Over 30 years ago, I left my childhood denomination and joined the Methodist church. When people asked me, “Why did you become a Methodist?, I usually answered with one word: “Grace.” In seminary, when I read about Wesley’s idea of “being made perfect in love”, I wrote “this is idiotic. perhaps blasphemous” in the margins of my book. Perhaps, I was too rule-bound to imagine a love so deep. I give thanks to God for the good people of the Methodist church, both lay and clergy, who have given me the space to grow in my understanding. In degrees they have helped me move from a small-God, rule-centric, and fixed-answer gospel to ponder “the Love that surpasses knowledge”. Years ago, during a nominating committee meeting, someone suggested a beloved grandmother as our evangelism chair. I responded, “She is not a member!” The committee members scratched their collective heads, murmuring, “No one loves this church more!” I could see the hurt I sewed and wished I had asked, “Why do you think she would do well?” I tried to backtrack, but the damage was done. But those Methodist folks loved me, and through our shared imperfect witness, helped me move closer to God’s Perfecting Love.
This chapter marks the Apostle Paul’s third arrest in three chapters. In Thessalonica the crowd screamed, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” In Ephesus, trouble erupted when Paul challenged the market gods. In Jerusalem religious zealots seek Paul’s life.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write, “Paul’s proclamation of Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Saviour directly countered Roman Imperial theology…. Jesus was Lord and the emperor was not, Paul’s most concise affirmation about Jesus- “Jesus is Lord” was high treason!… Paul’s message challenged the normalcy of civilization, then and now, with an alternative vision of how life on earth can and be.”
“All of Jerusalem was stirred up. The people rushed after and seized Paul, dragging him out of the temple. (They did not want to kill him in the sanctuary, defiling it, but murder out on 21st Avenue would be fine.) While they were trying to kill Paul, a report reached the commander of a company of Roman soldiers that all Jerusalem was in a state of confusion.”
What stirs such hate? Sadly, it is “religion”. The crowd accused Paul of bringing an uncircumcised Greek person, Trophimus the Ephesian, into the temple. Religious purity blinded them to God’s seventh commandment: “You shall not kill!” When uncircumcised gentiles break sacred bread, is God somehow less holy? Do people fear that “Trophimus the Ephesian” might contaminate them, making worship less pure?
The ancient temple courtyards sorted and separated out gentiles and women. Paul rejected the dividing lines welcoming everyone: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) “Don’t you know that nothing from the outside a person has the power to contaminate them?”Jesus asked, “Because it doesn’t enter into the heart… It’s from inside the human heart that evil thoughts come: sexual exploitation, theft, murder, greed, deceit, envy, insults, and arrogance. These come from the inside.” (Mark 7) Does anyone think the crown of thorns, his bleeding side,his location between two thieves, and nakedness before the howling mob somehow defile Jesus? Jesus broke bread with the people that religious folks rejected- should not we? Indeed, if we think we are more holy than others, our souls are infected with a toxic unspiritual evil.
So the church folks drag Paul out of the holy place to murder him, but a Roman Captain races his platoon to the scene with sirens blaring. Seeing the troops, the mob stopped beating Paul. The officers arrested Paul, binding him with two chains. Only then did the chief ask who Paul was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing, others shouted something else. (Notice the injustice of asking the lynch mob what the victim did!) In all the commotion, the commander couldn’t learn the truth, so he ordered Paul be taken to headquarters. The soldiers encircled Paul to protect him from the crowd’s violence. The mob followed behind screaming, “Away with him!”
Let us remember these stories of our long-passed oppression. Ponder that chant: “Get him out of here!” How sinfully tragic that the church, once bullied and oppressed, fails to break the bullying cycle! Today, a new wave of bullies soils the name of our gentle savior seeking to impose their christianized vision upon others.
On the steps of the police headquarters, Paul asked the commander, “May I speak with you?” The captain answered, “Do you know Greek? Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led 4000 terrorists into the desert some time ago?” Paul replied, “I’m a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please, let me speak to the people.” With the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and gestured to the people. When they were quiet, (Paul was surrounded by police) Paul addressed them.
What just happened? Surrounded by cops, Paul gets permission to address the mob that tried to lynch him. How did that happen? Paul speaks the language of the soldiers’ hearts- Greek. If you don’t like Paul, please give him some credit, because here he stands, bloodied, bruised, and double chained standing on the steps looking down on the once howling mob. Wouldn’t you want to to escape the crowd’s violence?
Paul asks to preach to them! Maybe Tom Petty was thinking of Paul: “Well you can prop me up against the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down- going to stand my ground- in a world that keeps on pushing me around- well I won’t back down, Hey Silas, there ain’t no easy way out.” I love Paul; if you love justice, Jesus, inclusion, and Trophimus the Ephesian, you should, too. We need that holy courage and boldness today. Faith, hope, and love twinkled in Paul’s eye, and the Roman Commander saw it and let Paul preach to a now silent lynch mob.
It does not hurt that Paul grew up in Tarsus, a Roman provincial capital, so the police give Paul the privilege of addressing the crowd. If we get any privilege, how will we use it? What would you say with your bloodied, bruised, and double chained? What would your message be to the lynch mob?
When they were quiet, Paul greeted them in Aramaic. When they heard Paul speaking in Aramaic, they became quieter still. “I’m a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia but raised under Gamaliel’s instruction. I was trained in the strict interpretation of our ancestral law. I am passionately loyal to God, just like you who are gathered here today.I harassed those who followed this way to their death, arresting and delivering both men and women into prison.
I think I would have gone more John the Baptist, “you brood of vipers, who told you to flee the wrath to come?” But, Paul knows something of the love of God. Instead of lashing out in anger and pointing out their sins, Paul identifies with the mob. He loves his enemies seeking common ground.“I was a strict keeper of law. I am passionate for God, just like you.” So often, we church folk look for what is different, we search for what divides us. We fear we will be polluted by another. Paul, bloodied, bruised and double chained, somehow sees similarity, “I am just like you!.. Oh, that the love of God might so percolate in us!
In these divided days that surround us, let us take notice of the two languages and cultures that lay behind our text and within the Jerusalem conflict! Paul speaks Aramaic for Jews and Greek for Ephesians. As we address church conflicts, let us remember that within a generation of the Resurrection, God grew two distinctive branches of Christianity. In fact, in the verses preceding our passage, Paul and James met as sort of bishops. These bishops lead two vastly different branches of Christianity. James worries that Bishop Paul teaches Greek Christians to reject Moses, circumcision, and the received customs. James advises Paul, “do what we tell you. Go through the Jewish purification rites, get your head shaved, and everyone will know that you live a life in keeping with the law.” Borg believes Luke glosses over the collision between James’ rules and Paul’s grace! In Galatians 2, Paul reports, “We didn’t give in and submit to them (who slipped in to spy on our freedom) for a single moment… but when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stopped eating with the Gentiles when James’ kosher-Christians raised a fuss.”
Perhaps there is always a tension between grace and the law. Maybe the prophet and the Bible scholar always chafe each other. Perhaps, the church is stronger when we listen to those calling us out onto the prophetic edge and hear those reminding us where home base is. It is not by accident that the Bible records the tension between kosher and cheese-burger Christians: grace or law, textual or spiritual authority, prophetic risk or safe teaching, mistake avoidance or imperfect inclusion, and between rule-following or heart-leading.
How do we navigate this tension? First, remember Jesus empowered us to loosen and to bind and promises to be with us when as few as two or three of us gather in his name!
Second, let’s just admit our general human tendency to prefer the old ways. The church resisted the organ, seeing it as a secular instrument. The church once enjoyed thinking our earth was the center of the universe, despite what Galileo saw in his new-fangled telescope. Jesus said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’ Luke 5:32. So people of God, lets’ admit we tend to cling to our old ways.
Third, from science to theology, the traditionalist tends to persecute innovators. The crowd tried to kill Paul for bringing an uncircumcised Greek into worship. A church musician once told me he would not play our organ on Easter due to helium balloons in the sanctuary…same hardness of heart, different threat levels. Jesus warns us that we tend to build monuments to past prophetic voices, while killing the modern one: “Look, I’m sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill.” (Matthew 23)
Despite our sinful tendencies, the church is stronger together. We need both traditional and progressive voices. The prophetic voice pulls us, challenges us, angers us, flips over our tables, opposes us to our face, says “thou art the privileged wealthy man”, breaks the rules, lifts the burdens, loosens the requirements, drops the nonessentials, pushes the boundaries, innovates, and leans way out with big risks. The traditionalist voice cautions us to remember who we are, where home base is, what we hold sacred, what binds us together, what anchors us, what rules guide us, and what the Bible says. The traditionalist demands compelling reasons to change, warning us not to simply follow the culture or the market!
No one person can dance on the prophetic edge while simultaneously anchored in the center of the faith received. Community is not a one person job. We need each other. Paul was an innovator and James, a traditionalist. The Bible records that tension! Peter was a bit of a bridge builder, so he caught it from both sides. Can we hear the traditionalists song of Scripture and tradition, and the progressives jazz innovating with reason, experience and the Spirit of Jesus that never stops guiding us into truth? I am not suggesting we all become moderates. Too many preachers are pseudo-moderates, who cite the Bible when it suits their fancy or fan-base, and thereby accidently peddle a dishonest hermeneutic that diminishes the text and dismisses the holy tension we need to arrive at the truth. For example, if you are going to cite Scriptural authority, to condemn homosexuality, please acknowledge that you do not lean on the Scripture to defend slavery! Many pro-slavery folks did 150 years ago!
Will we find Paul’s courage to find places where we are “just like you” even when we are bullied, bloodied and bruised? Will we listen carefully, stand our ground, speak our minds, while looking for windows of change? Will we try to love all people, even our enemies?
Paul saw himself in a murderous mob! Dr. King preached non-violence as police sicced dogs on well manner protesters and failed to investigate church bombings. They both changed the world through love. Let us strive to do the same. Amen.
A good word Paul…It’s hard to imagine a love than knows no bounds…but that’s Jesus.