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.