The Bible in a Year – 8 December

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8 December. Acts chapters 26-28

These final chapters of the book of Acts seem to modern readers to have a strange emphasis.  There are nearly two whole chapters (27:1 – 28:16) covering Paul’s last journey from Jerusalem to Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial; and yet only the last  two verses of the book cover his two years in the Eternal City: “He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (28:30-31).  What it does not mention at all is Paul’s death, though it is usually assumed that at the end of the two years his appeal was heard and refused, and he was executed.

Going back to before his last journey, the two rulers who had interrogated him in Caesarea, Agrippa and Festus, had agreed that “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor” (26:32). So should Paul have not made his appeal?  He could, it seems, have saved his life and gone back to preaching in the eastern Mediterannean area.

But on the other hand, if he had not let himself be taken to Rome, with all the dangers that the journey involved, he would never have had the chance to preach to the Jews in Rome, and thereby establish the Church in Rome.  A church which over the next few centuries so influenced the society in which it was situated that the Emperor was eventually converted, and which became the centre of the Christian faith in Western Europe.  The Bishop of Rome, under his alternative title of Pope, is still the most influential Christian leader in the world.  And all because Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to seek the Emperor’s final decision on his case, even although that decision seems to have gone against him.

Jesus once said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Paul understood this: his own life was sacrificed, but in a way that led to billions of people becoming followers of the Jesus who had appeared to him on that road to Damascus.  From that moment on, his life had been devoted to Jesus, whether in good times or (more often) in difficult and dangerous circumstances.   That unswerving devotion to a cause greater that one’s own comfort or even survival is a challenge to all of us who count ourselves as Christians: are we willing to suffer, as Paul did, for the faith, and for the sake of others who may come after us?


The Bible in a Year – 7 December

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7 December. Acts chapters 23-25

The parallels between Paul and Jesus did not stop with him going up to Jerusalem and being caught up in a mob with false accusations.   Like Jesus, Paul is brought before a series of courts – the unnamed tribune in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananias, the Roman governor Felix and his successor Festus, and King Agrippa.  None of them (apart from Ananias) could see the point of the charges brought against Paul, because like those against Jesus, they had to do with Jewish ‘law’ (religious rules) and not the law of the land under the Romans.  If it were not for Paul’s Roman citizenship which had already got him out of danger twice, he may have been handed back to the Jews to be killed. But he uses his privilege again to claim the right to appeal to the Emperor in Rome.

The balance between religious and secular law is another one that is familiar to us.  People of faith living in a multi-cultural society have to consider both.  In many ways the two reinforce each other – to love your neighbour and to keep the civil peace amount to much the same thing.  But sometimes the two clash, and then we have to make a choice.  If you want your son brought up in the understanding of your own faith but the local state school wants to teach about all religions and atheism equally, is it right to refuse to send him to those lessons even if it risks a fine?  If your place of worship is vandalised by non-believers, is it more important to show an example of “forgiving your enemies” according to religious teaching, or to expect the police to prosecute them, and risk increasing division in the local community?   If you belong to a religious tradition that is strongly pacifist, but the country you live in has compulsory military service, is it right to refuse on grounds of conscience and risk imprisonment?

Where is the balance, in other words, between obeying the law of the land and following your religion?  There are, of course, no right answers.  Paul knew that, acknowledging that there was a risk he would end up being found guilty of sedition under Roman law and executed (25:11) but for him, obeying Christ was always more important.

The Bible in a Year – 6 December

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6 December. Acts chapters 20-22

These chapters cover the end of Paul’s missionary journeys, as he returns to Jerusalem where he knows (from his own revelation and the prophecies of others) that he will be arrested and tried.  But he goes voluntarily, like Jesus on his own final journey to Jerusalem, believing that this is God’s will.  In each place he goes along the way, where there are existing communities of Christians, he makes his farewell speech, sometimes (as at Troas, 20:7-11) lasting all night.

We can get an idea of what his farewell speech would have focused on from the episode in Miletus (20:28-35) where he summons the elders (whom he also addressed as “overseers”, the term for what became bishops) from the church in the region known as Asia (meaning part of what is now western Turkey, not the whole continent) and speaks to them, urging them to be pastors to the church members like shepherds with their sheep, to teach the message of God’s grace, and to watch out for charismatic leaders who might lead people astray by ‘false’ teaching.   These remain the core responsibilities of bishops and other ministers today. They all face the tricky task of balancing these duties of pastoral Care, preaching and teaching, and making a public stand against any challenge to the Church.

In Jerusalem it happens just as predicted: Paul is arrested following a mob charge that starts with a false accusation that he has brought Gentiles into the temple.  When brought before the tribune (a low level Roman official) he avoids being flogged by playing the “get out of jail card” of Roman citizenship that I mentioned a couple of days ago.

The sensitivity over who was entitled to use the Temple was nothing new, as it had been a sacred site for the Jews for centuries. Even in today’s news, there is controversy over Jerusalem because the United States wants to have an embassy there. This would apparently be seen by Palestinians as recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and therefore (though there is no apparent logic in this) denying their rights to a share of the city, in which the Temple site (now a Muslim holy place) stands.

Christianity, although regarding Jerusalem as a holy place because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there, makes no territorial claim to it.  To visit the holy city as a pilgrim must be wonderful (I have yet to do it) but it must also be remembered that Jesus called the Temple “a house of prayer for all nations”.  Jerusalem’s role now should be to welcome all who worship the God of Abraham, and to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6)  is a command that never ceases to be relevant.

The Bible in a Year – 5 December

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5 December. Acts chapters 17-19

Paul is often held up as the example of a great evangelist, indeed one of the greatest orators, for he was able to be (as he writes elsewhere) “all things to all people”.   Among Jews he argued as a rabbi using their scriptures (17:2,11); in the debating place among philosophers he used the dedication of an altar to an “unknown God” to start speaking of the true God who is invisible but knowable (17:23); he could quote secular poetry (17:28) as well as religious texts. Not only was he gifted in public speaking but he could work with individuals too, Romans (18:7) as well as Greeks; he could encourage individuals who only had a limited understanding of the faith but going deeper with them (19:1-7).  He could also write complex theology in his letters.   If that was not enough, he performed healing miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus, as Jesus had done himself (19:11-12)

But in all this he continued to face opposition from many quarters: from Jews who opposed him as a heretic, from Greeks who scoffed at his illogical claims of resurrection, and from Romans who thought Christianity a dangerous cult.  There was opposition too from the idol-makers whose livelihood he had disrupted (19:21-40).  These various groups seemed to be able to draw on a “rent-a-mob” who didn’t even know what they were supposed to be demonstrating about (19:32).

If Paul had been around today, I am sure that he would have experienced much the same.  Religious conservatives, outspoken humanists and atheists, secular authorities who don’t know what to make of faith communities, powerful lobby groups with financial interests, and crowds of demonstrators – they are all still with us, and the ever-challenging message of the Gospel still attracts opposition from them all.

Paul would also undoubtedly have been a media presence.  His Twitter account would have had millions of followers (and attracted trolls too).  He would have been delighted to have been able to set down his theology in blog posts followed by thousands rather than letters to be heard by a few dozen.   He could have argued with the Corinthians instantly by messenger apps, rather than exchange postal correspondence over a period of months.  And no doubt would have been a popular contributor to “thought for the day” on Radio Athens and a controversial guest on chat shows.

But on the other hand, how long would such conversations endure?  How much of what is spoken, blogged and tweeted today will be searchable even in ten years, let alone two thousand?  The power and longevity of the written word – whether Paul’s letters, or Luke’s record of his travels, has meant that his writings and actions have endured down to this day as an inspiration and a challenge.  Let’s hear it for @Paul_Tarsus.

The Bible in a Year – 4 December

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4 December. Acts chapters 14-16

If you have ever played the board game Monopoly you will understand the term “get out of jail free card”.  Players often find themselves sent to jail, where they must try to get out by luck (throwing a double on the dice) or otherwise pay a fine to get out.  But there are two cards that can be picked up at other times in the game that allow a free exit.

Tactically, it is best not to let your opponents know that you hold such a card, so that it is a surprise when you do.  Also, given you can only play it once, there is no point playing that card when it would only give you a small advantage – on the first or second attempt to get out, as you might be lucky with the dice.  It’s best to keep it until you really need it, on the last chance, to avoid having to pay the fine.

Paul did not play board games as we know them. But the Greeks played dice games so he knew about the balance between good luck and tactics. His “get out” card said that he was a Roman citizen, indeed he had been one since birth, as Luke explains later in Acts.  As a Jew, that was unusual, and there are many discussions online about how that came about. So people in other parts of the empire would not have assumed him to be a citizen (which gave additional rights above non-citizens). But when was the appropriate time to reveal this?

As Paul travelled around, his uncompromising style won him followers wherever he went, but also opponents.  In several places there were attempts to stop him and his companions.  Looking at those in today’s reading, first we have Iconium.  There, his opponents “with their rulers”, threatened to stone Paul and his companions (14:5).  If the rulers were joining in with the mob rather than seeking justice, they were clearly corrupt and his citizenship would have had little effect. In Lystra he was stoned again (14:19), this time by conservative Jews who had been brought in from outside.  They would not have been impressed either.

After returning to Jerusalem to sort out the question of whether gentile Christians needed  to be circumcised (fortunately, the debate went in Paul’s favour), he set out again, this time with Silas, and after some more positive experiences, they ended up in Philippi where again there was opposition.  This time they were jailed on the charge brought against them by a slave owner who claimed loss of income as a result of Paul casting out a spirit of divination from one of his slaves – probably a rather weak basis for jailing someone, even in those days.

Freed by the effects of an earthquake (which is not presented as a miracle, and the region is prone to them) they are told by the police that they can leave.  But that is not enough for Paul.  He thinks the time has come to play the card – “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” (16:37).  “They” are the magistrates, who are forced to come and make an apology in person to Paul and Silas for treating them as slaves rather than citizens.

Was this the right time to play the card?  After all, they were already out of jail!    Paul’s motive seems, therefore, to have been more about preventing further attacks. If the magistrates realised that these Christian preachers were citizens, they would be slower to apply summary justice, and word would get around that they were not to be messed with. Paul did hold another of these cards, and the time would come to play it.  But for now, the game went on.

What is your “get out of jail” card? What would you say to someone who treated you like dirt, denying you the rights that you know yourself to be entitled to, or regarding you as worthless?  It might be your education or practical skills that shows you are not as stupid as they thought. It might be “someone you know” who can advocate for you, or perhaps a natural or learnt aptitude to charm people round to your way of thinking.  But in all these, the element of surprise is not to be underestimated.   After all, even Jesus lived an ordinary life until he was thirty, and did not reveal himself until the time was right, when John the Baptist had already done his work.

Jesus also held the card that none of us can ever hold – the “get out of death free” card.  He played it on Easter morning, and do you know what – he has given each of us a copy for ourselves!


The Bible in a Year – 25 November

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25 November. Ephesians chapters 1-3

Paul addresses this letter to a Christian congregation which, as he makes very clear, consists of Gentiles (non-Jews). For those of us in a 21st century democracy, the distinction does not seem so great.  We are used to the idea of religious diversity, of tolerance of different views, of the freedom of the individual to accept or reject the faith into which their families brought them up – or indeed any other.  Or not to be religious at all.  While some religions (especially Islam and Christianity) do claim to have the “final revelation” of God and to be the only way to him, the boundaries are still fluid – some people born into Christian families convert to Islam, or declare themselves atheists, and vice versa.

For Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul, that was not so. The Jews (in their own view) were the chosen people, the only ones blessed by the God of the universe.  Not only were the Roman and Greek gods false ones whose worship would be punished by God as idolatry, but there could be no forgiveness, no salvation for them.  Therefore the Jews separated themselves from other people, regarded them as ritually unclean, would not even share a meal with them.  I’m not talking about today’s Jews of course, but those of Bible times.

Then came the Resurrection of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and revelations to several of the apostles including Paul himself.  Out of these grew the conviction that the Jews had got it wrong, they had misunderstood their own scriptures, they had failed to hear the true message of the prophets.  God was actually calling the whole world to be reconciled to himself. The role of the Jewish people as his chosen race was not to set themselves against the rest of the world but to be the channel through which God’s grace and favour could flow.

Thus, Paul realised that his mission was not so much to the Jews to tell them about Jesus, as to spread the message as far as possible into what others would regard as hostile territory, pagan peoples.  This was a total about-turn from what he had preached previously as a Pharisee, so it is not surprising that the Christians initially received him with suspicion.

Just look at some of the things Pauls writes in Ephesians 2:11-22:  “you were … aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, … without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

There can therefore be no excuse for any Christian group to view the whole Christian church, let alone one denomination of it, as having exclusive access to God or being the only ones to receive his favour. Our religion is a world one, not only in its geographical spread, but in its target audience. Whoever lives on this earth is a child of God, to be called back to him by the reconciling love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Bible in a Year – 12 October

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12 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 1-4

The relationship between the apostle Paul and the church in Corinth, as revealed in his two letters (and what some people have deduced from them about their situation), is a fascinating one.  Sometimes he is praising them, holding them up as example to others of what Christians should be like; then a short while later criticising their behaviour and calling them immature.

Paul’s main criticism in this first quarter of the book is that some of the congregation think that they follow, or even worse “belong to”, himself, or to one of the other apostles, rather than Christ.  He has to remind them that all Christians are baptised into Christ (or, in most churches, into the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ who is God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit).  In chapter 3 he uses the analogy of farming, where he and others who have taught them the faith are like farmers, who may plant the crop, but without God’s gifts of earth, air, sun and rain it will not grow.  So it is with Christians: only God grows faith within a person; other people can only provide the “seeds of faith”.

In chapter 4 he uses a different analogy, that of father and child. A parent can teach a child the facts of life, but maturity is something that each person has to work out for him- or herself from experience.  Growth into maturity is what we call wisdom.  But for Paul, human wisdom is not enough in the Kingdom of God.  We also need spiritual maturity, and as far as that was concerned, the Corinthians, although adults, were so immature that they were like babies who are not yet weaned (3:2) – what an insult!  Their immaturity is shown by the division among them according to which of the apostles they wrongly claim to belong to.

Division in the church is not new.  Whether at a global level between “liberal” and “conservative” cultures, at a national level between members of an “official” state church and independent ones, within one church network according to preferences in worship, or even within a single congregation over some trivial issue like whether to replace pews with chairs, we hear it all the time. The media love a ‘divided church’ story, and those of us who are members of such congregations should be ashamed. We need to grow up!

Such divisions not only attract ridicule, they hinder the work of the Holy Spirit who can only work where there is unity of purpose, and mutual love. There was a parody on social media of a well known hymn.  The joke version read “Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod.”  The original, not often heard these days, is powerful when it is not only sung but believed as true, and lived out: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God: brothers we are treading where the saints have trod.”  The power of the Holy Spirit that Paul hints at in these opening chapters, and which he will discuss later in his letter, is what moves this mighty army.

Choose your metaphor then: growing crops, a family, or an army. Whichever you prefer, be a part of it, growing together in the love of God, and resist division like the plague.