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We’re now in the final section of Acts. We are going to be following Paul as he goes from Jerusalem to Rome in Roman custody. We are going in more ways than one back to where it all began. This morning I want us to consider what this episode has to speak to us in terms of tradition, freedom, inclusion and exclusion. Many different strands that we’ve been looking at through these weeks and months are coming together as Paul steps into the maelstrom that awaits him in Jerusalem. Let’s ask for God’s help as we join him.
If you’ve worked in a corporation of a certain size you may be familiar with the concept of a head office or home office. I remember the early days of Letterman and he’d be talking about something that came from their home office in Lincoln, Nebraska – which was a little hilarious considering the show was being broadcast from New York, New York. The head office or the home office is where the major decisions are made or supported at least. It’s the centre of things.
It’s the place where approval of the mission to those outside of Judaism was sought and figured out. You remember the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 where the question of what it looked like for Gentiles to follow Christ was hashed out and decided. We heard the words “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The question at hand now is how Jewish followers of Christ are supposed to act and where exactly Paul stands in relation to his Jewish roots and what he’s been teaching people. When we read the words “you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake the law of Moses” we remember the charge that was made against Stephen – that he was teaching people to forsake the law of Moses – and we know how that ended for Stephen.
This is a serious situation and it’s a charged situation. Felix is the governor of Judea and anti-Roman/anti-Gentile nationalistic tendencies have been rising. Luke doesn’t mention the monetary gift to the Jerusalem church that Paul brought, but Paul himself urged the people of Rome in his letter to them to pray that the gift might be accepted (Rom 15:31). This is what’s going on as Paul enters Jerusalem. A city with which he was familiar. A city in which he trained under Gamaliel. A city with which he had had a long association.
A city in which he is warmly welcomed. “Some of the disciples from Ceasarea also came along and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay.” We’ve talked through these weeks of the importance of Christian hospitality – of a Christian welcome – to the story of what God is doing here. Unfortunately, this will be the last friendly roof under which Paul stays.
“The brothers welcomed us warmly,” Luke says. The next day Paul goes to visit James and the elders. Paul greets them (there is no mention of a warm greeting back here – again pointing to the diceyness of the situation possibly) and recounts what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. All the things we’ve been reading about since Acts 15. The Greek tour. Ephesus. The trip back to Jerusalem. Once again God is praised. Then the problem is presented.
“You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.”
Now here’s the thing about being zealous for the law and where it might get one. Being zealous for the law is the kind of thing that can cause riots – and who knows what might happen when a riot breaks out? It’s the kind of thing that might make you think that people who believe differently than you should be put in jail or worse. It’s the kind of thing that might make you think that you need to cut off a relationship with a family member because fill-in—the-blank. It’s the kind of thing that might make you see the world in terms that are very black and white and right and wrong and I always know which is which because I am zealous for the law.
The church has experienced a lot of growth. Normally we look on that as a good thing don’t we? Is it always so good though? Look at what this growth has meant to the Jerusalem church. A group of people who are zealous for the law. They have been told about you Paul, that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.
“But I never said that,” Paul may have said. “Well how about when you wrote to the people of Corinth and told them that circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing?” (1 Cor 7:19) This is what people who tend to be zealots do, they see everything in black and white. In his commentary on Acts, NT Wright puts it like this – “Speaking for a moment as a church leader, I take great comfort in Paul’s uncomfortable position. It’s where we often find ourselves. Zealots to left of us, zealots to right of us… while those of us who have to find a way through with real people who are struggling to live real lives in loyalty to the real Jesus know… that things are more complicated than that. Not because we have made them more complicated, or because the gospel itself isn’t clear, or because we are fatally compromised, but because real life in God’s world is complicated and the gospel must not only address that real life from a distance but must get down on its hands and knees alongside it and embrace it right there with the love of God.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Paul might have said. He never encouraged anyone to give up Jewish customs and in fact he carried them on himself. That was about obeying the commandments of God and getting back to and staying in the roots of what those commandments were about.
Love of God and love of one another. Being in a right relationship with God and a right relationship with humanity and when we say right we mean loving because the root of the law is love.
In this way Paul shows himself to be a traditional radical. Not a traditionalist necessarily, because we don’t worship tradition. A traditional radical. We might think of radicals as those who eschew tradition and the past and memory. We’ve been talking since the beginning of the apostles teaching and what that meant. The good news of Christ. The story that began when God in his grace clothed Adam and Eve and then called Abraham and how this story went through the centuries and then a baby’s cry was heard in the city of David.
The thing about being a radical is getting back to the roots of things, or the heart of the matter as someone once sang. Getting back to the heart of the matter. Radical comes from the Latin radix which means root. Getting back to what it all meant all along. What it didn’t mean was going after people and having them flogged and jailed because you felt they were a threat to your beliefs. As church leaders, our job is to issue a summons to a return to the roots of our faith. It’s to dismiss categorizations that divide us and label us and put us into camps like conservative and liberal or progressive and traditional. It’s to rather recognize the role that tradition plays in our faith and what that tradition is. At the same time it’s to recognize that memory can lead to imaginative new ways of doing thing and new ways of living in the love of God and the love of people and all of God’s creation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with tradition of course. The question which we need to be asking is which tradition is worthy of our whole mind, soul, and strength? Is the tradition that we’re conserving true or are we simply worshipping tradition? Has tradition become one of the gods made of human hand that are not gods at all? Why are we doing it and to what truth does it point?
What does it mean to be free? What does this mean for compromise? Someone has said that many times we don’t like the word compromise. Sometimes it’s not possible. Sometimes it’s a case of disagree and
commit, as we saw when Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. For some compromise might seem weak. It might seem like losing in a world where for some, winning is indeed the only thing. Someone has said that above all we value freedom.
I want us to look at what being free meant to Paul. Remember that Paul throughout Acts shows that his own way of connecting to God is deeply rooted in his own Jewish roots. Celebrating festivals. Taking vows, having his hair cut or not. These were Paul’s ways to press on toward the goal for which Christ had taken hold of him.
This is what being free meant for Paul. 1 Cor 9:19-23
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
There is still the question in Paul’s situation here. What then is to be done? This is the question that is asked and it’s the question that should never be far from our minds because we live in the midst of questions and tensions and ambiguity. How do we live at the intersection of ethnicity and integrity, culture and generosity, inclusion and exclusion? In this case for Paul it meant going through a rite of purification and paying for four men to go through the same rite who aren’t able to pay for it themselves.
Did Paul have to do this? Did his salvation depend on it? Of course not.
But as we heard earlier – just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
And just because you don’t have to do something, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
I know we’re talking about ancient Jewish rites here and you might be thinking what does this have to with our world today or are lives today? What does it mean to be culturally sensitive without compromising the Gospel?
It doesn’t just happen between cultures but among cultures in a single country. The story is told of how a mission agency based in southern India had at one time encouraged new believers who were from a Sikh background to cut their hair and shave their beards as evidence of their new faith. This doesn’t happen so much now as new converts to Christ are no longer taught by this agency to abandon this aspect of their culture. There is more openness to such to such local cultural expressions. Someone has said “Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the exponential growth of the church in that region, as locals begin to realize that a Punjabi need not become a ‘madarasi” (colloquial term for South Indian) in order to be a follower of Jesus.’” Someone has said “In India and many places around the world, the Good News is often lost or damaged because it comes packaged in Western cultural wrappings.”
What might this mean for us in Toronto with its myriad forms of cultural expression? It might mean having 20 people coming up to stand with a couple dedicating a child. What else might it mean?
These were questions that were always before Paul and will always be before us. May we too be kind of traditional radicals – looking back and becoming ever more deeply rooted in our faith while at the same time being inspired by the Spirit to fresh expressions of that faith. May this be true for us all.