DELIVERED 17 NOVEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS
I want to start today by saying I don’t really know how this thing is going to go. But no matter what, the thing I want you to write down is this: what is slow can still be urgent.
There are three reasons I’m not sure if things are going to click together quite right this morning. The first is because we are talking about some pretty abstract concepts. I think this is worth doing, because these concepts have a practical impact on how we live out our faith in the world. But they are abstract nonetheless, and that makes me nervous. The second reason I’m worried is because we are covering too much ground: we are working through 6 chapters of the book of Acts today, and six that can be frustratingly and deceptively repetitive! And third, I’m nervous because I am going to start by talking about a poem. I know what you’re thinking: “Kenny, if you already have too much confusing stuff going on, a poem is not going to help!” And I hear you, I really do. But here’s the thing: it weaseled its way into my head at the beginning of the week, and I couldn’t shake it, and so now I feel like I have to share it. But in any case, to make sure we don’t lose the forest for the trees here, I want to repeat: the big idea today is that what is slow can still be urgent.
So let’s start with the poem, if only to get it out of the way!
It comes from the American poet Robert Hayden, and it was written in 1962 after the death of Hayden’s foster father, William. It’s titled, appropriately enough, “Those Winter Sundays”:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I think about this poem a lot. There is much to say about it, but in the end, it’s a poem about Hayden’s realization that although his foster father was a man of “chronic anger,” and a man who was withdrawn and distant, he nonetheless practiced love for his son in what ways he could. The repetition at the end–”What did I know, what did I know”–focuses us on his point: that the work of love, even if love is a thing shared between people, is also “lonely” and “austere,” or disciplined. His father, for his faults, tried. Hayden’s poem is remorseful, as he reflects on his ignorance of this and his indifference towards this while his father was alive.
To make our first pass at connecting things to our central point, the work of love is slow. But it is also urgent: his father needed to be better. He also needed to be better. And becoming better takes time…but it cannot wait.
Our second major piece this morning is the text we are looking at, which is Acts 21 through 26. These chapters cover the apostle Paul’s various arrests and trials after he returns to Jerusalem.
Travis told us last week that Paul knew he was walking into a dangerous situation when he came back to the city, but that there are “right kinds of trouble” for a person to get into, and for Paul, these arrests were a key part of the journey his relationship with Jesus was taking him on.
It would be extraordinarily convenient for us if there was a clear passage in these chapters where Paul articulated his mission: where he told us why walking into this trap was so important, and what Jesus wants to transform in the Jerusalem Temple, and how spending the rest of his life in prison was going to help multiply and grow the early church. But unfortunately, this never happens. It’s not because people don’t ask him, or because Paul doesn’t try to answer them…it’s because, over and over again, once Paul starts speaking, his audiences get angry, they interrupt him, and then they try to kill him.
So, since Paul doesn’t say exactly what he’s up to, we’re going to try and work through these chapters from a different perspective: we’re going to look at why people keep interrupting him, to see if we can detect the underlying objections to what he’s saying that are causing so much trouble.
To pick up where we left off last week, when Paul returns to Jerusalem, he goes to see Peter, James, and the other church leaders to report on his journeys. They listen and do their best to keep him safe, but within a week or so, Paul has been found out by a group of Jewish leaders who have followed him to Jerusalem from Asia, and who intend to see him arrested and killed for what he has been teaching. In chapter 21, they rouse a mob to attack him, saying
“Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
Now, for the last month, we have been talking quite a bit about the core issue that was riling these folks up, which was Paul (and the church’s) teaching that Gentiles, or non-Jews, could become followers of Jesus without having to be circumcised. All they would need to do would be to repent of their past sins, be baptized, and strive to follow Jesus’s teachings moving forward. This business with Trophimus the Ephesian gets at the dispute: although Trophimus had become a Christian, the Jews of the Temple were offended that he had been welcomed without being circumcised, and they believed that this meant he was unclean, and so he was defiling the Temple by being there. They end up taking Paul from the street where they found him back into the Temple to defend himself, and there, Paul tells the story of his conversion and his calling, saying that it was Jesus who told him
“Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
So, at this point, the Jews from Asia and now the Jews from Jerusalem are both up in arms, and for the same basic reason: Paul is claiming that Jesus is inviting non-Jews to participate in Jewish community, even though they are ceremonially unclean. So, that’s interrupters 1 and 2: Asian Jews and Jerusalem Jews.
They then convince the Romans to arrest Paul, and Paul appears before a joint council of Jewish and Roman authorities: interrupters #3. There, Paul says
“Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
Now, the complaints against Paul escalate: he not only defiles the Temple, but he claims to do so in “good conscience”! After another fight breaks out, this time among the leaders themselves, and the Roman guards take Paul to the prison for his own safety. He is now under the care of the Roman governor of Jerusalem, a man named Felix. Felix is an interesting character, as he has landed in this position by marrying the sister of the current Roman King of the region, a woman named Drusilla, who was also Jewish. Felix is aloof, and he seems to have an academic curiosity about Paul and why Paul is so hated by the Jews of the Temple. And so, after a few days, Felix and his wife bring Paul out from his cell and invite him to meet with them and explain himself. There is no reference to tea, but it all feels to me very much like a tea party. In any case, we don’t have a transcript of Paul’s words at this meeting, but we get this summary and exchange, which I think is extremely important for us today, and it involves interruption #4:
Felix […] sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
Felix ends up allowing Paul to languish in prison for two full years, and then his term as governor ends and he is succeeded by a man named Festus.
Now, that was a lot of summary and a lot of text, but I shared it all at once because I want us to pause for a moment and try to think about what exactly it is that is upsetting everyone about Paul. What is the substance of their accusations? And, since so many of their accusations actually seem to be a bit misleading or trumped up, what might be underneath their anger and actually driving it?
I think there are three basic objections we see here to Paul’s actions:
- Paul is watering down the Law by disregarding circumcision for Gentiles
- Paul is desecrating the Temple by bringing Gentiles into it
- Paul is talking about a future-focused faith
The first two we have seen before…but the last one, which is what seems to happen when Paul is talking to Felix about righteousness, self-control, and judgment, is new and–to do a bit of foreshadowing!–I think it can connect us back to Hayden’s poem and our point this morning that what is slow can still be urgent.
To look at objections 1 and 2 first, it is so, so easy to see what the Temple Jews are saying here as absurd, if only because we are reading a book where Paul is the protagonist! But I don’t think they are being crazy at all. I think these two concerns–that the Law be taken seriously, that the Temple be treated as sacred–are extremely reasonable. In fact, I think we also mostly think these things. There is a reasonable fear that some churches–maybe even that our own church–can make so much of our desire to be inclusive of others that we downplay or ignore things the Bible is saying which might be hard or which might challenge us. I say this as a person standing in front of you with tattoos! The book of Leviticus–one of the books of “The Law” the Jews are talking about!–says very clearly
You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.
And the Law says many other things that it might seem we are simply choosing to ignore: many of us eat pork, we eat shellfish, we sit here in a church service without head coverings on, and, in our case at Revolution, we have women in many positions of authority. All of these things are things the Bible, at various points, prohibits. And there are some who would say that our practices, as inclusive or inoffensive as they might seem to us, make a mockery of the Law. They water the Law down. I should say that’s not what I believe; but there are others who share this faith with me who do.
But here’s the hard part: when we feel justified in what we are doing, we also run a risk of flipping the script and pointing the finger of judgment, discrimination, and persecution back at the other person. When Revolution was founded, we used the slogan, “Church for People Who Don’t Like Church.” I don’t think we meant any offense by that: I think we were trying to communicate to people who might not be interested in giving “church” a chance because of past negative experiences that our doors were open to them, and that it would be safe to explore faith here. That’s all great! But what we found, over time, is that that slogan was being read very differently by some of our brothers and sisters in other churches around us. To them, it sounded like we were saying they weren’t doing church the right way. It felt judgmental and arrogant. We had taken our “inclusiveness” and turned it into just another way of separating “us” and “them.”
And I don’t think we can do that. The root problem for the Temple Jews might have been that Paul was disrespecting the Law, but the reason they were so angry was because they felt Paul was telling them they were wrong. We refer to them as Paul’s “accusers,” but undoubtedly in their own minds, they were the Temple’s defenders. This matters, not because they were “right”–they weren’t!–but because they are people, too. And if they are people, God loves them.
To bring that to bear on our own church, if we allow a sense of “us” and “them”–of doing church “right” while others do church “wrong”–to seep into our attitudes about what it means to be a church, we are going to do real harm to ourselves. Because–and this our first “takeaway” this morning–if slow things can still be urgent, we need to be uncomfortable. We need to be uncomfortable: we need to feel challenged by the Law. I need to feel challenged about tattoos! We need to feel challenged by the way we sing songs and the way other people sing songs; we need to feel challenged by teaching, both here and in churches that have very different beliefs about doctrine than we do. Why?
This is the second takeaway this morning: because humility is the secret to pursuing righteousness. Not confidence: humility. Knowing that there are real answers, and it’s possible you and I don’t have all of them…and we want to be transformed.
So what about objection #3? What about Felix? And, of course, what about that Hayden poem?
Felix objects to Paul’s description of a future-focused faith. And this is where we get to the last of our major concerns this morning: this question of abstract ideas. But, if you remember, I think these ideas are incredibly important for us as a church! The phrase “future-focused faith” is worth pausing on for a second: what would it mean for our faith to be looking towards the future versus looking back at the past? What is Paul getting at here?
When Felix brings Paul in to try and understand the nuts and bolts of his theological dispute with the Temple Jews, he is expecting Paul to talk to him about the Law and the prophets who foretold Jesus’s coming. This is what Paul has done before when he was on trial…and it’s what Paul was typically talking about when he would get interrupted! But when Paul talks to Felix–himself a non-Jew–he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t give Felix the theology lesson. Instead, Paul “reasons with him about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment.” What does that mean? It means Paul isn’t getting into the weeds on circumcision, he’s talking about Jesus’s resurrection. He’s telling Felix that “The Way,” as the Jesus religion was beginning to be called, really was about the future. It was about “The Way”: it was about how we can and should live, and that things like “self-control” matter because there is a coming judgment. There is, in other words, a way things are supposed to be. A way humans are supposed to be. And God intends to hold his creation to that standard.
So what do we do when we are afraid we won’t measure up? Well, if we are Temple Jews, we double down on our commitment to the Law and the past! Strict adherence to codes will save us! And if we are Felix, we double down on our aloofness and intellectual abstractions! We treat the questions as issues of philosophy, but not as things that might have authority over our behavior, or which might be leading us towards some future maturity. Everything gets pulled out of time: we just want to know stuff for the sake of knowing stuff!
We forget, in other words, that even if the work of transformation, of becoming more righteous, or becoming a person who is more like what a person is supposed to be like is slow, it is still urgent.
And it’s Jesus who creates that urgency. This is how all the pieces stitch together this morning, I think: Jesus fulfills the Law, but he doesn’t abolish it. He says that the Law is leading somewhere: that, in fact, it’s leading to Him, and he is here in order to show us how to become more righteous. The Temple Jews are right that the Law tells us what holiness is, and tells us that the Temple is supposed to be sacred…but they are wrong in supposing that we flip a sort of switch and just become that. Which means that Paul’s challenges to them, and to their understanding of what it means to bring others of this world into a right relationship with God, upset them because he is saying the work of becoming obedient to the Law is work that is slow and progressive and inclusive.
But when Paul tells folks like Felix that Jesus is coming back to judge us, he is also saying the work is urgent. Our pursuit of righteousness isn’t abstract or intellectual: it’s real, and it has real bearing on how we live our lives in the here and now. We have a goal we need to be at work pursuing it. Our ideas about righteousness, about the way we have been made to live, are meant to bear real fruit in our lives.
And this is where the Hayden poem connects for me this morning in a way that I hope feels practical and challenging for you, too. In that poem, Hayden regrets that he did not see the love his father was trying to show him. He doesn’t ignore that his home was full of problems: he says he feared the “chronic angers of that house,” and the way his father behaved was certainly part of what drove Hayden to behave indifferently toward him. But the tragedy of what happened is that Hayden sees his father’s love too late. He is grown: he’s in his forties when he writes the poem, and his father has died. There isn’t an opportunity now to say that he understands.
And as I think about that poem and its last lines–”What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”–I think about what I do know about them: my ideas about what it means to love others, what it means to love my children, matter now. And I don’t have forever to put them into practice: my oldest daughter is 11; my son is 5. They are learning how much I love them, they are learning what it means to love others, from me, everyday, right now. My ideas about being a good dad aren’t perfect yet…but I can’t pause their lives, figure out what I think is right, and then hit “play” and get it right. I have to try harder, in real time, to show them love.
And here’s the key thing: what I most need to show them is that I am humbly trying to be better. They don’t need a dad with all the answers: they need a dad who is committed to trying to be more righteous today, to be a better dad today, than I was yesterday. It’s good for them to see me fail…so long as what they also see is my willingness not to love in “lonely” ways, but to struggle in relational ones: to tell them I’m sorry, and to show them that it is okay to be transformed. This process isn’t fast…but it IS urgent. I need to be uncomfortable. And humility is the secret to pursuing righteousness.
One of the curiosities about how Paul defends himself here is that he never gets to finish in part because he always starts off by talking about his conversion: about how he used to persecute Christians, but Jesus stopped him and set him to the Gentiles. I think Paul does this because he is trying to say that he is walking this process out, too. He is trying to live the way Jesus is calling him to live more and more each day. This idea doesn’t show up much in Acts, but it does show up in Paul’s letters to the early churches, when he laments the ways he continues to fail and to struggle. The best thing he can do–the best thing we can do–is to be honest about the slowness of that work…while also chasing it urgently.
I said at the outset that I was a bit worried that things would be a mess this morning, and the pieces of all of this wouldn’t really click together. Here at the end, I’m not at all sure that they have! So I want to wrap up as clearly as I can, by saying what I most want all of us to remember:
You need to show people you are growing. You need to remember the ugly stuff, even if it’s embarrassing. You need to be bold as you take new steps. You need to be truly committed to living out the things you are learning to believe. And you need to say you’re sorry when you get things wrong.
All of this matters because time is short. The way you are living your life matters to other people, too. You are teaching other people what it means to follow after Jesus, whether you mean to be doing this or not. If you lack humility, they will see you as a judge. And if you lack action, they will see your faith as something toothless and abstract. And if you are comfortable, you will allow all of this to slide past you because you have forgotten that what is slow can still be urgent. But this is the sort of thing righteousness is! We need to be lined up with the sort of thing we have been made to be. This is the very thing Jesus tells us to do, and it’s the very thing he promises to help us to do–in real time!–if we will follow him. I have every reason to trust him more than I trust myself in this. I hope I can live a life that is not lonely or austere, but one that is open and honest and uncomfortable and humble and urgent in the ways I trust in Jesus because I believe that doing so opens a window to my own transformation that can share light with others.