Friday, November 30, 2007

Romans 4

Romans 4:1-12: Paul has been arguing that while there is something special about the religious heritage of the Jewish Christians, when it comes right down to it, both the Jews and the Gentiles who are now a part of the Roman Jesus community, are on equal footing before God. All have sinned, Paul argues, and all find their relationship with God through trusting in God’s love and forgiveness. Relationship with God is not earned, not even by following the law that is a wonderful part of the Jewish heritage. Paul wants to argue here that the idea that faith is the essential element in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is not an upending of the law, but in keeping with the tradition. For this he will look to Abraham.

Abraham is cited more frequently in Paul’s letters that any other historical figure except Jesus. By Paul’s day, Abraham was honored as the quintessential believer who worshipped the one true God in the midst of idolatrous peoples. His stature had been embellished by legend, miracles, and quasi-deification; and his grave in Hebron was regarded as a holy place. Rabbis taught that God ordained Torah “for Abraham’s sake” and that he had kept it perfectly even before it was given on Mt. Sinai…. Abraham was a bold choice on Paul’s part because Jewish rabbis taught that Abraham has been justified because of works. Paul demonstrates that Abraham was justified apart from both the law and works. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

Paul’s language here is a little difficult for many of us, in part because our context is so different in many ways. The key issue behind Paul’s arguments seems to have been the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the new Christian movement. That is not our issue today. However, we might see some parallels. Do we see in churches people who “pull rank” based on their own sense of “spirituality,” or perhaps longevity of church membership? If we take Paul seriously, we are all justified, that is, we all have our relationship with God through trusting God, and if that is the case, it is difficult to measure and compare “trust.” We shouldn’t even try.

Paul argues that Abraham was righteous, in right relationship with God, not because of his actions, but because he trusted God. He quickly shifts to a psalm and as was the tradition, attributes this to King David. The psalm acknowledges and celebrates God’s forgiveness. Paul asks if this is only for those who have been circumcised, and refers back to Abraham who was blessed by God before he was circumcised. The act of circumcision was an outgrowth of a right relationship with God, not its precondition. The kind of rich and engaged debate about the meaning of the Scriptures Paul is working with should be modeled in our own reading of Scripture. “The interpretation of Scripture is never absolute but is always conditioned by its location with a particular tradition at a particular time, place and social location” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).

Romans 4:13-25: Paul continues to make his point by citing the story of Abraham. Not only was Abraham in relationship with God because of his trust in God, his faith, but the promise that Abraham would be the ancestor of many was rooted in trust, not in following the law. Those whose relationship to God is rooted in faith are descendants of Abraham. Paul powerfully cites more of the Abraham story – how Abraham might look at his own body and doubt that life could come from it. But God is a God who “gives life to the dead” and who “calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul then makes a crucial shift. Just as the story of Abraham was a story about a God who could bring life out of death, so, too, is the story of Jesus. The Roman Christians had a story closer to them, but parallel with the Abraham story. And they are a part of the Jesus movement, the Christian community, because they have trusted the same God, who continues to act in bringing life out of death. We stand in this same tradition. We trust in the God who acted in Jesus, and we trust that this God can still bring life. We, too, hope against hope. I think of the words of Anne Lamott, words I have come to love. Hope… is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, 275).

Romans 5

Romans 5:1-11: “Therefore” – this word indicates that Paul thinks he has “proven” his point about “justification” by grace through faith. It is faith that brings us into a right relationship with God (justification, being declared righteous). In this new relationship, we are at peace with God, that is, we are moving in the direction of God in our lives and in our actions in and for the world. We know well-being in this right relationship to God. Eugene Peterson renders part of verse 2 in this way: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his doors to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory. The God through whom we experience this well-being is the God of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Anytime the word “lord” is used there is something of an alternative to the Roman culture being proposed. The emperor was lord in the wider culture of the time, and the imperial system had its own sense of appropriate relationship to God, its own sense of what constituted success and well-being. The Christian faith and way were an alternative, a counter-culture. We might ask ourselves, “In what way is or should Christian faith be counter-cultural in our day and time?” Paul also asserts that this new life we have through grace and faith has a future dimension, and so we are people of hope. Here it is interesting to note that Paul, who has been concerned about boasting, invited boasting in our hope. It is a shared and common boasting, not a divisive one. We are a people of hope, and all can participate in that hope.

Then Paul makes a rather startling statement. We not only boast in our hope, but we boast in our sufferings. The life of faith is not always easy. God doesn’t promise prosperity and smooth sailing contrary to some contemporary versions of Christian faith. In Paul’s time such thinking would have seemed absurd. Christians were persecuted at times, some were thrown out of the synagogue, others were looked at askance. But our suffering is not in vain. We stand for God’s purposes, which will ultimately prevail and so our suffering can produce endurance and character and hope. Ultimately, our lives will not disappoint us because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “We can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). For all the difficult language in Paul, for all the passages in his letters we have to struggle with, no one can deny that he also writes with great beauty and joy and hopefulness. Yes, we have all marred the image of God within us and thwarted God’s purposes in the world. Yet we are also people into whom God’s love has been poured, into whom God’s very Spirit (God’s very self) has come.

For Paul, Christ’s death makes this pouring out of God’s love into our lives possible. Throughout Christian history, theologians have understood this differently. This is the doctrine of atonement and we discussed it pretty thoroughly when we read the chapters about Jesus’ death from the gospels. That the death of Jesus is significant for us is a central element in Christianity, but we are free to understand that significance differently. In part, Paul is saying that Christ’s death proves God’s love for us. That kind of love opens us up to the one who gives it, in this case, God. Paul uses the language and image of sacrifice, imagery which would have been familiar to he and his readers, to understand the significance of Jesus’ death. He talks about being justified by Christ’s blood. Blood and life are often used synonymously in the Bible, so we need not be as literal as perhaps Paul is being. A life lived in service of others, that ends in such tragedy, speaks deeply to us, and the God of Jesus Christ is a God whose character is seen in the life and death of Jesus. Paul is also clear that some part of being “saved” is yet to come. We are reconciled now, we will be fully “saved” in the future. There is this sense in Paul that at some future time everything will be made well and whole. He shares this notion with many other biblical writers. That God has done such wonderful things for us gives us cause to boast about God.

Romans 5:12-21: So we have used this set of images to try and explain what is happening to us because we are loved by God and have accepted that love. We can look at things from yet another angle. This time Paul refers to another tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures, the story of Adam. Again, the imagery and reasoning may seem distant from us, but let’s see if we can’t make something of this for our own lives. Paul’s first important point is that sin came into the world. It is a part of our experience that there is evil, injustice, wrongdoing in the world and that we are negatively affected by it. Most of us recognize that there have been times when we have contributed to the wrong, when we have hurt others unnecessarily, when we have not been just, when we have not cared for others or for the world around us. The negative impact of “sin” is death, and here Paul in not referring to natural death but to something like the death of God’s image within. For Paul, sin and death are a problem. He looks to the story of Adam as a type for human kind, not that he passed sin on, but his story is our story. Taken by itself, this is a sad story. A person does something he ought not to do, and the consequences are tragic.

But the story cannot be taken by itself. For Paul, a new chapter, a more powerful chapter has been written by Christ, and this is a story about “the grace of God, and the free gift in the grace of… Jesus Christ.” God’s grace and love have “abounded.” Paul sees some parallel between Adam and Jesus, but he is convinced that the power of God’s grace given freely is much greater than the power of death which is in the world because of human sin. In fact, “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” There is a sense here, in Paul, that in the end, the power that was at work in Jesus will overcome all that opposes it, will make everything and everybody right.

Part of the function of the law, as Paul sees it, is that it pointed up all the ways human beings could get it wrong. That’s a pretty negative picture, but it is only one step in Paul’s argument. The more important point is that grace abounds much more than sin. Grace that leads to life is what has the most power. It has the power to overcome the death-dealing actions in human life. God’s power to restore the image of God within us is greater than our power to mar that image.

In Romans 1-3, Paul made the point that the darkness around us is deep. In chapter 4, he argues that faith in the love and grace of God, as we have come to know that in Jesus Christ, provides a way to connect with light, and, in fact, that light of God’s love has been at work in spite of us. In chapter 5, Paul celebrates the power of God’s grace and love, arguing that while there is darkness in the world, it is no match, ultimately, for the power of the light of God’s love. Furthermore, that love has been poured into our lives graciously, generously, abundantly. In the words of the contemporary alternative band Wilco, “There’s a light (one light), There’s a light (white light), Inside of you.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Romans 2

Romans 2:1-16: The darkness around us is deep, but isn’t it wonderful that we don’t participate in such awful things? Some reading chapter one might feel smug, self-satisfied and self-righteous. Like Jesus, Paul is deeply concerned for self-righteousness, for an attitude that condemns others without self-reflection, an attitude that assumes one is unfailingly on God’s side. For Paul, honest self-reflection leads to the realization that we are all recipients of God’s grace and that we have all done things that contribute to the darkness around us. Perhaps we have not misused our sexuality. Perhaps we have not been heartless and ruthless to any extreme, but honest self-reflection leads us to acknowledge that there are times when we have been less than loving. This is not intended to foster guilt. “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Repentance simply means being open and willing to change. Paul believes God invites us to be persons who patiently do good. In this, “God shows no partiality.”

This last statement of Paul’s is remarkable. It seems endemic to the human condition that we want to add God to our side, make God partial toward us. We do this individually and collectively. Most people I know who hold fast to a hard doctrine of sin, death and hell don’t believe they are headed toward hell. Nations often assume that God is on their side and against their enemies. These statements are not meant to deny that there are genuine differences between people and nations, and that some actions are good and others are not. But to assume that one’s person or group is the sole source of good in the world is dangerous. Certainly part of Paul’s argument here is directed toward the Jewish Christians in the Roman Jesus Community who may consider themselves superior to the Gentile Christians because of their background. Paul argues that persons can have the right thing written on their hearts, without the benefit of the covenantal tradition of Judaism.

Whatever one may think about some of the specifics of Paul’s argument and language, his intent, to demonstrate the insidiousness of darkness – it even masks as “righteousness” when it becomes self-righteousness, and to argue that Jew and Gentile are on equal footing, is praiseworthy, and he remains insightful about human life. It is interesting to note Paul’s use of the phrase, “according to my gospel.” Paul’s gospel has something to do with Jesus Christ being God’s “standard” for how the inner life of people will be judged.

Romans 2:17-29: Paul now specifically turns his attention to the Jewish Christians in the Roman community. One wonders about his view of the Jewish Christians in the polemic he writes here - - - they talk about teaching others, but do they teach themselves? Are they free from adultery, theft, idolatry? Perhaps Paul is not just speaking of individuals, but of the behavior of Israel through the centuries. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed out how Israel often lived in ways that violated God’s justice. In doing so, God’s reputation among the Gentiles was tarnished. One wonders if Paul had heard that the Jews in the Roman Christian community were being prideful and haughty. Circumcision, an outward sign of being a part of the people of God, should be interpreted symbolically and internally. What counts is not what marks one physically, but what marks one’s heart. Paul can be pretty challenging toward his own people in these verses. Again, one wonders what Paul has heard about the Roman Christian Community. Perhaps he is also reflecting some of his own experience with other Jesus communities – an on-going problem between Jews and Gentiles wherein the Jewish Christians consider themselves superior to the Gentile ones. Paul will have none of that. At the same time, Paul will also not let Gentile Christians suppose that non-Christian Jews have been abandoned by God, as we shall see later in this letter.

Romans 3

Romans 3:1-8: So, is there anything special about being Jewish? Paul has tried to deflate self-righteousness, but some might come back and ask why they were Jewish in the first place. Here Paul responds. The Jews have been special for God revealed Godself in a special way to them. Paul’s theology is paradoxical – all are equal before God, yet God did indeed do something special with a particular people. God’s promises, which are for all people, first came to light in the religious tradition of the Jews and in their experience of God. Even if the Jews did not always live up to their covenant to be a light to all people, God’s promise that light would be given to the world is not any less valid. Then, in an argument that can be a little confusing, Paul posits on objector. His interlocutor offers a counter argument – if God remains faithful, and if, in fact, God’s faithfulness is made even more apparent by the unfaithfulness of human beings, why should God judge that unfaithfulness? If our sinning, our marring God’s image in our lives and in the world, makes even more evident the graciousness of God who will not give up on us no matter what, should, perhaps we sin even more? Paul dismisses such arguments as nonsense. God’s justice, truthfulness, and love by themselves judge the inadequacies of human action. For Paul that is axiomatic. No doubt there are issues here that were more relevant to Paul’s time than to our own.

Romans 3:9-20: Though there is something special about being Jewish, Paul returns to his point that all share in human sin – all, both Jews and Greeks “are under the power of sin.” Paul quotes a variety of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures to make his point about the universality of sin. These are hard words for us to hear for we too easily equate “sin” with either gross evil or with the violation of petty moralistic rules. Sometimes we think of sin as killing or robbery. Sometimes we think of it in terms of drinking, dancing, smoking, sexual thoughts. None of us likes to have the word “sin” attributed to our actions or person. What if “sin” were understood to be anything that we do that mars the image of God in us or that detracts from God’s purposes for the world. When we have been unkind, we have thwarted God’s purposes. When we have not valued ourselves as beloved people of God, we have marred the image of God within us. Sin can take on a power of its own. Think of a time when you may have done something wrong or unkind and then found yourself constructing ways to deny what you had done. The story can build so that it has a life, a power of its own. Over time we can convince ourselves that our unkindness was justified, our inappropriate action was not so bad, and if anyone tells us differently, we probably react badly again. The power of sin can be a social power as well. When a group that has some social power sees only its goodness and never its shortcomings, it may begin to think that whatever way it uses its power is good. We see that time and again in human history. When I think about “sin” in those ways, it is easier for me to acknowledge that I have sinned. Maybe the word has become so worn and warped in our day and time we need to find some replacement for it – but the reality to which it points is important. Prominent theologians from Reinhold Niebuhr and Barbara Brown Taylor have written insightfully about “sin” and we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For Paul, all are under the power of sin, all succumb to the temptation to sin. For Paul, the law given to the Jews was an indication of the purposes of God, and no one could reasonably claim that they had on every occasion fulfilled those purposes.

Romans 3:21-31: If all fail to measure up to God’s purposes for their life and the world, where do we go from here? Paul asserts again that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The early Christian theologian, Irenaeus once wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” I don’t have a problem with the notion that I have not always been “fully alive,” nor with claiming that the same is probably true for most other human beings. I would argue that there are social forces which work against the full aliveness of human beings. The power of sin, I think, is real. But we need not simply acquiesce to this situation. There is grace, forgiveness and power to change found in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that power was the power of God revealed when Jesus died and was raised. That power comes to us as a gift from God, who is always at work to make things right (righteousness). The image of redemption Paul uses may have its roots in the Roman social norm of ransoms paid for the release of slaves. We have been trapped by the power of sin, but God frees us from that on-going trap by the power that was at work in Jesus as the Christ. For Paul, God put Jesus forward as a sacrifice of atonement. Here he is using imagery from Jewish sacrificial ritual. Note, then, that Paul uses both Roman and Jewish images to try and define what God was up to in Jesus. Paul is writing metaphoric theology here, searching for images that help explain how God acts in Jesus to heal, forgive and free. We should be as creative in search for relevant images of how God in Jesus continues to work in human lives to heal, forgive and free. Humans access this power through faith. Faith has the primary connotation of trust. We trust that God works in our lives to heal, forgive and free. We trust that the power of God’s love is a life-giving power. We trust that the way of God shown in the way of Jesus is the way to be a fully alive human being.

If having our lives set back on a better way is primarily a gift of God’s grace, offered to us while we were yet caught in the power of sin, there is no reason for anyone to boast about their relationship to God. Paul does not deny that there may be an equality of sin but an inequality of guilt (to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s phrase), that is, that some people’s actions are more harmful than others. Yet, at some level, all have managed to lose their way and God’s grace found them. Boastfulness which may divide a community of faith is thus inappropriate. God is a God of both Jews and Gentiles. Through all this detailed an complex line of reasoning, one of Paul’s essential points is that God is a God of us all and we all receive grace from God as we receive such grace in faith. Divisive pridefulness has no place in the Christian community.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Romans 1

Romans 1:1-7: Paul introduces himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and as one called to be an apostle. He believes God has set him apart to teach and proclaim the “gospel of God.” This gospel is not something new and alien, especially to the Jewish Christians. It continues the work of God and promise of God as understood in the Jewish prophetic literature. The good news, the gospel, is focused on God’s “Son,” Jesus Christ. Jesus was descended from David, but his identity as God’s Son is declared in a powerful way through the resurrection. In the gospels, Jesus was filled with God’s Spirit and was thus God’s person during his life. Paul focuses on what happened to Jesus after his death. Remember, Paul is working before gospels were written. Stories about Jesus were circulating orally, but had not been systematized into narratives. Paul affirms that it is in the power displayed by God raising Jesus from the dead that Jesus' life is affirmed. Paul believes that this life-giving power at work in Jesus is available to others as well. This is good news. It is from Jesus as the Christ that Paul has been given an apostolic ministry and the grace to carry it out. His ministry is to offer this life-giving message to “all the Gentiles, including those to whom he is writing. They are all “God’s beloved in Rome,” and Paul wishes them “grace and peace” from God and from Jesus the Christ.

This is a long salutation, longer than was customary. In it, Paul seeks to establish his credentials and to let his readers know that his message is in line with what they have already been taught. Verses 3-4 may quote an early Christian creed. Paul also does some other interesting things here. This is a mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian community. He asserts that the message about Jesus is in continuity with the Jewish faith (prophets, David) and that it is also for the Gentiles, to whom he has a particular calling. Jesus is called “Christ,” that is the Jewish Messiah and “Lord” – a term which would have been familiar to the Gentiles who understood Caesar to be “Lord.” Caesar would also have claimed the title “son of god.” Paul, in writing to the Christians in the capital of the empire asserts the existence of another “kingdom,” a deeper loyalty. In this “kingdom,” there is grace and peace.

Romans 1:8-15: Paul is good at complimenting his readers. He gives thanks to God for them “because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” Paul has been praying that he might be able to travel to Rome to see them face to face. He wants to share his gifts with them, and be enriched by them – not a bad model for all ministry. As a pastor, I hope I might share my gifts with those in my congregation and community, and in turn, I will be enriched by their faith and gifts. Paul acknowledges that he has already been the recipient of the gifts of faith of a variety of people – Greeks and barbarians (a phrase that simply means “everyone”). He is eager to share and receive from the Christian community in Rome.

Romans 1:16-17: Paul now proclaims that the gospel, the good news about the power of God’s love at work in Jesus Christ, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” “Power” would have been thought to be housed in the imperial palaces and strongholds of Rome. True power, power to give life, wholeness, well-being, healing is found in God as God is known in Jesus as the Christ. Paul’s message is universal, both for Jew and Greek. Paul has complete confidence in this gospel and in the God of this gospel. We know and experience the power of the gospel as we open ourselves to it in faith. When we trust the power of God’s love in our lives it becomes an effective force for transformation, for healing, for positive change. We become a part of God’s righteousness - God’s work to make the world more just, peaceful, loving, compassionate, caring.

Romans 1:18-32: Now Paul begins contrasting “the righteousness of God,” that is, God’s way for the world, God’s dream for the world, with something “other.” Paul will come to use the word “sin” for this other, and we will discuss that later. Here Paul begins to remind the Roman Christians that God’s dream for the world does not yet prevail and that there is a lot of darkness out there (William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep”). Later, Paul will assert that one commonality in the human experience, for both Jews and Gentiles, is that all have been touched by sin, contributed it, chosen it – again, more on that later. These are very difficult verses, and after I preached on them this morning someone told me they wished a council would convene to expunge these from our Scriptures. Many of us know how he feels. Most of what follows comes from the sermon I preached this morning, though I have made some changes to fit this format.

“The darkness around us is deep” - I believe that is what Paul is trying to communicate in these verses. It is part of what we see in the world as we look at the world through the eyes of faith. Paul, looking at his world, saw that the darkness around him was deep. For some, this is not a very helpful side of the Christian faith. Paul is considered a pessimist and a prude, too hung up on “sin” and mistaken about what might constitute sin and darkness. However, Paul is too easily dismissed. I may not agree with the way Paul says what he has to say, but I take him seriously and believe he is insightful, even in this difficult section of Romans.

The darkness around us is deep, but that is not the beginning point for Paul. “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that God has made.” The beginning point for Paul is that God’s nature, God’s power, God’s very self, are to be found in the world as we know it. When justice is done, we know something about God. When love is shown, God’s love is powerful there. Where there is beauty, we know something of the creativity of God. This is remarkable stuff and hardly pessimistic.

But Paul also believed that we could mar that image of God in ourselves and in our world. We can blow out the light of God within us so that it is little more than a trail of light smoke. Not only are we capable of doing that, it is being done – by individuals in their choosing, and by the social systems individuals create that make justice difficult, that make peace more of a challenge, that divide persons. Paul, looking through the eyes of faith, saw how dramatically the image of God could be marred in God’s good creation.

Now Paul uses some language that makes him particularly challenging. He talks about the wrath of God, and we imagine and angry God coming from the heavens to punish us mercilessly. “The wrath of God” really has to do with the idea Paul conveys in other verses – that God lets us do those things that mar God’s image in us. God gives us up to our own devices, and the word of God’s wrath, which is also a word of grace is – “look, that stuff will kill you.” We are reminded that actions have consequences, and one consequence of actions may be that God’s image in us is marred, God’s intention for our lives and communities is warped, twisted, mangled.

And for Paul, the root of the darkness around us is “idolatry,” pushing God aside. That image, too, is not very helpful to us. Most people we know don’t have image of birds or animals or reptiles to which they pay homage, which they worship. But if we think about God as one who invites justice, peace, reconciliation, care, forgiveness, creativity, beauty, goodness, love, when we make other things more important in life, we are displacing God. We are making idols of something other than God and that is problematic. Life gets messed up when we do that.

So the darkness around us is deep – that’s Paul’s message as he looks at the world through the eyes of faith, and I think it is something we see as we look at the world through the eyes of faith. The darkness is deep because we mar the image of God in ourselves and in our world. And how do we do that? This is where Paul gets really difficult for many of us, because here he brings up sex. How we use our bodies, our sexuality, can either illumine the image of God within, or mar it and contribute to the darkness. So far, we may be there with Paul. But the examples he uses are all examples of same-sex activity. Is Paul trying to say that there is something about homosexuality that inherently mars the image of God in persons? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Paul saw things going on that he disapproved of, that he condemned. But in the words of theologian William Placher, “we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw.” There is a fair amount of information about same sex sexual activity in the Roman world which suggests that what Paul saw was not what we have come to understand as persons whose sexual orientation was toward persons of the same sex, and thus persons seeking to live in long-term committed relationships. In the Roman world, worship at the temples of some of the Greek and Roman gods involved sexual activity, for example. As Placher goes on to ask, “Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong to Paul in the same way?” (Jesus the Savior, 100) John Dominic Crossan, in his new book, God and Empire argues that the centerpiece of Paul’s concern in this passage is for sexual expression that is “unnatural.” He goes on to write: The problem, however, is that the natural and unnatural are open to social and cultural interpretation…. First-century Jewish writers considered homosexuality unnatural because they judged from organs and biology. Many of us today consider it natural because we judge from hormones and chemistry. (144)

Paul’s point, to my mind, is not really about homosexuality, but about the misuse of sexuality. How we use our sexuality can mar the image of God within us. And the darkness around us is deep. Steve Chapman, in a recent column in The Chicago Tribune notes that “the rise of the Internet has been a vast social experiment on the social consequences of pornography. Nearly everyone is now just a few key strokes away from sexually explicit material” (The Week, November 16, 2007, p. 18). The portrayal of human sexuality in pornography is not usually helpful or realistic.

I have deeply appreciated the words of Buddhist Sharon Salzberg on human sexuality and its misuse. Traditionally lay Buddhists undertake the practice of five precepts, one of which is “to refrain from sexual misconduct, or using sexual energy in a way that causes harm.” About this she writes: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Loving-Kindness, 176) Sexuality is powerful and its misuse mars the image of God within, creating darkness rather than radiating light.

But while many interpreters have focused on this part of Paul’s words, we ought not to ignore all the other ways he identifies for marring the image of God in our lives, all the other kinds of darkness he sees around – covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, haughty, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. When we look through the eyes of faith at some of the ways we have organized our common life, we see such things and we see that the darkness around us is deep.

Author Joanna Macy notes, The forces of late capitalism continually tell us that we need more – more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel, humiliating bondage of debt. (Shambala Sun, November 2007: 49). In many ways, our economy encourages covetousness and envy.

And when we look at some of the economic realities around us, we see darkness. In his most recent book (The Conscience of a Liberal), economist Paul Krugman notes some of the enormous disparities in our economic life. In 1969, Charles Johnson was the CEO of General Motors, the countries largest private employer, and he was one of America’s highest paid executives. That year he earned $795,000, equivalent to $4.3 million today. The average auto industry production worker earned $9,000, equivalent to $40,000 today. Now there is a great deal of difference in those figures. However, today Wal-Mart is America’s largest corporation. In 2005, its CEO, Lee Scott was paid almost $23 million, while the average nonsupervisory employees are paid about $18,000 (139). In the 1970s, CEOs at just over 100 major companies were paid, on average about 40 times what the average full-time worker in the U.S. economy made. By the early part of this century, CEO pay averaged 367 times the pay of the average worker. (142)

These days I sometimes wonder if we are not making an idol of national security, sacrificing at its altar values that we have long held important for our life as a county, values that are important to Christian faith. What are we willing to sacrifice for security? I am not denigrating any concern for national security, only questioning the effects an exclusive concern for it may be having on us. The United States has kept people in prison for years, now, without charges and without trials. We have people debating whether or not simulated drowning is an appropriate interrogation technique. Are we becoming ruthless and heartless? The idol of national security has been used as an excuse for refusing to consider alternatives to the current strategy in Iraq, a war that was begun for reasons of national security, but which seems in hindsight ill-conceived and poorly strategized. The Bishops of The United Methodist Church, in their recent resolution, have come to think enough is enough in Iraq, and while to be a faithful United Methodist does not require agreeing with the Bishops, in this case, I do.

Paul makes a case that the darkness around us is deep. That was the case he was making to the Roman Christians and it is a case that can be made today, as the above words from my sermon indicate. Paul will continue to make his case in the next chapter. But while we follow Paul’s argument, we should never forget where he began – with a deep confidence that God’s love is more powerful than the darkness, that it has the power to heal and free and save.
The Letter of Paul to the Roman Christian Community (Romans)

We now move from narrative books – gospels and Acts – to letters, and this will carry us through most of the remainder of the New Testament. Of the letters, most are attributed to Paul though most scholars argue that not all the letters attributed to Paul were genuinely written by Paul. Recall that pseudonymous authorship was a common practice in the ancient world. It may be helpful, then, as we begin to read the New Testament letters (epistles) we look a little at the life of Paul and then provide some introductory information to Romans itself.

Paul is a towering figure in the early history of Christianity. His writings are the oldest accounts we have of Christian faith, predating all of the New Testament gospels. If one counts the letters attributed to him and the chapters about him in Acts we discover that Paul takes up half the New Testament. As already mentioned, not all thirteen letters attributed to Paul were written by Paul. In addition, we should note that in places, Paul’s own account of his life in his letters differs in some ways from the portrait provided by Luke. John Dominic Crossan does a nice job of summarizing some of these issues in his recent book, God and Empire. Luke and the letters agree that Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee, and a persecutor of the early Christian community. Luke portrays Paul as a citizen of Rome who was born in Tarsus and raised in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel. Paul never mentions his citizenship or being raised in Jerusalem. Crossan says he would not argue very strongly about any of these points, but simply notes the differences. Paul asserts unequivocally that he is an apostle on par with the other apostles. Luke does not use that same language of Paul. Painting a picture of Paul has its complications, then.

“We know very little about the life of Paul before his call/conversion to become a Christian. Even for Paul’s Christian period, we do not have the materials to write anything like a biography.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Here are some basic points about Paul’s life, which helps provide a context for his letters. Paul was born of Jewish parents in Tarsus. He may have been a Roman citizen. He may have been about the same age as Jesus, thus born sometime between 5 BCE and 5 CE. Paul had both a Hebrew name, Saul and a Roman name – Paul. He was educated in Greek and this was his native language. He probably also spoke Aramaic and knew Hebrew. He was educated as a Pharisee – the Pharisees being a renewal movement within first century Judaism. He may have spent time in Jerusalem, this is disputed. He was trained as a tentmaker or leather worker. In his dedication to his faith, Paul persecuted those who were a part of another “renewal movement” within Judaism – followers of the Way of Jesus. Paul’s change – his call or conversion – occurred in about 33 CE, while he was on his way to deal with followers of Jesus in Damascus. Paul went from being a person who persecuted the Jesus movement to one of its most important figures – quite a dramatic change.

Following his call/conversion/change, Paul studied this new Way in Damascus, and became a traveling teacher with Damascus as his base. After three years, he made his first visit to Jerusalem following his change. For a period of about 14 years, a period on which both Acts and his own letters are silent, Paul apparently continued to learn about, teach and share his faith. He matured as a person, a Christian and a leader. In about 50, Paul and Barnabas engage in their first “missionary journey” sponsored by the church in Antioch of Syria. In that same year, Paul’s work among Gentiles was creating a controversy and he returned to Jerusalem to be a part of a conference of apostolic leaders. “Upon his return to Antioch, Paul had a confrontation with Peter, resulting in a break with the Antioch church” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul went off on his own missionary endeavor. It is from the period of his final two “missionary journeys” that we have letters that are a part of our New Testament. There is a strong consensus that the authentic letters of Paul are: I Thessalonians (usually considered the earliest of Paul’s writings in the New Testament), I and II Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Galatians and Romans. There is significant debate about the authorship of II Thessalonians, Ephesians and Colossians. There is a strong scholarly consensus that the letters to Timothy and Titus are not from the hand of Paul.

During his final missionary journey, part of Paul’s work involved collecting an offering for the Jerusalem church. Luke does not mention this in Acts, but it seems a primary reason for Paul’s return there in 57 CE. When in Jerusalem this time, Paul is arrested. He offers defenses of his work in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and is imprisoned for two years in Caesarea, before being sent on to Rome. In Rome, his imprisonment continued for two more years. One tradition, perhaps the strongest, is that Paul “was probably condemned and executed ca. 64” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In another tradition, linked to the pastoral epistles (the Timothy books and Titus), Paul was released from prison in Rome and continued his missionary work, only to be arrested and executed at a later date. In this tradition, I Timothy and Titus were written during this period of freedom, and II Timothy written during a second imprisonment.

As for Paul’s theology and his understanding and interpretation of the life of Jesus and the Christian faith, we will discover this as we explore his letters one by one. Volumes have been written about Paul, his life and his theology. Some accuse Paul of warping the simple traditions of Jesus. Some consider his thinking particularly unhelpful. Crossan, in God and Empire poses the question as to whether Paul should be considered an appealing or an appalling apostle, before arguing that he should be considered an appealing one.

Romans is the first of Paul’s letters we will read. Beginning with Romans is not beginning with Paul’s earliest writings, nor with one of his easiest. In fact, Romans is one of Paul’s more dense and sophisticated works, and perhaps the latest of the letters we have. He is writing to a Jesus community (Christian church) he did not found and had never visited, so he is not responding directly to controversies among people he knows. The letters in the New Testament attributed to Paul are arranged in order of decreasing length.

In a real sense… Romans is indeed the premiere Pauline letter, for in the history of the church it has had the most influence, contains the longest sustained argument of any Pauline letter, and comes closest to being a summary of Paul’s faith (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Throughout two millennia of history, Romans has repeatedly proved to be a catalyst for reform and renewal of Christian faith and life (New Interpreters Study Bible). In what context did Paul write this letter?

Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans from Corinth in 56 or 57 CE. Paul had been actively sharing his preaching and teaching, and had been giving counsel to congregations in person and by letter. He would return to Jerusalem to deliver the offering he had been collecting for the church there, though there was doubt about whether they would accept an offering taken up primarily by Gentiles. After his trip to Jerusalem, Paul was planning to visit Rome and from there launch a mission into Spain. Paul is writing this letter to introduce himself and his teaching to Christians he is planning to visit. Part of the context for the letter is the history of the community itself. In 49 CE, Jews and Jewish Christians were forced out of Rome. It is probable that the Emperor Claudius' expulsion of the Jews had something to do with debate in the synagogue over the Jesus movement. Though the church had been primarily Jewish, this left it entirely Gentile. The Jewish Christians have returned and the relationship between these two groups was of concern to Paul. Paul is on his way to visit. On to the letter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Acts 27

Acts 27:1-12: Paul could have been set free, but he had already made an appeal to the emperor, and so to the emperor he shall go. Of course, for Luke, this is an emphasis on how the church under the power of God’s Spirit will be a witness for God and for Jesus as the Christ to the ends of the earth. Julius, the Roman centurion treats Paul kindly at Sidon. This is the kind of treatment that Luke would like to encourage all Romans to give to Christians. Sailing is difficult and Paul advises that the ship should spend the winter in Fair Havens.

Acts 27:13-38:
While making Rome before winter was not possible, the ship’s captain and the centurion hope for a more adequate destination and set sail from Fair Havens. The ship encounters a violent storm, and after a couple of days all hope of being saved was seemingly lost.

Paul stands up to make a speech, to provide a witness. He begins by reminding them that he was right in advising that they not set sail – and you wonder about such a rhetorical strategy. Nevertheless, Paul assures them that he will speak before the emperor, and that God has guaranteed his safety. He advises them to keep their courage and not be afraid. Such words are found frequently in the New Testament and seem an appropriate response of faith to the assurance that God’s Spirit remains at work.

After fourteen days without eating, Paul encourages them all to eat, reassuring them that things will be all right. The scene of Paul’s breaking bread is meant to evoke the sharing of the Eucharistic meal. For the church, it is in sharing the eucharist that strength and courage are found for the journey of faith, even when that journey encounter turbulent seas and violent winds.

Acts 27:39-44: A shipwreck ensues, but everyone survives, not only the wreck, but also the plot to kill the prisoners.

Acts 28

Acts 28:1-10: The ship has run aground on Malta, and there the ship’s passengers enjoy warm hospitality offered by the islanders, their “unusual kindness.” The tale of the snake biting Paul is meant to convey God’s on-going protection of Paul and the importance of Paul getting to Rome. The power of God’s Spirit not only works for Paul, but through him as Paul heals people on the island. In gratitude for all that Paul has done, provisions are provided for the journey to Rome.

Acts 28:11-16: The journey continues, and along the way, Paul encounters a community of believers. The message about Jesus has preceded Paul. The church in Rome was not founded by Paul as his own letter to Roman Christians indicates. When Paul arrives in Rome and sees believers there, he “thanked God and took courage.”

Acts 28:17-31: Paul has arrived at his destination, Rome. The gospel message has traveled from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the ends of the earth. Here Paul again reaches out first to the Jewish people in Rome. He invites the local leaders to a gathering for conversation. He begins by telling them the story of his arrest and innocence. He reiterates his Jewish identity and begins to indicate that his new faith is part and parcel of his faith journey as a Jew. His audience tells Paul that they have heard nothing about him from Judea, but they have heard about this “sect,” and what they have heard has not been good. They want to get Paul’s take on it, and a date is set to do just that.

A great many people gather at Paul’s lodgings and he explained and testified “to the kingdom of God” and tried to “convince them about Jesus.” Here again, Luke uses a couple of summary phrases to describe the content of the teaching and preaching of the early church. The kingdom of God may be thought of as God’s dream for the world, a world of peace, justice, reconciliation, beauty, love, compassion, care, forgiveness. It is an alternative to the way the world most often works where the powerful define “justice,” where poverty is allowed to stand, where people are divided by race or ethnicity or religion, where violence runs amok. For Paul, and for the early Christians, God’s power in working toward God’s dream for the world was seen most fully in the life and teaching of Jesus, in what he said and what he did.

As happened throughout the Book of Acts, “some were convinced by what [Paul] said, while others refused to believe.” Paul uses a few verses from Isaiah to caution his listeners against being too quick to turn away. The unwillingness of some seems to open the way for more Gentiles to be welcome among the people of God.

Paul lives two years in Rome, making his own way economically, a backhanded reference to other wisdom teachers who had as a primary goal making money from their followers. Paul “welcomed all” who came. He continued “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, the language suggests an alternative way of life to the Roman way, the Roman kingdom where Caesar was lord. Paul continued this work with “boldness.” At the end, Paul serves as a model for the church of Luke’s own time.

Luke’s book seems to end rather abruptly. What happens to Paul and the Christian movement in Rome? Some have speculated that Luke wrote or intended a third volume of his work. Others argue that the ending fits Luke’s purpose, given what happened to Paul. From the historic record is appears that Paul appeared before the imperial court and was condemned. Nero was the emperor. In 64 CE, Christians became the target of a significant persecution in Rome. Nero blamed them for a fire that had destroyed the central part of the city. Nero, himself, was widely regarded as the instigator of the fires so that he might engage in a grand “urban renewal” project. Paul and Peter were both executed during this persecution. Luke seemed to prefer to view this action against Paul as an isolated and unwarranted imperial response to the Christian movement. He wanted to foster and encourage a more positive response. By ending his gospel with Paul continuing his work unhindered, he suggests a more appropriate Roman response to the Christian movement. To have ended the book with Paul’s death, which would have been fairly common knowledge to Luke’s Christian community, would not have been the positive ending Luke wanted.

So do we simply ignore difficult realities? Of course not. Luke knew Paul was executed. Most of Luke’s readers would have know that Paul had been executed. To focus only on that fact would not have presented a very accurate picture of the Christian movement. Obviously, given the communities for which Luke wrote, the Christian movement continued on. It was in a position to continue the work of Jesus and Paul and Luke wanted to encourage them to do so. 2,000 years later, we, too, have the opportunity to continue that work. Will we do it with boldness?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Acts 25

Another note about Acts 24: Felix resists Paul’s teaching, perhaps for a number of reasons. Luke does seem interested in making a case that Christian faith is no immediate threat to the Empire. He is concerned to help give it a legitimate place in the religious landscape and in the legal system of Rome. But perhaps Felix also understood that they are “anti-imperial” undercurrents in Christian faith. The kind of justice Jesus talked about in describing the kingdom of God would be different from Roman justice. The kind of self-control Jesus encouraged might cut against some of the hedonistic elements of Roman culture. The ultimate values represented in the phrase “coming judgment” might have been significantly different from the values of the empire. Perhaps all this gave Felix pause.

Acts 25:1-12: Festus, Felix’s successor is approached early in his administration about Paul. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted Paul transferred back there, not so justice might be done, but so that a conspiracy to eliminate him might move forward. Festus maintains his authority as the Roman governor. He invites them to come to Caesarea to reiterate the charges against Paul. That happens. Charges, unspecified, are brought. Paul denies them and appeals, as a Roman citizen, to have his case appealed to the emperor. Christians are willing to appeal to the rule of law in order to keep their mission and movement going forward.

Acts 25:13-22: King Agrippa was a Jewish king (Herod Agrippa II) of adjoining territories to those governed by Festus. Bernice was his sister. They come to pay a call on Festus, who brings up Paul’s case. According to Festus, the charges the Jewish leaders brought against Paul surprised him. “Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” Again, this account serves Luke’s purpose of trying to have the Christian way viewed as a legitimate branch of Judaism and thus a part of Rome’s understanding to give the Jews some autonomy. It is also an interesting insight into how some understood the essence of the Christian way from the outside – it was about a certain Jesus who was asserted to be alive. Agrippa desires to listen to Paul himself.

Acts 25:23-27: Paul’s final defense speech will occur under auspicious circumstances. King Agrippa is the special guest of Festus and the hall is filled with prominent people. Christian faith is to be shared with the lowly and with the powerful.

Acts 26

Acts 26:1-23: This is the climactic speech in these final chapters of Acts. Luke presents this material not only to further the narrative, but to present a model for the Christians of his own time as to how they might present the faith to officials in the empire.

Paul again begins by asserting his Jewish identity and faithfulness to this tradition. He was not an ordinary Jew, but a Pharisee, and a very observant one at that. His belief that Jesus was raised by God is to be seen as a part of the belief-system of the Pharisees that God would indeed raise people from the dead. “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” That question receives a very different response in our day and time, and, as noted when we discussed the resurrection narratives in the gospels, the precise meaning of being raised from the dead is open to some interpretation and faithful Christians disagree about the meaning of this phrase. Even with our disagreements about the specifics, we see that Christian faith is centered in the resurrection.

Paul recounts that out of his sense of faithfulness to his faith, he persecuted those who followed the Christian way. Then as he went to carry out a similar task in Damascus, his life changed dramatically. He had an encounter with a living Jesus who was going to touch his life and send him to testify to what he would experience. In the words of Jesus to Paul, “I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Here again, we are given another formulation of the meaning of Christian faith and life. No single language seems adequate to describe how it is God moves in people’s lives for their betterment, for their healing, for their “salvation.”

Given the power of Paul’s vision, he could not disobey it. Just as he had been faithful to the Jewish faith in which he was brought up, Paul will be faithful to this new vision, which he understood to be coming from the same God he had worshipped and followed for years. In following that vision, Paul went about preaching “that [people] should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.” That he is even standing there was a testimony to Paul that God had protected him thus far, and Paul reasserts that what he is teaching and preaching is nothing other than what is to be found in the Scriptures of his faith. Of course, the matter is not quite that simple – the early church interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures in light of their experience of Jesus. Of fundamental importance to Paul and Luke is that Jesus is the first to rise from the dead. This is a symbol that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world in a new way. A new light is dawning for the entire world.

Acts 26:24-32: Paul’s speech is interrupted by Festus. He wonders if Paul has lost his mind, if it has become so learned that he risks a kind of insanity. Paul counters that he is but speaking the sober truth and utilizes a well-known Greek turn of phrase, that what he speaks of was not done in a corner. Paul turns his appeal directly to the Jewish king Agrippa. “Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” For Paul one could be a Christian and believe the Hebrew prophets. Agrippa is not ready to respond to what he perceives to be a quick appeal. His response, in fact, is probably sarcastic. “You would make me a Christian in such a short period of time, with one little speech?” Paul hopes that all will turn toward Jesus, be like him – except, of course, for the chains. Paul is not beyond using a little humor himself! Whatever their reticence with regard to Paul’s appeal for faith in Jesus, Agrippa and Festus conclude that Paul has done nothing to deserve death and or imprisonment. In fact, if he had not appealed to the emperor, Festus would have set him free right then. But of course, then Paul would not have made his way to Rome, and that is where the story really needs to end for Luke.
Acts 24

Acts 24:1-9: The scene has shifted to Caesarea, the imperial headquarters for the region and Felix is the governor there. Paul’s accusers come from Jerusalem to present their case against him. Included in the group are Ananias the high priest and a lawyer named Tertullus. The chapter presents an interesting look into the Roman justice system and the place accorded Judaism in the Roman empire.

Paul’s accusers compliment Felix and the empire – “because of you we have long enjoyed peace, and reforms have been made for this people because of your foresight.” Apparently Felix had brought a measure of peace to the region, in part, through the suppression of some Jewish rebels. Paul is accused of being a threat to the public peace and welfare. He is accused of being a ringleader of “the sect of the Nazarenes.” This was the Jewish term for the emerging Jesus movement, and the word “sect” here carries negative connotations.

Acts 24:10-23: Paul offers his reply to Felix. Paul denies being a public threat. Furthermore, he asserts that following “the Way” is his way of worshipping the God he had always worshipped, “the God of our ancestors.” He affirms that he has a hope in God, a hope for a general resurrection. Paul argues that his trip to the temple was a religious pilgrimage, and he was simply following the rituals of his faith when he was in the temple. Felix, however, is no novice when it comes to religious matters. He was “rather well informed about the Way.” He keeps Paul in custody, but treats him well. He will wait until the tribune comes to offer judgment about Paul.

Acts 24:24-27: Not only is Felix well informed about the Way, but his wife is Jewish. Paul was invited to come and discuss “faith in Christ Jesus.” Paul discussed this in terms of “justice, self-control, and the coming judgment.” These are interesting phrases to talk about what is important in faith in Christ Jesus. Felix probably called Paul in out of curiosity, but finds out that he may need to make some decision about this Way, and he backs away. After two years, Paul is still in prison, and Felix is replaced.
Acts 22

Acts 22:1-21: When we last left Paul he was beginning to speak to people using the Hebrew language after his arrest in Jerusalem. In the final seven chapters of Acts, Paul will give six speeches, five explicitly in defense of himself and of the Christian faith. They are different from the evangelistic speeches in which the gospel is proclaimed to outsiders. “Defense” here is a semitechnical term, apologia. The apologists of the second century were Christian leaders who explained the Christian faith to the Roman world in order to guard it from misunderstandings and to defend its right to exist as a legitimate religion. Luke is already moving in this direction…. The main line of defense is that Christianity is not a new and dangerous religion, but a legitimate outgrowth of Judaism. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)

So Paul’s speech begins with the simple words, “I am a Jew.” He then goes on to tell a part of his life story. Though he was born in Tarsus, he was brought up in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he studied under the great scholar Rabbi Gamaliel. He was “zealous for God” and notes that he shares this with his hearers. Out of that sincere religious conviction, Paul opposed this new Way – just as many of those listening to him. Paul’s persecution involved violence and imprisoning Christian men and women.

Then he traveled to Damascus where his life began to change. On the road, he was met by Jesus who asked Paul why he was persecuting him. His experience was something that others could attest to, though the details differ from chapter to chapter. In chapter nine, those with Paul hear the voice but don’t see anyone. Here they see the light but do not hear the voice. What matters to Luke is that Paul’s experience was something more than just his experience, that there was some public dimension to it. Paul’s experience blinds him temporarily. This is interesting metaphorically. Paul had considered himself secure in the light of his faith, but his encounter with the Jesus behind the Way moves him from sure-sightedness to blindness. Maybe there is something there for us and our spiritual lives. Though God’s Spirit through Christ wants us to see more clearly and truthfully, sometimes we will have transition moments when things are even less clear than they once were.

God uses Ananias, a devout Jewish man, to bring him sight and to help him take his first steps on this new Way. The God of this Way is not a new god, but “the God of our ancestors.” And God’s Righteous One is Jesus of Nazareth, to whom Paul will now become a witness, a witness to all the world.

From Damascus, Paul returns to Jerusalem where he has a vision of Jesus. It is Jesus who sends him out to witness to the Gentiles.

Acts 22:22-30: It was up to this point that the crowd had listened politely, but this remark stirs them up. To claim that God’s grace was being extended to the Gentiles was controversial. One is reminded of the crowds who opposed Jesus. The Roman authorities bring Paul to the barracks where he is to be interrogated by flogging. He is creating quite a stir and they will get to the bottom of this. Before they begin this ruthless interrogation, however, Paul asserts his citizenship. Even in the first century, the status of prisoners is more than just a philosophical point. One can’t but help be reminded of the current discussions about the status of prisoners at Guantanamo, and the debates about our own interrogation techniques. Citizenship protected citizens from arbitrary examination by torture. In his own letters, Paul never refers to either his citizenship nor to a period of study in Jerusalem. That does not mean these are not historical facts, it only means they are not corroborated. It also pushes us to ask why Luke would include these details. Luke is determined to demonstrate both that Christian faith is a legitimate development from Judaism, which has some protected status in the Roman Empire, and that it is compatible with citizenship.

The next day, Paul is released but asked to appear before the chief priests and the Jewish leaders (the council) in the presence of the tribunal.

Acts 23

Acts 23:1-11: Paul’s second speech is presented, this one to the Jewish leaders. He begins by asserting that he has lived his life with a clear conscience, that is, he sees himself as one who has not turned away from the faith in which he was raised (Judaism). Ironically, Paul had a clear conscience when he opposed the Christian way and when he became a part of it. Conscience needs to be heeded, but a sincere conscience by itself is not always a reliable guide. I think of a wonderful poem by Nobel-Prize winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska. It begins:
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The poem ends with these lines:
There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.

But Paul is defending himself as a faithful Jew to Jewish leaders, and on that score he is asserting that he still feels himself to be a faithful Jew. For his remarks, he get struck on the mouth by order of the high priest. He responds with some scathing words, calling him a whitewashed wall, a formulaic phrase that was a Jewish curse. Apparently Paul did not realize he was denigrating the high priest, and when he is told that is what he has done, he reigns himself in. Luke is making the point that Paul, indeed, maintains a good conscience toward Jewish tradition.

Paul then notices something about the makeup of the council and wisely gets them debating an issue that divided the Jews of the time. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, but Pharisees did, and Paul is claiming that the root problem here, is that he has taken a side in this debate. For the Pharisees, and thus for Paul, God was able to raise persons from the dead as angels or spirits. One could understand the resurrection of Jesus in such ways, and thus see Christian faith as an outgrowth of Pharisaic Judaism. This is the way Luke wants the issue to be seen in his own time. Paul had recounted how the risen Jesus had appeared to him. The Pharisees categorize this within their understanding of believing in the general resurrection and the appearance of angels and spirits to human beings, thus making it possible to incorporate the basic Christian message of the resurrection of Jesus within the theology of Pharisaism and allowing the dispute about the Christian faith to be seen as an intra-Jewish dispute. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Paul’s tactic works, and the Pharisees on the council claim they see nothing wrong with Paul. The discussion turns heated and violent and Paul is taken into protective custody. In jail again, Jesus visits Paul and tells him to keep up his courage. Sometimes we need to hear those words for our own lives.

Acts 23:12-22: “The Jews” here is much too broad a phrase. We have already seen that some Jews found nothing wrong with Paul, but others now want to see him dead. Paul’s nephew catches wind of the conspiracy and tells the Roman tribune about the conspiracy to have Paul ambushed and killed.

Acts 23:23-35
: Paul’s case moves up the chain of command, to the governor, Felix at Caesarea. The tribune sends a letter indicating that Paul seems to have done nothing deserving imprisonment or death, but that his presence in Jerusalem poses a danger and threat, to Paul himself and to the civil order.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Acts 20

Acts 20:1-6: Paul will make his way back to Jerusalem, eventually, but first he wants to go to Macedonia and Greece. He goes to encourage those faith congregations he has had a hand in starting on a previous journey. This is actually a very stormy time in Paul’s life. Paul’s letters reveal severe internal strife within his churches and conflicts between Paul and elements within his churches. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Luke reports none of this in Acts, focusing only on external conflicts. Nor does Luke mention an offering Paul has taken up for the church in Jerusalem.

Acts 20:7-12: In verse 7 we see a unique tradition developing within the Jesus movement, Sunday, the first day of the week, is replacing Saturday as the time to gather for worship. The first day of the week is the day of Christ’s resurrection. The conversation that day got particularly long, and a young man named Eutychus fell asleep. It may have been the length of the discussion or the oil from all the lamps that were burning. Anyway, Eutychus falls three floors to the ground and is thought to be dead. Paul takes him up in his arms and in that finds life within him. Luke intends this to be another story of the life-giving power of God’s Spirit – the same Spirit that worked in Jesus and earlier in this book through Peter. Life is given to Eutychus through Paul’s action downstairs. Life is also given as Paul’s teachings are received and bread is broken together in a celebration of the Eucharistic meal.

Acts 20:13-16: Paul’s itinerary demonstrates the author’s knowledge of the sailing patterns of the time. Luke also wants to establish the continuing growth of the church in this part of the world.

Acts 20:17-38: In this long discourse, Paul bids farewell to the elders of the Ephesus Jesus community/church. It is the only speech of Paul’s in Acts directed toward the Christian community. We have the opportunity in Paul’s letters to hear him address the emerging Christian community in multiple ways. We hear in these words a number of interesting phrases. Paul talks about “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.” This is one of four brief summaries of the gospel/good news. Repentance has to do with turning around, turning over the soil of one’s heart, of seeing the world differently and thus living in the world differently. Faith’s most adequate synonym is “trust.” Christians trust that the God to whom they turn was known most fully in Jesus as the Christ. His way is the way. He is lord, not the political lord of the time. We hear in Paul’s speech about “the good news of God’s grace.” God, by God’s own initiative and out of love for humankind acted in Jesus to draw persons close to God. “Proclaiming the kingdom” is yet another way the Christian message is summarized. The God who acts in love toward us has a dream for the world – of justice, peace, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, of the hungry being fed and the homeless sheltered. Our turn toward God is more than simply an individual life decision. We turn toward a new way of life that works toward this dream for the world. When Paul says he is “not responsible for the blood of any of you” all he is saying is that he has done all that he can, and now it is their turn to follow-up on the faith. I am glad that this way of speaking has fallen out of our vocabulary. The final formulation of the gospel is “the message of God’s grace.” It is a message intended “to build you up.” Though the message may be expressed in slightly different terms, Paul encourages them to stay with it amidst internal and external dangers. Paul reminds them of his tireless work. The scene ends with prayer and a tearful farewell.

Acts 21

Acts 21:1-16: Finally, Paul turns toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Paul receives warnings that evil may befall him when he arrives there. The ominous words remind us of Jesus turn toward Jerusalem in the gospels. The parallel seems intentional. Jesus lives on through the church and the church has often suffered as Jesus did. If the church is sometimes the suffering people of God, it is also always to be the hospitable people of God. Notice how welcome Paul and his companions are in the Christian communities they visit.

Acts 21:17-26: Paul arrives in Jerusalem and goes to visit James (the brother of Jesus) and the other elders of the church. He reports all that has happened through his ministry. The controversy over the relationship of non-Jewish Christians to the law of Moses is rekindled here. Because of Paul’s reputation, he is asked to be a part of some specific Jewish rituals so as to reaffirm his own position that as a Jew, one could (and perhaps should) both follow Jesus and obey the law. Gentile Christians are not asked to follow some of the same dictates of the law, but are asked to respect some basic principles. Are there circumstances in our lives where we do some things so as not to offend the sensibilities of others, though we might not consider them wrong? There is a fine line between this as an appropriate practice and being inauthentic in one’s life of faith, and only we can discern where that line is for each of us.

Acts 21:27-40: Paul is in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, and so are other Jews from the larger region, including some from the area where Paul has been preaching, teaching and setting up Christian communities. They opposed Paul’s work in their communities and will continue to do so as they are in Jerusalem for Pentecost. At an earlier Pentecost in Luke, a variety of voices was an indication of the presence of God’s Spirit. Here the cacophony of voices has little to do with God’s Spirit and everything to do with opposing what Luke understands to be the on-going work of the Spirit through Paul. An uproar ensues as Paul is charged with teaching against the Jews, the law, and violating the Temple rules. Paul is seized and dragged out of the Temple. The doors to the Temple are shut – a symbolic act for Luke. From now on, the Christian community will be distinct from the Jewish community.

The riotous behavior garners the attention of Roman authorities. A cohort was a thousand soldiers and they were overseen by a tribune. The tribune arrives to interrupt the beating of Paul at the hands of some Jews. Paul is arrested amidst cries first of one thing then another. One group keeps shouting for Paul’s death, a reminder of the shouts to crucify Jesus.

Paul begins a conversation, apparently in Greek, the international language of the time, though Latin was the language of Rome. It is surmised that Paul is not another agitator, “the Egyptian” who had recently created an uproar in Jerusalem. Rome was ever concerned for those who would create chaos that threatened the peace they had established. Jesus was killed for disturbing that peace. Paul eventually will be as well, though Luke never reports that in his story. Paul tells the tribune that he is a Jew from Tarsus and a citizen there. Luke’s point is that the Christian community should be regarded by Rome as a group within Judaism and should receive the toleration and protection Rome granted the Jews (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Paul asks for permission to address the crowd and it is granted. He addresses them in their language – Palestinian Aramaic (“Hebrew”). Paul is conversant in multiple languages.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Acts 19

Acts 19:1-10: Paul had stopped briefly in Ephesus before, but now he returns for a more extended stay. Already there were people of the Jesus movement present in the city. Again, we will hear more about Ephesus later when we read the book that is related to the Christian community there. Here we pick up on some of the cryptic remarks made about Apollos. Somehow, “John’s baptism” has been a part of the Christian experience of Apollos and some of those who became Christians under his ministry. Anyway, there was something not quite in order here, at least in Luke’s mind. Paul baptizes these disciples in the name of the Lord Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit. Luke may be trying to describe what happens when a group of John’s followers meets up with Paul and becomes more fully incorporated into the Jesus movement. One can argue that Luke, while trying to portray a developing church that is essentially unified, gives a nod here to the reality that many groups were a part of the Jesus movement, often emphasizing slightly different aspects of his teaching or offering some variety of interpretation of his life and death. How we relate to other streams of Christian tradition, and how we relate to other religions remain significant issues in our day and time. If we follow the model in Acts, a part of our task is to share our tradition in ways that demonstrate some areas of common ground while not denying the uniqueness of the tradition. In asserting the uniquenesss of the Christian tradition, we need not assert its “superiority” in every respect to other traditions. That has often been the Christian mistake. In reaction to that, some would simply like to say that every religion is substantially the same, but I don’t think that is satisfying either. We each should from our traditions share what we have found about human life and ultimate reality. Some may find what we share intriguing and convincing and become a part of the Christian faith. Others may simply be helped to deepen their commitment to their own tradition. One goal for our day and time may be to avoid the kind of outright hostility that we find in some of the instances of the interaction between religious viewpoints in the Book of Acts.

Paul remains in Ephesus, speaking boldly and arguing “persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Here we encounter a term we have not seen in a while. Luke uses this as another way to summarize the Christian message – synonymous with the “Messiah is Jesus.” God was up to something special in Jesus and something can be called “the kingdom of God.” Paul continues preaching even after he is no longer welcome in the synagogue. He stays in Ephesus for two to three years (the number varies even within Acts – see 20:31) and the message of Christian faith reaches out from there. Ephesus was the site of Paul’s most extensive ministry, a place from which he wrote a number of his letters, and a place that became the center for Christian faith as Paul proclaimed and taught it.

Acts 19:11-20: Not only is Paul’s preaching and teaching powerful, God’s Spirit is powerful within him so that he is able to touch people’s lives in remarkable ways, ways that heal and free. Some of the methodology for this seems typecast out of bad television revivalism where blessed articles are sold. Luke’s point is simply that God was at work in a powerful way in Paul – the same Spirit that had worked through Jesus was at work by the name of Jesus through Paul.

However, the name of Jesus is not a magic incantation, as seen in the story Luke tells next of itinerant Jewish exorcists who admire the power they see in Paul and try and use it for themselves. They misunderstand that any Spirit power that touches lives arises out of an on-going relationship with Jesus as God’s Christ. As Luke tells the story there is a comic aspect - the demonic spirit saying, “I know Jesus, I know Paul, but who are you?” They are overcome and embarrassed.

For some, this story speaks to the emptiness of some of their own magical practices and they leave these to follow Jesus. This is symbolized by a book burning – not a symbol that would have as much meaning today. It is important to note that the books are not burned out of a sense that they are inherently evil, but as a way to make a statement about where life’s power is to be truly located – in relationship to God and Jesus Christ. In comparison with this, former practices are seen as lacking something important. I would not read in this story any justification for burning Harry Potter books!

Acts 19:21-41: About the time Paul begins making plans to travel, yet another disturbance breaks out “concerning the Way.” In this fascinating story, religious and economic interests combine in raising concerns about Paul and the Jesus movement. It is difficult to untangle the strength of each set of concerns. If Paul continues to pull people into the Christian way, then the market for Artemis statues will decline (the law of supply and demand!). This seems the deeper concern of Demetrius and other artisans whose livelihood depends on a brisk business in religious statues. However, one should not completely dismiss a note of genuine religious concern. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and brought thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. The artisans stir up the people, appealing not to economics but to faith and tradition. A crowd gathers at the huge amphitheater (it seated 24,000) where there is confusing discussion and debate. As often happens, the happening brings together people who are not even sure what is going on. On the verge of chaos, cooler heads prevail, here in the form of an imperial official. He reminds them that nothing need take away from the special status the city has as a center for the worship of Artemis. He is also concerned for his own well-being. He does not want to draw the attention and disfavor of Rome; the Roman leaders did not take riotous public assemblies lightly. It is his interest in the continued peace and prosperity of the city; more than justice per se, that motivates his appeal. Thus Luke shows that enlightened self-interest among pagan officials calls for a halt to public protests and demonstrations against the Christian missionary enterprise. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) Whatever his motives, the official encourages people to seek legal recourse in the courts if they believe laws have been violated. The moral to Luke’s story is that the new Christian faith has a legal right to exist and propagate its faith in the Roman world, that level-headed pagan officials recognize the Christianity is not a violation of city or Roman law, and that they should discourage popular reactions against the growth of the Christian community, for such responses are themselves illegal. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)
Acts 18

Acts 18:1-17: From Athens, Paul travels to Corinth, a city about which we will come to know much more as we explore Paul’s writings to the Christian community there. Among those he found there were a couple – Aquila and Priscilla (Prisca in Paul’s letters), a married couple who had been expelled with other Jews from Rome under the reign of Claudius. This occurred in 49 CE. The reason the Jews were expelled from Rome seems to be the infighting among them regarding the preaching about Jesus. Claudius made no distinction between Jews and Jews who had become a part of the Jesus movement. Paul stayed with this couple as they shared a vocation – tentmaking. The Greek term may simply mean a leatherworker. Paul was both supported by the emerging Christian communities in his work and worked some himself.

Along with his leather work, Paul continues his preaching ministry, engaging in conversation with Jews and Greeks (probably here referring to Greeks who were also part of the Jewish religious community, though that is a little unclear). When his message was not well-received, Paul engaged in symbolic action and spoke metaphorically to say that he would take his message elsewhere – they symbolic action is shaking dust, and the metaphoric phrase is “your blood be upon your own heads.” This is a stark phrase, but its meaning is simply that they are responsible for their own lives and spirituality. Paul has done all he can to share his perspective with them. In chapter 20, Paul will use a similar phrase with members of Christian community to say something similar – that he has done all he can do. Frankly I am glad that this phrase is no longer with us!

As Paul declares that he will now go to the Gentiles, though his concern for his fellow Jews remains life-long, we hear about some Jews who came to believe in Paul’s message about Jesus. Many others also respond and Paul has a vision encouraging him to continue his work. The image in the vision suggests that God’s Spirit is always out ahead of those who would also seek to share the good news about God’s love. God’s Spirit touches people before the preacher arrives. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism used the term “prevenient grace” to put words to the movement of God’s Spirit that happens often before a person is even aware of God.

Paul stays in Corinth for quite some time, and during part of that time a concerted effort is made to thwart his work. Some Jewish leaders seek to enlist the imperial authorities in their quest to silence Paul. The charge they bring is that Paul is encouraging worship that is against Roman law, but the Roman authority sees this not as a matter of Roman law, but as “a matter of questions about words and names and your own law.” I wonder how often intra-Christian disputes come across to others as little more than questions about words and names. Some of the Jewish leaders turn on one of their own who is probably sympathetic to the Jesus cause and have him beaten. Still, the Roman authorities do not intervene.

Acts 18:18-23: Paul once again moves on, though this time after a rather lengthy stay. We get some interesting if seemingly trivial detail here. Paul gets a hair cut! Is this Bill Clinton or John Edwards? Luke is probably trying to portray Paul as both a Christian and yet still a faithful Jew, here one who had made certain vows. The rest of the verses here are an itinerary of Paul’s next stops. Luke’s interest goes beyond a travelogue. He wants to say something about the way the Jesus movement spread throughout the empire.

Acts 18:24-28: Paul had been in Ephesus, but has moved on. Afterwards another man, a Jew named Apollos who has become a Christian. Apollos is from Alexandria, one of the four principle cities of the Roman Empire, and one of the most important cities in the ancient world. The narrative here is a little confusing. On the one hand we are told that Apollos had been instructed in the way and with burning enthusiasm accurately taught the things concerning Jesus. On the other hand, there seem to be things that he just doesn’t get quite yet and needs the way of God explained more accurately. Maybe that is the situation with most of us. Notice, however, his ministry did not wait until he had his theology all figured out.
Acts 17

Acts 17:1-9: Paul and Silas (and probably Timothy as well) travel to Thessalonica, an ancient city even at that time (founded in 315 BCE). Paul reaches out first through the synagogue, offering an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, an authoritative source of faith for both Jews and Christains. The issue is not authority but interpretation. Christians understand the Old Testament to point beyond itself to Christ and the church; Jews understand it to point to the continuation and further development of God’s purpose in the synagogue and Jewish tradition. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). That the focus of the interpretive argument Paul offers is the suffering of Jesus is not surprising as it would have been a contentious issue among Jewish people. Could one who suffered such a shameful death really be God’s Messiah, Anointed One, Christ (all three terms are synonymous)? Paul not only argues that the Messiah will suffer, but in fact has – that the Messiah is Jesus. Some believe Paul, both Jews and Gentiles, and some do not. Among those who do are “leading women.” Apparently the early church offered influential women a greater leadership role than was possible in they synagogue. The history of Christianity demonstrates that this early trend was not continued as even today significant branches of the Christian church deny to women the role of clergy or other leadership positions.

Whatever success Paul and Silas have creates a problem for some and opposition arises. Jason, in whose home Paul and Silas have been staying, is dragged before the city authorities, along with some believers. They are charged with disturbing the peace (“turning the world upside down” – to us this phrase can have both positive and negative connotations), with disobeying the decrees of the emperor, and of proclaiming a rival king. Jason has to post bail, indicating that he is a person of some means. As an author Luke often takes great pains to imply that Christians were not a political threat to the empire. Ironically, though the early church was not a direct political threat, its message really was one about an alternative kingdom, an alternative way of life, which was in essence anti-imperial. In what ways might Christian faith be critical of some of the prevailing social, cultural and political trends and movements of our day and time?

Acts 17:10-15: As has been the case before, Paul and Silas leave a place of conflict quietly. In this new place, Beroea, the message they share is received more warmly by more people – among them Greek women and men of high standing. Luke often portrayed Jesus as concerned for the poor. In Acts, he often takes time to mention that influential people are becoming a part of the Jesus movement. In part Luke does this to try and demonstrate that the Christian movement was not some kind of proletarian revolution against the empire. When one puts Luke’s gospel and Acts together, one gets a fuller picture of a church that is meant to include all, regardless of economic status. The past catches up with Paul and he again leaves in the face of conflict. Sometimes opposition needs to be engaged and sometimes one leaves to fight another day – metaphorically speaking.

Acts 17:16-34: Paul’s destination is Athens. Though Athens was still renowned as the glorious city of classical times (fifth-fourth centuries BCE) where Plato and Aristotle had taught, its actual importance had greatly declined in the first century. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) Athens was a city that contained a number of statues to the gods. Jews were disturbed by the polytheism of Greco-Roman religion and by the fact that people seemed to worship hand-made statues. Both charges were valid against much of the folk religion of antiquity, but many thoughtful pagans had come to believe in one God who was represented in the variety of gods and goddesses, praying to “Zeus of many names,” and most would have said they did not worship the statue itself, but the god it symbolizes (Peoples New Testament Commentary).

Paul begins his work of sharing the good news about Jesus in the synagogues, but also engages in discussion in the marketplace. Today Christians should also be a part of the discussion in the marketplace of ideas. In that setting, Paul was in conversation and debate with Epicureans (followers of Epicurus – 341-270 BCE), who advocated the view that happiness was the highest human good and taught that persons should live austerely and responsibly and not engage in public and political life, and with Stoics (founded by Zeno – 340-265 BCE), who believed not in any gods but in the universality of reason and in living a life in accord with that reason – a life of virtue based on knowledge, self-sufficiency and devotion to duty. As a philosophy major, it is fascinating to see these philosophical movements referred to in the New Testament, though they aren’t referred to anyplace else within its pages. In the midst of this debate, Paul was called a babbler (literally a seed-picker), someone who dropped little bits and pieces here and there but offered no coherent philosophy of life, and was seen as proclaiming foreign gods. In Athens, debate was encouraged, but new ideas were not readily received. Nevertheless, Paul is asked by some to explain more deeply.

Paul offers a response. Notice that he begins by affirming something positive about the Athenians – their religious sensibility. He next wants to connect with them by talking about the God of creation, the God who made all that is. Christians do not bring God, or the worship of God, to people of other religions, for the one true God is universally present. Christians must still bear witness to their faith that the God already present and worshipped in paganism is in fact the God who has definitively revealed himself and acted in Jesus Christ (Peoples New Testament Commentary). The religious search is universal and affirmed by Paul, who also affirms that though it feels like we “search” for God, God is already near each person. “In [God] we live and move and have our being.” Paul begins to bring them to a moment where they will need to make some decision. Will you continue to worship in ignorance or open yourself to God as God is known in Jesus Christ, the one whom God raised from the dead?

The response, as recorded by Luke is fascinating. Some scoff – the notion of resurrection was difficult for them. Some want to hear Paul again. In spite of this, Paul moves on. The names of two new believers are mentioned: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damatis. Tradition has it that Dionysius became bishop of Athens and was killed by the Emperor Domitian. Furthermore, the identity of Dionysius was assumed by a fifth century monk who wrote a short treatise on mystical theology under the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Christian tradition is replete with fascinating stories like this, where a minor character in the biblical text is given a larger role in the on-going Christian story.