Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, July 22, 2013

managing conflict, even when it can't be managed

Romans 14:1-13
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God. 13Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.

Acts 15:35-41
35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord. 36After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
            This is a sad story from Acts. Paul and Barnabas had been working and travelling together for years. Barnabas was one of the first leaders in the church to trust Paul after his conversion, and he paved the way for him to be accepted by the others. They’ve been to Jerusalem to make the case for gentile freedom in Christ. They’ve evangelized in Antioch and throughout the Mediterranean world. They have been through a lot together.

            But now they’re arguing about whom to take with them on their journey, and that argument sends them off in different directions. Just hearing the passage, you know almost as much as I do about the conflict, because the Bible doesn’t say much more. All we really know is that these two friends argued, and that argument led them to go their separate ways. We don’t hear much more about Barnabas, but in later letters Paul mentions both Barnabas and John Mark favorably, so this conflict doesn’t destroy their love for each other.

             This passage is important because conflict happens. It happens in the church, even with mature, faithful leaders. Conflict is part of life and part of any important thing we do, especially when change is involved. It is OK to disagree about things. It’s OK to have different opinions in the church; that actually makes us stronger, as long as we can disagree with love and honesty.

Conflict is challenging because we believe what we believe because we think it’s true. That usually means if someone believes something different, our first instinct is to think they are wrong. If the issue we disagree about is important, it’s easy to worry that going the wrong way will seriously damage the church. As the conflict continues, it’s easy to think of the person we disagree with mostly in terms of our conflict, so that they become an opponent instead of a person. When we think about a conflict that way a basic conflict about an issue becomes a personal conflict that can easily get out of control with very destructive consequences for the community.

            On the other hand, if we approach conflict with humility, love and respect, we can learn from each other. A big part of working through conflict is remembering that the person we are having a conflict with is a person like we are. We are each more than whatever the idea is that we disagree about. Regardless of what we disagree about, we agree on a lot and we share our common humanity. We each have feelings and hopes and fears.

A big part of working through a conflict is being able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We can discuss an issue productively if we can understand why the other person thinks what they think. Most of the time when we approach it with that mindset, we can work the conflict out. Often we won’t change our minds, but we can understand each other and put the conflict in the context of our wider sharing, so the community can move on.

Another important part of resolving conflict is trusting God and remembering that our salvation and faithfulness do not depend on what we think or decide about any question or controversy. We are saved by God’s grace, and our identity is given to us as children of God. No conflict in the church can take that away from us, so we don’t need to be afraid of losing our faith because we disagree.

My hope for this church is that we can be a community that welcomes diverse beliefs and opinions. I want everyone to be comfortable sharing their opinions knowing that others might not agree, but will still accept, respect and love them regardless.

I want to be open about what I believe and I want you to be open as well. It’s OK if we believe different things. I will respect your beliefs and listen when you express them. I need to trust that you will tell me if anything I’m doing makes you feel uncomfortable or like your beliefs are being threatened. The only conflicts we can’t address are the ones we hide, and we all have a role to play in making this a safe place for faith to grow.

            That’s all pretty theoretical, so let’s bring that back to earth by talking through an example. We’ll start with a really simple conflict as a warm up. Let’s imagine we want to change the carpet in the sanctuary. One person suggests replacing the carpet with a new red carpet like the one we have; another person argues that it would be better to take the carpet out entirely and leave the wood floor instead.

            What are some reasons new carpet might be a great idea?

            OK, what are some reasons to go with wood instead?

            What other perspectives might people have on this question?

            What other factors might play a role in this discussion beneath the surface?

Do you see any ways this conflict could become destructive to the community?

            How would you manage that as a member of the community who wants to keep the congregation healthy?

            What would be some signs the congregation had resolved the conflict successfully?

What would be some signs the conflict hadn’t really been resolved 5 years later?

            Any other thoughts?

            OK, let’s take a look at a harder conflict in the church: the debate over homosexuality. Let me start by saying this is a sermon about conflict with sexuality as an example. It’s not a sermon about homosexuality; maybe we’ll do that another week.

This is a conversation that has been challenging for congregations and the denomination as a whole. It’s especially challenging because opinions often divide along some of the same lines as many other conflicts in our nation’s “culture wars.” Many of our disagreements in the church and in society are seen as liberal versus conservative, which makes it easier to see each other as enemies and harder to see each other as brothers and sisters.

            In the wider society most of the debate focuses on marriage equality. In the church there have been two main issues for debate. The first is whether the church will ordain lesbians, gay men and transgendered people as elders, deacons and pastors. The other main area of conflict is around whether the denomination will allow same sex marriage. Right now we do ordain LGBT people and we do not permit same sex marriage.

            We’re not going to resolve this conflict today, but we are going to talk through it as an example of significant conflict. So, in a spirit of love, what are some reasons why the church should ordain LGBT folks?

            What are some reasons the church should not?

            What are some reasons the church should allow same sex marriage?

            What are some reasons the church should not allow same sex marriage?

            What might make these questions especially threatening for people who oppose same sex marriage?

            What makes these questions threatening for people who support same sex marriage?

            How would you feel about this debate if you were gay?

            What might keep you from putting yourself in the other “side’s” shoes?

            What else is involved in this conflict?

            What could make this conflict destructive for a church or denomination?

            How could this conflict help the church grow and model Christ’s love to the world?

            Great work. As you see, if we talk through something like that it helps us put ourself in the other person’s shoes and understand why they believe something different from what we believe. I’m not going to ask you what you think is the right decision for the church or how we should approach it. We can talk about that another time. Our focus today is how the church handles conflict, both how we usually do handle conflict and how we should handle conflict.

            In our denomination right now many Presbyterian churches feel like the denomination is drifting to the left theologically and politically. Some conservative churches and pastors feel like their conscience is calling them to leave the denomination for one of our more conservative cousins, usually the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. One of the churches in our presbytery left the denomination two months ago.

            The story in the Bible these leaders usually point to is the story of Paul and Barnabas. I was talking about this with another pastor at the interim ministry training seminar I went to in March. He described himself as a “Paul and Barnabas guy.” He meant that he thinks the time has come for many people like him to go their own way. That means leaving the fight behind and moving on with ministry in the way he thinks is best while leaving the PCUSA to do ministry how we think is best.

            I agree. I think at the level of the congregation we can have productive discussions about sexuality and we can figure out how to work together even when we disagree. But at the level of the denomination we have been fighting about this so long that it’s hard to imagine real progress.

            The fight about sexuality isn’t getting us anywhere. When we can’t work together, we should go our own way with love and prayer for each other. There are times when trying to hold different view points together will not work, when we can’t go the same place.

That’s OK. Paul and Barnabas went their own ways and both continued to be effective evangelists for Jesus. I think if churches that feel like they need to leave the denomination leave, they will do more effective ministry than if they stay. They will be able to tell people clearly that their denomination doesn’t support homosexuality, rather than making apology for the denomination’s more liberal stance. And the PCUSA will do more effective ministry if we let people go when they want to. We will be freed from the distraction of a conflict that has consumed a ton of energy while the church has withered. And we’ll be able to truly welcome all people without having to say, “We welcome you, but we won’t marry you.” We will each do better outreach to new people, and the church will grow.

I firmly believe that’s the right thing for the church to do. It’s also sad. I have friends who will not stay in the denomination, and that means I won’t see them as often. This presbytery and the church as a whole will lose many churches, which means we will have to consolidate and change how we function to work better as a smaller denomination. But God will be with both groups, and we will all do better if we follow our calling.

I have no idea who was right in the conflict between Paul and Barnabas; at this point it doesn’t matter. At that moment they could not move forward together, so they moved forward faithfully in separate directions. Most of the time we can work our conflicts out with love and honesty, but sometimes we need to go different ways. Wherever we go, whatever we decide, God is with us as we follow. Our job is to be faithful and loving in conflict and agreement. If we do that, God will work through us no matter what.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Everyone is welcome: making the belief a reality, 7.14.13

Acts 15:1-21
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
16 “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.”

19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’

Galatians 2:11-16
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.
            The early church was an amazingly dynamic community. New people were coming to faith all the time and becoming a part of a community where sharing and love were a way of life. At the same time, there were disagreements, and the church was still learning what it was. We read a few weeks ago about how the Holy Spirit led Peter to Cornelius and his family to preach the good news about Jesus.

            As soon as the believers in Jerusalem heard about Peter eating with gentiles, they started to criticize him. But when he told the story of God’s Spirit clearly leading the way and of how God gave the Spirit to those gentiles before Peter had even finished speaking, they could see that God was reaching out to gentiles as well, and they praised God.

            That didn’t end the discussion, though. While the church leaders accepted that gentiles could come to faith in Jesus, some people believed that gentile believers had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses.

            That seems strange now since neither one of those things has been part of our experience as Christians. But at this point in the church’s life, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church had its own leaders, but they hadn’t left the synagogue or temple. They were still Jewish, even though most Jewish leaders thought they were heretics.

            The Old Testament was the only Bible these Christians had, and when the Old Testament talks about circumcision, it is clear and non-negotiable. Israel is ordered to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after birth as a mark of their covenant with God; those who weren’t circumcised, were excluded from that covenant. Circumcision and law were the signs of the relationship with God. Without being circumcised and following the law, one was not part of the Jewish community of faith, so it makes sense that these Jewish disciples of Jesus insisted on new believers following the rules of Judaism, their community of faith.

            But Peter, Paul and Barnabas had seen that God was doing something new. It wasn’t just about bringing a few gentiles into Judaism; in Jesus God was making a new way for people to be in covenant with God. This new covenant was based only on God’s grace through Jesus Christ. These evangelists who had worked with gentile believers knew that God was calling them to follow Christ, not to follow the law of Moses.

            The church is wrestling with what it means to be part of the faith community. In this conference, the church decides that membership in the church is going to be based only on following Jesus and following a few ideas from the Law. It sounds like strange and silly detail, but the short list of rules James mentions: no sexual immorality, no animals that have been sacrificed to idols or strangled, and no blood, keeps enough of the tradition of Judaism so as not to offend, while not restricting the gentile believers unreasonably.

Even after the council, the question of how gentiles will be included in the community isn’t entirely settled. There continued to be people who taught that circumcision was required. The whole Letter to the Galatians is Paul’s response to this faction within the church.

In our case we’re just reading a small section of that letter. In that passage we see a different side of Peter than we do in the passage from Acts. In Acts Peter advocates for fully including gentiles without making them follow the Law or be circumcised. We know he risked the disapproval of his friends when he stayed with Cornelius. He wants everyone to have a place in the church.

But then Paul talks about rebuking Peter because when Peter visited the church in Antioch he started out sharing the table with gentile believers, but then pulled away from that fellowship when he felt pressure from other leaders. How do we put those two pictures together?

It seems like Peter believed in including gentiles in the church in principle, but wasn’t a hundred percent committed to deep community with them. He knew that they were equal in God’s sight, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to think of them as brothers and sisters. He wasn’t sure he wanted to get close to them. After all, they came from a different background; they had different traditions and food and habits. And Peter didn’t want to endanger his friendship with the Jewish Christians at the center of the church in Jerusalem.

In a way, Peter is acting out separate but equal. It’s fine to have gentiles in the church, but he isn’t interested in being their best friend. Paul says that’s not enough. In Christ, we are all one body. It doesn’t matter where we come from, how much money we make, what we like or don’t like. Our standing in the community doesn’t have anything to do with what we do for a living or how much we give or what kind of clothes we wear. It doesn’t matter what faith we followed before we came to Christ. All that matters is Christ. Christ’s grace is the only thing that saves us and it is the only thing that brings us into the community of faith.

That’s still a challenge in our congregation and in others. Church is part of our social life, but it’s also more than that. When we come to church we naturally have people we feel closest to, people who are close friends. And many of us have been in this congregation for years, so those church friendships have been part of our lives for decades.

That’s great. Part of the fun of coming to church is the joy of seeing people we already know and care about. It’s awesome when people we know from church become friends we see outside of church too. Some people we click with almost automatically, often because we have interests and experiences in common, and it’s fun to share those things together.

But the church is called to becoming the body of Christ. That means breaking down barriers. It means actively seeking out people we don’t know in the community and getting to know them. Not just getting to know their name, but listening to their story, sharing their experiences. It means getting outside our comfort zone every week to make new friends.

It’s hard because relationships can be awkward. Even simple things like knowing someone’s name. If you’ve seen someone in worship a few times and maybe you introduced yourself three weeks ago, you feel like you should remember their name, but you just don’t. So that feels embarrassing and it makes it hard to get to know someone better.

That might be the hardest thing about coming to a new church as a visitor or member too. If you’ve been coming to Laurelton for 5 years you already know everyone’s name who has been here a while so all you have to do when a new person appears is learn their name. That new member has to learn everyone’s name, and that’s hard to do. It can be hard for long term members to get to know new people too, partly because we already have people we want to visit with. That can be a beautiful thing, but it can also keep our community from integrating new people.

The challenge for the church is to be a community where deep relationships flourish, where we can share our true selves with one another and trust each other with personal things. At the same time we are called to be an open community where people are welcomed right in and made to feel at home regardless of where they come from or what struggles they face. Those two things don’t go together very often. Usually our relationships are either open, accessible and superficial or closed, exclusive and deep.

How do we do both at the same time? It starts with practice. It starts with looking for chances to get to know new people and really listening to each other. There are some conversations we need to have in private with particular people we trust, but in general I’d like us to actively work on including people as much as possible in our conversations and in our lives.

So today at coffee hour I encourage you to seek out someone you don’t know well. Even if you know the other person’s name and think they know yours, start by introducing yourselves so there’s no awkwardness if someone has forgotten. Listen to each other’s stories; get to know each other’s interests; find out what brought them to this church, what they like, what they don’t like.

We’re a small church. That comes with some challenges, for sure. Probably it would be easier to pay the bills if we were larger, for instance. But the cool thing about being small is that we have a great chance to get to know each other pretty well. Make it your goal to know everyone’s name by the end of August. If there’s someone in worship whose name you don’t know, find them after worship and introduce yourself.
I’d love it if we had enough new people visit during the summer to make it a challenge to learn everyone’s name. One thing we do every week in supper and scripture is start with introductions. Some weeks it feels silly because everyone there is a regular who already knows everyone, but the practice never hurts. So we’re going to try that today. We’re going to start with Alan and just go around the room. You can stand up or not, but say your name loudly and slowly. And pause after the person next to you so people have a second to absorb. As you listen, try to pay close attention. We’re not going to have a quiz, but community is better when we really know each other, and learning names is a start.

Paul writes a little later in Galatians: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s a deep sense of unity, a vision of barriers broken down.

We say and believe those words. We believe that everyone is welcome in the church, but for that to really mean something, for the grace of community to really transform our lives and our community, that welcome has to take shape in everyday, practical relationships. We have to welcome new people in conversation, to share our lives with each other in ever deeper ways. It starts with a simple introduction and an open ear, and leads in slow, mysterious ways to God’s kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Everyone is welcome, 7.7.13

Acts 13:1-5, 13-16, 42-52
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

4So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them…13Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem; 14but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia.

And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” 16So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen…

42As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. 43When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.

46Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. 47For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

48When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. 49Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. 50But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. 51So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. 52And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Romans 9:1-5, 11:13-14, 25-33
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

13Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them…  25So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. 26And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” 27“And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”

28As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. 33O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

            Jesus didn’t think of himself as the founder of a new religion. He was Jewish and he thought of his ministry as part of Judaism. Every now and then he would talk to Roman military officers or random folks on the street, but his focus was the people of Israel. As the apostles took over that mission, they saw it the same way. Like Jesus, their ministry was to the Jewish community.

            Before long, the Holy Spirit made it clear that the message was bigger than that. The Spirit led Peter and Cornelius, a Roman officer together and made it obvious that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. While Peter took the first step, Paul soon becomes the center of the church’s mission to the gentiles. It’s ironic that Paul’s main mission was to the gentiles, because his early life had been dedicated to strengthening Judaism against pollution from outside the community, but God is full of surprises.

While he is committed to that mission, he can’t escape a haunting question: Why does Israel reject Jesus? Time and time again, Paul goes to the synagogue to preach God’s good news; time and time again, the most religious, most observant, strongest leaders chase Paul off and even try to kill him. Why?

Paul really just has to look at his own life to see why this happens. He grew up in the synagogue and devoted his life to learning about God and about the traditions and teachings of Israel. He trusted that God had given the people the law and that following it was how one got closer to God. When Saul first heard about Jesus and the movement of people who followed him, he saw a threat to religious truth. Saul believed that Jesus was a false Messiah, so following him would lead people away from God’s truth.

Because he thought the Jesus movement was a threat to Israel’s faith, Saul persecuted the church. But then Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus and convinced him that Jesus really was the Messiah, so now he promoted instead of persecuting the church. While he’s convinced, he shouldn’t be surprised that his former colleagues haven’t changed their minds, so they still believe Christianity is a dangerous heresy.

That’s why some of the most committed Jews oppose the message of Jesus Paul is preaching. It also makes sense that the gentiles Paul talks to are especially receptive. In this episode, Paul is at a synagogue and he’s preaching to everyone there. As he opens he addresses his words to “You Israelites and others who fear God.”

Most of the people in a synagogue were Jewish, but there were also gentiles there who were attracted to the teaching and tradition of Judaism. We can imagine that they would have been open-minded because they were exploring a faith they had not grown up with. There’s a lot about Judaism that is appealing, so it’s not surprising that some gentiles were interested, even though Judaism didn’t do much in the way of outreach.

At the same time, listening to the law and prophets could also be a difficult experience for gentiles because so much is about the people of Israel being chosen by God. The promise goes through Abraham, through Isaac (not Ishmael), through Jacob (not Esau). A lot of the story is about some people being chosen and others not. That means as a gentile in a synagogue you’d hear a lot about how you were not part of the chosen family. Even if the goal wasn’t to exclude you, it would be easy to feel excluded.

So when Paul comes in and tells the story they’ve been getting to know in a new way that reaches out to gentiles, it makes sense that they rejoice. They’ve been learning about promises they can sort of connect with. Now Paul is saying they can be adopted through Christ and be fully included in the family of faith. The walls are coming down. As that message becomes clearer throughout the church’s ministry many gentiles come to faith in Christ.