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Acts II: Paul and the Gentile Christian Church
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"He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'" – Acts 9:4-5
Divisions by Race/Background in the Early Church – Chapters 6-8
Last week we noticed that the Early Church was divided between those who believed one had first to become a Jew in order to become a follower of Jesus and those who believed that Gentiles could be welcomed into the Way of Christ without first becoming a Jew. Peter is the paradigmatic figure who—at first—represents the “conservative” position of the Jewish Christian Church, holding that Gentiles must first become followers of the entirety of the Jewish law if they are to become followers of Jesus. But we also saw that Peter himself went through a conversion process, narrated in Chapter 10, and comes to believe that the Holy Spirit can work to call Gentiles to life in Christ just as readily as She calls Jews.
Chapter 6 reveals that even within the Jewish Christian Church there are divisions. It appears that Jewish Christians who are from a Hellenistic background are being treated as second-class citizens in the distribution of food to widows in the church’s feeding ministry. The Hellenists complain about this poor treatment, and the apostles decide to appoint a group of men as deacons—all of whom have Hellenistic names—to see to the feeding of those who are being neglected. But Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen (implying that they were formerly slaves) chafe at the evangelizing that these deacons—and especially Stephen—are doing. So they stir up trouble against Stephen, claiming that he speaks against Moses and God, which eventually leads to such vitriol against Stephen that he becomes the first martyr in the church.
One of those who is said to stand with the crowd that stones Stephen to death is a man named Saul, who himself consents to Stephen’s death. Saul—who will later become Paul—is said to be a Jew from the “denomination” of the Pharisees, who is zealous for the law, and who ravages the church by dragging Christians off to prison. But, as happened with Peter last week, this week we will see that the Spirit will move in Saul’s life, converting him from a persecutor of the church to one who becomes himself a zealous follower of Jesus and is transformed into the leader of the Church’s mission among the Gentiles.
Saul Becomes Paul – Chapter 9
As he makes his way toward Damascus, with letters from the high priest giving him permission to arrest and bring Christians to Jerusalem for trial, Saul is knocked to the ground, and a voice asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul questions the voice, saying, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul hears the reply, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). In a scene that has strong parallels with Peter’s conversion in Chapter 10, Saul’s conversion begins with a mystical experience in which God’s Spirit moves through sight and sound to change this man of traditional Jewish faith into an apostle who not only believes that Jesus is the Messiah, but also becomes an evangelist who does more to bring Gentiles into the Way of Christ than any other figure in the early days of the Church.
Unlike Peter, Saul never knew Jesus during the years of the Lord’s earthly ministry. Saul only comes to know the Risen Christ in this experience along the Damascus Road, and in subsequent experiences that Paul has of Jesus the Christ as alive and at work in the world through the Holy Spirit. Although we cannot be exactly sure of the chronology of his life and ministry, a rough timeline for the life of Saul-Become-Paul may look something like this:
Paul studies with Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem.................early adulthood
Jesus’ death...............................................................c. 33 AD/CE
Saul’s persecution of Christians....................................c. 33-36
Paul’s conversion........................................................c. 36
Paul’s years in Arabia..................................................c. 36-39
Preaching in Damascus, Tarsus, Antioch........................c. 39-45
Brings relief offering to Jerusalem, meets apostles..........c. 46
First missionary journey: Cyprus and Galatia..................c. 47-48
Council at Jerusalem/Confrontation with Peter................c. 49
Second missionary journey: Asia Minor and Greece.........c. 49-52
Third missionary journey.............................................c. 52-57
Arrest in Jerusalem; Trial before Festus; Sent to Rome...c. 57-60
Mission in Rome; Martyrdom during Nero’s persecution...c. 60-64
Council at Jerusalem – Chapter 15
The tensions in the Church continue between those who hold that one must be a Torah-keeping Jew to be a follower of Jesus, and those who believe that Gentiles (without becoming law-keeping Jews) are welcome as Jesus’ followers. Paul is sent as a representative of the Gentile believers, along with his missionary companion Barnabas, to go to a “council” of the apostles in Jerusalem to work through this tension. After hearing testimony from both Paul and Peter, James—Jesus’ blood brother and the supposed first “bishop” of Jerusalem—declares, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). It is decided that only parts of the Mosaic Law must be followed by all Christians—those of Gentile origin included—including laws about food offered to idols, laws about sexual immorality, and some kosher laws. Circumcision, notably, is not required.
From the decision of this apostolic “council,” it would seem that the issue had been resolved. But when we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians (2:11-13), we learn that Peter, under pressure from Jewish Christians, “backslides” to his earlier insistence that Gentiles must obey the entire law if they are to follow Jesus—despite his own conversion in Acts 10 and his support of Gentile Christians at the council of Jerusalem. It is clear from this that, in its earliest years, the Church had continuing struggles about who is “in” and who is “out” among those who follow Jesus. Needless to say, the issue of who is “in” and who is “out” has continued to plague the Church down through the centuries in various forms—some of which have caused terrible divisions and sometimes life-threatening hatreds among followers of Christ. For the church in our own day, the Spirit continues to push us to confront barriers and divisions within and among us, and the Spirit goes on prompting us to ask ourselves what it is that God is calling us to be and do in relation to ancient and new divisions and disagreements.
– The Rev. Bill Rich
“Apostle: A Sonnet for St. Paul” – Malcolm Guite (1957 – )
An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
“Paulus” – Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
“Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus” – Caravaggio (1601)
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