biblestudy


This summer Pastor Nancy is offering sermons on topics chosen by the congregation in an “Everything You Always Wanted to Hear in a Sermon about but Were Afraid to Ask” series. Questions cover all types of issues: biblical texts, theological issues, Christian practices, and more.

On Sunday, June 6, we began exploring our first question, “What is the destiny of humanity?”

We watched the creation and destruction of a Buddhist mandala:

We considered the story of the call of Moses in Exodus 2:23-3:15. At the burning bush Moses encounters the God of compassion, a God who reaches out to be in relationship with humankind. And yet at the same time, Moses experiences God as holy other, powerful, awe-inspiring. The story is at its core the mystery of the God who is unknowable and yet seeks us out.

What is the destiny of humankind? To walk in the way of the God who saves and the God who calls.

Rather than offer stock answers to questions of faith, the hope is that this sermon series will facilitate more conversations among our folk.

Listen to the audio of the sermon here.

Welcome!

This summer we’re taking a close look at the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Rather than be understood as a single sermon delivered by Jesus, it is helpful to think of the Sermon on the Mount as a distillation of Jesus’ teachings, pulled together by the writer of Matthew’s gospel for a late first century (80-100 CE) Christian community. Here, in 3 short chapters, we find what a group of first century Christians felt was the core of Jesus’ teachings.

In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount comes near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has called four disciples and has been making his way through Galilee. Along the way he has taught in the synagogues, healed the sick, and proclaimed the good news of the God’s kingdom.

Now, Jesus heads up the mountain; his disciples in tow. He sits down and begins to teach them.

For the next couple of weeks we’ll look at the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12. This link has two versions of the passage; one from the English Standard Version and the second from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Take some time this week and read through them. Perhaps even read them out loud to yourself. Compare multiple versions with each other.

What stands out in the text for you?
Are these words comforting? disturbing?
What questions come to your mind as you read the passage?

Read the text here: Acts 25:23—26:33.

Before Paul makes the move to Rome, he first is brought before King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II, the last Judean king before the end of Jewish rule in 70 CE). Agrippa expresses curiosity about Paul, and thus Paul is given the chance to make one climatic speech defining his ministry in front of the Roman authorities. Paul the prisoner; Paul the itinerant preacher; Paul the part-time tentmaker makes the case for Christianity in front of the King, his wife, and the Roman governor. It is a full-blown speech, created by Luke as a model for believers in Luke’s time who might be facing difficult circumstances and hostile responses by the authorities.

Here Paul comes face-to-face with power and privilege. First, he is met with intellectual curiosity (Agrippa). Soon the response includes a concern about Paul’s sanity (Festus), and then finally turns to skepticism and aloofness from all three present.

Let me write a bit about Agrippa’s response to Paul’s question in verse 27, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Agrippa answers, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” The Greek is a bit ambiguous. Rather than a serious question, it’s more likely a witty retort, something along the lines of “You think you’re going to make a Christian out of me in such a short time?” (see L.T. Johnson, Acts of the Apostles, pp. 439-440 as well as Boring & Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 458). The “to be a Christian” phrase has the connotation of “making” a Christian or “performing the role” of a Christian.

Paul takes Agrippa’s reference to “a short time” and builds upon them, “whether short or long…I pray that…all would ‘perform my role.'” Perhaps Paul is suggesting that he doesn’t want bystanders to the faith but active witnesses such as he is.

The exchange ends with the assessment that Paul might have indeed been set free had he not appealed to Caesar. If Paul is hoping for an open and fair hearing before Caesar, he might have checked out the reputation of Emperor Nero first. Nero was known for many things, but rationality and fairmindedness were not among them (for starters, rumors abound that Nero’s mother Agrippina poisoned his uncle Claudius so that Nero could take the throne at age 16; what goes around comes around as eventually Agrippina would be murdered reportedly upon order of her son, Nero.) Hmmm…maybe Jerusalem and Caesarea aren’t that bad of venues after all!

Read the text here: Acts 25:1-22.

Two years have passed, and Paul remains in prison in Caesarea. Within a few days of accepting the post the new governor, Festus, travels from Caesarea to Jerusalem and meets with the Jewish leaders there. The leaders ask a favor of Festus, that Paul should be moved to Jerusalem. At this point the narrator lets us know there is yet another plot against Paul’s life; this time not by a vigilante group, but by the chief priests and other key leaders themselves.

A move of the prisoner does not occur, but Festus does agree to reopen the case. We are given a summary account of the proceedings. Paul remains confident he has not transgressed Jewish law, and he insists that he is not disloyal to the emperor. Sitting in prison for two years may have convinced Paul that he has little chance for a fair trial in Caesarea or in Jerusalem, and so he plays his final card: an appeal to Caesar. Such an appeal may save him from illicit violence at the hands of his religious opponents in Jerusalem as well as remove him from the political maneuverings in Judea.

The next move in the story has Festus, a Gentile non-Christian, giving his understanding of the conflict and Paul’s role in it. There is no mention of any threat to Roman stability or peace, rather Festus describes the charges as being religious disagreements. Festus then relates a version of the early church’s kergyma , its proclamation or preaching, “…about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.

Here Festus serves to underscore the writer’s main point: this is an internal religious conflict between two Jewish factions. The followers of The Way, the members of those early Christian communities, are in no way a threat to the Roman Empire.

Read the text here: Acts 24:1-27.

Paul is now in the hands of the Roman governor Felix in Caesarea, the provincial capital of Roman Palestine. The High Priest has brought along a hired gun, Tertullus, a prosecuting attorney (literally a rhetor, e.g., rhetorician) to argue the case against Paul. Tertullus follows common legal protocol, first by the expected flattery of the judge and then moving to make his case against Paul. Felix is described by Tertullus as a benefactor to all the people bringing peace and reform to the area. This may be more than a slight exaggeration, for the historian Josephus describes the time under Felix’s rule as turbulent with revolutionaries causing continual unrest (see Spencer, p. 228).

Paul, on the other hand, is depicted by Tertullus as a plague (meaning dangerous to the public welfare), a disturber of the peace, a ringleader of a sect, and a defiler of the Temple. Of primary concern to any Roman governor would be a security threat to the empire, a disturber of the Pax Romani.

The next step in the legal process would be for Felix to interrogate Paul in public. Instead Felix sets aside the trial proceedings and questions Paul privately. Paul disputes any charge that he is the instigator of any trouble in Jerusalem. He worships the God of Israel; he had come to Jerusalem to worship; and to give alms and offerings. Paul has done nothing to disrupt the Temple or threaten the public.

Felix has knowledge of The Way and is a married to a Jewish woman, and for a moment it seems that he might be persuaded to release Paul. But after some delay, his true colors are revealed. Felix does not free Paul, but keeps him imprisoned. His motivation? According to the writer of Acts, a mix of greed, fear, and political gain.

Over the course of two years, Paul and Felix speak together, but Felix is unmoved by Paul’s sharing of the gospel. Felix has knowledge of The Way, but his own personal greed and ambition keep him from embracing the faith. At the end of two years Paul should have been released. According to Roman law a citizen could not be held longer than two years without a verdict. As a last act of political expediency, Felix hands Paul’s case over to his successor. Paul’s ultimate fate remains unclear.

Read the text here: Acts 23:12-35.

At this point a careful reader might wonder where all Paul’s friends and traveling companions have gone. Has Paul no friends left in Jerusalem? It’s up to a previously unmentioned and nameless nephew of Paul’s who somehow uncovers a plot by a renegade Jewish group to ambush Paul and kill him.

This episode in Paul’s captivity serves to underscore to us readers just how important a role Paul plays. He is a prisoner, and yet he gives instructions to his Roman guard. His unnamed nephew, with no apparent claim to any great social status, is able to have a private conference with the Roman tribune in order to convey information about the threat on Paul’s life.

Paul’s influence continues to be strong, as the tribune sends the young man away with a command of secrecy and springs into action. At this point a most improbable show of Roman force is gathered to offer Paul protection and escort. Two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred more spearman will accompany Paul by night to Antipatris on the way to Caesarea. For the journey, Paul (still a prisoner, mind you) will get his own mount, while the 400 Roman soldiers are on foot. This incredible show of force may be nearly half of the soldiers available under the tribune’s command. Rest assured, Paul will make it safely to Felix the governor in Caesarea.

There is quite a bit of irony in Paul’s situation. Paul’s Roman citizenship gives him much more status even as a prisoner than his identity as a practicing Jew. The Romans follow the prescriptions of their legal system, while the the religious folks in Acts neglect the teachings of biblical law. Paul joins four others in a seven-day ritual of purification to signify his pious observance of the Law. The group of 40 would-be assassins join together in fasting not to be broken until they have killed Paul.

Paul has been sent by the Holy Spirit to Rome, and ultimately nothing will stand in his way.

Read the text here: Acts 23:1-11.

Showdown with the Sanhedrin! Paul begins his remarks with the assertion that he has lived his life in good conscience (literally, living as a good citizen), a continuation of his self-portrayal before the crowds the day before. He is abruptly interrupted by a vitriolic outburst from the high priest Ananias, who orders Paul to be slapped in the face. “Them’s fightin’ words” so to speak, and now Paul shifts into attack mode, turning the threat of a physical slap into a reciprocal verbal slap, “God will slap you down, you white-washed wall.” Paul accuses the high priest of being all talk and no substance, much like Jesus condemns the Pharisees as “white-washed tombs” (Luke 11:37-44).

At this the bystanders jump into the fray, defending the honor of the high priest, and asking Paul why he would mock a representative of God. Paul responds, “I did not know that he was the High Priest.” I think Paul’s response to them can best be understood as an ironic retort rather than a case of Paul not recognizing Ananais. Paul may be saying, “The way he was acting I would never have know that he was the High Priest!” (see Acts by Luke Timothy Johnson, p. 397.)

Paul’s next move is to deflect the argument away from the original accusation of disrupting the Temple and onto the issue of resurrection (Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and the Sadducees did not). A smart rhetorical move. Now the council is divided among themselves, and Paul stands on the sidelines watching the argument erupt into violence. The Roman captain fears for Paul’s life, and once again, Paul is rescued by the Roman authorities who take him back into custody.

Our story ends with a vision. Paul has done well in Jerusalem, but it is not yet over.
The Lord will now send him to Rome.

Read the text here: Acts 22:22-30.

The crowd who up to this point had listened to Paul’s address, responds with fury to Paul’s assertion that he has been sent by God to the Gentiles. It parallels the response of the congregation in Nazareth to the preaching of Jesus in the synagogue (“no prophet is acceptable in his hometown”). They begin shouting him down, throwing down their coats and kicking up the dust. Think of an irate baseball coach kicking dust onto an umpire over a disagreeable call (see Spencer, p. 221). What a theatrical moment! Paul has kept all of his remarks well within the religious tradition of Judaism, but the crowd (for undisclosed reasons) will not accept the extension of God’s blessing will go to the Gentiles.

The Roman captain has no framework to understand this in-house disagreement between two Jewish factions, but the violence is enough to convince him to keep Paul in custody. He decides that Paul should be “examined by flogging.” The Romans were not known for the respect for human rights, and the prospect of beating a confession out of a prisoner would not have been uncommon at all. Flogging of suspects, particularly of someone from the lower classes, a foreigner, or slave was an accepted, legal practice of torture.

Finally as his arms are outstretched in preparation for the brutal interrogation, Paul plays his trump card. He is not only a Jew, and not only a citizen of Tarsus, but he is a Roman citizen by birth. The centurion overseeing the torture stops, and goes to the captain with this new information. As a citizen, Paul would be eligible for a trial and a flogging without proper legal preceedings would have been a serious legal breach of due process.

The flogging is abruptly canceled.

And the stage is set for Paul’s next big speech in front of the Sanhedrin.

Read the text here: Acts 21:37—22:21.

The narrative now moves into its final phase. Paul has been taken into the custody of the Roman guard in Jerusalem, and he will continue to be a prisoner for the rest of the story. Our scene in today’s reading involves his initial defense in front of the angry mob in Jerusalem. Having convinced the Roman captain that he was not an infamous Egyptian rebel wanted by the Romans, he persuades the man to let him address the crowd.

Paul surprises the Roman soldier by speaking Greek, the primary international language of the day. As he turns to address the crowd, Paul speaks to them in Aramaic, surprising the crowds who may have been expecting a Diaspora Jew to speak Greek rather than the language of Palestinian Aramaic. Besides being a smart rhetorical move (speaking the language of the crowd who is trying to kill you!), his change in language also reflects an ongoing characteristic of Paul and his ministry. He is one who builds bridges between cultures, who finds ways to relate to whatever community in which he is a part. You can hear that theme in his letter to the church in Corinth, written well before the book of Acts, in which he writes:

…For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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 not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.(1 Cor. 9:19-23)

Paul then proceeds to tell his story to the crowd. He gives them his credentials as a good and devout Jew, as well as a diligent and zealous student of the Law. He tells of his transformation from one who was a strong persecutor of the followers of The Way to a vocal witness of the faith. I think it is significant that Paul does not attempt to formulate a logical argument for his transformation into a follower of Christ. Rather, Paul tells his story, speaking firsthand of the way in which he believes God has been working through his life and the lives of those who have affected him.

I think we can find wisdom in Paul’s approach (although–dare I spoil the ending of Paul’s story–he does lose his life). So often folks try to communicate their faith by what propositional statements they hold to be true: “I believe that such and such is true.” Christianity has had a long history of doctrinal creeds, “I believe in…” Paul does not give a long list of belief statements–Paul tells his story.

It is in the power of that story that we can encounter the wondrous mystery of God. Only a truly amazing grace could transform Paul the zealous persecutor of the church into the very means by which that gospel is spread to the ends of the earth!

We main-line protestants could learn a thing or two from old-time testimonies of the evangelical tradition. I grew up in a faith tradition in which testimonies were a regular part of the community gathering–Sunday night worship was a time of hymn-singing and testimony. Anyone and everyone could speak to the congregation. The giving and receiving of testimony carries with it the expectation that God is indeed at work in our midst! Otherwise, what would we be testifying to?! The practice of testifying to the Spirit’s work in one’s life has a way of opening our eyes to a different way of viewing our lives–one in which the Holy Spirit is actively participating in our world.

In what ways have you felt God’s guidance in the past?
How do you see God at work in your life?
Do you talk about those times or experiences with others?

Read the text here: Acts 21:1-36.

Paul is on his way back to Jerusalem, hoping to reach the city before the Pentecost festival. It is a farewell tour, and he visits churches in Tyre and Caesarea that he did not found. These were churches founded by missionaries coming out of the original persecution in Jerusalem. He receives a warm reception in Tyre with the community warning him not to continue on his trip to Jerusalem. Paul will not be deterred, and the congregation follows him to the beach in a prayerful farewell.

The tension mounts as he meets with the church in Caesarea, and the prophet Agabus makes a public prophecy concerning Paul’s fate. Once again, the writer of Acts mentions particular women in the story, but does not give the women speaking parts. Paul is staying at the house of Philip who has four unmarried daughters who are prophetesses. The four women are silent, but the visiting prophet Agabus predicts Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.

Once in Jerusalem, Paul visits James in a slightly confusing meeting. Rumors abound concerning Paul’s teaching with respect to Jews and the law. James appears to inform Paul of the letter he has previously sent to the churches concerning Gentiles (Acts 15:22-29). In James’ account there is no mention of Paul’s involvement in the conversations surrounding the conference that ultimately led to the writing of the letter. Could this lack indicate a continued mistrust of Paul by the Jerusalem church?

James directs Paul to present himself as an observant Jew by participating in a ritual of purification. And not only purification for himself, but Paul must also pay for the ritual costs for four others individuals. Paul agrees and begins the seven day purification ritual. He will not complete it, however, for the conflict with the Asian Jews in Jerusalem now comes to the forefront. The conflict within the church between Jewish Christians and Paul as a minister to Gentile Christians will have to be set aside. Paul is grabbed by an angry mob, and then rescued/arrested by Roman soldiers. The end of the story has begun.

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