Posts Tagged With: Discipleship

Were the Apostles Lazy Bookworms?

As we prepare for our move to New York in June, I’ve been reading through Acts a chapter a week. (I did Luke’s Gospel in a similar slow-cooker fashion last year). This week I hit Acts 6, where the early Christians experience their first internal discord that we read about in Acts. Before this, their problems have largely been external persecution. I guess you could count the lies of Ananias and Sapphira as internal, but the Jerusalem church didn’t really have to make any decisions about that problem, other than how many people were needed to carry the bodies out.

But here we find that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected in the church’s distribution of food. There were some cultural differences between the Jews who were more Hellenized and those who spoke Aramaic. And apparently, these cultural differences led to the Greek-speaking widows getting passed by in support.

The Twelve assemble the church and propose that a group of Spirit-filled, wise men be selected  from the church who can be put in charge of the food and promote unity. This is done, and seven excellent men were chosen.

Some have critiqued the twelve apostles though as being part of the root of this problem. Rather than being involved in the ministry to people, they have isolated themselves in their rooms in devotion to “the Word of God and prayer.” They’re like a pastor who can’t meet with people because he has 40 hours in his sermon prep each week, locked away in his study. Acts 6:2, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”, has been interpreted as a pompous elitism from bookish pastors with no heart for service.

 Is this the case though? I don’t think so. Here are a few reasons why:

1)      “The ministry of the Word” would have been very people-centered. In Acts so far, the phrase “the word of God” is primarily used as a summary for all the Christian teaching, specifically the Gospel announcement of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. So for them, “the ministry of the word” would have included their evangelistic activities in the temple courts (for which they have been imprisoned at various times). Acts 2 also tells us that the early church was devoted to the apostle’s teaching, meeting in various homes day by day. Now, the apostles did not have a written New Testament for these Christians to read. So for the early Christians to be so regularly encountering the apostles’ teaching in homes, the apostles themselves would have been present in the home! Imagine sitting in a house as Peter tells you of the final events of Jesus’ life (including his own denial) or as Bartholomew recounts the feeding of the 5000. “The ministry of the word” would have been a very personal and people-centered activity.

2)      “The ministry of the Word” required a whole lot of work. We don’t know how much access the Twelve had to actual written copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. We do know that only the very wealthy had access to such things. For them to be studying the Old Testament scriptures to learn how better to present Jesus as its fulfillment would require them to memorize various texts beyond what they had learned in synagogue growing up. Whether this involved them reading scrolls provided by a wealthy Christian (perhaps one of the priests who converted- Acts 6:7) or quoting passages among themselves to memorize, we don’t know. And they wouldn’t have a scroll to quote from when they evangelized or taught in the houses. There would be work to memorize these things, especially as they were in Jerusalem where many literate and devout Jews could have refuted them for sloppy teaching. Thinking through the amount of work and study required to preach as they did should keep us from assuming they were too lazy for serving others.

3)      Luke presents their statements as good things.  He calls their work “the ministry (diakonos) of the word.” It is not as if food service is real ministry and Gospel proclamation is subpar, or vice versa. Both are essential ministries of the church, both for its internal unity and external witness. Luke also presents their statements as “pleasing to the whole church.” And to end the story, with the 7 taking over the food distribution and the Apostles focusing on the ministry of word and prayer, Luke reports that the converts multiplied. And many priests were converted at this time. Would the conversion of the priests be directly related to the increased focus of the Apostles on their Word ministry of evangelism and teaching? Either way, Luke wants us to know that this arrangement was a good thing.

I’ve written this post for two reasons. One, there are those who denigrate the evangelism and teaching ministry of the church as less important than “real” ministry like feeding people. Don’t do it! We need those devoted to the ministry of proclaiming the message of God into people’s lives. Two, there are those who would use this text to justify bookish avoidance of people and their problems. Don’t do that! Your teaching will only benefit from dealing with people each week. Encountering non-Christians will make you think about how you present things in a sermon to deal with actual objections people have to the Gospel; praying and counseling believers will force you to practice speaking God’s words into life situations. And both of these are what Acts calls “the ministry of the Word”, not just a pulpit ministry.

Categories: Following Jesus | Tags: , , ,

When Saul Became Paul…

A zealous young Pharisee named Saul, from the city of Tarsus, encounters the risen Messiah Jesus, in a blinding vision. He is converted from killer of Christians to Christian. He no longer goes by the name Saul and changes his name to Paul upon conversion, and becomes the great missionary of early Christianity.

Or so the narrative goes. It was never quite explained to me in Sunday School why the name Paul was more Christian than Saul. (God likes “p” more than “s”? Saul developed a speech impediment when he fell off and could no longer pronounce his name right?) But it was assumed this had something to do with his conversion.

There are a couple problems with that narrative, though. First, Paul most likely had both names his entire life. Saul was his good Jewish name and Paul (Paulus in Latin) would have been part of the Roman trinomenaccompanying his Roman citizenship.

The other problem with that is the Book of Acts itself. Granted, we don’t have a single epistle bearing the authorial introduction for one “Saul of Tarsus” but only the familiar “Paul, an apostle…” But a brief survey of the Saul/Paul’s life in Acts will reveal to us a little more about this name change.

Acts 7:58- Saul stands by holding the garments of those stoning Stephen. (How do you think Luke knew Saul was there? or how he knew Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin? I would imagine it was Paul himself years later, perhaps with tears, recounting the final moments of Stephen’s life.)

Acts 9:1-5- Saul encounters Jesus while on the road to Damascus and is confronted by the true Lord, Jesus.

Acts 9:19-30- Saul meets with Barnabas who is willing to risk meeting with this former executioner of Christians to disciple him.

Acts 11:19-26- Saul is brought by Barnabas from Tarsus to Antioch to help lead a growing church of Jews and Gentiles.

Acts 13:1-3 -Barnabas and Saul are commissioned by the Holy Spirit and the church at Antioch to start churches in other cities.

Acts 13:5 -Saul the missionary preaches the Word on Cyprus

Acts 13:6-12-Luke subtly mentions that Saul is also named Paul while recounting the conversion of Sergius Paulus on the island of Cyprus.

Acts 13-28- Saul is called Paul from this point forward in Acts.

What can we draw from this?

Paul’s change of name was not simply related to the fact that he was a Christian. In fact, for years after his conversion, even when Acts was written, he was also known as Saul. Had Luke wanted us to tie Paul’s name change to his conversion, he would have switched names at the point of Paul’s baptism. But apparently he wants us to connect Paul’s name change to a different story altogether, one that occured almost haphazardly on Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Our narrative should not be “Saul the Pharisee becomes Paul the Christian” but “Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul the Christian missionary, also known as Paul the Christian missionary.”

But still, Luke begins using Paul for the rest of the stories in Acts, with this story on the island of Cyprus being the pivot for Luke’s usage of Paul’s Roman name rather than his Jewish one. Why?

I think this change was a conscious one. A couple things stand out about this location in Acts. First, we meet a proconsul named Sergius Paulus. I can imagine having our character Saul/Paul encounter another character named Paul would be a memorable place for Luke to disclose Paul’s second name. But why would he continue to use the second name? Second, this is Paul’s first recorded missionary work with a Gentile. We know that Peter has already preached to Cornelius in Acts 10, and that Paul himself taught many Greeks at Antioch who were coming to faith in Jesus. But this is our first specific encounter of Paul with a Gentile that Luke recounts, a Gentile who shares Paul’s Roman name. And Saul goes by Paul from this point on. Paul, the one who “became all things to all men”, was willing to be primarily known by his Roman name from here on out as we see in the rest of Acts and the epistles. Perhaps he saw the connection he developed with the proconsul that day on Cyprus, or perhaps he had slowly come to this conclusion that in order for this ex-Pharisee to reach Gentiles with the Gospel, he would exploit every God-given connection with them available. If that meant eating new food, he did so. If that meant working as a tentmaker rather than be paid in some cities, he did so. Even if it meant going by his other name, Paul did so.

What natural ways has God given you and me to connect with people? What interests, skills, family connections might we, like Paul, exploit for the sake of the Gospel? If the difference between an “S” and a “P” was seen by Paul as strategic to the Gospel advancing among the Gentiles, how can we neglect entire areas of our life that God might use for the mission He has called us to?

Categories: Mission Tension | Tags: , , ,

Wide shoes and discipleship.

I have wide feet. I know that’s not much of a confession, but it’s true. One of the negative aspects of playing sports at a private Christian high school was scrounging through my dad’s closet twice a week for dress shoes and ties on game days. And my dad would often get upset because though our numeric shoe size was the same, I would stretch out his shoes whenever I borrowed them. The hardships of wide feet. And of course, having a very common shoe size to start with, my usual trips to buy shoes when the old ones have disintegrated failed me again, as the limited number of tennis shoes on clearance in my size usually didn’t include that beautiful “W” next to the size number on the label.

A few months ago for my birthday, though, I scored some shoes that were not only in my price range, but were also made for the broad-footed. I could feel my toes stretching out to a comfortable level, my foot filling the shoe in a perfect embrace. I didn’t think I could ever go back to those thin shoes again.

But of course, I did. My other shoes were still the normal size. And now I had years of bad foot training in that crammed space. My toes didn’t want to stretch out to a comfortable length, walking was awkward as I felt I had an extra half a shoe on the side of my feet, and I noticed the awkard tilt my feet had acquired when I walked. I actually had to think about how I walked and the comfort and joy of those new shoes had all but vanished.

As disciples of Jesus, we often struggle to fill the new identity we have been given as the adopted heirs of God, accepted before him, lavished with love and grace, freed from sin and self.  Like the new shoes, we struggle to find our fit in this new family, this new awkward body of Christ we have been born into. The first initial moments of joy at our newfound peace with God and entrance into his kingdom are soon overcome with the awkward feeling as we naturally walk with a tilt towards sin and years of habitual selfishness and idolatrous patterns built into our muscle memory.

But of course, I haven’t gotten rid of my new shoes. I’ve worn them more often, began to walk correctly, began to rehabilitate my feet to the space. And neither do we quit as followers of Christ to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ” (Ephesians 5:1-2) Learning after Christ is filled with missteps, relapses into our old selfish patterns. Just look at what we read about the original 12 disciples in the Gospels or the early churches in the letters. But don’t give up. Have patience with others who are trying on new shoes that you’ve grown accustomed to wearing years ago.

Categories: Following Jesus | Tags:

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