James 3: Words lead to actions

Reading: James 3

This morning I was asked to say a few words about this weekend’s shootings.  I prepared a message related to our Sunday school passage, however, I will honor this request.

I don’t know the reason for the shooting in Ohio, but we do know what motivated the El Paso shooter who drove 9 hours in order to shoot up a Wall Mart. We know because people have read his statements on social media, and he shared his motivations with the world. He attacked the people of El Paso in response to what he called the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

The word invasion shouldn’t be a surprise, we heard it before when speaking of Hispanic immigrants.  We have heard terms of invasion, we have heard the word infestation used along with complaints that they are breeding in our cities. We have heard it said: “They are not people, but animals,” and we have heard the whole group, based purely on their ancestry, called a danger to our nation, our democracy, and our way of life.

These words name a people group as a problem, and they describe the problem in a way that suggests the solution is extermination.  Invasions are fought and killed, breeding infestations are exterminated.  Enemies of our nation and our way of life are fought and destroyed.  When people are described in such a way, these words lead to the action of killings.  If these words continue to be used, the killings will continue.

It would be easier if we could name one source of all these words, and suggest that one person is responsible for radicalizing the El Paso murderer, and that same  individual would also be responsible for radicalizing the man who shot up Tree of Life synagogue last year.  Unfortunately, it was not one man.  One man, no matter how well known, cannot do this.  If it were one man, his dehumanizing words would be heard as the ravings of a lunatic.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

It is not one person who is guilty, but at least 30 million people.  The El Paso murderer was not the first young man radicalized through social media, and he will not be the last.  One does not need to go to the darkest places on the web to find people talking in these dehumanizing terms, or terms that suggest violence as a solution.  I can find this language if I read the facebook pages of people I went to school with, nice church people, and even fellow pastors.  We don’t need neo-Nazis to radicalize a young domestic terrorist; our own language is bad enough and there is blood on all our hands.

There is a reason why James warns us of the power and danger of words.  With our words we can destroy a person’s reputation.  With our words we can make somebody seen as dangerous and less than human.  With our words we can motivate others to murder.

I know it seems like there is nothing we can do to change the behavior of 30 million people — but, we can change our own behavior.  We all need to pray that God will help guard our tongues, and we need to be careful about what we say.

One of the biggest dangers is social media.  It is too easy to share something  and not think about what you are saying.  It is too easy to hit `share’, without thinking about what you said — it is too easy to spread slanderous lies, or even words that suggest genocide as the solution to a problem without thinking about the impact of our words.  We all need to stop and think carefully before hitting share. We need to research what is behind that meme.  Too many of us have blood on our hands.  Nice, ordinary people, careless with the share button on Facebook have worked to radicalize people to domestic terrorism.

I know if everybody in this room is careful going forward, and we make sure that our words are guided by Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise”  we are still just a drop in the bucket.  The thing is that this bucket is full of drops, and just because we cannot change others does not mean we should not change ourselves.  If we want the killings to stop — we must change ourselves.

The good news is that there are very few who are glad when these shootings happen.  Most of the drops in the bucket are people just like us — nice people who repeated things without thinking about the consequences of their actions.  We can repent of our sin, pray that God heals our hearts and our tongues.  We can take responsibility for our actions and work to change.  All those other drops in the bucket can do the same, and things can get better.

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God is more stubborn than we are

Reading: Exodus 6-13

In my life, I’ve heard two competing pieces of advice: “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” and “The sign of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Last week, we talked about Moses approaching Pharaoh to say: “Let my people sacrifice to their God,” and how Pharaoh reacted by not only saying “no,” but also increasing their workload and creating excuses to beat them. The result of Moses making a request from Pharaoh was things got worse for the people, and everybody blamed Moses for it.

Moses kept going back to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh kept saying “no.” It would have been easy for Moses to decide that approaching Pharaoh was a completely pointless action, but he kept doing it; was he crazy, or was he trying and trying again until he succeeded? I can say that it didn’t take long before Moses wanted to give up, and it only took one try before the people of Israel didn’t want Moses’ help. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to go back — then again, after losing an argument with God, I don’t know if I could do anything else; God seems pretty convincing, and God is much more stubborn than those who want to argue.

Anyways, Moses asked Pharaoh, he said no. Moses turned a rod into a snake, Pharaoh’s magicians did the same, and Pharaoh said no. Moses turned the water of the Nile, and all the water people had stored into containers into blood, the court magicians also made water into blood, and Pharaoh said no. Moses called down a plague of frogs, Pharaoh’s magicians called more frogs, but the frogs somehow got to Pharaoh

Pharaoh called Moses to tell him that if he got rid of the frogs, he would let the people of Israel go and sacrifice to God. Moses asks: “when should I pray for God to get rid of the frogs,” and Pharaoh answers: “Tomorrow.” I really don’t understand this man; he has his magicians bring more snakes, more blood, and more frogs. If I were him, I’d ask if they can get rid of them — and, if I were so annoyed with the frogs that I was ready to capitulate, I’d not say “tomorrow,” I would say “now” so that I could finally get a good night’s sleep that is not interrupted by all those frogs in my bedroom.

As soon as the frogs are dead, and everybody is cleaning up the dead frogs, Pharaoh changes his mind — so, Moses sends gnats, and the magicians tell Pharaoh that they are not able to summon more of them, but Pharaoh would not listen. Moses comes again, and God sends flies — Pharaoh tells Moses again that if if he prays to God to remove the flies, the Israelites may sacrifice to their God; Moses prays, God takes the flies away, and Pharaoh changes his mind and says they must stay.

This is followed by an illness that kills all of the livestock of Egypt, but leaves the livestock of Israel untouched; Pharaoh still does not let the people of Israel go sacrifice. Next, an illness touches the people, and they break out in boils, when Pharaoh still won’t let them go, Moses warns that the next plague will be a severe hail storm that will kill and destroy everything and everyone that is outside. Many, seeing the other plagues, believe this and take shelter, but those who do not die and all crops are destroyed — and the hail destroyed everything in Egypt, except the land of Goshen where the people of Israel lived. Pharaoh called Moses, told him he’d let the Israelites go and sacrifice, but after the hail stopped, he changed his mind again;

Now the hail only destroyed the crops that were near harvest — the wheat was planted recently enough that it would grow back and there would be a wheat harvest, however the next plague was locusts — and the locusts ate everything that the hail did not destroy, making it so that this year would be a total loss. Again, Pharaoh called Moses to ask him to get rid of the swarm of Locusts, again Moses prayed and God blew them away on a wind, and again Pharaoh changed his mind and would not let the people of Israel go.

Next all of Egypt, except Goshen, was covered in darkness for three days — again, Pharaoh called Moses, told him that the people could worship, and then again changed his mind; and he told Moses that the next time they saw each other, Moses would die. After this, the firstborn of every Egyptian family died. Pharaoh called Moses at night, and he ordered that they all leave, and not come back; Moses did not die, and Pharaoh was ready to give up.

Earlier I pointed out that Moses argued with God, Moses did not want to be a messenger, but God is far more stubborn than we are. Moses might not had it within himself to win an argument with Pharaoh, but Moses was just the messenger, it was God who argued with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh lost that argument. By the time Pharaoh said Israel could leave, all of Egypt wanted them gone.

Arguing with God is futile — I don’t know if we receive this as good news or bad news. If we are in the place of Egypt, it is very bad news. If we are in the place of Israel, and God is working to free us from our chains, it is good news. Abraham Lincoln once said: “My concern is not whether God is on my side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

I must say, this is a hard thing — we want God to be on our side against somebody else, but too often no matter how much we want God on our side, God is on the side of those caught in the middle. We know who’s side God is on, because scripture tells us multiple times. God is on the side of the slaves, of the poor, of the hungry, of the orphan, and of the oppressed. God is on the side of the desperate who need God’s help. Is this good news for us? It is if we are on God’s side, otherwise it is bad news because we know God wins in the end.
But whether we are on God’s side or not — we need patience. I don’t envy the prophets; they suffer quite a by repeating God’s message to those who don’t want to listen. I certainly don’t envy those who are held captive; though God will release them, for too long, they are bound and they are suffering. Too often, things get worse before they get better. If God works for a person’s freedom, there is a time when that person was a captive. No matter if we are on God’s side or not, if there is a struggle it is hard. Moses, Pharaoh, the Israelites, and the Egyptians all faced difficulties.

No matter what, we need to make sure we are on God’s side — if we are, we have hope and hope is good news.

 

Exodus 1-3: God’s long game

Reading: Exodus 1-3

The story of Exodus is the story of the birth of Israel as a nation. When Jacob and his children sought refuge in Egypt, they were a single family. They came to Egypt as guests, and they lived there for generations. Even the first generation that settled married Egyptians, they became tied to the land, at the time approaching the Exodus, they were in almost every sense Egyptians.

There was one sense in which they were not Egyptians; somebody rose to power who forgot who Joseph was to Egypt. Egypt was a literate society, if it was worth writing down forgetting about something often involved destroying the writing. Joseph was forgotten, and the people who he welcomed to live in Egypt were reduced to slavery in hopes that they would not be a threat.

It turned out that reducing the family of a former leader to slavery was not enough; Pharaoh decided that it was necessary to completely exterminate the male bloodline; so he ordered the midwives that served clan of Israel to kill every boy as soon as he was born. The midwives, of course, did not obey this order; their decision changed everything.

A man and woman had a baby boy, and they did their best to hide him; they managed to hide him for three months. When they could no longer hide the baby, the mother sealed a basket, put the baby in the basket, and put the baby in the river; Miriam, the boy’s sister, watched to see what would happen.

Pharaoh’s daughter was out for a swim, and she found the baby and named him Moses. She assumed that this baby in the river must be one of those Hebrew children that her father ordered killed — but she responded by hiring a Hebrew wet-nurse, and adopting the baby as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter, no less than the midwives, decided not to obey her father’s government. In order for Israel to become a nation instead of only a clan, a number of people, from the midwives to Pharaoh’s daughter had to commit acts of civil disobedience.

Now, I don’t know how the Pharaoh’s grandson, Moses learned that he was adopted. I know even less about how he came to know who his brother and sister were. What I do know is that somehow, the man who grew up as part of the royal family learned that he was the son of slaves and that the person he knew of as his grandfather ordered his death before he was even born. He knew that he was personally saved from a genocide, and that his family were all slaves. Moses knew this and he reacted by killing an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew slave; when he realized that people knew what happened he ran away from Egypt and started a new life with the Midianites; he married and he worked for his father-in-law as a nomadic herdsman.

One day when he’s watching the flocks he sees something strange — a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. If that were not strange enough, an angel speaks to Moses from the bush telling him to return to Egypt and lead the people of Israel back to Canaan.

Moses of course was skeptical. He needed to know which God favored Israel, and how he was to convince the people of Israel to follow him. It might seem strange that Moses would need to convince the slaves that God sent him and that they should follow him to freedom, but this is the hard work that needs done. Creating a nation and moving the nation to a new place is a lot of work, and requires the cooperation of the population — on the Egyptian side, only Pharaoh needed to be convinced and God had the means to convince him.

God’s promise was that when the people of Israel left, the Egyptians would willingly give them treasure to take with them. We know at least 10 reasons why the people of Egypt felt this way. I am sure that the people of Egypt didn’t need 10 reasons even though their ruler would.

Looking at the first few chapters of Exodus several things stand out to me — the first is that without Civil Disobedience, there would be no Moses, no Torah, and no Israel. The midwives, Moses’s mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter all had to knowingly break the law and work against the will of their rulers in order for any of this to take place.

It seems that God honored this lawlessness. God saw the suffering of the people of Israel and raised up their salvation. The law of the land is what caused their suffering, and their salvation came through illegal means. What this tells me is that there are things more important than laws — such as not committing genocide when the authorities order a genocide.

Another thing that stands out to me is that Moses’s life truly prepared him for what he needed to do. Moses grew up in the royal court as a member of the royal family. With that background, he would have the best education in the world and he would know how to speak to people of power.

Moses somehow learned about his birth family, he able to identify with them. When he was 40, he decided to visit them; he saw an overseer abusing the slaves and he killed the overseer. Moses then went into exile. He assimilated into nomadic culture, married, and lived with his flocks in the wilderness. Moses lived the life that he was leading Israel into as they would travel into their promised land for 40 years. Finally Moses was able to have a conversation with God, and God was able to convince Moses of his calling in life. Most of us expect to find our vocation before we turn 80, but Moses went back to Egypt with 40 years of experience as a prince of Egypt, and another 40 years experience as a nomadic herdsman living in the wilderness.

God worked with Moses from the start, and much to the surprise of everybody, God sided with the slaves rather than with the powerful. It is easy to assume that the people with power and wealth have it because God favors them, and the people who suffer or are oppressed have it because God is against them. Exodus makes it clear that our power does not gain God’s favor, and our suffering does not drive God’s favor away.

Another thing that stands out is that God worked very slowly. Over 80 years passed between the time that Pharaoh ordered the death of all Hebrew males and when God called Moses to free the Hebrews and lead them to Canaan. Moses was well prepared when his time came.  Moses knew Pharaoh’s court and he knew the wilderness that he and the nation of Israel would travel through.

God not only prepared Moses, but God prepared Israel. Harsh taskmasters made living in Egypt unbearable. An attempted genocide took away any desire to obey the Egyptian government. The harshness of Egypt created the conditions that birthed a new nation. If things were not unbearable, Clan Israel would have been an Egyptian family. Mass migration is rare. Few people want to leave home unless they are desperate. Slavery and an order to kill babies is enough to cause desperation.

It is hard for me to find good news early in the book of Exodus. While I see God preserving life, I also see an entire people living in despair. I know what is coming, but it has not come yet — and things will get worse before they get better. I do know one thing; for some people this is very good news.

In the early 19th century, there was a special edition of the Bible created, specifically for Negro slaves. This Bible was different than the ones we have because it was missing most of the Old Testament, including all of Exodus, and about half the New Testament. The missing passages were those that suggested that slaves could hope for freedom or Justice; it was missing passages that let those who were suffering know that God saw them and had compassion for them. It was missing those passages that offered any sort of hope.

The good news is that even while those in power were trying to commit genocide, God was working with those who were in open rebellion to preserve the lives of the oppressed. The good news is even while the people of Israel were enslaved, God was working for their freedom, and to prepare them for a new home. The good news for those who suffer is that God is on the side of the oppressed. This gives hope to those who seek to escape killings, this gives hope to the enslaved, this gives hope to the exploited. This give hope to those who desperately need hope and have none for themselves.

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.

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.