Monday, July 25, 2011

one man’s cult…

Our New Testament passage today is from the last part of Acts 24 and continues through the first 12 verses of chapter 25. These passages require some context, however, and so we will be moving a bit through all of chapters 24 and 25. Rather than reading both chapters through and risking all of us taking a nap, I have found a video which will give us a pretty good overview of these two chapters.  Take a look at this…

So, Paul has been arrested… again. (Maybe that employment application question: “have you ever been arrested or convicted of a felony?” was the thing that kept Paul from finding work at anything but tentmaking.) The high priest, Ananais, has enlisted a lawyer (Tertullus) to accuse Paul before Felix the Governor. Paul is accused of a laundry list of crimes but primarily:
  1. stirring up riots – all over the world
  2. being a “troublemaker”
  3. leading a cult
  4. Desecrating the temple
This last one got him arrested; by the religious leaders. Paul is hauled in to answer these charges before the Roman governor, Felix. 

Paul answers the charges beginning in Acts 24: 10-21

“I know, sir, that you have been a judge of Jewish affairs for many years, so I gladly present my defense before you. 11 You can quickly discover that I arrived in Jerusalem no more than twelve days ago to worship at the Temple. 12 My accusers never found me arguing with anyone in the Temple, nor stirring up a riot in any synagogue or on the streets of the city. 13 These men cannot prove the things they accuse me of doing.
 14 “But I admit that I follow the Way, which they call a cult. I worship the God of our ancestors, and I firmly believe the Jewish law and everything written in the prophets. 15 I have the same hope in God that these men have, that he will raise both the righteous and the unrighteous. 16 Because of this, I always try to maintain a clear conscience before God and all people.
 17 “After several years away, I returned to Jerusalem with money to aid my people and to offer sacrifices to God. 18 My accusers saw me in the Temple as I was completing a purification ceremony. There was no crowd around me and no rioting. 19 But some Jews from the province of Asia were there—and they ought to be here to bring charges if they have anything against me! 20 Ask these men here what crime the Jewish high council[c] found me guilty of, 21 except for the one time I shouted out, ‘I am on trial before you today because I believe in the resurrection of the dead!’”
Paul refuses to be tried in Jerusalem and appeal to Caesar in order to be tried in Rome. Felix understandably chooses a path of avoidance and eventually pushes the whole thing off on his successor, Festus, two years later. Within a couple of days of Festus’ taking over as Governor, the Jewish priests and religious leaders meet with him and bring their accusations against the still imprisoned Paul. Paul is brought before Festus and answers, again:

“I am not guilty of any crime against the Jewish laws or the Temple or the Roman government” (ch 25: v 8)

Festus is also at a loss as to what to do with Paul who is then brought before Herod Agrippa. Agrippa hears the case. Paul shares his story – including his Damascus Road conversion. In the end, Agrippa, too, can find no real guilt and at the end of acts 26 we read:

30 Then the king, the governor, Bernice (Agrippa’s sister), and all the others stood and left. 31 As they went out, they talked it over and agreed, “This man hasn’t done anything to deserve death or imprisonment.”
 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “He could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.”
So here is my question; for myself and for you: Did Paul’s accusers intentionally lie about Paul’s crimes or did they sincerely believe that Paul had done the things they claimed? Did they believe he was a trouble maker? Did they believe that he caused unrest wherever he went? Did they believe that the emerging Christian community was a cult and that Paul was the “ringleader”? And if they believed these things, would they not have seen his presence and observance of worship in the Jewish temple as desecration?

Last week we discussed the ways in which change is resisted. We looked at the history of the church and the 500 year cycle of “cleaning out the garage” that seems to mark our story. The first upheaval we mentioned was the Great Decline which happened during the 500s AD. It should not be shocking that when we roll the clock back 500 years we land in the time of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles… at the birth of Christianity.

Scripture tells us that Jesus came to his own people – those who had awaited the messiah – and that they did not recognize him; in fact, the killed him (John 1:11). Why?

The 1st century Jew had a picture of truth, of God, that was formed over hundreds of years. A picture that was formed by their traditions and by their reading of the holy texts – their scripture – our “old testament”. Jesus came and preached a different message using the SAME texts. He stood and proclaimed that the commonly held picture of the Father – of the truth – was wrong. He challenged their understanding of their own scriptures and challenged their view of truth. He said things like:

Matthew 5:

38 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ (Exodus 21:24) 39But I say, do not resist an evil person!

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’[r] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies![s] Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.

Jesus quoted the scriptures and then seemed to challenge or even correct them; or at least the commonly held understanding of these words. For this, as much as anything, Jesus was rejected, hated, and ultimately murdered. Jesus preached change – challenged the status quo – and the religious and political powers of his own people killed him rather that answer his challenge. They executed him rather than give up their understanding of truth. They executed him because he said to them “you don’t understand God at all… if you want to know who God is… who he really is… look at me.”

Paul was one of them; a “Pharisee of Pharisees. Paul (as Saul) was one who imprisoned those who taught and followed Jesus. Paul participated in the murder of Stephen (albeit in a passive way) and perhaps in the death of other members of this “cult of the Nazarene”. But Paul met Jesus face to face; and in that meeting generations of an understanding of the nature of God melted away. The picture of God, as the Jews understood him, could not remain when the picture was replaced by God himself… incarnate in the man Jesus.

And so Paul, like Jesus, told a new story. He talked about a new way of understanding God. He challenged the picture of God held by his own people. He challenged an image of God that justified the murder of Jesus, and of Stephen, and others. He challenged a view of God that was based on a small, pocket sized box built of tradition and an unquestioning view of scripture – a view that understanding was static and complete rather than living and growing and evolving – a view that all that could be known of God was known and that anyone claiming a different way was a heretic worthy of destruction.

Paul was condemned by the Religious authorities within Judaism.  He was often held in some small contempt by even those Christians who clung a bit too tightly to the old view of God. Paul eventually was taken to Rome. His case was eventually heard by Caesar. And; Paul was eventually executed… Like Jesus… like Stephen… and like most of the Apostles.

I take comfort in the fact that the church no longer kills heretics – that, at least in the west, religious leaders no longer arrest and imprison those who challenge or dispute the commonly held truths about the nature of God. Otherwise many of my favorite authors would, like Paul, do much of their writing from prison. We do, however, continue to judge and to decide who holds the proper view of truth. Years ago my family lived in a neighborhood where we were surrounded by good, solid, Christian families… families who held the highest place of honor for God and for his word. Families who came to draw conclusions about my family because of the books my kids read (Harry Potter) or the movies they watched (Spirit – Star Wars) or the secular music they listened to. They drew conclusions based on the beer in my fridge or the length of my hair. And they were mean, even cruel in their proclamation of “Truth”. My son (Alec) was picked on… Caitlin was chosen to play the “bad girl” in a skit during a youth meeting at their church. A few years into our 8 years in the neighborhood, we found a drawing that Alec had made – a drawing of our neighbor’s house; a house where a boy Alec’s age lived with his family. The top of the house was adorned with a huge cross and in front of the house my son drew an image of a book. The caption below the book read “Holy Bible: the book that proves I am right and you are wrong” To paraphrase an overused saying: “what if that had been the only “jesus” my son had ever seen?”

Even in America, religion kills. Not the body but the spirit. Religion draws lines. Religion seeks to determine who is in and who is out. Following in the Way of Jesus is not religion – following Him is following the father he revealed to us by becoming one of us. Following him is following in his way; a way of love, of compassion, of acceptance, of inclusion. Following Him is being open to the ways that Jesus revealed the father in the Gospels and to the ways that he continues to reveal the father. He is revealed in our lives. He is revealed in the poor, the hurting, the rejected. He is revealed in the marginalized and “other” among us. And he is most revealed when we embrace them. We understand Him differently than our parents understood Him. We understand him differently –perhaps even more fully - than Martin Luther, St. Francis, Augustine, or even Paul. We have the scriptures but we also have His Spirit. A Sprit which speaks to us and reveals to us a God that cannot be known or fully understood – even with 2000 years of His speaking – of His revealing himself to us. A God who is too big - too mysterious to be fully known; even in infinite revelation.

And so we study the words he has given and we listen to the voice which continues to speak. And we do not close our eyes or our ears or our hearts to the ways – new ways – in which he continues to bring His nature into focus. We listen, we question, and we embrace those who seek to listen and ask with us. We gather at his table and we ask him to show us who he really is, day by day, moment by moment, until we become like him.

His Kingdom Come.

Monday, July 18, 2011

church fathers know best?

r street community church ~ 07.17.2011

It must be said that how we read scripture greatly determines how we interpret scripture. Whether you view these texts, Genesis to Revelation, as a rule book, a love letter, an owner’s manual, or (my preference) a narrative or story; these filters determine much of what we take away from the words we read within the covers.  Even so, it is important that, regardless of your personal filter, that we give at least some weight to the style and intent of each individual document or book within the canon. We know that Song of Solomon is poetry; that the Psalms is a song book; And… be know that the “Acts of the Apostles” is a historical narrative of the very early church and its spread beyond its Judaic roots.  So… we read Acts, not as doctrine… not as theology… we read as a story and discover the roots of our faith. And… like all stories, we listen for where the narrative touches and illuminates our own story; for the relevance which allows the story to speak into our reality.

One thread that seems to run throughout much of the Acts narrative is the tenuous nature of Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem (Acts 15 – council of Jerusalem). Not hostile… no open animosity… just a little awkward? Maybe they could not quite forget his former role as persecutor. Maybe some were there when he held the coats at Stephen’s stoning. Whatever the reason, Paul’s relationship with the church in Jerusalem was somewhat strained.

So Paul’s role as travelling missionary probably suited everybody just fine.  Happy when he came to town… even happier when he left.

So Paul has come home. And Paul is already a bit of a rock-star. The leaders in Jerusalem must be just a little jealous of his success. Even the book of Acts… it starts with Peter as the central character in the story but Paul pretty quickly takes and retains center stage. He is spreading the gospel further and faster than anyone expected and he was doing it as a bit of a rebel. The church had scattered due to persecution from Saul (Paul) and others. But the seat of authority remained in Jerusalem. James and others who stayed viewed their role seriously as the center of this new faith and they likely viewed themselves as the branch closest to the vine – even as Christianity began to spread beyond the Jewish world. So Paul, the missionary to the gentiles; the rock-star evangelist… Paul travels the empire starting churches and sharing Jesus with anyone and everyone who will listen. To gentiles. To outsiders. To pagans.

It’s fair to assume, Jesus’ teaching notwithstanding, that a fair number of Jewish Christians still believed that the Messiah came to the Jews and for the Jews… only. Maybe this was not articulated. Maybe they never said it in staff meetings; but I tend to imagine the sentiment was not rare. Sort of like when a football fan who loves the razorback and the cowboys finds that a former razorback rival is now playing for the cowboys. Or maybe the way you feel when a singer you can’t stand records a duet with your FAVORITE singer are; at best… conflicted.

I think this is maybe how Jerusalem viewed Paul. They could not really argue with his success, but… Gentiles? Really?

So Paul comes home. And he does the right thing. He visits James and the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. It’s kind of like when Bono visited the Vatican… well… sort of… And Paul tells them how things are going. He reports the amazing stories from his journeys; stories of new believers, unbelievable response to the story of Christ. He tells them of the many gentiles who have believed and who now follow in the way of 
Jesus. And the leaders in Jerusalem…? They are thrilled… of course they are.

Acts 21:
20 After hearing this, they praised God. And then they said, “You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also believed…?”

and then… the meat of this story…

“You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also believed, and they all follow the law of Moses very seriously. 21 But the Jewish believers here in Jerusalem have been told that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn their backs on the laws of Moses. They’ve heard that you teach them not to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs. 22 What should we do? They will certainly hear that you have come.”
(emphasis mine)

How many of you were raised Baptist? Church of Christ? Assembly of God? Methodist? Catholic?

How many of you were taught, and maybe even believed that your “tribe” had it right? That the OTHER denominations were somehow a little less Christian? Sometimes it was subtle. Some of you grew up in traditions where you are doomed to hell, not for NOT being a Christian, but for being the wrong kind.

We all drew lines that defined us and separated us from those people.



Prefered Bible Translation…

Eternal Security…


Most of us who grew up Christian grew up with the belief that our particular brand of Christianity was best; was most like Jesus; was most like… Paul. We look around us – at others practicing their faith – and we say the same thing the elders in Jerusalem said to Paul; “they are not doing it right!” Which is to say… they are doing it differently. And rather than embracing the other expressions of faith in Christ… Instead of asking what might be learned from these stories of spiritual awakening in the gentile world… Instead of inclusion comes a demand…. a demand to conform. A demand to do it the way WE do it… the correct way.

But maybe the old ways aren’t really wrong… they are simply not the ONLY ways.
Paul seems to go along with the request of the elders, at least at face value, but writes in other instances that things like circumcision or dietary restrictions are of really no importance. That these things are the old law and that grace frees us from being saved by this type of rigid observance of a methodology or a tradition. He seems to say that following Christ is a matter of following what is before us rather than holding on to what is behind us.

Historically, we mark the progress of Christianity as these disputes over the old and the new come to critical mass. Phyllis Tickle points out in “The Great Emergence that these moments of upheaval come about every 500 years. The great Decline and fall (500s AD) Monastic Period - The Great Schism in 1054 - The Protestant Reformation (1500s AD). Each of these major shifts are accompanied by what Ms. Tickle calls a “giant rummage sale” – where the church gets rid of the idols and kingdoms that are human constructs and moves into a new way of following Jesus. And she does so over the objections - often violent and bloody objections – of the status quo.

And so, today… 500 years later…

A popular young rock-star pastor writes a book and asks provocative questions about heaven and hell and eternity - and the establishment - the symbolic elders - say, “that’s not how we do it… we have established the proper way to follow Christ… we do not ask these questions”. Or others, on blogs or in pulpits or on street corners ask questions and wrestle with big and small issues, questions about  gender and sexuality… with war and violence… with poverty and responsibility for our fellow man… with caring for creation and understanding our origins…

Hearts that love Jesus… who seek with all their hearts to follow him… these hearts ask questions and too often have found themselves, not embraced and engaged, but dismissed or worse, attacked… Told again and again “this is how WE follow Christ… this is the CORRECT way.”

Some eventually crumble and join the elders… assimilate into the accepted culture.

Some recoil at the rejection and walk away from the church altogether.

But some find a community where questions are valued; where new ways of following Christ are engaged and embraced. Where they young learn from the elder’s wisdom… but the elders are wise enough to know that they might also learn from the young.

As His kingdom comes into focus, gradually across the ages, the church - His bride changes. She becomes more beautiful… more lovely. For 2000 years he has been preparing her… and preparation is change. Preparation is a process of removing what is not needed and adding those things which are needed. In preparation, the bride does not disappear, she is not destroyed… She is simply discovered… made beautiful by taking away those things that have obscured her beauty and adding those things which complement and enhance.

And so we stand, in this moment, and submit ourselves to preparation… to change. We lay aside the dogmas and doctrines that keep us from being beautiful… that make us less lovely. We lay aside fear… hate… judgment… arrogance… violence… and we pick up compassion… love… acceptance… faith… We include all who come and exclude none. We enlarge our tent and make room at our table for those who seek him in ways we have not experienced or have even rejected. We do not assume who can know him… who He can love. And we open our hearts and our doors to anyone being called to worship at the feet of Jesus.

May we be a community who values tradition…

May we be a community who embraces the new…

May we be a community who never comes to believe that our way is the only way…
and May we embrace every soul who comes truly seeking Christ – in whatever fashion or state they come…

May there always be room at our table.  His kingdom come.