What is the Bible? The Last Part Dave Rogalsky November 11, 2018
Scriptures: John 9:1-41, Acts 1:6-8, Acts 2:1-12, Romans 5:6-11, Revelation 2:8-11, Revelation 3:7-13
Theme: Jesus’ message was one of growing inclusion and acceptance of all people. The early church followed this, to a point. And then late in the century – perhaps around 70 – the Jews and Christians separated into mutually exclusive camps, and the Christian Church became non-Jewish. In this move they became more particular, excluding all except those who would name Jesus as God and Saviour of the world.
Well we’ve come to the end of our journey through the Bible. Today we’ll look at what the church did with Jesus’ great commandment to go out into the world with the Good News that God had drawn near in love and acceptance. How did that go? Where have we ended up?
This is really a fitting sermon for Remembrance Day and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War. Jesus’ message of love and inclusion was hard to see in those days from 1914 to 1918 as so-called Christian Nations fought each other to the death on the fields of Europe. Is it any wonder that many gave up on Christianity during the 20th century? How have we gotten here? And what do we have to offer the world?
Last week we ended with Jesus sending out his disciples to bring the good news of God’s nearness to others. These first disciples were all Jewish. Jesus told them that they would start in Jerusalem, go out into Judea and to Samaria, and from there into the whole world. But first they were to wait in Jerusalem for the prophetic Spirit of God to come upon them. We heard how that happened in Acts 2 . As we listen to that story it almost seems like the world has come to Jesus’ followers instead of the other way around. The places mentioned include parts of Palestine, beyond the Roman Empire to the north and East, as well as the Roman Empire to the north and west, Egypt, North Africa, islands in the Mediterranean, and Rome itself. What we might miss in reading this is that all those who came that first day were Jewish – either by birth or by conversion. There were no non-Jews, or as they called them Gentiles, in the group.
The early followers of Jesus stayed put in Jerusalem for some time. We don’t know exactly how long but it might have been years. It took a persecution and the martyrdom of Stephen the deacon (See Acts 6-8) before the Christians went out. There they preached in Judea and Samaria. The Samaritans were cousins of the Jews. While they claimed that they worshipped the same God, the Jews didn’t think so. But now under the influence of the Spirit, and of Jesus’ words, the early Christians went there and these quasi-Jewish people became Christians.
But then more happened. Philip the deacon who had been in Samaria went south and there he met an Ethiopian official. Ever since the Queen of Sheba had been in Jerusalem with Solomon a 1000 years earlier there had been an affinity between the Jews and the Ethiopians. This official had come to Jerusalem to worship and was now returning home. He had purchased a scroll of Isaiah and was reading it. He asked Philip to interpret what he was reading. Philip interpreted the passage (Isaiah 53:7-8) in a Christian manner, suggesting that the servant of God of whom the school of Isaiah’s prophets had written was Jesus. What was very important was that it is also Isaiah’s prophets who reverse the law in Deuteronomy (23:1) that said no eunuch, sterilized male, could be a full follower of God. The official, a servant of the queen of Ethiopia, was a eunuch. According to the Christians this Ethiopian could be a full follower of God through Jesus (see Isaiah 56:3-7). We know that this man was not a Jew. He would not have been allowed to become one. Philip had just reached across a significant divide to include this man.
But it was happening elsewhere too.
Saul, who was later named Paul, and had approved of Stephen’s martyrdom, met Jesus in a vision. When the Christian Ananias came to him he told Saul, God told me that you are “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)
In the meantime Peter was going to the Roman Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) where he was shocked to find that God accepted these non-Jews as Christians without first becoming Jews. He said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)
From there the spreading of God’s good news exploded into many corners of the world, just as Jesus had told them it would.
The Christian Jew Barnabas, originally from the island of Cyprus, and Paul were sent out from the city of Antioch in Syria by a mixed congregation of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to bring the good news of Jesus to others. Paul, who was from Asia Minor, now Turkey, went to that area of the world. In the city of Lystra (see Acts 14:8-20) Paul healed a man who had been crippled from birth. There was a legend in that area that the gods Zeus and Hermes had come there once and been sheltered by an old couple. The people of Lystra thought that the gods had come back in the form of Paul and Barnabas and wanted to make sacrifice to them. This horrified the Jews and Paul told them:
15 "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations God allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet God has not left Godself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy."
Notice that Paul is saying that the gods they have worshipped are really the same God whom Paul serves. In Paul and Barnabas God has drawn near to these non-Jewish people to tell them that they no longer need to make sacrifices to appease the gods in their temples but can connect directly with the One, true God. There is no mention of Jesus here. No narrow Jewishness or even Christian Jewishness.
It didn’t turn out well there for Paul. I think the local priests arranged for a riot the next day and Paul was beaten close to death.
When Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch the Christians there rejoiced, but strict Jewish Christians took offence at the inclusion of non-Jews in the Christian sect. The whole group went to Jerusalem where Jesus’ brother James was the head of the church. Much discussion took place with Paul and Peter both giving testimony to God’s inclusion of non-Jews in the Christian Church. James summed up the gathering’s conclusions (see Acts 15)
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, "My brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon (Peter) has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for God’s name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.' James continues
19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
The church was now officially a mixed body of Jews and non-Jews who believed that God had drawn near to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. The rules which James suggests, but which were not kept legalistically, were to improve the possibility of Jews being able to relate to the new non-Jewish Christians.
On a later journey Paul ended up in Athens, Greece. (Acts 17:16-34) There he wandered about, amazed at all the altars and temples. He found one that was dedicated “to the unknown god” who had saved the city from a plague many years earlier. Paul was invited to speak to a gathering of folk interested in philosophy and foreign deities. He noted that the city was obviously very religious, with even an altar to an unknown god. He claimed that this god who had saved them was the One and only God whom he worshipped. He then proceeded to quote Greek poets favourably, claiming that they spoke truth from God:
28 For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.' 29 Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
Imagine, a Jew with two thousand years of history in his religion admitting that God was at work elsewhere as well. But then, almost as a preview of what was to come, he went on to preach about judgement and the resurrection of the dead, dependent upon belief in Jesus, both ideas foreign to the Greeks, and many rejected his message.
In spite of what seems to be a narrow perspective there when Paul wrote to the church in Rome a few years later he made an appeal to the Jews in the church to not reject Gentiles, both inside and outside the church. In what we call the second chapter of Romans he wrote:
14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:14-16)
The Jews in the church in Rome were putting pressure on the non-Jews in the church to become Jewish in order to be really Christian. But Paul tells them that even non-Jewish people may well be accepted by God. But this argument too is a foreshadowing of what was to come.
You see by the end of the first century in the Christian Era the church had rejected the synagogue completely, and the synagogue had done the same to the church. Some think that this began when Christians fled Jerusalem when the Romans under Vespasian attacked it in 70 AD. Following Jesus’ words in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Christians fled the city when they saw the inevitable Roman victory. (See Matthew 24:15-28, Mark 13:14-23, Luke 21:20-24). Jews saw this as a kind of treason. And the continued attempt by some Jewish Christians to get back to a pure Jewish Christian church turned off the non-Jewish Christians. In the letter to the Romans Paul had worked very hard to bridge the growing gap in the church but in the end it failed (see Romans 14:1-15:13). By the end of the first century we have John the Revelator twice in the book of Revelation calling Jewish places of worship “synagogues of Satan” (see Revelation 2:9, 3:9). And the gospel of John, written in the middle 90s of the first century pins Jesus’ death, not on the Romans or the Jewish leadership but on “the Jews.”
So, I said to some last week that this could be a bit controversial. I believe that the direction set by Jesus of opening up the family of God got sidetracked. Now instead of the people of God being pure, ethnic Jews, the people of God were those with pure, orthodox Christian theology and the blessing of the church’s rituals. I think that both the church and the synagogue made a mistake when they mutually kicked each other out. Each lost something in the process.
But before we judge too harshly we need to remember that it is normal for any human institution to become more conservative as the years go along. Every human institution, like the church, even our church, begins to think that the past was a golden age of truth that needs to be protected from change. Most specifically institutions try to protect the power of the leaders from being moved to someone new. So the synagogue refused to hand it over to the Christians. And the Christians, by then a full-fledged institution of its own, refused to budge in relationship with the synagogue. The church has through the ages continued to defend the status quo over and over, generation after generation.
But this has been changing in the last 100 years. I noted at the beginning that the war of Christian nations that ended a 100 years ago today led many to reject religion. It also led many in religion to wonder how Christians could be divided into so many warring factions within itself, and between nations. That led them to even ask, what about other religions. In 1966 Abraham Heschel, a Jewish scholar, in “No Religion is an Island,” wrote,
Perhaps it is the will of God that in this aeon there should be diversity in our forms of devotion and commitment to Him. In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God.1
I believe that the goal of Jesus’ great commission, sending the disciples out into the world with the good news of God’s nearness, is to draw all people to Godself in relationships of love, justice and righteousness, regardless of religion or spirituality.
1 This essay originally appeared in Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review 21:2,1 ( January 1966 ). It is referred to throughout this book by the abbreviation : NR. This article was Heschel's inaugural lecture as the Harry Emerson Fosdick Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary. In this regard, see the essay below by John Bennett who was president of Union at that time. The editors are grateful to Sylvia and Susannah Heschel for permission to reprint the essay in the present volume.