Saturday, November 22, 2014

All The Saints (part 4)

The fifteenth chapter of Acts, which is often headlined as “The Jerusalem Council,” is predicated on the Gentile question.  The chapter opens with “Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1)  This took place in Antioch, which was a major center of the church.  “When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement” (15:2). 

Luke goes on to report that “When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with them.  But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed,” in Jesus, and therefore were part of the church, “stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:4-5)  Effectively, this circumcision and observance of the law of Moses, which would be an adherence to the marks of the covenant as evidence of inclusion in the people of the Creator God, would make these Gentiles into Jews. 

Peter would stand and declare that “some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the Gospel and believe” (15:7b).  It is here worth remembering that the use of “gospel” was not to be disconnected from its use by Rome and by Caesar, as announcements about Caesar (particularly in connection with his cult and his worship) were said to be “gospel.”  It was a term with which all the people of the empire would have been familiar, so the announcement of a “gospel” was not a novelty in the least.  The novelty was that it was being used in reference to Jesus and His kingdom---the new, true King of a new, true kingdom. 

With that in mind then, as it would have been in the minds of his hearers and in the minds of those that would later hear Luke’s account of the church (Acts), Peter continues, saying “God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith” (15:8).  This “faith” was the confession of Jesus’ lordship, as demonstrated by the close of his statement, which was “we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way we are” (15:11). 

This was remarkable, in that Peter, as a Jew, was devaluing the marks of the covenant, elevating faith in Jesus, which could only come about by what was considered to be the gracious act of the Creator God via His Spirit (who would believe that a man that was crucified by the Romans was the resurrected Messiah and Lord of all?), as the means by which a person, be it Jew or Gentile, enters in upon the covenant that this God first made with Abraham. 

The point being made, and it is the point upon which Paul would seize with great tenacity, was that Gentiles were to be accepted into the covenant as Gentiles, and that the covenant was being extended to Gentiles, rather than still being limited to those who were Jews by birth or who had become Jews via Judaizing (by circumcision and adoption of the covenant markers). 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

All The Saints (part 2)

So the fact that Jesus’ life was centered on the land and the holy city of the elect people of the Creator God led indirectly to the Jew and Gentile struggles of the early church.  The church, by and large, rightly saw itself as a continuation of Israel (and its mission in and for the world).  The church also knew that their commission had been to take the message of the kingdom of their God, that had been announced by Jesus, which had somehow sprung into existence at His Resurrection and which was empowered in some strange way with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, into the whole world.  Where Caesar was being proclaimed as lord and savior and son of god, the message of Jesus as the Lord and Savior and Son of God, who had conquered the means by which Caesar maintained his power (the cross), was to be announced. 

The kingdom of God was to extend well beyond the borders of Israel.  It was to be a worldwide kingdom.  The world was not to stream to Israel, to Jerusalem, and to its Temple as the locus of power and worship in this world.  Rather (and consolidating), the new Temple was to stream out into the world, as the Creator God would now take up residence among mankind in the lives of His people and through the actions His people, with the mark of this fact being their worship of Him through Jesus and their adherence to Jesus as Lord of all (which would manifest itself in their interaction with people and the whole of creation). 

This spawned issues of tremendous importance, one of which, and perhaps the most important, was how Gentiles were included in the covenant that the Creator God had made with Israel.  Did the Gentiles need to adopt the Jewish practices of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and dietary laws (the works of the law) that served to identify a person as being a member of God’s covenant people (justified)? 

Though the inclusion of Gentiles is viewed as natural and sensible, thinking things like “well of course the message of Jesus and His Gospel was for everybody,” this was not exactly a foregone conclusion.  In fact, the free acceptance of Gentiles, along with a seamless integration of the same, as one church and one people for one kingdom was to be developed out of two classes of people that had been kept quite distinct, would require a radical revolution in worldview  In the book of Acts, which details the growth of the church in its earliest days as it moved from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, the “Gentile issue” receives a fair amount of attention.  Had it not been an issue of momentous consequence, it would not feature so prominently. 

In demonstration of the importance of that issue, in Acts’ eleventh chapter, after Peter has visited a Gentile named Cornelius, having joined him in his house and eating there, he was sternly questioned.  “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.’” (11:2-3)  As a bit of a side note, this should remind an observer of the centrality of the meal table for the earliest of Christians.  After Peter explains all that happened, “they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18b) 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All The Saints (part 1)

We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard about your faith in Christ Jesus and the love that you have for all the saints. – Colossians 1:4-5  (NET)

Are these words really read when these words are read?  Is it possible that so many have grown so accustomed to the use of “spiritual” language, that readers miss some of the more radical assertions to be found in what, at first glance (and beyond), appears to be part of a nice greeting from Paul to another body of believers?  That may indeed be the case when it comes to the Colossian letter. 

Paul’s world was not the world of a struggle to maintain a monolithic orthodoxy within the church.  It was a world in which the church was struggling to come to terms with what it meant to take shame and suffering upon itself, as those that were faithful to Jesus attempted to view the world through the lens provided by the cross and the empty tomb.  There were no Gospels to lead and to guide, providing an accepted and uniform look at the life of Jesus.  There were the stories about Jesus and there was the Gospel claim, which was that “Jesus is Lord.” 

By extension then, and this cannot be overlooked, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not.  This implied conflict cannot be diminished in the least, especially as the church began appropriating many of the things that were then being said of Caesar, and applying them to Jesus.  Most certainly, this was a source of tension for the church (people) of the Creator God.   

A significant component of this struggle was the integration of the church.  Israel was the elect people of the God that had revealed His nature and had made Himself physically manifest in His creation through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  To underscore this election, the events of that singularly important life took place in Israel, culminating in Jerusalem.  Though Christians twenty centuries removed from these events think of Israel and Jerusalem with a sense of awe and as a place of pilgrimage, with this undergirded by the fact that events in Israel are constantly in the news, this could not be said of the land and its capital in the times of Jesus and of Paul. 

Then, Israel was an insignificant province, and Jerusalem was the often troublesome capital city of an insignificant province.  In the big scheme of things, it was a place of little consequence.  When compared to the glory of Rome and the other gleaming cities of the Greco-Roman world (Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, Alexandria, etc…), Jerusalem had no place at the table.  Speaking of tables, if one was to rate the city on the scale of honor and shame, and seat the cities of the world around a proverbial meal table, Rome and others would occupy the places of honor (the protoklisian), whilst Jerusalem, as far as large cities go in terms of importance, would occupy the lowest place (the eschaton), or perhaps not be afforded a seat at all.  Of course, Jesus did say something about the last being first and the first being last, and what He had accomplished in Jerusalem certainly changed things.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 5 of 5)

Peter has no qualms about making reference to the presumed shameful cursing undergone by Jesus because of the honor that came to be bestowed upon Him, which is indicated by what comes next, which is that “God exalted Him to His right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31a).  These terms, “Leader” and “Savior,” were terms applied to Caesar, with this serving as yet another reminder that these leaders of the people that were currently addressing the disciples of the Christ had colluded with the Roman authorities, even going so far as (at least according to portions of the Jesus tradition) to have claimed that to not execute Jesus as a traitor was itself an act of treason against Caesar, while simultaneously stirring up the crowds to claim that they had no king but Caesar.  Cunningly and boldly, Peter co-opts these titles and applies them to Jesus.

Having been reminded of their guilt, “they became furious and wanted to execute them” (5:33b), but a man named Gamaliel interjected, reminding the council of previous instances of revolutionary activities (which serves as a reminder that the Jesus movement was more than just a religious movement, and that it encompassed all of life---social, political, economic, etc…) that had sparked, flamed, and burnt out in time.  With a wider scope of vision suggested, Gamaliel insists that “in this case… stay away from these men and leave them alone, because if this plan or this undertaking originates with people, it will come to nothing, but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them, or you may even be found fighting against God” (5:38-39a).  It is said that by these words, “He convinced them” (5:39b). 

The disciples, having been temporarily removed from the presence of the council during the course of deliberations, were then re-summoned.  Though the members of the council been convinced to not fight against the disciples, they were still concerned about their public honor and its associated power.  Always mindful of that, and seeking to rob the disciples of any honor that may have accrued to them, while simultaneously attempting to shame them further, they “had them beaten” (5:40b). 

Beyond that, and desirous of protecting their own public reputations, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them” (5:40c).  The disciples, who were no longer concerned with their own honor or shame, being concerned only with increasing the public honor of Jesus through embracing what was supposed to have been the source of greatest shame---His crucifixion (especially at the expense of those who had attempted to shame Him and who were still attempting to shame Him), “left the council rejoicing because,” like Jesus and His cross, “they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (5:41). 

In complete disregard of the council, attending only to gaining Jesus the honor that was due to him, and completely unconcerned with the jealousy of those that sought to preserve their own honor and power, “every day both in the Temple courts,” which had been the place of their arrest and of Jesus’ most significant public activity, “and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ” (5:42).    

Monday, November 17, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 4)

This leads into the report that “Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17).  Why were they filled with jealousy?  Was it the performance of miraculous signs and wonders?  No.  Was it the growing crowds and the people gathering from all over?  Not directly.  So what was it?  It was the “high honor” being accorded to the disciples, which was evidenced by the behavior of the people.  Public honor was a limited good.  The growth of the honor of one necessarily led to the diminishing of the honor of another.  Yes, they still had their power, but they were losing their honor.  If enough honor slipped from their hands, their power would ultimately go with it. 

Though it comes from John’s Gospel (composed after Acts), the eleventh chapter contains a story that sheds light on this way of thinking: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, ‘What are we doing?  For this man is performing many miraculous signs.  If we allow Him to go on this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.’” (John 11:47-48)  As seen in Acts, these are concerns about honor and power, and they are prefaced with mention of miraculous signs and a growing number of followers.

What was the response of the high priest and his cohorts in Acts?  “They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public jail” (5:18).  They attempted to shame and humiliate the apostles, doing so publicly in an attempt to diminish their public honor and increase their public shame.  Consequently, the high priest would not suffer the further loss of honor.  This backfires on the council, as the disciples are honored, with Luke indicating that the honoring is accomplished by the Creator God Himself (somewhat indirectly), as “during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the Temple courts,’” the place that symbolized the public honor of those who had jailed them, “and proclaim to the people all the words of this life.’” (5:19-20).  “This life” would have been the life of the way of the kingdom of the Creator God.  “This life” would have the been the resurrected life of Jesus.  “This life” would have been the promise of the general resurrection to come.

The response of the opposition is predictable.  The disciples, who have done precisely what the angel has instructed them to do, are re-arrested and taken before the council.  “When they had brought them, they stood them before the council, and the high priest questioned them, saying ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.  Look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood on us!’” (5:27-28)  Proclaiming Jesus would be an indirect challenge to the high priest and associates, as they, having delivered up Jesus to the provincial government, were complicit in the execution of Jesus as a state criminal.  Thus, via these continued challenges and the associated accusations that they had acted unjustly based upon the verdict of Israel’s God as indicated by the Resurrection and the reversal of that shaming, shame continues to come their way. 

In response, Peter piles on, saying “We must obey God rather than people” (5:29a).  This, in itself, is an interesting public-honor-diminishing statement, as the high priest was presumed to speak for the covenant God.  Peter makes it clear that the high priest and the council do not in fact speak for Israel’s God, with the primary evidence of that fact being the stand that they had taken against Jesus (the personal revelation of their God).  He continues: “The God of our forefathers raised up Jesus, whom you seized and killed by hanging him on a tree” (5:30). 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 3)

With that in mind, the rehearsal of the Acts narrative to this point encounters the fifth chapter, which begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  That story (which is probably less about their lies and more about their actions that diminished the church and Jesus’ public honor, and the potential shame that could have been brought upon the community by supposed followers not living out its principles) is immediately followed by “Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles” (Acts 5:12a). 

From there, the reader goes on to hear an echo of an earlier statement, when reading “By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico” (5:12b).  That echo is from chapter two, where one would have previously found that “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the Temple courts” (2:46a).  As was seen, this was appended by “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b), which is mirrored in the fifth chapter by “More and more believers in the Lord were adding to their number, crowds of both men and women” (5:14).  Quite obviously, the repetition is important, and one must be cognizant of the fact that Luke’s story consistently builds, moving the reader or hearer along with a climax in mind.

Between the reports about the miraculous signs, of meeting with common consent, and of believers being added to the ever-growing group of Christians in Jerusalem, Luke writes that “None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high honor” (5:13).  This, as should be well known, is more than simple respect or admiration.  Honor was a functional component of society.  Honor was important.  Honor was everything.  Luke makes the point that the disciples were being held in “high honor.”  This must not be overlooked. 

This high honor put the disciples in the position of becoming potential patrons to a sizable number of people---able to provide benefits to a large client base.  Now, bear in mind that the disciples and the church did not seek to become patrons, as this was not the motivation behind the signs and wonders.  The signs and wonders were designed to point beyond the disciples to the King and the kingdom that they dutifully proclaimed in word and deed, as they sought to raise the public honor of Jesus by touting His Resurrection in the face of His shameful crucifixion. 

One sees evidence of the movement by the people to elevate the disciples as patrons when reading “Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them” (5:15).  This is classic client behavior, as they sought to honor a patron or potential patron so as to gain benefaction.  Furthermore, “A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits.  They were all being healed” (5:16).  With this record, one sees a replay of the stories about Jesus as recorded in the Gospels---the church thus carrying on the work of its Lord.  Against all odds, public honor was coming the way of the church.    

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 2)

Returning to the second chapter, one sees that this type of activity occurred in association with the fact that “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the Temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts” (Acts 2:46).  The conclusion of this report speaks to the effects of this regular gathering, which allowed the body of Christ to learn about and meet needs as they were “praising God and having the good will of all the people” (2:47a).  This fueled the growth of the church, as “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b).  Hearing these words, it would only be with some difficulty that one could separate the saving of people with the distribution that sought to meet the needs of all, without discrimination. 

Echoing the ministry of Jesus, chapter three sees the healing of a lame man at the gates of the Temple, with the accompanying “astonishment and amazement” (3:10) of those who witnessed the result of the healing.  This provides yet another opportunity for the public proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, crucified and resurrected as the harbinger of the general resurrection, the assertion that Jesus was and is the long-awaited prophet like Moses, and a reminder of the all-important Abrahamic covenant by which the people largely defined themselves, along with its fulfillment in Jesus and in the movement that bore His name. 

This leads to the record of the opening of chapter four, by which Luke informs the reader that “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the commander of the Temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, angry because they were teaching the people and announcing in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.  So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day” (4:1-3).  This leads into the first examination of the disciples before the leaders of the people, and the order to discontinue their revolutionary proclamation of Jesus as Lord and His kingdom as present.  Clearly, the issue at hand was power, and those in power were threatened by the upstart from Galilee, though He had been crucified at their instigation, viewed as being accursed because He had been hung on a tree, and had been subject to the scorning and the horror of the greatest shame. 

Lest one believe that power was not the issue, the disciples, via the author providing a sober reminder by relaying the response of the disciples and their understanding of the threat that their growing movement had become, say “Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things?  The kings of the earth stood together, and the rulers assembled together, against the Lord and against His Christ” (4:25b-26).

With considerations of power come considerations of the all-important issue of honor in the ancient world---a world in which one’s status was delineated by conceptions of honor and shame.  Though honor would not necessarily have power as a compatriot (as the honorable would not necessarily be the powerful), power practically demanded honor.  Power, be it religious or political (remembering that the world of the disciples’ era did not neatly divide into the religious and the political, but operated in a holistic fashion in which all areas of life overlapped and intertwined), was nothing without honor.  Power was not power without honor.  Without public honor to accompany it, power would be empty and pointless.