Saturday, May 8, 2010

I Came From The Father, And Now I Am Leaving The World And Going Back To The Father.

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 18:23-28
After staying in Antioch some time,
Paul left and traveled in orderly sequence
through the Galatian country and Phrygia,
bringing strength to all the disciples.

A Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria,
an eloquent speaker, arrived in Ephesus.
He was an authority on the Scriptures.
He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord
and, with ardent spirit,
spoke and taught accurately about Jesus,
although he knew only the baptism of John.
He began to speak boldly in the synagogue;
but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him,
they took him aside
and explained to him
the Way of God more accurately.
And when he wanted to cross to Achaia,
the brothers encouraged him
and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.
After his arrival he gave great assistance
to those who had come to believe through grace.
He vigorously refuted the Jews in public,
establishing from the Scriptures
 that the Christ is Jesus.
Today we find ourselves on the second missionary journey of Paul.

Just in case we think that quarrels and divisions in our church is something that only happened later in the Church’s history, we need to see how this second journey got under way. Some time after the first journey, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should go back and visit the places they had evangelised. However, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, his cousin, along with them. However, Paul disagreed because he said that Mark had abandoned them early on at Pamphylia on the First Journey and he did not want him along this time.

Their disagreement was so strong that they decided to go their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and they went off to his native Cyprus. Paul, however, with the blessing of the Antioch community, took Silas instead as his companion. They began by going through Syria and Cilicia, visiting the churches Paul had been to on his first journey.

It is at that point that our reading begins today. We find Paul back in places where he had proclaimed the Gospel before – Derbe and Lystra. As Paul is approaching this time from the east, the order of the towns is reversed.

It was in Lystra that Paul met Timothy, whom he invited to join him in his work. Timothy was to become one of his closest and most loyal companions and there are two letters of the New Testament dedicated to him. His mother was a Jew but his father was a Gentile Greek and because of that he had never been circumcised. (We saw how that could have been an issue during the meeting in Jerusalem.) Since Paul addressed him as a young man some 15 years later (see 1 Timothy 4:12), he must have been only in his teens at this time.

On the basis of the decision that had been made in Jerusalem, there was now no need for Timothy to be circumcised but Paul, sensitive to the strong feelings of the Jews to whom they would be preaching, had him circumcised. In general, Paul opposed circumcision for converts from paganism but, because Timothy had a Jewish mother, he was an Israelite according to Jewish law. However, in the case of Titus Paul refused circumcision because it was being demanded by some people as a condition for salvation. All of this is an indication of how flexible Paul could be on non-essentials and it should not be seen as mere compromising with unreasonable people.

Paul himself was a totally free person but he was very aware that other people were not so liberated. As he says elsewhere, “with the weak I am weak”. Here he tolerates the weakness of some people. Circumcision was not necessary for baptism but, if it made some people happy and furthered the growth of the Kingdom, then have it. As Paul would say elsewhere, being circumcised or not makes no difference whatever.

At the same time, we are told today that Paul was disseminating the decisions made at Jerusalem about circumcision and the status of Christian Gentiles to all those he met. And the churches in these places were growing in faith and numbers. It was a very encouraging situation.

After visiting these places of the First Journey, Paul now began to penetrate new ground and visiting new places in Asia Minor (Turkey today). However, when he and his companions tried to go into the Roman province of Asia, they met some unspecified obstacles on the way which were seen as the guiding hand of the Spirit indicating that they should go in a different direction. Asia at this time was a Roman province in what is western Turkey today, and included the districts of Mysia, Lydia, Caria.

After leaving Iconium, it seems they had originally intended going west to Ephesus (on the west coast of Turkey) but instead began going in a northerly direction. The Spirit intervened and Paul and his companions turned north, then in a north-westerly direction. They found themselves going through the territories of Phrygia and Galatia (to the west and north of where they had been). Phrygia formerly had been Hellenistic territory but more recently had been divided between the Roman provinces of Asia and Galatia. Iconium and Antioch, where Paul had been during his First Journey, were in the Galatian part of Phrygia.

They found themselves headed for “Galatian country”. Here, where illness kept Paul for a time as we know from the letter to the Galatians (Galatians 4:13-15), he preached the gospel and later would return later to visit the disciples he had evangelised there (Acts 18:23).

When they then tried to enter Bythinia, a province lying along the shores of the Black Sea, through Mysia, they were again blocked by unspecified obstacles. (Were they landslides, floods, earthquakes, civil unrest or the like…?)

Eventually they found themselves at Troas, which is just at the entrance to the Dardanelles. Troas was located just 16 km (10 miles) from ancient Troy. Alexandria Troas (to give it its full name) was a Roman colony and an important seaport between Macedonia and Greece to the west and Asia Minor. Paul would return there following his work in Ephesus on his Third Journey (see 2 Corinthians 2:12). At some point – on this journey or on the Third – a church was established there. We know that Paul ministered to believers in Troas when he returned from his Third Journey on his way to Jerusalem (20:5-12).

It was in Troas that Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia, a Roman province since 148 BC, calling him to come over and help them. Paul immediately decided to respond to this call.

Macedonia was a province in what is now northern Greece. It was the place where the famous Alexander the Great was king. His father was King Philip, after whom the city of Philippi, to whose Christians Paul wrote one of his famous letters, was called. (Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah was also partly named after this Philip.)

Paul accepted the challenge and prepared to cross the Dardanelles. Christianity was coming to Greece, the hub of Mediterranean culture at that time, and from there to Rome and the world.

(Incidentally, it is at this point, too, that Luke begins to write in the first person plural. This seems to indicate that he was a member of Paul’s mission from then on.)

Probably, without anyone being aware of it at the time, what seemed a minor change of route actually represented a major step in the development and expansion of the young Church, with ramifications which would affect not only the Church itself but the whole of European history for centuries to come.
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Psalm 47
God is king of all the earth.

All you peoples, clap your hands;
shout to God with cries of gladness.
For the LORD, the Most High, the awesome,
is the great king over all the earth.
God is king of all the earth.
For king of all the earth is God;
sing hymns of praise.
God reigns over the nations,
God sits upon his holy throne.
God is king of all the earth.
The princes of the peoples
are gathered together
with the people of the God of Abraham.
For God’s are the guardians of the earth;
he is supreme.
God is king of all the earth.
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John 16:23b-28
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father
in my name he will give you.
Until now you have not asked
anything in my name;
ask and you will receive,
so that your joy may be complete.

“I have told you this in figures of speech.
The hour is coming
when I will no longer speak to you in figures
but I will tell you clearly about the Father.
On that day you will ask in my name,
and I do not tell you
that I will ask the Father for you.
For the Father himself loves you,
because you have loved me
and have come to believe
that I came from God.
I came from the Father
and have come into the world.
Now I am leaving the world
and going back to the Father.”
Jesus has been urging his disciples to love all those around them as a sign of their love of him. Today he warns them that there is no guarantee that they will be loved in return. If they hated such a loving person as Jesus so bitterly, his disciples cannot expect to be treated differently.

And the reason they will be hated is because they will refuse to identify themselves with the values and priorities of the secular world. They will reject materialistic greed and competitiveness, the scramble for status and power, the hatred, anger, violence and revenge which mark so many people’s lives.

The most terrible thing to happen to Christians is for them to be loved by that world; it is a sign they have become part of it. “No,” says Jesus, “I chose you out of the world.” Once again he reminds them that the servant is not greater than his master. “They will harry you as they harried me. They will respect your words as much as they respected mine.” That is, hardly at all.

Some of us may find it difficult to understand this. We feel that the Church should be honoured and respected. We can get upset when we hear ourselves or our leaders rubbished in the media or hear of Christians languishing in jail or suffering torture simply for living their faith. But we are rightly proud of our martyrs and our courageous witnesses.

But there is a fate we often undergo in modern society which is far worse – when we are simply ignored and go unnoticed altogether. Our local church may be filled every week but what goes on there may have become completely irrelevant to the surrounding society. It is as if we did not exist.

It is also tragic when we find hate and division within our own community, which can be a major source of scandal to outsiders. And, of course, all through the history of the Church there has been sinful behaviour at all levels. We should not be surprised at that but it is particularly reprehensible when it goes on behind a veneer of moral superiority – the whited sepulchres that Jesus speaks about. All of this compromises our witness to the love of God for his people everywhere.

When any of these things happen, then we know we have really failed the Gospel.

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