Eavesdropping on an early argument: What does a real Christian believe?
Clergy come in for criticism, and rightfully so, because they go to seminary and study up-to-the-minute scholarship, about the Bible, for example, and then don’t share any of it with their congregations. Some people don’t care, but those who do can feel really aggrieved. They don’t want to keep on believing ideas that have been discredited. If there is new intelligence out there, they want to know.
I sympathize. Last Sunday I suggested that the spiritual DNA of this congregation was commitment to the spiritual journey. We may not all be in agreement about what we believe, but we are united in our conviction that it really, really matters, that the spiritual quest is right up there among the most central purposes of our lives, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, however we understand God; to grow into a love for our neighbors that is much of what it means to follow the way of Jesus. If we’re going to love God with all our minds, that’s about curiosity and not settling for easy answers, and going for truth, even if it means changing our minds over matters we’ve had fixed for a long time.
In defense of the clergy, that intellectual quest is not for the faint-hearted. A lot of people who go to seminary find their first couple of years shocking and painful. Their Sunday School faith gets dismantled and it takes time before they figure out how to rebuild their foundations on new ground. An hour on Sunday morning might be enough time to take somebody apart, but it won’t be enough time to put them back together. So many clergy just preach the old-time religion. There’s plenty to preach just taking the words of scripture at face value without ever raising bigger issues of who really wrote what and when and why. Kind of like the forest and the trees. The trees are beautiful. The Holy Spirit continues to empower people one tree, one verse at a time, so there isn’t much incentive to back up and get to grips with the shape of the whole forest. Then something like The Da Vinci Code comes along and shocks the world with stuff that every minister learned in Church History 101 but just never told anybody. But that’s Peggy’s sermon for next Sunday.
Today we’re going to turn our curiosity toward the Bible. The reason we’re sitting like this is that there’s a faultline running through the New Testament. On one side you’ve got the disciples of Jesus – Peter and James and John especially – and Jesus’ brother James – all those seriously authoritative witnesses who knew Jesus -- and the whole network of congregations that looked to them for leadership. Their base was Jerusalem. But within a short time, they had adherents far and wide, wherever there were Jewish communities to give them a foothold. Their version of Christianity was Jewish.
On the other side, you have Paul. More than any other single human being, he is responsible for reconfiguring Christianity so that it could be received by anybody from any culture in the world and take root in a new place and thrive. The struggle between them was fierce and messy, and before we get into the detail of that, I just want to be clear about why we’re doing it. I spelled the reasons out last Sunday.
Number one is that it’s fascinating. As I said last week, we sit here while our fellow church members are out on their boats or hiking in Iceland or climbing around in Scottish castles. We might not be able to travel physically right now, but we can go on adventures with our minds.
Number two is that it sharpens us up to recognize how strands from that two-thousand-year-old argument are still around today.
Number three is that intellectual adventures are like physical ones – this is exercise. We’re exercising theological muscles that will make us smarter in contending with some of the “heresies” that Christianity has rejected, many of which are alive and well in the Pacific Northwest as we speak.
And number four – my hope -- is that we will come out of it with a new sense of home in a faith that really connects us with the living Christ for blessing and a sense of calling and resilience and joy.
So, let’s do this. I need three volunteers. Originally I imagined a great long table, with the disciples on one side, Peter and James and John, the big three, and Jesus’ brother, another James, you could put Luke the gospel writer there as well, Luke who also wrote Acts and told the stories of these disciples and what happened to them with such sympathy and reverence -- and Paul seated on this side of the table all alone. But we can represent the two sides ourselves.
And here’s the other problem. History is written by the winner. The disciples lost and Paul won. So we only need three chairs at the table. Matthew’s gospel is the only book from the disciples’ camp that made it into the New Testament. All the rest support Paul, including, ultimately, Luke. We’re putting Luke in the middle because he does his best to bridge the divide, but ultimately he too sides with Paul.
Let’s tell the story.
First we need Paul to convince us that he belongs at the table at all. Peter, James and John, James the brother of Jesus, they all knew Jesus intimately. They could tell the stories first hand. Unlike Paul. But Paul insisted that he too had met the risen Christ face to face.
I Corinthians 15:3-8 I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is, Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
He’s talking about his experience on the Damascus Road. A vision. Are you convinced? Paul had to defend himself again and again as a real apostle since he had never met Jesus in the way the others had. So let’s appreciate the uphill battle he has ahead of him if he is going to disagree with the original disciples in any way. Which he is!
Now let’s paint a picture of the church they founded. Two readings from Matthew about things that happened during Jesus’ lifetime and two from Luke about what happened in the early days after Easter.
Matthew 10:9-16 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave… If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Matthew 16:13-20 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Acts 2:40-47 Peter testified [to the crowd] with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Acts 5:1-17 A man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us[a] but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
After about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles… More than ever, believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.
The picture emerges of a church with a hero at the center of it, Peter, the leader amongst the disciples and now the leader of the early church. We can also detect an early mission where you didn’t worry about material things – God would provide day by day. It was marked by miracles – healing and prophecy, later speaking in tongues. And when the traveling mission became settled congregations, they lived a communal life. (You could almost say communist.) Everyone was expected to sell all their belongings and contribute the proceeds to the common purse. Woe betide you if you didn’t. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They believed that through their baptism, they shared in his spirit, and they could heal and teach just as he had done. They would live his kingdom life and enjoy it. This was the new age. Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything, and they were part of the brave new world.
Now let’s look at them from Paul’s point of view.
It was all very well for those early missionaries to go around with no shoes and no pack and no money. Jewish law taught about caring for the stranger. So it was a great strategy. You go to a new town and share your message, and it’s a pretty good bet that somebody is going to be excited about what you say. You have a new friend. You go stay in their house, and in all likelihood, your new friend will invite all of their friends and kinfolk to come meet you, and voila, you’ve got the makings of a new church. You stay a few days and then you move on and do it all again somewhere else.
That works fine in Palestine where everything is reasonably close together. And it works fine in a culture that teaches the holy duty of hospitality. But translate it into the geographical area Paul covered – 1,000 miles of walking, and no culture of welcoming strangers into your home, and the picture changes.
II Thessalonians 3:7-9 You yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to follow.
And just for the record…
II Corinthians 11:22-27 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
Gosh! On top of all that, he would no longer get a little congregation going in a new place, but Big Brother from Jerusalem would come check it out.
Galatians 2:3-5 [paraphrased] Titus, my Greek companion, consented to be circumcised. It was a concession to certain sham Christians, intruders who had sneaked in to spy on the liberty we enjoy in the fellowship of Christ Jesus. These men wanted to bring us into bondage, but not for one moment did I yield to their dictation; I was determined that the full truth of the gospel should be maintained for you.
To add insult to injury, those sham Christians, otherwise known as emissaries from Jerusalem, would come land themselves in somebody’s house and expect to be fed and cared for, sometimes for weeks on end, without a hint of paying their way. Paul had always supported himself by working wherever he went, and the behavior of those Jerusalem missionaries drove him crazy.
II Corinthians 11:4-15 I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you.
Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge? … When I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine will not be silenced...
[These] boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. Their end will match their deeds.
As you can hear, things are a little tense. Maybe you know the peacemaking story that Luke tells in Acts chapter 15, how there was a meeting in Jerusalem, with Peter and the apostles on one side and Paul on the other.
Acts 15:1-2 Some people who had come down from Jerusalem began to teach the new fellowship in Antioch that those who were not circumcised in accordance with Jewish practice could not be saved. That brought them into fierce dissension and controversy with Paul and Barnabas, and it was arranged that those two and some others from Antioch should go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
The meeting takes place and reaches a conclusion. No, the new Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised. But there are other laws they do need to follow. They mustn’t eat meat that may have been offered to pagan gods. And they need to lead moral lives. Paul could live with it. Sort of. Listen to this story he tells in his letter to the Galatians, one of the earliest pieces of writing in the New Testament.
Galatians 2:11-14 When Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
There were times when things got nasty. Paul won that argument, of course. As Christians today, we don’t live by Jewish law. We take to heart what he taught us, that being Christian is being released from all that into a life of moral responsibility based on the law of love.
What we’ve shared is just the tip of the iceberg. The thing I really appreciate about this theory of two competing missions and the battle for the soul and future of Christianity is that when you read the New Testament through this lens, so many of the passages that have troubled me over the years fall into place and make sense. Like how Matthew and Luke could take the trouble to trace the genealogy of Jesus to prove that he’s the son of David, only it comes out at Joseph, whom they then say wasn’t really Jesus’ father. Or the way Matthew’s Jesus (and only Matthew’s) says that he has come to fulfil the law, not to abolish it, and that not a single letter of it will pass away until everything is accomplished, which contradicts what everybody else says about the law. Or like Jesus healing people in Mark and then swearing them to secrecy about it, even though sometimes whole crowds have witnessed the healing. Or like the vicious things Jesus says about family – “You can’t be my disciple unless you hate your mother and father and brothers and sisters.” That’s in Luke. Matthew’s version is much softer. Get it? Or the even more vicious things John says about the Jews. Or Jesus’ terrifying predictions about the end of the world, total judgment with no mercy. Or how in one place, the gifts of the Spirit are listed as prophecy and healing and speaking in tongues, and another place they’re listed as peace and patience and kindness, and yet another place teaching and preaching and administration – is this the same Holy Spirit? Is it the same Spirit as the one that filled Jesus and sent him to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind? If you’re interested, I can recommend a good book. Or we can meet to spell all of this out some more.
The Jerusalem mission did not survive. It’s all very well selling all your property and donating it so that nobody in the church has to have a job. Keeping the law of Moses. Speaking in tongues and working miracles and generally living your life as if the kingdom has already come. But how long can a thing like that last – 15, 20 years? As a reform movement within Judaism, Christianity burned bright and then fizzled out. What lasted was Paul’s mission to the whole known world. It meant reinterpreting who Jesus was and what he stood for and what it meant to follow him. More of that in coming weeks. But here we are today.
If you read the New Testament this way, you end up seeing arguments between the lines everywhere you look. Maybe that should wreck it. For me, it makes it better. These were real people making sense of huge experiences, spiritual earthquakes that shook their world to the core. Hearing them battling it out, I feel I could reach out and take their hands, they are that close. The danger was always that they would make the faith too small, because it was all the farther their imaginations and understanding could stretch. But they spotted it in one another, the places where the gospel was straining to break free, and they followed the Spirit to new territory where nobody had ever been. That’s exciting. There is a home in that project for us too.
So we say thanks to them. And until the next exciting episode, we return to now with the offering that will enable the Spirit to continue stretching us too the work of the church. Your gifts will now be received.