Archive for December, 2011

The birth of Christianity?

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Acts11:19-26. Here we see another story (been in Acts several times since I started this little project a couple weeks back) of the early church. We know that they had some tough moments (ie the stoning of Stephen which I discussed a week or so back…see it here… and is also mentioned very briefly here in the opening verse) and they had some good moments as well (ie the early work with spreading the word to the Gentiles…see a posting on that here). This particular passage seems to indicate a little bit of both.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate this passage so much. It reminds us that life is full of those ups and downs. Life is messy. Some parts are good and some aren’t so great…if I can go on a micro tangent here (even before I really begin discussing the passage) I’m reminded of something that occurred this morning at a mens Bible study that I attend. We were discussing the book of Psalms (ever so briefly) and the notion that some Psalms are happy and joyful while some are sorrowful and lament-full (is that a word? lamenting maybe?). I’ve heard the book of Psalms described as covering the entire gambit of life…it was a professor that said it but if memory serves me correctly they were referencing Martin Luther when they said it.

Okay, back on task…and back to Acts 11.

We hear that many of the believers had scattered after the stoning of Stephen. Initially this may seem like a problem, but in actuality it allowed the message of Christ to spread. Just one way that God can take lemons and make lemonade. We hear that in Antioch…which was a pretty happening (ie important) city in the Roman empire at the time. A great deal of trade happened there and so there was a great mix of many of the sub-cultures that were scattered around through the empire (for reference, the Romans were actually really good about letting conquered people maintain their culture as long as they didn’t cause problems and paid their taxes). Because of this mix, the population in the city likely included a large number of both Jews and various Gentile groups, so there would have been a great opportunity for religious pluralism here.

Apparently, the good news of Christ was well received here in Antioch and we hear that many became believers (verse 21). Word spreads…likely by word of mouth at this time…and the believers in Jerusalem (which likely still included the apostles at this time) hear about it…cue up Barnabus who we’ve heard about before (he stood up for Paul…still known as Saul at this point…and vouched for him after his conversion). Barnabus is sent off to check things out and then, thinking he needed some backup to help guide this group of new believers…he goes after the man himself…Saul (of course better known as Paul but not until Acts 13…approximately 2 pages after this story in Acts 11).  They spend a year in Antioch, teaching and guiding the new believers.

I enjoy the last part of the passage. Verse 26 where it says “they were first called Christians.” This is where I pulled the title of this posting by posing the question birth of Christianity.  Now, are these the first believers? Absolutely not. There had been believers in Christ ever since he began his ministry…certainly before his death and resurrection and definitely before this point of the story. But up until this point, believers of “the way” (as it was called) were still considered to be part of the Jewish faith. A new sect yes, but still part of the larger body. At this point we really begin to see the division, possibly for the first time. At this point they are given a name and perhaps that distinction is what began the individual recognition (note that I don’t really have anything to back up this train of thought but I’m simply making an opinionated observation here).

And so I wonder, is this where “Christianity” really started? Now, to be honest, I would say no. Christianity began with Christ himself. I would therefore say that this is simply the first point where the distinction is made from the Jewish culture, or at least the Jewish religion.

As I look back at what I have written today, I must admit that it seems more as if I’ve covered the history behind the story more than anything…admittedly there hasn’t been a great deal of theological reflection here…and for that I apologize. But sometimes we go where the Spirit leads us…and that means we went the historical route today.

Hello 1 Thessalonians

Today’s lectionary reading comes from 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10.  In this particular portion of scripture, Paul writes a greeting to one of the congregations that he had started over the course of his missionary journeys. Scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters that are included in the Bible. Now, I should be able to relay the argument that supports this as I had a class on it last spring, but I’m going to admit that my brain is failing me at the moment and I’m unable to come up with it.  That being said, just trust me, it’s the earliest.

Right away in verse 2, Paul offers us a good example of one portion of prayer life…lifting up those that you know. He says “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers…” This offers us insight into just how important the people were in the various congregations that Paul helped found on his various journeys. I can only imagine how long his daily prayers became. Perhaps the best comparison that I can make comes from the movie MASH…not the tv show mind you.   In the movie, the character of Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, is a devout Christian and prays every day. In the first interaction with his character, two other characters that share his tent witness him praying for the first time. He begins with the Lord’s prayer, but doesn’t end there. He begins to list various people…he goes on and on until one of the other men ask him how long he goes. He replies “it gets longer all the time…and now I need to pray for you.”  Honestly, its meant as a joke, but I like it…I think its a good example of how we are called to lift up our neighbor. Speaking of the notion of examples…that topic is raised by Paul in this passage. We see in verses 7-8 that Paul commends the Thessalonians for being positive examples of believers for others around Macedonia and Achaia.

Another point that I’m reminded of when reading this passage is a very Lutheran concept of our faith being the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. In verse 5 Paul says that the gospel came in the Holy Spirit. To clarify, as Lutherans we confess that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. This is the notion of sola fide (faith alone). Namely we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. It is only by the grace of God, not by anything we do. Specifically, even our faith is a gift. Without the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we cannot believe and therefore we cannot be saved.

Now, on this topic, I admit that I wrestle. If that is the case I struggle to understand why the Spirit is not at work in all people. Why doesn’t everyone share in the gift in a like manner? I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have a good answer to this question at this point. I hope to someday wrap my head around it, but that will have to wait for another time, because it’s not my reality today.

One final point that I’d like to draw out of this reading occurs in verse 9. Paul says the Thessalonians have turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God. Now, it is likely that Paul is making the point that the believers have turned away from idols, or false Gods to one that is true. Idolatry was a very prominent issue within the various Gentile communities. Many different gods and religions were practiced through the Roman empire and beyond. Thessalonica was no exception. What I find uplifting about this verse is the notion that we serve a living God. By living I’m referring to active. Our God did not simply create the universe and sit back in a chair. God continues to be active within the world every day. Personally, I find that very reassuring especially on days when I’m struggling with something. Its good to know that we aren’t alone.