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.

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