Acts 26: Paul before Herod

Reading: Acts 25:23-26:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul’s arrest and trials: Acts 21-25

Reading: Acts 21-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 15:36-16 — Paul’s second Journey

Reading: Acts 15:36-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 13-14 — Committees

Reading: Acts 13-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Acts 11:1-18 — Now Gentiles?

Reading:  Acts 11:1-18

Our reading today takes place in Jerusalem. Peter has just returned from Caesarea. Caesarea, built by Herod the Great, was the administrative capital of Judea — or if you prefer, the seat of Roman power. This city, which was at the time the largest city in Judea, featured an artificial harbor which made Caesarea one of the most impressive harbor cities in the ancient world. It was an impressive city, one of power, wealth and of course an occupation force.

Peter went to Caesarea because he was summoned by a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who happened to believe in God. There was a place in Judean society for gentiles who believed in God; it was far from a place of honor and if such a place were made in our time we would likely call it segregation, but there was a place, and Cornelius must have taken that place. He must have gone to Jerusalem and stood in the court of the Gentiles. Acts tells us that he gave generously and that he always prayed, and that he had a good reputation among the Jews; that last part tells me a lot about him, because how many officers of occupying armies have a good reputation among the people they occupy?

Before Peter got the call, he had a vision of a sheet coming down filled with unclean animals, and he heard God tell him to take and eat. Peter, of course, refused, and God told him that he was not to call unclean what God had made clean. After the vision when the summons came for him to go to the Centurion, and Peter, knowing what the vision meant, decided to go with them to see Cornelius.

When Peter got there, he told Cornelius what he learned saying:

“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.” (Acts 10:28-29 NRSV)

After talking with Cornelius, Peter went on to address the people that Cornelius gathered and preach the gospel to them, including the good news that God does not show favoritism. When Peter was with the gentiles, there was a second Gentile Pentecost, and everybody with Peter saw that the Holy Spirit was poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles. Because God addressed Peter’s bias in a vision, and because Peter saw that the Holy Spirit didn’t care about the rules that men made to exclude other people, Peter realized that he should obey God rather than men.

Of course, when Peter went to Jerusalem, those who heard what happened were unhappy. Peter just, as he said to Cornelius, did what was unlawful when he went to the seat of the occupation government to meet with an officer of the occupying army. It did not matter that Cornelius believed in God, nor did it matter that he was respected, there were rules of segregation, and Peter broke them.

It is no surprise that people were unhappy with Peter’s decision to ignore the law. When Peter broke the segregation laws, he did not just break a custom, he disobeyed the clear teachings of scripture. Now, how this is a clear teaching of scripture is lost on me, and it is likely lost on you as well. I can read Leviticus 19:34 which says to treat the foreigners no different than the native-born, because of the time the people of Israel were foreigners in Egypt, and reading that, my mind leaves no place for segregation, but clearly they read Torah differently than I do.

One thing that stands out to me is that Peter manages to convince his critics. He simply tells what happens, and they believe that he is a prophet with the authority to contradict what had been accepted as God’s law. You and I know that this can’t be the end of the story. If somebody offers a prophecy that something that we believe that the scripture teaches is wrong and that the Godly thing to do is violate the clear teachings of scripture — we are going to reject that. Peter surprisingly convinced the critics who approached him, but this isn’t about a few people — this is about a belief that is spread through the whole community. It is not going to be easy to convince anybody.

I’m getting ahead of myself in the story told in Acts, but there is an upcoming business meeting that happens in Acts 15. In that meeting, they will side with Peter’s experience and they will write a letter that makes Christianity something other than a sect of Judaism, and into something that welcomes Gentiles without asking to do anything more than abandon idolatry and to avoid eating blood.

When we read Paul’s letters, we learn that like any business meeting, those who agreed with the decision honored it, and those who did not agree with it ignored it. Almost every one of Paul’s letters spoke of the issue of those who did not want to welcome Gentiles into Christianity. Paul made it his mission to bring the gospel to the Gentile world, and part of his mission was to defend the Gentile Christians against those who would exclude them.

The lesson I learn from this is a very hard one. Peter’s vision calls him to violate the law and the clear teachings of scripture. When the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the Gentiles, it shows that this law and this clear teaching of Scripture seems to be in error. Now, granted, I see the error more than I see the clear teaching — but I’m also aware that segregationists in the United States saw that same clear teaching that Peter and the law saw. From this, I learn that sometimes people can embrace clear teachings of scripture that are not so clear. Religious rules can be made that are simply wrong. I know I think that I’m right, but I do need to consider the possibility that I’m wrong from time to time.

The next lesson that I take away from this whole ancient segregation argument is the context of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he writes:

11 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— 12 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. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 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. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19 NRSV)

It is so easy for us to spiritualize what we read, to think of Ephesians as if it is talking about spiritual battles rather than literally talking about many members of the church wanting to exclude people who had a different ethnicity than they did. Paul is talking about segregation being a reality within living memory. We don’t like to think of an early church that struggled with forgiveness, and even one that struggled with something like what we know as racism. We imagine the early church as being close to God, and not having profound problems — but they did have profound problems, and sometimes even similar problems to what we see now.

And that is another lesson that stands out to me; like the Early Christians, American Christians too often prefer our rules and our customs to forgiveness. We look for any excuse to exclude outsiders. I’ve seen too many arguments about which people are not welcome in Church, and some of these arguments quoted scripture. American Christians, just like Early Christians have an impulse to build the same kind of walls that Jesus tore down.

We need to remember that Jesus is the one who tears down walls and that we are wrong to keep building them. I know we build because we are afraid, we are afraid of losing our customs, our history, or our culture. The fear comes from a place of either lacking faith or of placing our faith in the wrong things. Customs do not save, history and culture do not save. This is not an easy lesson, the Early Church learned it slowly, and doubtless, the American Church will learn it slowly too — but we must keep learning.

Acts 9:1-19 — Paul on Damascus road

Reading: Acts 9:1-19

Paul’s conversion is one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. I learned several things from the story of Paul — I learn about devotion to God, I learn about the message that God gives, I learn about communities and bias, I learn how much a prophetic message can change people and communities, and most of all I learn not to put limits on God’s grace nor forgiveness.

We are first introduced to Saul, also known as Paul as he is watching people’s coats as they stone Stephen after he gives a public sermon. Paul quickly moves on to become a great persecutor of the church. Acts 8 tells us that he “went from house to house dragging off both men and women.” The result of this persecution was that the Christians, who violated the order to stop speaking the name of Jesus, were scattered. They left Jerusalem to the Judean countryside, and they even became refugees outside of Galilee, moving to Samaria and Syria.

When we get to Acts 9, Saul is preparing for a journey to Syria to seize refugees and take them back. He is leaving the borders of Judea, going to a gentile country, to extradite refugees so that the cannot escape the religious persecution that he represents. Saul is a deadly and tenacious enemy who is clearly willing to go to extreme measures to kill Christianity in its infancy.

What stands out here is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians — that Paul persecuted the church due to his religious devotion. He believed that he was doing God’s work and that it was important to drive out the sect of Jesus followers who were a real challenge to both the religious institutions and to the religious traditions that had developed. Paul was waging war against something that threatened his culture and his way of life, and it turned out that he was wrong.

What I learn from this is that passion, devotion, and sincerity are not enough to make something right. People can be convinced that they are right, fight hard for what they believe, and be disastrously wrong. This truth has been growing in my mind throughout the 21st century. I look at the variety of conflicting views among Christian leaders, and I have to say that a number of them are disastrously wrong; I sometimes think that God should confront them as God confronted Saul on the road to Damascus.

Of course, this revelation should come with some humility. My ability to correctly name those who need God’s specific revelation is dependent on my passion and devotion representing what is right. When I look at Paul, I see somebody who was not only passionate but well studied. Paul knew the scripture, Paul knew theology, Paul was a studied how religion worked in a nation that answered to a huge world empire that had no interest in his God. No amount of devotion or credentials or surety made him less wrong.

The next thing that stands out is that God’s grace and forgiveness are absolute. We have hints of radical forgiveness when Jesus forgives the thief on the cross, when Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, and when Steven prays: “Lord do not hold this sin against them” as he is being stoned to death. The extent of this radical forgiveness is shown when God not only forgives Saul but meets Saul on the road and changes his life.

Grace and forgiveness is something that we’ve already know about through words, but seeing forgiveness in action is something else. Paul’s conversion is something that demonstrates God’s forgiveness, and it also comes as a call for the church to forgive as well. The hardest thing that Christ teaches us is to forgive — we love the idea of forgiveness until there is something that we must forgive and then we fight against it.

This was not just true of us, but it was true of the early Church. God, being God, knew that the church would have trouble forgiving Saul for his persecution that made them into refugees, so God gave Ananias a vision, told him that Saul was blinded, and told him to heal his blindness and to welcome him as a Christian. As you can imagine, Ananias responded to God saying: “Saul, you mean the guy who drove the Christians out of Jerusalem, you mean the guy who brings Christians to their death?” Like any of us, Ananias was sure that God must be mistaken.

This is, for me one of the lessons that I have to learn: We are not perfect. Anyone of us would need that divine vision to welcome Saul. Even after this vision, the Christian community had trouble believing Ananias’s prophetic message. It was hard work for the Christian community to accept this teaching of radical forgiveness, even though both Jesus and Stephen prayed for those who were involved in their deaths would be forgiven.

Just as God was gracious and met Saul on the road, God met Ananias in his home, God allowed miraculous signs to show that God really brought Paul to the Christians, and after Saul was converted, God met Peter, and let Peter know that this Christianity thing really was for everybody; what Jesus taught wasn’t just words that sounded nice, but they were exactly what Christianity was about — Christianity is about forgiveness so powerful that your greatest enemy can become a valued member of the community, hate, division, and disagreement can all be overcome in Christ.

We all need to learn some humility. As Augustine says, “If you understand It, It is not God.” We all imagine God as something less than God really is. No matter how devout we are, things like God’s forgiveness is hard for us to completely comprehend. Without knowing Paul’s history, we would not have an example beyond words, but because we see Paul, we have an example that shows us what forgiveness looks like when there is genuine repentance.

The final lesson that we all need to learn is the lesson we learn from the identity of Paul. Remember how the disciples didn’t go to take Christianity to all the nations and the ends of the Earth? Remember how they were content to stay in Jerusalem until persecution drove them out of Judea and made them into refugees? Remember how even after they spread, they stayed a Jewish sect, rather than bringing Christ to the Gentiles? Remember how Peter needed a divine vision in order to accept that Gentiles could be Christians too?

Paul eagerly obeyed the great commission even when the apostles were reluctant to do so. The disciples got the command to go out from Jesus, but they were in no hurry to obey it — Paul, on the other hand, spent his life traveling, spreading the gospel, and writing pastoral letters to all the communities that he worked to build up.

Christianity needed somebody with the energy and the devotion of Paul — somebody who would go and spread the message to anybody. Christianity needed somebody who had the tenacity of Paul. Who other than Paul could stand up to Peter in Antioch, because Peter thoughtlessly acted like a bigot when in the presence of bigots rather than having courage, and continuing to eat and associate with the Gentile Christians? It was Paul who could clearly tell how the Cross and the resurrection is a metaphor for what happens to us — our sinful selves are crucified, and we are raised in Christ as new people. Nobody’s life was as completely changed as Paul. It was Paul who could talk about the dividing walls being torn down by Jesus, because Saul, in his former life, was one of the wall-builders, and Jesus tore down the walls in Paul’s heart.

Paul changes everything, or more precisely Paul reveals everything. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even if we are at a place that is so far from God’s will that we are acting as God’s enemy. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even when there are walls in our heart that need to be torn down so we can accept another person created in God’s image into our community. Because of Paul, I know that the good news is that Christ can forgive and change everything.

Community

Reading: Acts 2:42-47

We all know that community is important. If I search for books about church community and a vision of church community, they are abundant. If I ask somebody to tell me what Quakers practice, I might get the answer Howard Brinton gave: “SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.” Today, we read in scripture about how important a close community was in the early church, and we have not stopped talking about community. With all the words Christians of all kinds spend talking about community, one would think that we’d be great at it — that it was a treasure that we inherited.

Since I’ve grown up in the church, and I can say that it is and has always has been an important community in my life, I will say the good and the bad things about my experience in this community. I will start with the bad: The bad news is that all those books about living in community don’t come because we are good at it. The mythology of our nation is one of great individuals, not of strong communities. When we tell our stories, we focus on the works of individuals, not of the communities. As much as we value our institutions, we really want to give the institution a face and a single human story.

Even worse, our culture focuses on the individual has gone to the point that we do not value people for what they contribute to the community, but instead we value people for their ability to serve and enrich themselves. One example of this is school teachers. We expect a school teacher to earn two degrees before qualifying for a license; one in the subject they teach, and the other in education. After they are licensed, we expect them to continue as part-time students until earning a masters degree in Education.

Teaching is clearly a position that serves the community. If our population is poorly educated, we all suffer. Our health, wealth, and comfort are dependent on not only ourselves but our neighbors. If our community is ignorant, the whole community suffers from the ignorance of the community no matter how well educated the individual is. Teachers work to enrich us all.

In spite of this, this year we’ve heard many people speaking against teachers. Recently, teachers have also been complaining about little our society values education. They have been complaining about wages that leave them too close to poverty, they have been complaining about classrooms that are falling apart due to delayed maintenance, about being under-supplied, about textbooks that have not been replaced in over 20 years. We also know that some state legislatures have debated laws making it illegal for teachers to protest, and banning teachers unions who bring forward these complaints. We all know the George Bernard Shaw’s proverb: “Those who can, do. Those who cannot teach.” We live in a time that despises teachers, in spite of their great value to our society.

If our dominant culture valued community, it would praise those who made choices that benefit the community as a whole. Teachers would be treated with as much respect as we give to successful businessmen and highly skilled professionals. We would value teachers, because teachers work on building up the community. Because our culture does not value community, teachers are too often treated as undeserving and unwanted.

The good news is that we are the Church is Salt, and Light, and Yeast, and Mustard. In places where the culture gets something wrong, the Church has a call to be counter cultural. It is hard to be counter cultural; it is hard, because we are not used to examining those things we are used to. It is easier to ignore community and make faith all about me than it is to think about community in an individualistic society. It is easier to make faith all about me than it is to learn about community, but, I and Christians everywhere read Acts, and we all must find a way to figure out what to make of the community of the Early church.

I grew up in America’s culture. I also grew up in the church. The good news is, as hard as it is to question those parts of culture that are contrary to what our faith teaches us; we manage to question them. All those books about community exist, because people are trying to be faithful to Christ rather than the world.

I know I’ve told you about times when my wider church community struggled when I was a teenager. Back in the 1990’s, we had some pretty bad luck with money; one of the causes of bad luck was that the pastors used a denominational group plan for health insurance, and without warning, the insurance company stopped paying bills. It turns out that the company was embezzled by an executive, and the company shut down and the executive was imprisoned, but this left the pastors without insurance until we found another company.

What I recall is that churches all over raised money to pay pastor’s medical bills. We were not scattered churches, we were a wider community who responded to the needs of others. You might say that this terrible need was shared in common. It would be easy to complain about the company that collapsed, and the executive who caused the collapse, and then leave those with surprise medical bills to go bankrupt, but many people shared the pain. This did a lot to teach me about how the church is community.

We read about the early church, and sometimes it is hard to connect. I don’t know what it is like to be part of a persecuted community. I cannot imagine the hardships that brought the individuals who owned something to give up everything they owned because the need was so great. I am thankful that I’ve never suffered persecution, but it means that I have some difficulty understanding the context of scripture. It is easy to forget that we are not reading about people who met in big beautiful buildings, and were seen as pillars of society, we are reading about a group of fugitives, who met secretly in modest rooms, and shared with each other how their faith gave them hope. I saw evidence of my community over a difficulty that we proved able to manage, the early church faced danger that was far beyond their control.

The early church was bound together both by their common faith, and by the common danger of persecution. Sometimes it is hard for me to find the right way to live in today’s world, because most of the things I know about the Christian life I know from our history of persecution. The New Testament was written during a time of persecution, my denomination experienced persecution during the time of its founding; and I grew up in an area settled by Mennonites, who had similar stories from their past.

Sometimes I worry that we are always looking at the times of persecution and suffering, and we have no idea how to live in a time when we are welcome in society. I wonder how often we act in ways that are not helpful, because the situation has changed. I want us to have a strong community like they had in the first chapters of Acts, but I don’t want the problems they had.

I know I’m jumping ahead, and we’ll get back to this later, but when Paul became a Christian it took a miracle for the Christian community to forgive and accept him. Paul, as you remember started the story as one of those who persecuted the church, but he had an encounter with a blinding light and the voice of Jesus. The Voice sent him to a Christian who would pray that his sight be restored. It took more than Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, however. In order for Paul to be accepted by the Christian community, a member of the community had to have the same kind of experience that Paul did — a vision commanding him to accept Paul. Not only did Paul need correcting, but Ananias did as well.

Community is important, but when we idealize the church in the first few chapters of Acts, we miss that even their community had to grow and change. They were bound together by fear of persecution and a common enemy — but God called them to forgive their enemy, and to accept him as a member of the community. Things change, and God changes hearts. I’m not completely sure what the perfect church community would look like; I know that it would be a community where people shared their faith, and they looked after each other, but I really don’t feel I could say much beyond this. I believe, however, that the church is ultimately the community of people who do their best to live with Jesus; and to help each other live out everything that this implies. I also believe that we won’t always get it right; there isn’t a time we can look back on and say: “We always got it right then.” What we can do is keep trying, and keep encouraging each other. Ultimately, if we do that, we will be a community.