Category Archives: God

Ceremonial Prayer in Light of SCOTUS

Twenty-some years ago, as a new pastor in town, I was asked to give the invocation at the commencement ceremonies at Fairmont State University.  I was honored.  I crafted that prayer carefully, using expansive as opposed to particular language.  I referred to God generically.  I attempted to make sure that I would bring no offense to the audience, not all of whom were Christian.  I delivered the prayer in a heart-felt way, convinced that I would not run foul of the Constitution.  The commencement speaker that day was none other than the late Senator Byrd.  I recall that he invoked the name of Jesus Christ no fewer than a dozen times in his speech.  I recall thinking that it was odd that I, an ordained pastor could not pray from my convictions and yet a member of the U.S. Senate could go beyond what I allowed for myself.

This was my introduction to “ceremonial prayer”, a phrase in the recent SCOTUS decision that rubs me the wrong way.  Is prayer that is ceremonial even prayer?  For that matter, is generic prayer really prayer?  When we say, “Let us pray” in public settings with people of vastly different religions and religious experiences, what is it that we are doing and is it appropriate?  Some of my more conservative Lutheran brothers and sisters refuse to pray with those who have different beliefs or are of a different religion.  More and more, I think I’m with them.

Prayer is an intimate conversation with God, particular not generic.  When I pray, it is to God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It is not to some entity, power, life force, or whoever happens to be listening at the time.  If I invite you to pray with me, I’m inviting you to pray to God … God to whom I pray, not the god of your imagination.  If you are not praying to the one to whom I pray, we are not praying together.

Ceremonial prayer is like that too.  In ceremonial prayer, the audience of the prayer are those gathered, not God.

When SCOTUS referred to prayer as ceremonial, then they said to me that my prayer isn’t what I think it is.  They just neutered my prayer.  That offends me.

I don’t do ceremonial prayers.  I’ve been asked to pray for any number of public events since that time long ago.  I’m always torn.  I’m always tempted to participate because I know that I’m more accommodating than many of those who like to hear themselves pray in public.  But I generally decline, several times a year, including the Maryland Legislature, the Chamber of Commerce Meetings, or other local events, unless it is clearly a Christian gathering.

If I do accept a public prayer “gig”, I think I’ll simply invite the participants to listen in as I pray.

Advertisements

Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …

Amen

Secularizing the 10 Commandments

It was just once too many times.  I caught part of an interview with Glenn Beck last evening where he was advocating that the 10 Commandments were a good set of “rules” for our country and that even atheists could support them.  He joins a very long list of people who somehow believe that the 10 Commandments are easily secularized.  But let’s look at the first 3 Commandments (as Lutherans count them).

  1. You shall have no other Gods.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How do you secularize that?  How do atheists accept those?  These first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God!  Now I know that Glenn Beck wants to restore the place of religion in our society but this naturally leads to some questions for me.

  1. Which god?  People in this nation worship any number of deities.  I’ll refuse to worship Glenn Beck’s god.
  2. A “generic god” is not God.  Generic prayer is not prayer.  How does this proposal reconcile the multiple deities worshiped in this country without resorting either to “establishment of religion” or so watering down the witness of God’s self-revelation that we simply become a culture that worships a generic god.

Even the last 7 Commandments are problematic if they are not addressed to a specific people with other “commentary” in sacred scripture.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Much of the advertising in this country uses coveting as a means to encourage us to purchase products, essential for the market economy we live in.  Without coveting, our economy collapses.  Of course, with unbridled covetousness, our economy  has a “bubble” then collapses.

I’d like those who advocate for the secularization of the 10 Commandments to be honest.  They really believe that the 5 Commandments are worthy of attention.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.

Oh, except that much advertising relies on false witness.  Large profits require “theft”.  Many fathers are unknown or absent.  We encourage killing in self-defense and war.  Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm.  Porn fuels an economy that influences technology.

What is our society to do?  If we were to follow the 10 Commandments, our economy would falter even more, especially if these 10 Commandments are divorced from the context in which they were given to God’s own people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe the 10 Commandments are valuable … within the context of a faith community.  God didn’t give these commandments to the Egyptians or any other power of the day.  God gave these commandments to the small band of people God claimed as God’s own.  These commandments set God’s people apart from the other peoples/nations.  They were/are a gift.

God’s people have shared this gift to the cultures in which we live, and where it made sense, those cultures have adopted them.  Let’s not secularize the 10 Commandments however.  Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.  Let’s stop using religious language as if our culture and the religious tradition are one in the same.  That will only turn out poorly.

Exposing “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) EXPOSED”

It has become sport to attack the ELCA these days.  The ELCA is a flawed institution like every institution.  It is contaminated with sin just as every other human endeavor.  Martin Luther claimed that even our worship of God is tainted.  What characterizes many of these attacks is “painting with a huge brush” objections some have.  One example of this is a website that claims to “Expose” the ELCA.  Here are some of the author’s key points about why persons should leave the ELCA, and my comments.  I offer this as “pondering material”.  My statements are indented and in bold.

The ELCA is promoting a brand of “universal salvation.” The Lutheran Study Bible says, “Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him.” That is not Biblical. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

In the first printing of “The Lutheran Study Bible” the website’s author is correct.  The systematic theologian writing the study notes for Matthew 28 did include that phrase.  It is my understanding that in subsequent printings, it has been changed/removed.  It would be interesting to debate this more inclusive view of salvation.  What can we say about God’s grace as applied to those who do not know about Christ?  If indeed baptism is necessary and life begins at conception, what about stillborn persons?  Is there room for God’s grace beyond those “who believe and are baptized”?  Let’s at least raise the question and discuss it!

This denomination teaches that Jesus did not say what the Bible says He said. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

As a pastor in this denomination, I’m not aware that I do this, nor am I aware that anyone else teaches this.  The charge is very short on details.

They date the writings of scripture by seeing when “prophecies are fulfilled” and decide there is no way the writers could know what would happen before hand, so they decide scripture must have been written after the fulfillment. i.e. – God not involved. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

I think this is an attack against modern Biblical scholarship.  If so, then I’d simply reply that when prophets and others write, with God involved, it is entirely possible that the authors believe themselves to be writing about one thing, and God uses it for something in addition.  For example, in Isaiah, when the author writes that a young woman will conceive and bear a child, the immediate application was a promise that before that child was weaned certain events would occur.  It is a poetic way of describing time.  Later, others used the phrase and applied it to Jesus.  Please don’t tear away contextual meaning from scripture, because when you do that, you violate scripture.

The ELCA does not believe there is prophecy in the Bible! There are hundreds of places where the Bible says there is! Jesus says many times that it does. Some people say over 25% of the Bible is prophetic. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

It depends on what you mean by prophesy.  I understand that often prophecy is interpreting current events in light of God’s action in the world.  If prophecy only means “prediction of future events” then many Biblical scholars across the church will take issue with the definition.

This denomination has denied God’s authorship of the Holy Bible, as evidenced from the listing above. And the Bible even refers to itself as Holy (2 Timothy 3:15). Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

More inflammatory rhetoric here.  Look, in a legitimate debate, using 2 Timothy 3:15 as proof will completely fail.  It relies on circular logic.  If by “God’s authorship of the Holy Bible” means that every word is literally true and factually accurate and there are no metaphors, parables (other than that which is called a parable) or the like then I’m guilty as charged!  This Bible is a library.  It contains a wide variety of literature that is God-breathed, and that the people of God have found to speak God through.  Come on, even the genealogies of Jesus don’t agree.  I’d suggest a reading of Karen Armstrong’s books for some interesting perspectives for debate. (That reference will get me labeled a “flaming liberal”!)

The ELCA has taken a stand against Israel. They threaten to stop all financial relations with Israel. They want Jerusalem and parts of Israel given to the Arabs. God gave Israel that land. It states it clearly in the Bible. God confirmed it with Isaac and Jacob that the land was for them. This is against God’s will, and it is an action that the Bible warns about. “In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.” Joel 3:1-2. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

The Bible also commands hospitality to the sojourner and that the laws apply equally to the people of God and to the resident alien.  Is the modern state of Israel the same as the Israel of the Bible?  Not necessarily so!  God has delivered Israel into the hands of its enemies many times in scripture when it was disobedient.  Is this a like time?  The Evangelical Christian tendency to support the nation of Israel at all costs is often disingenuous.  Many see it as a way of inviting the second coming of Jesus more quickly.  Just maybe the ELCA is serving God as a prophet to the modern nation state of Israel.  Read the prophets once again!  What does the Lord require but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

The ELCA supports abortions in their medical coverage. They also actively promote and lobby for the use of public funds for abortions. Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

I hear this pretty consistently and I don’t have any factual information to say about this.  Abortion is tragic and undesirable … but I know that if it is to occur, I’d rather it be done by medical personnel.

The ELCA and others supporting homosexuality try every kind of theological gymnastic move to make the the Bible mean something other than what it says. They even try this when God so clearly says homosexuality is a sin. They also try to say Revelation is not about prophecy, even when the biblical author writes “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw–that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev. 1:1-2) In reality, what the ELCA is doing is calling the Biblical authors and God, LIERS! Is this the denomination we want to have ties to?

Homosexuality is the issue that seems to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  The Bible says a lot of things that are difficult and require interpretation.  Sometimes we’ve gotten that right.  Sometimes we’ve gotten that wrong.  Each generation must wrestle with the text in a way to be faithful to it.  Many serious and faithful scholars disagree about what the texts that seem to be about homosexuality say and don’t say.  I say, let’s engage in the conversation without resorting to “slander” (which is also listed in scripture as something we should not do … within a few verses of one of the most commonly quoted passages about homosexuality).  Likewise, serious scholars have discovered contemporary meaning to the time it was written in the apocalyptic writings of The Revelation.  In the text itself it says, “what must soon take place”.  Is 2000 years your idea of soon?  (And don’t give me the thousand years is but a day to God quote.)

—–

That is enough.  At least I’ve got that off my chest.

Pondering Pastor

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

I didn’t know that there was a debate about this.  I should have known better.  Never underestimate the ability of some rigidly legalistic thinking people to find reasons everyone else is wrong.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?  An article distributed to participants in one of our men’s groups suggested that there are plenty of reasons the answer should be “No!”. (Unfortunately I don’t have the name of the author of the article.)

  1. The word Christmas doesn’t appear in the Bible.
  2. The celebration was not instituted by an inspired apostle.
  3. The date of Christ’s birth is disputed, and most certainly is not December 25th.
  4. December 25th was chosen in 440 AD to replace pagan worship of the sun gods.
  5. Pagan symbolism has been embraced in many Christian Christmas celebrations.
  6. Many Christian traditions pre-date Christianity.

The author of the article concludes with the following paragraph:

Well, you must answer this question for yourself: Should Christians observe Christmas? For me, I am not going to add holidays or observances of any type originating from men and pagan sun worshipping to the worship of the church. This includes the observance of Christmas as well as other holidays such as Halloween. Apart from the church, I personally observe Christmas as any other national holiday – no different from Halloween, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, or St. Patrick’s Day. In this rests my liberty: I may personally observe anything good and moral unto the Lord (Rom. 14). But the minute I make my liberty part of the work and worship of the Lord’s church thereby transgressing the doctrine of Christ (I Cor. 4:6; II Jn. 9), I worship the Lord in vain – “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).

<Insert slow head shaking here>

There were two powerful and compelling arguments for the celebration of Christmas by Christians discussed at our men’s group that I think trump this unknown author’s reasoning.

First, why should we worry about Christianity “baptizing” and adopting for itself pagan practices, when each of us are “baptized” and adopted into the body of Christ “while we were yet sinners”?  Baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit makes the profane holy (called santification).  I am taken as a sinful and unclean person and made holy.  We can do likewise with symbols and signs that are relevant.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.  What more powerful time in the Northern Hemisphere is there than late December for the realization of this truth?

Second, the institution of the celebration of Christmas in the 5th century corresponds (if the unknown author’s dating is accurate) to a real tension in the church related to the doctrine of Christ’s “substance”.  There is no better way I know to affirm the incarnation of God in human flesh than to celebrate a birth.  Mary is the god-bearer.  The celebration of the birth of Jesus reminds us of his human nature, and at the same time, the miracle of it all reminds us of the divine nature.  Christmas (literally meaning the mass celebrating the birth of Christ) then is a holiday helping us keep the paradox of Christ being fully human and fully divine intact.

Oh, by the way unknown author … “Easter” doesn’t appear in the Bible either.

Pondering Pastor

Anxiety and Fear (Reflections on Advent 1C)

The Gospel lessons for the first Sunday in Advent have apocalyptic themes and in preparation for preaching I wandered around the internet to experience some of what people are writing about the chaos that is and is to come.  I couldn’t disconnect fast enough … and was strangely drawn to more.

The movie 2012 was as good a place to start as any, which soon led me to www.december212012.com.  Talk about dusting off all sorts of familiar themes.  In the mid-late 1980’s, I had an employer who started to talk about polar shifts and coming disasters.  He and another staff member quit their jobs, bought a farm in Iowa, equipped it for the coming catastrophe, and taught seminars about surviving the coming apocalypse.  He died never seeing the events he anticipated.  This website collects disparate “predictions” and pulls them all together. I’m a reasonable person, and I found myself starting to think about steps to survive the coming disaster.  (Prudent preparation makes sense and I have some emergency response items already stockpiled … more for our frequent power outages than anything else.)

I read about graffiti on the bathroom wall in a High School.  “It sucks to be in the class of 2013 … what’s the point?” (Referring to the “end of the world” in 2012.)

I encountered the Psalm 109:8 “prayer for President Obama” movement.  In case you haven’t heard about this one,  people are encouraged to pray “for” President Obama using Psalm 109:8 “May his days be few; may another seize his position.”  Plenty has been written in outrage about this prayer, especially in light of the verses which follow: “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.  May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.  May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.  May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.  May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation.”  I don’t believe that’s what Jesus meant when he instructed us to “pray for your enemies”.

From there my wandering spun completely out of control, and I felt like I was in a dark alley, late at night, ready to be mugged.  I got out of there as fast as I could.

Don’t people get that apocalyptic literature is a word of hope?  Oh, that’s right, if we are Biblical literalists then these are predictions of actual events rather than poetic imagry to describe a world that seems stacked against us!  The way I read Luke 21:25-36 gives me encouragement.  By listening to and following Christ, I don’t have to wring my hands at the sexually-charged singing/dancing of Adam Lambert, or drag myself into a survivalist camp armed to the teeth against the world.  God’s purposes will be fulfilled even in the face of those things which seem opposed to God.  In Christ’s power, we will live an alternative reality that flows alongside chaos.  The good news is that even though it seems as though evil wins … it cannot.  That theme is persistent in Luke/Acts.  Why, I think that it makes a lot of sense to invite people I care about into that same alternative reality.

Take a breath folks.  Christ is alive.  Now, let’s get busy living the alternative reality feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and giving drink to the thirsty.

Pondering Pastor

ELCA Angst: Scriptural Authority

In August, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to allow persons who were in publically-accountable life-long monogamous same-gender relationships (the acronym now in use to keep the terminology consistent is PALMS) to be on the leadership rosters of the church (pastors, diaconal ministers, and associates in ministry).  There are many who point to these decisions and make the claim that the ELCA has abandoned the “authority of scripture”.  The rhetoric is often quite shrill.

I’ve spent some time in scripture with an eye toward evaluating the response of those who claim the scriptural “high ground”.  I’ve taken my time in this process, and have invited members of the congregation I serve to consider scripture’s guidance and experience with what I think is a similar controversy described in the last 2/3 of the book of Acts.  I’ve been careful to ask these participants whether or not they believe (a) that the story has similarity to the conflict within the ELCA and (b) whether or not it is instructive for our life together.  We have participants who are anxious to rush to judgment about the Assembly votes themselves, but I try to gently steer them back to the questions at hand.  Thus far, the process has been very helpful.

Beginning at Acts 10, we learn about a vision that Cornelius has where an angel of God appears to him and instructs him to summon Simon Peter.  Cornelius is a “God-fearer”, which means that he is a Gentile believer who has attached himself to portions of Jewish law and practice, but who has not submitted to circumcision.  There is no indication in the text that Cornelius has any idea about the reason he would be instructed to summon Simon Peter.  Likewise, in these opening verses of the story, we have no clue what God has in store for Cornelius.  Meanwhile, as the messengers of Cornelius are approaching Simon Peter, this disciple of Jesus has a vision of his own, where a sheet is lowered from heaven with all sorts of animals on it and a voice commands Simon Peter to eat.  He objects and resists, because there are unclean animals on the sheet, but the voice declares, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”.  The Spirit further commands Simon Peter to go with the Gentiles sent by Cornelius.

We found it interesting that the only possible reference to any other part of scripture declaring all food clean is Mark 7:14-19.  If that is indeed a place where Jesus declares all food clean, would not have Simon Peter, a disciple present at the event, have recalled it and known its significance before this new vision?  We also noted that there was a three-fold repetition of the instruction and still Simon Peter remains puzzled.

Simon Peter arrives at the home of Cornelius and specifically states that “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile”.  Simon Peter further states, “but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  That is different than what the voice stated in Acts 10:15, and demonstrates an expansion of the teaching of the vision.  One of our questions of the story thus far is whether or not Simon Peter’s expansion carries the weight of a new revelation by God.  If so, it has tremendous implications about that which the Old Testament calls an “abomination”.  We also note that by this time in the story, there are few clues as to what God is doing with this encounter.  Simon Peter makes a speech, and says “…anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him …”  and “… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”  There appears to be both obedience (to what is not clear in this particular text) and trust/belief lifted here as important.

Then, in Acts 10:44-45 an absolutely astonishing thing happens.  The gift of the Holy Spirit falls upon those who are completely outside the bounds of who is acceptable according to Jewish thought and Jewish law (contained within scripture).  The significance of this cannot be minimized.  If we were wondering at all about what God’s purposes were in bringing together the orthodox of orthodox Simon Peter who had never eaten anything unclean and a Gentile dabbling in the faith but not really committed, here it is.  Note too that the astonishment is among the circumcised believers accompanying Simon Peter.  This is not a throw-away reference.  Time and cultural changes tends to make it hard for us to recognize the new thing God is doing here.

After the dramatic and powerful experience in Caesarea, Peter (and likely those with him) travel to Jerusalem where the decisions Simon Peter made were openly challenged.  Specifically at issue was the table fellowship with Gentiles, in other words, his willingness to even to be engaged with the Gentile Cornelius.  I love the way the text describes Simon Peter having to go through his experience “step by step”.  At the end of this description, Simon Peter says, “… who was I that I could hinder God?”  The challenge by the leaders in Jerusalem was that Simon Peter had made some poor decisions, and Simon Peter’s witness is that he was simply following the lead of God.

Hearing this account, the leaders in Jerusalem had no spoken objections.  We would expect the matter now to be settled.  We also noted that there is “relief” sent to the believers living in Judea.  We will continue to see this theme throughout the rest of Acts, even when the controversy is not over.

The story of the controversy isn’t apparent again until Acts 13-14.  Following a speech by Paul in Antioch, there are some “Jews and devout converts to Judaism” (read all circumcised) who challenged Paul.  Paul defends the ministry to Gentiles, but is driven out by the Jews.  The same thing happens in Iconium.

In this part of the story, I don’t read “Jews” as “Jewish people” as much as I do “faithful people of God who hold on to what scripture says is the only faithful way of inclusion into the faith, that is, circumcision”.  At stake for them was the adherence to the law as revealed to Moses.  They were protecting the traditions and scripture from those who were claiming a new revelation from God that contradicted more than 3000 years of God’s history with God’s people.  I’m sure they held these teachings very passionately and were absolutely convinced of their continuing validity.  However, participants in our study made the observation that if they were right, then the Christian Church developed completely in error and the witness of Paul is completely wrong.

In Acts 15-16, the controversy has grown so intense that a consultation occurred with the leaders in Jerusalem.  A compromise is worked out.  James orders that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised, but need to be obedient to the law in some minimal ways, including abstinence from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.  This remains an uneasy compromise for many, and there is lack of trust that even this compromise is right or will work.

What was he thinking?!?  On the heals of this consultation, Paul circumcises Timothy!  Now, Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father was a Greek (Gentile), but there is a perfect opportunity to assert the freedom granted by the consultation.  Yet, one might say, Paul was either respecting the bound conscience of the Jewish believers in the area or was tired of the conflict or had more important things to focus on.  Our group is not to this point yet, but I’m anxious to learn what they make of this part of the story.

In Acts 21, Paul is arrested.  Paul has gone back to Jerusalem, where people of the circumcision party are bound and determined to silence this one who is contaminating the true faith.  They attempt to kill him, but soldiers (Gentiles) arrest him and save him.  Paul’s story continues eventually to Rome where he is in house arrest.  Note that this conflict is the very thing that spread the Gospel to Rome through Paul.  The witness of the author of Acts is that this very conflict is used by God to spread the Gospel.

I notice that in the midst of the controversy, with its center in Jerusalem and to a certain degree with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, Paul never suggests the withholding of offerings or “relief” to the church and the people of Jerusalem.  He always encourages the Gentiles to give generously to the very people who would exclude them from full participation in Christianity if they do not submit to the ritual of circumcision.

I don’t claim to know what God is doing in the ELCA.  Our current conflict seems overwhelming at times.  I watch people who saw themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ in July, now name-calling in September.  I’m of the firm belief that the story of the conflict between the circumcision party and the god-fearers in Acts (and in Galatians) can be instructive for us as we seek to find ways to live with our differences.  Faith is often shaped in the times when God seems absent and there is not the clarity we desire.

Pondering Pastor