“No Straight Lines”
Teaching Segment by Randell Neudorf
May 12th, 2013 at The Commons
Reading: Acts 21:17-36
With all the guest speakers and one off topics we have been having at our gatherings lately, we have lost a little bit of the flow of the story we had been intending to following. After Easter, Matt talked about Resurrection, and after that we had planned to look at the missionary journeys of Paul recorded in the book of Acts. That hasn’t exactly happened. What happened instead was:
- Jill from GOHOP talked to us about prayer. She got us to think about prayer as seeing where God is, and being present in that. She talked about how prayer can be as simple as walking and engaging with the people God has placed around us.
- Susan looked at the beginning of Paul’s missionary journey and talked about evangelism. She talked about how we need to share the Good News about the Kingdom.
- Jarred from Little Bethel talked about the Mystery of God. He walked us through a hymn in Ephesians and a couple of psalms, as well as a Fat Boy Slim song to helping us think about how we interact and “praise” the mysterious God we follow; a God that doesn’t fit into neat little boxes.
- Jeff from MCEC came and helped expand some of our conversations on Peacemaking. I think hearing from Jeff has given us permission to delve into ideas about peace with the knowledge that things won’t always be clear cut or straight forward. That seeking to be peacemakers is a journey that needs to be worked through in an ongoing fashion and not just some set of rules that must be followed.
Now today we have catapulted back into the story of Paul. As I look back at the topics over the last month and the story John read for us today, I feel like there is a theme emerging. Sharing Good News, the Mystery of a Journey, Seeing God in the Places Around You, Peace Theology, these themes are all present in our story today. It isn’t a tidy message, and there are a lot of loose ends if you want to connect all our discussions over the last month, but a theme is emerging.
I feel like as a community we are walking into a new phase, and maybe we can learn a little bit from Paul’s journey.
Paul has returned to Jerusalem, and things are getting kind of crazy. Back in Acts 19:21 (part of the story we skipped over) we are told that Paul felt like he was suppose to journey to Rome after he travelled back to Jerusalem.
As Paul is heading back to Jerusalem He meets this prophet named Agabus. This Agabus guy has a message for Paul in the form of a performance art piece.
Paul’s traveling companion Luke (the Author of Acts) describes this encounter for us (in Acts 21:10-22):
- Agabus came down from Judea
- He comes over to us, and then he took Paul’s belt (that is kind of weird).
- (weirder still) He tied his own hands and feet with that belt.
- Then he spoke “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
- When we heard this we all tried to convince Paul not to go back to Jerusalem. “Paul this is a warning, Paul please heed the warning!”
- Paul was getting misty and he asked us “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I’m ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
- When he would not be dissuaded we gave up and said “The Lord’s will be done.”
Paul felt like God was asking him to go to Jerusalem, even though he was forewarned that this trip was going to end with him being arrested. Paul also felt like God wanted him to go on to Rome for his next missionary journey.
If I was Paul I think I would be asking myself “which one of the two messages did I get wrong? Should I skip the whole Jerusalem thing that ends with me getting arrested (possibly killed). Shouldn’t I go straight to Rome? That must be what I should do.”
But that isn’t what Paul does, he keeps on the path that is heading to his arrest.
Paul goes to Jerusalem and meets with the Church leaders. He updates these leaders on all his travels and gives them reports about all the churches he was able to help start in Gentile communities all over the place.
The Church leaders are very happy to hear about this. They are also excited to tell Paul their own good news.
“Paul, there are Thousands of Jewish people in Jerusalem who have started following Jesus. They are a very gung ho group of church people that are committed to following the Jewish law as part of their new found faith in Jesus. The only problem is that these Jewish followers of Jesus have heard some bad things about you Paul.
Paul, They think that you are telling Jewish people not to follow the Law, they have been told that you teach the Jews living among your Gentile churches to turn away from Moses and not to circumcise their children and to abandon our culture.
Something must be done about this! We know you are doing good work and it was us that told you that the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. We don’t want to place an undue burden on people from other cultures (Acts 15:1-35).
All that being said, we still need to come up with a counter measure; we need to do some damage control in the church. Paul, we need to give you an image makeover, so that all our good law abiding church goers can see that we’re all on the same side.
What are we going to do about this?
Ah ha! I got it! We are going to get you to take four of our church friends and you are going to pay to have them all go through an important purification ritual.
This is going to be awesome!
You are all going to get your heads shaved!
You are going to buy some animals to be sacrificed at the temple!
It is going to cost you some money and take about 7 days to do but the church folks in Jerusalem are just going to love it!
This is so churchy; I can’t wait until we finish polishing up your image, Paul.
Like many well meaning PR campaigns in the history of the Church, this one heads south very quickly. Some Jews from out of town recognize Paul when he is at the temple. These “out-of-towners” tell everyone about the trouble Paul has caused in their home towns and they turn seemingly all of Jerusalem against him. They accuse him of defiling the temple, and making Jews turn their backs on their Jewish heritage and culture. Culture & Heritage are powerful things and the people begin to riot.
I was thinking a little about what this might have looked like, and I started looking at photos of the Vancouver Riots.Hockey is part of the Canadian Culture & Heritage, and here is an example where that culture and heritage led to a riot.
Talk about patriotism gone crazy
I have a friend who worked in down town Vancouver at that time and he said you could just feel the tension in the air before the game. As soon as he finished work he got out of down town as fast as he could because he knew if Vancouver lost there was going to be a riot.
Stuff was set on fire.
Fights broke out.
Things were out of control.
Really out of control.
Well Paul’s image problem seems to have gone a little deeper then the church leaders first suspected and the whole town turns into a rioting mob that wants to kill Paul. They swarm him and they begin to beat him.
Word gets out to the “Roman Police Riot Squad Task Force” and they take over and shut down the mob.
I can imagine Paul lying on the ground all bloody and bruised, and looking up thinking “Oh good, I’m safe now that the police are here.”
The police take one look at Paul and arrest him. They chain him up and ask “What on earth have you been doing to deserve such a beating?”
The Mob starts shouting and making accusations against Paul, so much so that the police have to take Paul away to be question back at the station.
The Mob goes crazy again and gets violent. The Police have to actually carry their prisoner into the station to keep him from the crowd. So here is Paul, locked up by the authorities with a riot going on all around. Paul knew in his soul that he was suppose to return to Jerusalem, he knew there was going to be trouble, he may have even known that his Church Leaders PR campaign was doomed to fail. Somewhere in the midst of all of this chaos; Paul felt like he was suppose to go to Rome.
If we jump ahead, this riot and arrest eventually drags out into Paul being incarcerated in Jerusalem for 2 years (Acts 24). After 2 years, I bet Paul has all but given up on Rome. But eventually, Paul has his day in court, and as a Roman Citizen he launches an appeal to Caesar (the emperor of the Roman World) to hear his case.
Long story short, Paul is sent to Caesar to have his case heard in Rome. He is still a prisoner, but it turns out to be a missionary journey all the same. Paul ends up being under house arrest in Rome. Paul’s little rented home becomes a vibrant church plant in the centre of Roman Society.
That is a crazy story.
What could we possibly take away from this for our little community?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the crazy and emotional journey The Commons has been on for the last 3 years. How we decided that we needed to give up our building (our beautiful coffee house ministry). How we needed to reinvent our community. How we have changed denominations. How it felt like these changes seemed like what God really wanted us to do, even though if you looked at these decisions from the outside you might accuse us of being really dumb. I am the first to admit that it looks like a step backwards.
Some days in our journey of looking for a denomination (if I’m completely honest) I find myself wondering, “What on earth were we thinking?”
That is where I think we can apply this story (loosely) to our own context. Yes it does look like a dumb thing to do. It was stupid for Paul to return to Jerusalem. It was stupid for us to leave the coffee house. Both Paul’s journey and ours looks like a step backwards.
Sometimes kingdom choices don’t make sense on the surface. They are hard to understand for citizens of the empire (or even good church folk who happen to live in the empire).
In the story of Jesus, the story of the followers of Jesus, the Kingdom story, this story doesn’t always move forward in a linear fashion.
It meanders like a labyrinth. It doesn’t always feel like we are coming closer to what God has called us to do, but if we stay the course we will come back around just like the path of the Labyrinth. Sometimes you need to head back to Jerusalem to move on to Rome
I think we at The Commons are starting to see through one of these turns and are starting to see hints of where God has been leading us forward as a community.
- We have found a new tribe. We have made a home in the Mennonite Church. And although no tribe is perfect, everyone who has had a chance to interact with our new tribe has commented on how it feels like home. We are starting to see the turn; we are getting peeks of how we might fit into this wider community of Jesus followers.
- We have new friends joining the community, and we have friends from other communities coming to visit, helping us with teaching, learning, and music. People who are investing in our journey.
- There are even people who don’t go to our church who give some money to The Commons every month to help keep us going. They believe we are heading somewhere important and they want to invest in us.
- You probably don’t know this but people are also starting to visit our website, to learn from us and to find out what we are up to. People are googeling all sorts of things in Hamilton and stumbling onto us through our website.
These things might seem small, but I think they are evidence of another turn in our community labyrinth journey. Steps that from the outside look like falling back are turning out to be huge leaps forward.
Do we know where this is all going? No we don’t.
But like Paul we can hold the course; we don’t need a PR campaign or a makeover or a shiny building, or cooler clothes, or an outward purification ritual. What we do need is:
- We need to be still, still enough to listen to God
- We need to be patient; we need to do what we can where we are at in the moment. We can’t rush ahead to Rome when we need to travel through Jerusalem.
- We need to be who God has made us to be. We are a beautiful community in the eyes of our heavenly Father. Are we perfect? By all means no, but God sees us for what he is uniquely making us into, and he will put up with us not always catching the whole picture, his whole vision all at once.
- We need to remember that we are not on a linear journey. Just like a labyrinth, sometimes it feels like we are journeying the wrong way, back into Jerusalem, and other times (thankfully) we get to turn the corner and see that we are actually heading straight into Rome.
The Kingdom is a funny thing; we don’t get to decide the way the story unfolds. The only thing we do get to decide is will we step into the story? Will we participate?
- Do we step into the story of Jesus? Do we step into the story of his kingdom?
- Do we share the Good News of where we see Jesus in our own story?
- Do we decide to be at peace with not knowing all the details? Are we OK with a little mystery?
How do you get to Rome? You go to Jerusalem. It doesn’t make logical sense, it is a mystery, but that is how the Kingdom seems to work.