Read Acts 20:17-38
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem.” (2 Corinthians 8:4, NLT)
When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.
Part 273: Challenging Church. As a pastor, I don’t talk about this much because I feel it can be a sort of self-serving pity party and, truthfully, serving Christ through serving the church is exactly what I have been called to do. In fact, I love what I do. With that out there, let me say this: the Church is challenging to serve. Deeply, profoundly, challenging. Rewarding? Sure! Absolutely. Still, with all of the “they will know we are Christians by our love” hymns aside, the Church can be a raw, messy, painful, and even brutal gauntlet at times.
This is true for being a part of the Church and/or serving in leadership positions, let alone pastoring a church. This is made all the more clear by today’s Scripture reading. In it, Paul was about to leave the Church in Ephesus, with whom he had spent the past three years with. He felt the call to go to Jerusalem and to share with the Church there all the things God had been doing in terms of his mission to the Gentiles. Yet, he knew that this encounter with the Church in Jerusalem was going to be met with great resistance. He had been haunted with visions of being beaten, imprisoned and, more than likely, dying.
To the Ephesian Church, prior to his departure, he said this: “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead” (Acts 20:22-23, NLT). He continued on to say, “And now I know that none of you to whom I have preached the Kingdom will ever see me again” (Acts 20:25, NLT).
We find a clue as to why in one of Pauls’ later, and most important letters, which he wrote to the Church in Rome while in Corinth. It may seem odd that he would journey further West to go back East; however, during his last missionary journey Paul was going church to church in order to collect the offerings that he promised the Jerusalem church. These offerings were, in part, a peace offering as the Jerusalem Church did not always see eye to eye with Paul. It was his way of saying, Llook, these Gentile churches, of which you’re suspicious, support you in the way Christ would have us support each other. Will you show your continued support for them?”
But Paul, a realist, knew that the support will not come cheaply. For the Jerusalem Church, they were afraid that Paul was compromising to many of the Jewish laws and traditions in order to build up a Gentile Church. They would want proof that he still followed the Jewish laws, as they were passed down from God to Moses to them. Paul even spoke of this reality at the end of his letter to the Romans, “Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem” (Romans 15:31, NLT).
How painful this must have been for him. Paul was a Jew to his core. He never rejected his Jewish faith. His only “conversion” had happened in his recognition of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; yet, this Jewish Messiah had appeared to him and changed him and appointed him the Apostle to the Gentiles. The truth is, that when Paul reached Jerusalem with his donation, they did not accept it.
Luke recorded that James, Jesus’ half-brother, responded to Paul in this manner, “Here’s what we want you to do. We have four men here who have completed their vow. Go with them to the Temple and join them in the purification ceremony, paying for them to have their heads ritually shaved. Then everyone will know that the rumors are all false and that you yourself observe the Jewish laws” (Acts 21:23-24, NLT).
In other words, the Jerusalem leaders did not accept Paul’s gift; rather, they asked him to use it by paying for the four men and himself to undergo the purification ritual in the Temple. Paul, of course, did so to show them his love and Christian brotherhood. The second he was seen in the Temple, he was arrested by the Jewish authorities, and spent years in prison before being sent to Rome after Paul appealed to the Emperor. Paul’s journey, and his life, ended in Rome.
How painful it can be to be a part of the church. How even more difficult it can be to lead it. Why? Because the Church is made up of people like you and me. We each have our subjective perspectives, opinions and beliefs. Sometimes those align, but other times the collide. And religious beliefs are some of the most personal and intimate beliefs we hold. They inform us our identity…who we are at our core.
Yet, Paul’s example should challenge us. We should not avoid being a part of the Church simply because it is challenging; rather, what separates Christians from other human groups and institutions, is our willingness to persist in trials together for the sake of unity, charity, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the glory of God, and the coming Kingdom! All groups and institutions of human beings have conflict, it’s how we LOVE one another in spite of that conflict that proves we are Christ’s. Let us be reminded of Paul when we are burned by the church and despairing. Perhaps God has you exactly where you need to be to be an agent of change and an ambassador of love!
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“They will know we are Christians by our love.” – Fr. Peter Scholtes
Lord, help me to love, especially when it is most difficult to do so. Amen.