Category: Book of Acts

The Power of Hymn-Singing — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 7C (Acts 16)

 
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

 

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 

 

 

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

 

 
 
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                It is the Seventh Sunday of Easter—although one could choose to observe the Day of Ascension (the reading for Ascension is Acts 1:1-11). The days of Jesus’ appearances is nearly complete. Pentecost is on the near horizon. The reading from Acts 1 for the Day of Ascension sets the foundation for what is to come. Jesus stands with the disciples, preparing to leave them. He gives them a commission, telling them that once the Spirit comes upon them, they are to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving out from there through Judea and Samaria, and then from there to the ends of the earth. In prior readings, we have seen how the gospel has been moving outward from Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen the message taken to Samaria (Acts 8) and then to a Gentile community (Acts 11). We’ve witnessed the call of Paul (Acts 9) and then his crossing into Europe that results in the conversion of Lydia and her household in Philippi (Acts 16).
One thing you notice in reading the Book of Acts is that the way forward for the Gospel often requires those called to proclaim the Gospel to break through barriers. There is no easy pathway, and sometimes they have to be nudged along, so they can be in a position to proclaim the Gospel. If Paul is any indication, missionary work can be a bit complicated, filled with both setbacks and successes. In fact, Paul seems to get himself in trouble on a regular basis, and so it is with his visit to Philippi. In the reading from Acts 16 for this week, we pick up where we left off last week. Paul remains in Philippi, perhaps still residing at the home of Lydia. When the story picks up, Paul and Silas—and the rest of the mission team (note the use of the word we in verse 16)—are walking toward the place of prayer down by the riverside. As they make their way to the place of prayer, they are joined by another person. This person is a slave girl known for her prophetic powers. For some reason, she starts telling everyone that Paul and Silas are “slaves of the Most High.” This reference to them being slaves of God is important because the one doing the preaching is a slave. The assumption then is that if one proclaims a divine message, one must be a slave to that god/power.  She is a slave, so they must be slaves as well. While she calls attention to them, apparently, it’s not the kind of attention that wanted. Since this happened several times over a period of days, we’re told that Paul was annoyed by her declarations. Paul stops and tells the spirit possessing her, the spirit that is proclaiming the message that they bring the word of salvation from the Most High, to leave. Such is what happens. The spirit that possessed her, the spirit that gave her the ability to reveal things about people, is now gone. That doesn’t make her owners happy. They have just lost their livelihood. This is a good example of the economic effects of religion. So, they are thrown into prison, without trial (something that is not allowed for citizens like Paul). This is the context in which we read the remainder of the story.
Note that Paul and Silas are imprisoned because they have infringed on the economic power of certain individuals. These people who are upset with Paul are concerned not about theology but about money. This woman, who was their slave, had earned them a lot of money. If she lost that power, she was of little or no worth to them. She was a commodity to her owners. Her message may have annoyed Paul, but she had revealed the truth, and that didn’t sit well with the rest of the community.
It is interesting that the charges laid against Paul and Silas is that they were Jews who were teaching things that weren’t appropriate for Romans. This represents in part the ongoing rejection and stigmatization of the Jews. In this case, the charge that they were Jews who taught things inappropriate for Romans may have been rooted in ignorance of Judaism. After all, there wasn’t a large enough community to start a synagogue. With the charges laid against them, the magistrates had them stripped, beaten, and thrown into the innermost jail cell (maximum security). Was it the religious component or the economic one? You be the judge.  
 
So, we find Paul and Silas in jail. They are not only in jail, but they have shackles on them. You would have thought they were mass murderers, but such is not the case. It’s here, in prison, that we witness the power of hymn-singing. As Paul and Silas sit there in their cell, they begin to sing hymns to God, and Luke tells us that the other prisoners were listening. They were paying attention to the songs. As Paul and Silas sang, an earthquake hit, opening the cells and knocking off the shackles. Everyone in the jail was now free to flee, but they didn’t. They stayed put. More about that later in this reflection, so we can stay with hymn-singing.
This word about hymn-singing is enticing to me. That’s because singing hymns has always been a powerful element in my worship experiences.  Whether new or old, as long as they are singable, they carry power. I don’t know what hymns Paul and Silas sang (I don’t think there were any Wesley or Brian Wren hymns in that hymnal), whatever they were singing had a powerful effect on their situation. Whatever they sang had a liberating effect. It seems to be the precursor to their freedom. Willie James Jennings connects worship, prayer, and singing to freedom and the concerns of those who have experienced torture and imprisonment.

Praying and singing join us to tortured and chained bodies, both past and present, and to the real pressure placed on disciples’ bodies as they look toward God. Praying and singing are acts of joining that weave our voices and words with the desperate of this world who cry out to God day and night. Each time we gather in the name of Jesus and lift our voices, this point of reference should shape our reverence and drive us to see and learn and know and change the situations of those who suffer especially in that holy name. Each time we pray and sing we are also joined to the shouts of joy and praise to a God who saves and delivers and invites us to take hold of divine power by faith. [Acts: Belief, p. 164].

In other words, worship should connect us to those around us who suffer. Paul and Silas’ experience of prison connected them to Jesus’ experiences as he approached death. They would be freed, but it was in the midst of suffering that they worshipped God and found liberation.
When the jailer made his way into the cells, he assumed that the prisoners would have escaped. That’s only natural. If you have the opportunity to be free, wouldn’t you take it? The implications for the jailer were much different. If his prisoners escaped, he would be held responsible. The better part of valor would be to take his own life. He was about to do so when Paul spoke up. Paul cried out to him, begging him not to harm himself, because everyone was still in the jail, including the other prisoners who had no reason to trust in the God of Paul, and yet they put themselves into Paul’s hands. All because of some hymn-singing.
Now, the jailer was over-joyed. Although he hadn’t heard the hymn-singing, he was drawn into this worship experience punctuated by an earthquake. That led to a sermon, as the jailer asked how he might be made whole (saved). With the question asked, Paul shared the gospel with him and his household, and the Philippian jailer responded positively. Paul baptized the jailer and his family, but notice that before the baptism takes place, the jailer tends to the wounds inflicted on Paul and Silas. These are the wounds inflicted by the magistrates, in response to Paul’s act of liberating a woman who had been turned into a lucrative economic tool. There was healing and liberation all around, and mixed in was a time of worship featuring hymn-singing. So, let us sing to God with boldness, and as we sing may we be woven into the healing work of God in the world.   
               

 

Come on Over – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6C (Acts 16)

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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                The story found in the book of Acts begins with a commission in Acts 1:8. That commission involves proclaiming the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, beginning in Jerusalem, and from there, moving outward through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. The movement forward comes in fits and starts and requires guidance and regular nudges on the part of the Spirit. In Acts 9, Paul, the persecutor of the church, is called to preach, with Gentiles as his target audience. Then, in Acts 11, Peter defends his decision to go to the home of Cornelius, opening up the church to Gentiles, without qualification. That is, he baptized them without first requiring the males to be circumcised. In this action, the path forward that Paul would take is set. During this Easter season, where we focus on readings from the Book of Acts in place of the regular readings from the Hebrew Bible, the lectionary jumps from the story of Peter’s visit to Cornelius to Paul’s call to preach in Macedonia. There’s a lot of territory that is traversed between Acts 11 and Acts 16, one of which is the commissioning of Paul to take up his missionary journeys. Another event is the Jerusalem Council, at which time Paul and Barnabas explain their mission and make peace with the Jerusalem leaders on what is to be required of the new Gentile converts. When we come to Acts 16, Paul has headed out on his second missionary journey. He and Barnabas have parted ways, and Paul is joined by first Silas and then Timothy.
                The lectionary reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C) begins in verse 9 of chapter 16. If we go back a few verses, we learn that Paul had been forbidden to preach in Asia. Paul and his companions had been attempting to go to Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,” so they went down to Troas. That’s where we pick things up.
Now before we get to verse 9 of chapter 16, we should take note of the message that in the Book of Acts, the Spirit is the driving force in the emerging mission of the church. In this case, the Spirit is specifically linked to Jesus. It is the Spirit of Jesus who is guiding this next step in the church’s mission, and the Spirit has a specific vision of where things should go.
                When we come to verse 9, we find Paul in Troas, on the Aegean coast. He’s sleeping, not knowing what he is supposed to do. He’s been prevented from going where he intended to go, so where to next? As he slept, he had a vision—God often speaks to people in visions in Acts, sometimes they come when people are awake and sometimes when they’re asleep. In this vision a “man of Macedonia,” speaks to Paul, saying “Come on over to Macedonia.” To this point, Paul’s ministry had been focused on “Asia,” what we would call today Anatolia or Turkey. In the story being told by Luke, the Spirit is ready to move into a new field and to cross into Macedonia would mean crossing into Europe. So, things are moving forward, toward that goal of reaching the ends of the earth.
                With this vision of the “man from Macedonia” calling Paul to come on over as their guide, the missionary group sets sail from Troas and heads for Samothrace, Neapolis, and finally to Philippi, which, according to Luke, was the “chief city of Macedonia” and a Roman colony. The reference to Philippi being a Roman colony suggests that it is a rather recently planted city, having been settled—or in this case probably re-settled—by Roman soldiers and their families. Here’s where things get interesting. Since it was Paul’s custom, as a Christian who also was a Jew, to worship on the Sabbath, he went looking for a gathering of Jews to pray with. Normally, that would involve looking for the local synagogue. That proved difficult in Philippi because there was no synagogue. What Paul did find was a gathering of women, who had gone down to the river outside the gates of the city to pray. As was his custom as well, he not only prayed with them, but he shared the Gospel with them. Among this group of women was a “worshipper of God” named Lydia. The reference to her being a worshipper of God, or God-fearer, like Cornelius, suggests that she was likely not Jewish, but one who embraced Judaism without fully converting. She was also a successful businesswoman. We’re told that she sold purple cloth, which was expensive. It was the kind of cloth used to make clothes for the wealthy and privileged. It was to this group of women, that Paul preached. They responded positively so that Paul baptized them.
                Having heard Paul preach, and having been baptized by him (along with what may have been her household), he extends to him an offer of hospitality. She says to him: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Paul couldn’t say no. He took up her offer, gratefully, I would expect.
                Often, we think of the early Christians as being poor and marginalized. Often, they were, but not all of them. In fact, we see in the Corinthian letter signs of socio-economic divisions. Such was not the case here. Lydia was likely rather wealthy, but she used her wealth in this case to benefit the ministry of Paul.  In other words, she became a partner in that ministry. The other element of this story is the fact that Paul was willing to worship with and share the message with women. We know that Paul could write instructions for women to be silent. He could also proclaim that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). In this case, we see Paul expanding the circle to include not only Gentiles but women, who become partners in ministry.
                So begins Paul’s ministry in Europe. “A man from Macedonia” invited him over to help them, but it was a woman from Thyatira, who was staying in Philippi, who would be the first person to receive the Gospel. It’s a bit like Mary Magdalene, who is the first to receive the message of the resurrection (Jn 20). And, as Alice Connors notes, regarding Lydia, “there are no heroic deeds attributed to Lydia, no wrestling an angel to receive a blessing. She went about her life, praying and listening, selling and leading” [Connor, Fierce, p. 162]. Yes, she went about her life, in fairly normal fashion, but as she did, she became a leader in the church as it spread into Europe.  All of this began in the waters of baptism, which in the book of Acts are transformative. This was true of Cornelius and his household. It was also true of Lydia and her household. So, “shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?” [Robert Lowry in Chalice Hymnal, p. 701].

 

Who Am I to Hinder God? Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5C (Acts 11)

Acts 11:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

11 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

 
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                Who am I to hinder God? If God says something or someone is clean, then who am I to say the opposite? Of course, we do hinder God. We stand in the way of God’s vision for the world. God opens doors and we slam them shut. God opens up the table to those who are not of our community and we set up fences. Despite this intransigence, sometimes God gets our attention, and we discover a different path—one that brings blessings rather than curses, healing rather than wounds.
                Peter had a vision. It had to do with appropriate dietary concerns. In this vision, which is first described in Acts 10, Peter is on the roof praying. It’s near lunchtime. He’s probably hungry. A sheet is lowered from the heavens. It’s filled with food items that he is prohibited from partaking. He hears the command to “kill and eat.” Peter responds, with deep piety, “no, I can’t eat these things. They’re unclean. Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The response from heaven is clear and concise, though it is repeated three times (just to make sure Peter gets the point): “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Then there was a knock at the door.
When it comes to dietary restrictions, there’s nothing wrong with them. Judaism has them. Islam has them. So do other religious traditions. They often serve as boundary markers, helping define a community’s existence. Christianity may not have many food restrictions (if any), but we have our ways of defining ourselves. But what if God wishes to open things up a bit. Are we ready for it? Of course, the stories of Acts 10 and 11 aren’t really about eating shellfish, crustaceans, and reptiles. I don’t know whether Peter added lobster to his menu, but he was soon to learn a more important lesson that had to do with those whom God was ready to welcome into the realm of God and on what basis.  
 
That vision led to Peter going to the home of Cornelius, a Roman soldier and a Gentile. He had connected the dots between the vision and the knock on the door and went with the three representatives of Cornelius while taking along with him six of his own companions. When he arrives at the home of Cornelius, Peter preaches. As he is preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household, as demonstrated by the sign of speaking in tongues, just as occurred on the day of Pentecost. Since this enduement of the Spirit occurs while Peter is preaching, what is Peter going to do? He does the only thing he could do; he baptizes them and welcomes them into the church. You can read the full story in Acts 10.
                The story we read in Acts 11 is a summary report of the events that took place in Joppa and then at the home of Cornelius. Peter recounts the story that begins in Joppa, where Peter was residing after the church was scattered by Paul’s persecution of the church. Not everyone fled Jerusalem, which remains headquarters. Peter is summoned back to Jerusalem so he can explain himself. More specifically, it is the circumcision party that is demanding answers. On whose authority had he gone to the home of Cornelius? Why did he baptize them? It’s not that they opposed Gentiles joining the community, but there were hoops to be jumped through before you get to baptism. That is, you have to be made clean before you get the final seal of approval (baptism), and that included affirming Jewish dietary rules and the circumcision of males, at least that seems to be the case here. These questions shouldn’t surprise Peter since he needed a sign from heaven before he traveled to Cornelius’ home. This story serves as a reminder that up to this point, the church remained a sect of Judaism that followed the teachings of Jesus. There were, of course, the Samaritans, but they were essentially estranged members of the family. They were more easily accepted. Now that Peter had gone to Cornelius’ house and baptized them, another boundary marker was being crossed.
So, Peter recounts the story of his vision and the encounter with Cornelius. He makes the point that he remembered the word of the Lord: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In this case, Cornelius and his household had been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and so the water was simply a confirmation of what God had already done. With that, Peter’s response was simple: “who was I that I could hinder God?” How do you respond to that? If God is for it, then how can you be against it? Gary Charles takes note of this question, writing:

That question assumes that God is at work in the world to bring about God’s purposes. Though religious tradition plays an essential role, it does not restrict God from building upon and even moving beyond tradition. Another key assumption in the question is that God is still at work, and God’s purpose often extends far beyond the horizon of longstanding tradition. [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary forPreaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 7895-7897). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.]

If God is still at work and is able and willing to go beyond tradition, then who are we to hinder that work? Of course, we can’t go willy-nilly throwing off traditions just for the sake of throwing off traditions. It takes discernment, itself a gift of the Spirit, to know when to hold them or fold them. The Spirit bore witness in this case by providing a sign that demonstrated to Peter that he could baptize them, and apparently, from the accusations against him, he ate with them as well. If he ate with them, then he ate what they ate. Everything was now clean.
There is a piece of the puzzle that can be easily missed, but which is important. Peter notes that “these six brothers also accompanied me.” Peter didn’t go to Cornelius’ house alone. He took six companions. The folks in Jerusalem didn’t have to take his word alone. He had confirmation, maybe not of the vision, but of the actions on the part of the Holy Spirit. They could bear witness to the fact that the Holy Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius. They observed the filling of the people with the Spirit, which included speaking in tongues, just as on the day of Pentecost. They could back up Peter’s story, just in case members of the Jerusalem community had their doubts about Peter’s veracity.
So, where is God showing offering visions of a new way of being the church? What boundaries are being crossed by the Spirit? Women have looked to this story as evidence that cultural mores that limited their place in the church have been set aside. More recently those of us who have come to a realization that the barriers to inclusion of LGBTQ persons need to be lifted have found encouragement from this set of stories. If the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives, who are we who are straight to get in the way of God?  Who else might be standing on the outside of our communities, that God would want us to embrace?
In the case of the critics of Peter’s actions, according to Luke, they were brought to silence. After all, who was he to hinder God? With that, the critics had no response, as it was clear that God had welcomed these Gentiles (and those who followed) into the fold. With this understanding, they all rejoiced.

Picture Attribution:  ngelico, fra, ca. 1400-1455. Peter Preaching – [Lectionary selection, Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C], from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47861 [retrieved May 12, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

Who Are You, Lord? – A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 3C (Acts 9)

Michelangelo – The Conversion of St. Paul
 

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

 
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                When it comes to resurrection appearances, not all are the same. In John 21, Jesus appears to the disciples at the lakeside where they’ve gone fishing (though until Jesus showed up the fish weren’t biting). In Luke 24, Jesus appears alongside the road to a couple of travelers, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks bread. Then he disappears. While I affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, with Paul I do understand that whatever form the resurrected body takes, it is a spiritual body. Apparently, it has properties that we can imagine but not understand. I share all of this to get us to the story of Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience. There is a resurrection appearance here, but not a bodily one, at least not in the same way as the ones described elsewhere.
                Saul (Paul) was a zealous man. He took his faith seriously. He even was willing to enforce it with violence, if necessary. He first appears in the biblical story in Acts 7-8, where he oversees the execution of Stephen, whose preaching was upsetting the religious establishment.  Luke says that a “severe persecution began that against the church (Acts 8:1). The church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (see Acts 1:8 for background on the missional trajectory of the church’s life). While the church buried Stephen, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:2-3). Among those scattered was Philip who preaches in Samaria and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch before heading off to Azotus and Caesarea (Acts 8:4-40). It appears that Saul’s actions had unintended consequences—it moves the church out of its home base and off to the intended mission field.  All of this leads us to the ninth chapter of Acts, where another resurrection appearance will set the table for the next act in the story.
                When we turn to Acts 9, Paul is still “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He’s been given an assignment by the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus to see if there are any trouble-makers there, so he could extradite them back to Jerusalem for trial. As we saw with the story in Acts 5, where the religious authorities tried to suppress the Apostles, there is, according to Luke, an effort to extinguish this disruptive group before it gets out of hand. As we see here, things don’t go as planned. To borrow from an old play, “A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus.
                The reading from Acts 9, which forms the first reading as assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, focuses on the first six verses, though we’re encouraged to continue reading the entire story (7-20).  Paul is on his way to Damascus when a light from heaven “suddenly blazed around him” (J.B. Phillips). With the light comes a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Blinded by the light, Paul falls to the ground. In most pictures of this event, Paul is riding a horse, so he has a ways to fall. Now, lying on the ground, blinded by the light, Paul cries out: “Who are you, Lord?” Paul understands that this is no ordinary event, but he’s unsure of its source, or maybe he does, but he wants to make sure. After all, he was persecuting the followers of Jesus.
                The response that comes from the light is this: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” By attacking the church, which Paul will in his letters describe in terms of the body of Christ, he is attacking Jesus. You have to wonder whether Paul understood this to be true even before this encounter. Was he there “when they crucified my Lord?” He was there for the execution of Stephen, but what about Jesus? Did have any encounters with Jesus before Good Friday and Easter? Paul never says anything about this in his letters, but you have to wonder. Regarding the nature of this resurrection appearance—Jesus doesn’t appear to Paul in bodily form. It is an appearance in the form of light. It’s just as real, but it’s different. Whatever its nature, it was transformative. Jesus tells Saul to get up and go into Damascus where he will receive further instructions.
                As the story continues, Saul’s companions hear the voice but see nothing. Knowing the Saul is now blind they lead him into Damascus, where he waits for three days. While this is happening, a disciple living in Damascus by the name of Ananias has a vision, in which he is directed to go to Saul and guide him to the truth. You can imagine that Ananias, having heard of Saul’s previous activities, would be hesitant to make that visit. Here is your enemy, the one who is being sent to haul you back to Jerusalem to face imprisonment or worse. Now, you’re supposed to go and speak with him. Despite his concerns, he follows these instructions. He goes to where Saul is staying. He speaks with him. Prays with him. Restores his sight. He delivers to Saul a new set of orders. The word given to Ananias to share with the one who will be known as Paul is this:  “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16). By now the missional plan is beginning to take shape. The word is preached first in Jerusalem by the Apostles, led by Peter. Then, Stephen gets into the act. All of this takes place in Jerusalem. Then, after the death of Stephen, and Saul’s efforts to eradicate the church, the community fans out into other parts of Judea and Samaria. Now, we see the foundation for the next step of the Spirit’s work as outlined in Acts 1:8. Saul, the persecutor of the church, has been given a new assignment. That assignment involves, taking the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. But this new trajectory won’t be an easy one, because Saul will suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus.
                As we ponder this text, with its call of Saul to move from persecutor to proclaimer, might we consider the ways in which the church, the body of Christ, has to its shame, been the persecutor rather than the proclaimer of good news. Might we consider how the message of Good Friday became the rallying point for anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish acts of violence? Might we consider the ways in which the Bible has been used to enslave and dehumanize? Might we be blinded by the light of God so we can hear the voice of Jesus calling out to us, we who see ourselves as followers of Jesus, saying: “why are you persecuting me?”
                As we ponder this encounter of Saul with the risen Christ, which takes the form of light from heaven together with a voice, what might Jesus be saying to us? As you ponder these questions, I offer these comments by Cathy Caldwell Hoop:

God redeemed Saul, gave him a new name, and placed him on a new path. This same mercy is accessible to each of us, and to our corporate communities. The Easter miracle proves that God loves and forgives friends, betrayers, doubters, skeptics…even God’s own enemies. The God, who is Love, has no need to be defended by violent means. Love grabs Saul’s fist in midpunch and unbalances him, saving him from a life of hatred and violence. What if we could do this for one another? May Easter miracles abound! [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Location 7010-7013).]

In other words, this is not just a story about Saul’s conversion and his transformation into Paul, the witness to Jesus to the Gentiles. It is that, but it is more. It can serve, as we see here as an invitation to allow the Spirit of God transform our own lives so we might express through this love of God we experience in Jesus to the world. May our encounters with the Risen Christ, though they might not be as dramatic as the one described here, empower us to bear witness to God’s reconciling grace so the world might experience the peace of God.

 

Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

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                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?