enough, just because Barnabas was right does not mean that Paul was wrong. Mark’s performance in the last journey was disappointing, and there really was nothing to suggest that this trip would be any easier or better. Paul had a reason for his decision that made sense; and I have no reason to second guess Paul’s reasoning. Sometimes it is possible to make two very different decisions without having a mistake in your reasoning. It is certain that Mark was not yet the person he would later become — and it is likely that Paul made his decision based on where Mark was currently while Barnabas made his decision based on Mark’s potential. Just because Barnabas made the right choice to invest in Mark does not mean that Paul made the wrong choice.

As I don’t know what was in Paul’s heart, I don’t know if Paul was surprised to see how Mark changed as he matured in his life and faith. All I know is that Barnabas was right, in the long term even though everything that was visible at the time said that Paul made the right choice; and we can learn from that.

People grow and they change. Mark ran away the first time he traveled — but, Mark changed; he became Peter’s right hand man, and the man that Paul wanted to help him when he was in Rome; Mark not only failed on his first missionary trip, but he gave up. He became somebody who helped shape Christianity worldwide by writing down the story of Jesus. Failures happen, but they are not fatal, and they don’t need to be the primary story of life.

This lesson is important to all of us — it is important to those of use who had moments where we tried something that was above our ability, and we failed — or those of us who chose to do something that scared us, and we didn’t quite carry through. Our failures do not need to define us; we learn new things from our experience, many people learn to do things that once scared them. I’ve even had a friend who learned empathy because he had experiences he thought he would never have.

It is easy to give up on ourselves, and it is easy to give up on others. Our faith teaches another way. I am sure that all of us remember the parable of the weeds, found in Matthew 13, where a man’s garden is filled not only with grain but with weeds, because an enemy sowed the field with weeds. The owner of the field instructs the workers to let the weeds grow with the wheat, and to sort it out at harvest time — because the wheat would be pulled out with the weeds.

When I was at ESR, one of my schoolmates, Abbey Pratt-Harrington, made an observation about this parable: many of us want to “weed” God’s garden — and we really are not very good at knowing weeds from wheat. She spoke of how much she loved the yellow and purple flowers that grew in the grass, and how it distressed her younger self that adults wanted to rip out all of the flowers. I know that in the parable, there really were weeds, but the owner was concerned the workers would pull out the wheat; but, that is part of the issue — we are not always good at telling the difference.

Augustine, in a sermon on this same parable made another point that we all should remember; God is a God of miracles who is perfectly able to make weeds into wheat. Saul, who persecuted the church, was by all accounts one of the weediest weeds that grew in the garden. God met him on the road to Damascus, and worked a miracle in his life changing him from weed to wheat. As I said before, I don’t know what was in Paul’s heart when he and Barnabas fought over whether or not to take John Mark. If Paul saw Mark as immature, all evidence points to him being right. If Paul dismissed Mark, and saw no potential for God to work in Mark’s life, Paul was very wrong. If Paul was wrong, he failed to recognize that could work little miracles in Mark’s life just as easily as God could work big miracles in his own life.

This is Good New for all of us. We are not defined by our failure, nor are we defined by our sin. We can grow and change, and God can save us from our sin. Even if somebody points and says: “weed”, it is very possible that when harvest comes, we find wheat instead, because God is a God of miracles, both big and small.

Acts 15: The church goes global

Reading: Acts 15:1-29

One weird thing about me is that I hate church politics, but I love business meetings. One would think that these two are so married together that they cannot be separated, but the feelings I have for each are somehow differentiated. I guess the best way to describe it is to look at what we’ve gained through business meetings: Business meetings have given us Bible translations, hymnals, missionaries, the very churches where we worship. Business meetings continue to maintain a structure that allows ministry to continue, and seeks to keep both ministers and congregations safe from abuse. If I go back far enough, there were even business meetings that put together the first official Christian Bible; granted, it looked a whole lot like the unofficial ones, but there is something special about something being reviewed, prayed over, and authorized.

Acts 15 isn’t the first business meeting; the first one would be in Acts 1 when they appointed a new officer. It is not even the second business meeting, as there was a meeting held in Antioch that decided to send Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey — it was a short meeting, somebody felt the community was called to send missionaries, and they sent them. Actually, it was that decision made in Antioch that made the meeting in Jerusalem necessary.

Lets walk through what led to the Acts 15 meeting — basically, the church at Jerusalem and the church at Antioch had differing visions for the future of Christianity. It is fair to say that the church in Jerusalem had no missionary vision. They were perfectly happy to be followers of the teachings of Rabbi Jesus, and to be a sect of the Jewish faith. They grew, but it took persecution for them to spread. Refugees who fled Judea settled settled in Antioch and established a church there and the two major churches developed separately.

When it comes to development, all focus of the book of Acts transfers to Antioch. The first major development in Antioch is that they bring Gentiles into the church. The next thing that happens is that they feel a call to missions, and send missionaries into Greek territory, preaching the gospel both to those Jews who were scattered in Greek lands and also to the Greeks. Some of the places, they only preached to the Gentiles, because there was not a local synagogue. Antioch already had an global vision for Christianity, while Jerusalem’s view was local — this caused conflict, because some in Jerusalem were afraid that Christianity was starting to look very different from them.

You know the church politics that I said I hate — those politics are there. The cause for calling this joint meeting between the two major church communities is that some people in Jerusalem want Antioch’s missionary activity stopped. They don’t want to bring in new people who didn’t look like them, or talk with them, and had different customs than they did; they liked the church the way it was, in Jerusalem. There is this idea that maybe, Jerusalem has the authority to put a stop to this offense.

So, there is a concern, and there is a business meeting where the two churches discuss this concern; and they discussed Jerusalem’s proposed requirement that in order to become a member of the Christian community, one must first become a Jew; something that would discourage and test the determination of any man.

Acts 15 is unique in that it record everything that one can expect to see recorded: It records the initial concern (We can’t have Gentile Christians), the opinions from the debate that most shaped the final opinion and the decision, along with how that decision will be transmitted to the other churches.

The decision must have been a relief for the Christian community at Antioch, as the decision was to allow Gentile Christians. When that minute was written, Christianity decided to be global, and not confined to one people — and as a person who’s ancestors were mostly Barbarians in the ends of the known world I am grateful for Acts 15. Because of what was decided in Acts 15, Paul’s writings in Ephesians 2 ring true:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:11-14 NRSV)

Of course, while I’m the winner, this business meeting had losers — remember the Pharisee Christians who wanted this meeting to put its foot down and discipline Antioch? They had a meeting called to take care of a problem, and the meeting decided it wasn’t a problem; they lost in the biggest way possible. Do you think that they accepted the decision? Reading Paul’s epistles, we see that they did not — they traveled throughout the world to stand against the evangelizing of Gentiles telling them that they are not welcome in the community unless they are circumcised and become Jews. They leave the place where they were comfortable to try and stop the church from changing into something global; they fight God’s work, and they fight the church.

This is what I mean when I say that I love business meetings, but hate church politics. Business meetings, at their best, are a time when we seek to discern God’s will together; and when we feel we know what is right we do it. Business meetings allow us to work together, they allow us to share our vision with each other, they allow us to be the church. Church politics, at its worst, is what these Pharisees did — they tried to reduce the church to one little place where they feel comfortable, and exclude the rest of the world. When the church unified behind a vision to change the world, these people fought hard to defeat the vision; they fought against God to remain comfortable.

Business meetings are commonplace — and most often they are about mundane things where the decision dose not matter so much as doing something. The majority of what we do needs no divine guidance — but it does need kindness, cooperation, and a degree of unity. Many people who dislike business meetings think of them as long arguments about what color the carpet should be; and at worst, they can become that. But, from time to time these meetings cement a new shared vision. From time to time we hear God’s call, and we discern together our vision for accomplishing our mission to the world.

Church politics, in the sense of those Pharisees who wanted to keep the church in Jerusalem, are also commonplace. Sometimes our business meetings are called out of a malicious spirit. Sometimes when something is already decided, those who didn’t like the decision do their best to work against it. The church isn’t perfect, it never was — we’ve got human problems. I see these human problems every day. I know God is working, I know Christ’s mission remains global — I know God still tears down the walls that once divided us to make us one body of Christ, one family — and I know we still have people who work hard to rebuild those walls that Christ tore down.

We all need to take our business meetings as a spiritual practice, and truly seek to discern God’s will together. It is a Holy exercise, and we need to respect that if we are going to discern something more important than that it is time to install new carpet.

We also need to make sure that we are not putting our own agendas ahead of God’s work. Each individual needs to be careful not to be the Pharisee traveling around the known world trying to undo the work of the missionaries, so that things can return to the way they were when the church was just at Jerusalem. God’s work cannot be undone so easily — when these people who rejected God’s call to evangelize the whole world died, their cause died with them — but the missionary vision was still there, now enshrined in scripture.

And, for those of us who are demoralized — because when we see people destroying the work of the church it is demoralizing. I know I have felt demoralized from time to time; but I also know that I have hope. The good thing about being a lover of history is that I know what happened before, and I know that we are still here. What has never broken us or defeated us in the past isn’t likely to do so now, even in those moments where we feel helpless. God helped those who went before us, and God is able and willing to help us as well. Lets keep tearing down those wall, and continue to work to achieve our mission — that the Good News be heard and known everywhere and that the church will be bigger than just our one comfortable community.

Acts 8: Persecution and Growth

Reading: Acts 8:1-25

Last week, we talked about persecution. I know it is something we are thinking about these days when we see shootings in the news on a weekly basis, and the world is still shocked at the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka where the churches are still closed; one thing that stands out to me is that there is a number of ways that people can be persecuted. One thing I see when I read Acts is that when a government decides to persecute, it can be severe, or it can be quite mild.

Last week, we read from Acts 4, where the disciples were arrested for preaching Christ’s Resurrection, and they were ordered not to speak that name or mention the Resurrection again. The disciples refused, but were released anyways. The authorities had a meeting where they discussed how to address this situation and they took a pragmatic approach: They recognized that harsh persecution would be unpopular and would accomplish little, so they let the disciples go with threats they were not willing to carry out.

In Acts 8, the situation is different. Our Sunday school reading starts as soon as Stephen was executed by stoning; this scene introduces Saul to us, telling us that he approved of this execution — and it continues by telling us that this was the start of a great persecution. In this great persecution, Saul did more than approve, he had an active role. When the persecution picked up in Judea, the small Christian community responded by fleeing to neighboring provinces such as Samaria, Syria, Egypt, and others. The persecution at this point was such that they would not allow refugees to flee to safety, Saul would force their extradition and they would be executed in Jerusalem.

One thing that stands out when I read Acts is that it took a great persecution before going out to Samaria, let alone the ends of the Earth, was mentioned. One of the last commands Jesus gave to his disciples is that they go into the world, not only to Jerusalem and Judea, but also to Samaria and to the ends of the world. A night in jail and a flogging was not enough to get the early church to do what they were called to do — it took severe persecution to drive them out of Jerusalem and into the world.

Another thing that stands out is that Acts 8:4 tells us that those scattered preached the Word wherever they went. The passage immediately tells of Philip preaching in Samaria, and the following chapter, which talks about Saul’s conversion, has him going up to Syria to extradite those refugee Christians who went there to escape death; without this persecution, there is no reason to believe that there would have been a strong Christian community in Antioch — which is where Christians were first called Christians.

One of the major things we learn from the first few chapters of Acts, and again from history, is that Christianity has nothing to fear from persecution. Mild persecution did not silence the apostles, but they were willing to face sleeping in prison or even being flogged. Major persecution where Christians were killed and there were raids on personal homes led to Christianity spreading geographically, and in number. When Rome took up persecuting Christians, Christianity continued to grow, and would grow to become the dominant and favored religion in the Roman Empire.

Even in modern times we see the same thing — the most obvious example would be the Soviet Union, which persecuted Christians through torture, seizing church property, treating faith as a mental illness, and an attempt to make sure that faith wasn’t transferred to the next generation. In the first five years of the Soviet union, over 1200 clergy were executed. In spite of this deliberate persecution, which continued for decades, and in spite of the fact that there was only one political party in Soviet Russia, there never was a time when there were more Communists than Christians. The Soviet Union may have been aggressively secular, but the Russian people remained largely Christian.

When we remember our history, we should have faith. Christianity it too strong for any power to break. We survived persecution when we were just a handful of people, and we survived the negative attention of the most powerful empire in the world. In the modern era, the Soviet Union is gone, but Christianity is still there.

I have some pastor friends who tell me that we need to feel some actual, as opposed to imaginary, persecution so that we can grow, noticing that persecution has never done anything but strengthen the church. Under persecution, our communities have grown stronger, and the message of the gospel has been clearer than ever. It is good news that the worst our enemies can do is nothing compared to the power and the promise of Resurrection.

Unfortunately, I’ve been speaking with Christian friends, listening to what people say, and I see that too many Western Christians claim to have faith, but their words are filled with fear. Too many look for a savior other than Jesus — somebody who can protect us, or give us more influence. Too many of us have forgotten the good news that we look forward to the Resurrection. Too many of us forget that God is all powerful and act as if God is powerless.

There is no power on Earth that can break our faith in Jesus Christ. There is no hostile power that can stop the gospel from being heard, nor stop the spirit from bringing people to Christ. We are salt and light — and, scripture teaches us that not even Hell’s gates can stand up to the church. If we have any sense, we’d realize that Hell’s gates are not attacking us — gates don’t attack, they are a defensive measure. If we see ourselves slowly losing ground and hopeless, we are not seeing the world correcting. If we are on God’s side, those with us are greater than those who are against us.

The good news to the persecuted church was simple — Christ is risen, and if we go where Christ goes, so will we. Peter and Andrew’s path following Jesus took each of them to a cross. Thomas was impaled with a spear, Matthew was stabbed, and James was stoned. Not only did the disciples of Jesus die, but many of their disciples died as well. Out of the twelve, only John died of old age.

The community that formed around the gospel of Jesus Christ was full of courage, and valued walking with Jesus so much they were willing to go to their deaths. Just as Christ is greater than any worldly power, faith is more powerful than fear. The good news is that we hear the same Gospel the early Christians heard. Many of the teachings of Jesus are preserved. We know the gospel as Paul explained it to the new Christians. We have many centuries of reflection on all the ways that God saves us, and what that means in our lives. We can learn from that great cloud of witnesses that went before us — we have every advantage, and no reason to fear.

I confess that I understand why many of us are afraid. When we seek safety in things that do not endure we cannot help but feel afraid — whether it is wealth, or political power, or armies, or powerful leaders, all these things come to an end — none of them are lasting. If our faith is misplaced in something that does not deserve our faith, fear is a natural result. The good news is that we know that God will always be there — we know the right place to put our faith, and we can trust that if we walk with Jesus, Jesus will be there with us even if those things we fear come about — and He is greater than any of our fears.

Thoughts on Persecution

Reading: Acts 4:1-20

When I first was thinking about what to say today, I chose the title of “Resurrection”, because Peter and John were preaching the Resurrection at every opportunity they were given, including those opportunities that nobody wants. This passage has them preaching Resurrection, being commanded by the authorities not to preach Resurrection, and openly defying those authorities.

Yesterday, as you likely know, there was a shooting at a San Diego synagogue. You likely also know that currently, officials strongly suspect that this is a hate crime — and, that rest of us who don’t need to convince a jury are less cautious with our speech. We know that this shooter chose Passover as when to attack; there is something about holiday attacks that make it clear that the attacker is viciously deliberate.

Last week, Easter Sunday, a number of churches throughout the island of Sri Lanka were bombed, over 250 people were killed, and an additional 500 people were injured. In this case, we know that a terrorist organization, the Islamic State, took credit for the attack.

In the weeks before that, 3 historically “black” churches in Louisiana were burned down by a 21 year old man who is now facing charges for a hate crime, and an Australian man went into a New Zealand Mosque and murdered the people worshiping there, and if we go back 6 months, we go back to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

If we go back about 100 years into our own church history, somebody dynamited the old meetinghouse one night to make a political statement; nobody was there and nobody was hurt but was that extreme vandalism persecution?

When we talk about the persecution of the Church, it is good to have an idea what people mean when they say that the church is persecuted. Do these events, the arson, the shootings by extremists, and the terrorist attacks count as persecution? Karla and I talked about this for a bit, and we agreed that these don’t count, because the government response to these attacks was to show sympathy for the communities that were attacked, and to take legal action against the attacker.

Moving to a bit of a gray area, I don’t know if any of you have heard of the term “price tag attacks?” This is a term for some attacks against a disadvantaged minority in a certain near Eastern country. Churches are vandalized, Christians are randomly attacked, and the government often does noting and, in the name of security, the government harasses the entire minority population, whether Christian or Muslim. Are these price tag attacks persecution? They are technically illegal, and some who have committed them have been arrested, but the government also has policies to harass and enforces the laws unevenly. Is this persecution? Lets just say that it is a politically volatile question to ask whether an closely allied government persecutes Christians — and American Christians very sharply disagree about the answer.

We could also ask about warlords who are not heads of recognized governments — but, you have to recognize that they hold land and function, at the time, as the local government. This is something that stands out when you talk about ISIS killing Christians in the part of Libya and Syria that they controlled, or Boko Haram killing and kidnapping in Nigeria, on a number of other incidents over the centuries.

We could also discuss the number of people burned or drowned for their faith in Europe at the time of the reformation, and over a century following, we could look at incidents in the new world such as the hanging of Friends Mary Dyer, Marmaduke Stephenson, and William Robinson in Boston for the crime of being Quakers in a Congregationalist colony. Quakers were not singled out — going to the wrong church could get one exiled on pain of death, tithes were enforced and collected, and neglecting attendance could be punished. Was what happened when Christians were killing each other over which church they should go to persecution? Books such as Martyr’s Mirror and Foxes book of Martyrs say so, and most of us agree.

The point is that persecution is part of our story. Christianity was born into a world that persecuted it; as soon as the good news that Christ is risen was preached, those who preached this gospel were arrested by the same powers that put Jesus on the cross. Christian persecution got worse as it became more than just local authorities and the Empire turned their attention to Christianity. If we have a Western European heritage, our own churches suffered greatly in wars where people were killed for belonging to a different church than the one supported by those in power at the time, whether we identify as Catholic, part of the Magisterial Reformation, or in the case of Friends as part of the Radical Reformation, we look back to the 16th and 17th centuries as a time of suffering. Persecution is part of our story — both in the birth of our religion as a whole, and for most people, it is a significant experience in their own denomination — and, while I remember ancestors who were persecuted in the 17th century, we know people in refugee churches who remember personally remember being part of a persecuted community.

When I read the New Testament, I am reading a book written by and for illegal people — people who face arrest and execution for living out their Christian faith. When I read books written by reformers, I am reading books by people who have found themselves imprisoned or exiled, though, to be fair if I am reading Luther or Calvin, I am also reading books by men who found themselves advisers to princes and who personally encouraged prosecution of those who worshiped differently than they did. Very often the people who taught us, and who’s words spoke to our hearts and shape our view of faith knew nothing but persecution. We don’t know what to do in the world we live in.

I say this, because in about half a year, people will start talking about how Christians in America are persecuted. Somebody will offer some flier that says something about a “Holiday Sale” as evidence that there is a war on Christmas — as somebody who has worked retail, both at the cash register and in a fulfillment center, I can tell you, retail is not waging a war on Christmas, and will not as long as Christmas drives sales. I guess it makes people feel connected with persecution by imagining that they suffer from the words “Holiday Sale”, but any suffering is self inflicted, and even the worst example people can come up with cannot be compared to 1650’s England when Oliver Cromwell’s government outlawed Christmas, forbidding people to take that day off, prepare festive food to celebrate Christmas, or for Churches to hold a Christmas service.

Persecution is part of our story — but unlike recent refugees and those still living under persecution, we don’t know what it is like to be persecuted. Even the non-Christians in our government are concerned with how a policy will be received by Christians. Sundays are still for many people a day off. When Politicians speak, many quote Christian Scripture. Congress has a Christian chaplain who opens every day with a word of prayer. The day the president is sworn into office, there is a prayer service that he is expected to attend at an Episcopalian cathedral in Washington DC. We are officially a secular nation, but our nation has many traditions that are dear to us, and are not secular, but tied to Christianity.

I know this is a tangent — as I said before I originally intended to speak explicitly about the Resurrection — but, the synagogue shooting yesterday changed the direction of my thoughts; but as I said on Easter Sunday — every sermon is about Resurrection; the Resurrection is a very central point of our faith.

What happened when the Apostles were arrested for preaching the resurrection? They preached the Resurrection again at their trial. What happened when they were put in prison? They preached the Resurrection to those who shared prison cells with them. The apostles remained faithful to Christ, and they did not bow to the ways of the world. If we skip forward in Acts, Paul says to the governor Felix, “I wish you were the same as I, except these chains”; the apostles forgave their persecutors and worked and prayed for the salvation of those who persecuted them.

The good news here is that if death cannot keep Jesus in the grave, and if we hold onto the promise that we will also be raised from the dead, then those who can do no worse than kill have no power over us. The persecutors were fighting a losing battle — and, Christianity spread in the prisons, it spread through slaves, and eventually it spread all the way up to the Imperial palace. No amount of persecution can kill the Truth, because the persecutors are not more powerful than Christ.

The hard part is that we must hear this gospel and obey Christ teachings. Jesus told a persecuted and illegal people how to live. Forgiveness is hard. Faith that Jesus is compassionate and with us even when we suffer can be hard. It is all to easy to lose faith and give into fear — but, again we have good news, that faith casts out all fear.  May Christ grant us this faith that casts out fear and the ability to forgive just as we are forgiven.

Community (Acts 2:32-37)

Reading: Acts 2:32-37

One thing that strikes me, and many people who read the first chapters of Acts is the strength of the community. The few verses that we read today speaks of how they were generous to each other to the point that they held everything in common and nobody had any need. I think it is safe to say that none of us have experienced the Acts 2 church; I would even go so far as to say that few of us truly want to experience the Acts 2 church — and, to be fair, there are a number of things that happened in the primitive church that shows that they were not quite perfect. This community that made sure that nobody was destitute stands in remarkable contrast to the society we live in today — we are generous, but, very few are as sacrificially generous as what is described as normative in these passages.

If we jump forward from the first to the 2nd century, we see that this is still, to a degree, a mark of the Christian community. Justin Martyr writes in his Epistle to Diognetes:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word — what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.

And a few decades, at the end of the 2rd Tertullian wrote in his Apology that when the pagans speak of Christians, one of the things that the pagans say about us is: “see how they love each other.” Now, I don’t have to look far to see what people outside the church have to say about Christianity — one can find out by either seeking out what people say online, or by searching the library. While I don’t recommend this exercise, I can tell you that “see how they love each other” is not the dominant theme.

Now, the Early church was a human institution. One of the themes in Acts is power struggles and racism in the early church. The epistles, among other things, address individual pettiness, power struggles, racism, classism, greed, ageism, and other examples of petty infighting. All the problems we have now, the Early Church had as well; but, we seem to have grown apart — something kept the church together, in spite of all these problems.

Not that long ago, I had a brief conversation with a minister who publicly denounced on the internet. I’ve had a number of friends in various positions who have been publicly attacked like that; and there have been moments that I, or members of my family have felt a bit targeted. The way that too many Christians fight and curse each other in a public forum cannot possibly make people say of us: “Oh how they love one another.”

Of course, when I am nostalgic for days before pastors fighting with each other on social media; when I am honest with myself, I realize that nostalgia lies. Those days in the 1990’s that I look back to were not so much better as they were less transparent — and I was not in a position where I saw what was happening. When I read old books, I find that those days were not really better either. A number of the old books in my collection are polemic books; that is a book that is intended to attack the reputation of a person or a group. People have behaved badly for centuries — from when Acts was written until now, I can see shamefully bad behavior that is not worthy of a community that calls itself Christian.

When I studied Church history, I learned about the character assassination and in some cases actual assassination attempts against bishops in the 4th century. I learned about a bishop punching a priest in a world-wide business meeting. If I look for that golden age where the community is perfect, it appears that it did not last very long — nostalgia lies, and even if there were a golden age, we cannot live in the past.

I believe that we already know what one of the biggest differences is between the primitive church and the church of the time after the printing press was invented and Christians authors wrote polemic works where they slandered other Christians — that difference is that the Early Church faced real persecution. Those who followed Jesus faced real danger; yet they followed the gospel because in it they heard words of life.

These days, the church, at least in the western world, has power. The Church has been a powerful voice that governments and societies hear since the fourth century. The influence of the church on even our secular culture is so large that it is at times difficult for us to separate what is secular from what is sacred. Like it or now, when the church was persecuted, it was aloof of the politics of the world, now the church is part of the politics of the world.

Once the Church had the ear of the Emperor, and then the ear of kings, and now the ear of presidents and legislators.  When you have political power in the world, it is very tempting to use the political tactics of the world. Some of the worst chapters of Church history are when people who held power in the world sought to gain power in the church and thereby increase their power in the world. Just because the scripture forbids gossip and slander does not mean that Christians don’t engage it it — I’ve seen people’s Facebook pages; it is a problem — our church is accepting the sinful behavior of our society as if it were virtuous.

I will admit, one thing that bothers me is that when I face this problem, it seems beyond my ability to address it. If I confront somebody who habitually slanders others, and seems eager to repeat lies, that person becomes angry, and acts as if I am completely in the wrong. It does not matter how much I see that another person is living in sin, nor how public and obvious the sinful behavior is, it does little good to be deeply convicted of another person’s sin.

What I know is that if being convicted of other people’s sin is not helpful, I can guard myself from doing the same thing that I see modeled. I can look at what I publicly saying, and ask if I am speaking appropriate to and about those who are created in God’s image. I can work on my faith — because the thing that seems to inspire people to share lies is that they are afraid; if I forget that God is bigger than the bogeyman (to quote a veggie tail’s song), then I might be afraid of every thing that I imagine having the strength to harm me. We fall into sin, because we lose faith and fall into fear. We repeat the lies, because the lies scare us; we forget that even if it were true, God is bigger than that.

Another problem is that because Christians have gained so much power, we think that we need power. We think we need access to the government. We think we need to influence every facet of society in a direct and powerful way. We forget that Christians were salt and light even when all the power of the government fought to crush Christianity. We seek this control, because we forget that Jesus is Lord. We fall into sin, because we lose faith.

What I recommend is that we all listen to ourselves — see if we are falling into fear, or seeking power. See if we are respecting that those around us are created in God’s image. If you use social media — look at your last 10 posts — see how many of them are meant to paint another person or a group of people in a bad light. It is very easy to sin the way lots of other people sin; even when you are aware of it. It does not help me to be convicted of another person’s sin, but knowing which sins are common can help me watch myself. Friends have long practiced using Queries to check areas where it is easy to fall into sinful behavior, and one Query that I’ve seen in almost every collection, dating back to at least 1806 is as follows:
“ Is love and unity maintained amongst you. Are tale-bearing and detraction discouraged. And where any differences arise, are endeavours used speedily to end them?”

While the sinful behavior is common to the point it is endemic, and it is deeply destructive to our communities — there is good news. Remember, we believe in forgiveness. Jesus taught us to forgive. We believe that Christ walks with us and helps us to change — even when we sometimes do those things we don’t want to do — Christ still strives with us, works to help us grow into the name Christian. The Good News states we are salt and light. When we get better, our communities get better too. The good news is we want to do better with God’s help — and God is eager to help.

Peter’s first sermon

Reading: Acts 2:14-42

Last week, Karla let me know that what stood out to her is how incredibly patient Jesus was with the disciples; in spite of the years He spent teaching them, they never learned. The last thing a disciple said to Jesus before he was taken up into heaven showed they still didn’t get it — and, arguably, the little meeting where they decided to roll the dice, and choose a random person who had been with them from Jesus’ baptism to the Crucifixion was a mistake. I noticed that all Peter had to do to get everybody to go along with this was to quote Psalm 109.

Now, unless you believe that Peter received a special gift of prophecy before Pentecost, he almost certainly got the interpretation of Psalm 109 wrong. This is one thing that I’ve noticed in my time as a Christian — so often, we are eager to go forward without the spirit — and somebody will quote a few lines of scripture which sound good, but rarely have anything to do with the situation, making it so that anybody who offers further discussion is `arguing against God’s Word.’ When people do this, I often doubt their sincerity when they say we should honor and respect scripture… but, anyways — the way I read this, Peter did something rash, and grabbed a hold of a few words from scripture to give his words some authority that he didn’t yet have. All they needed to do was wait, and God would bring the apostle that God chose to them.

When Pentecost comes, and the ends of the Earth journeyed to Jerusalem for the second most important celebration that Jews observe — the celebration of God giving the law on Mt. Sinai, a true miracle happens. The spirit comes, and the disciples prophecy. Just as Jesus promised them before leaving, they finally know what to say, because God gave them the words. Pentecost changes everything — the spirit comes, and Peter finally understands what Jesus had been trying to tell him all those years.

Imagine the opportunity; here is a chance to speak to thousands of people all over the world. The crowd is there, the disciples have their attention, and there is a chance that when people ask about their trip to Jerusalem for the holiday they will recount this odd experience. Peter had thousands of people from all over the Jewish world listening to his word; if you could give a single message to thousands of people from the whole Christian world what would you say? Peter was in an intimidating position — almost every time he speaks in the gospels, it is clear he does not understand what is going on. How will Peter, the man who’s foot is always in his mouth, address all these people? Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would give power, and in Luke 12, even what words to answer. If there is a time that Peter needed the promise of the Holy Spirit, this was it.

When Peter spoke on Pentecost, it was different then it was in the past. This little sermon was coherent; it had a structure that you can understand when you see it. When Peter spoke, you could tell that he spoke as somebody who understood, not as somebody who was utterly confused. It is quite amazing that the person who gave the first public sermon, speaking for the Christian community was the person who always had his feet in his mouth; and even more amazing that he mad it through this sermon without embarrassing himself and his community.

He somehow knew the questions the audience was asking and answered them. Peter took the opportunity to tell the world about the resurrection instead of letting them make guesses to explain away a miracle. “We are not drunk as you suppose, it is 9:00 AM” disarms what many people were whispering to one another.

The crowds were doing the exact same thing I would have done — they tried to make sense of something that was strange, so they found an explanation; once you can make a theory about what happened, you can stop being curious about it; and if you are not curious enough to test your theory and nobody challenges it, then you accept that first explanation. Can you imagine if Peter did not challenge this? Everybody would go home, and they would remember an encounter with a group of drunk people one morning, and give what they heard in their own languages very little thought.

Next, Peter explained what happened using a reference that would be familiar. While these people came from all over the world, they were in Jerusalem to celebrate God giving the law to Moses. Speaking to them out of scripture is speaking a language that they understand; and as they are there to celebrate God giving the law, the can understand how wonderful it is to see God pouring out God’s Spirit on human flesh.

After Peter dealt with the idea that everything that happened was induced by too much wine, and explained what had happened in a way that those listening could understand and accept, Peter went into something far more difficult; though any who accepted that this came from the power of God’s spirit would understand that these hard words were prophetic. Peter starts talking about Jesus, a man who was put to death 6 weeks earlier. What Peter says is hard though, as it makes it clear who had him put to death. Peter’s prophecy condemns the leaders of Judah — but he also told them that Jesus, though put to death was raised from the dead.

Peter then quotes from the Psalms, and identifies Jesus as being of David’s line, and announces that the risen and ascended Christ is set upon David’s throne. By doing this, Peter manages to identify the risen Christ as the Messiah that many people are waiting for, while separating Him from the idea that there would be a political Messiah to drive out the Romans and reestablish an Earthly kingdom. Just 6 weeks earlier, the disciples didn’t understand this — but today, Peter manages to communicate it to the crowds. Jesus isn’t a king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem, but a King sitting on a Heavenly throne.

This message was distressing for many who heard this — verse 37 says that they were cut to their heart by what they heard, and asked what to do. Peter told them to repent and to be baptized; preaching that they would receive forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he called on the group to “Save yourself from this corrupt generation.”

Now, I know that the scripture tells me that Peter testified with “many other arguments”. What we read in Acts is just a short summary of Peter’s sermon; While I don’t know how long it takes to make “many other arguments” I cannot imagine it took fewer than 20 minutes. I do know that whatever the exact words were, these words managed to convince about 3000 people to join the Christian community. I don’t know how many of these people were in the crowds who listened to Jesus — but, I do know that one day they were just 120, and the next they were a few thousand — it would be like going to the church where I grew up and seeing one Sunday was just like it had always been, and the next they had to have 10 services to fit everybody inside the building.

Now, I could get into the message of Salvation that Peter preached — one of forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit; but I notice that it is not at all fleshed out here — so that isn’t quite the point. I could lament that no matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to recreate what happened. Our small community doesn’t suddenly become a group of thousands. The thing is, we don’t see this happen again; neither in our own experience, nor even in later chapters of Acts. Sometimes, we see people hearing the gospel, and remaining unconvinced. What we see is that the Jerusalem community suddenly became something similar in size to the influence of Jesus’ physical ministry on Earth; crowds came to Jesus to hear what Jesus taught, similar sized crowds then came to listen to the apostles of Jesus preach.

Acts 2 does not tell me why, it gives me no magic words, nor magic formula beyond Jesus. I don’t believe that the same crowd was shouting `Hosanna’ one week and `Crucify Him’ the next. When Jesus was raised from the dead, He gathered the disciples together, but Peter gathered the crowds. The good news for those who listened to Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven was that Jesus ascended to sit on Heaven’s throne. You finally learn that your teacher knows that Kingdom because your teacher was King. It really is good news to learn that Christ’s kingdom is lasting, and is not dependent on beating the Romans. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven can live and encourage one another in Roman occupied Jerusalem, still praising God, living with generous hearts and having the goodwill of their neighbors. The good news is Christ’s reign continues no matter who is emperor in Rome.