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.
In all that, Paul is left with the haunting question: Why doesn’t Israel accept Jesus? What has happened to God’s promise? If salvation is through Jesus and most Jews don’t believe in Jesus, does that mean God’s promise to Israel has failed? God’s promises are always sure, so something else must be going on, and even though Paul doesn’t understand, he knows God is in charge. It is this challenge Paul wrestles with in Romans chapter 9-11. Maybe the reason Israel hasn’t accepted Christ is to provide an opportunity for the gentiles to hear the gospel? After all, Paul goes first to the synagogue and after being rejected there, then he goes specifically to the gentiles.
So God is using that first rejection to bring gentiles into the family through Jesus. But when everything is said and done, when the world is winding down and the gates of eternity are opened, God’s promises to Israel will be proved true and Israel will be welcomed back home to God. When he looks at it that way, Paul can do his ministry to the gentiles with enthusiasm because it might lead the Jewish people to see things differently and come to Christ. His work will be part of God’s plan to bring in the gentiles and the Jews to make one people of God on the last day.
So what does all that mean for us today? First, it is a reminder that the church is not the whole story. God has a relationship with Israel that started before us. That relationship is still going on, because God’s promises are forever.
Second, we have to keep an open mind about how people will respond to the message of God’s love. Sometimes people who seem furthest from faith might be the most open. People who feel lost are looking to find their way, so the gospel might be just what they are waiting for and they may embrace it with joy, like Paul’s gentile audience. Meanwhile, others we expect to grow in faith stay stuck because they think they already have the truth.
In a church like ours that has lost a lot of members over the last generation, our hearts often ache for friends who are not here anymore. They are still part of God’s story, even though they have gone somewhere else. Even if we don’t understand how or why, their being somewhere else is part of God’s plan. We have different people here now to learn from and nurture. The flock here changes, but God’s flock is always one.
The key piece of that is that we have to keep going, even when we don’t know exactly where we’re going. I think every time Paul went to the synagogue he was hoping people would hear God’s invitation, but he also knew that some would hear and some wouldn’t. After years of struggling with rejection and acceptance, he figured out that God was doing something with the people who heard his message and those who didn’t. We can trust that when we try to follow God, God will use whatever we do to advance love and reconciliation in the world. Even when it feels like no one is listening, something we say or do might plant a seed in someone that only becomes obvious later. Instead of thinking of ministry just in terms of success and failure, we can remember that ultimately, it is God’s work and God can weave both rejection and acceptance into the story of grace.
When I think about Jews and gentiles in the Book of Acts, the first thing I think about is homosexuality because that’s one of the big issues that divides the church today. When Peter says, in our reading last week, that he sees that God shows no partiality and that we should never call anyone unclean, the first thing that comes to my mind is that we are all equal in the sight of God. Everyone is welcome in the church; everyone is welcome in God’s house and God’s kingdom.
When the church excludes people because of their sexuality or their color or their background or the clothes they are wearing or their opinions it is an offense to God. We are standing in his place as judge so we’re setting ourselves up for judgment. The fight for equality in the church was a big part of what led me to seminary and it’s still a bedrock conviction that has only grown stronger as I’ve studied and prayed and meditated on God’s word.
But equality and welcome in the church isn’t just about sexuality; it’s bigger than that. God’s kingdom is unbelievably diverse, and one of the church’s jobs is to reflect God’s kingdom. People of every opinion, race, economic level, nation, occupation, and background are part of God’s family.
The truth is, whatever you think or feel about sexuality, or government or music or food or money or guns, we are all trying to follow Jesus and we are all learning. Some of us are liberal and others are conservative. Most of us are probably some of each. We don’t agree on everything and that’s OK. The key is remembering that we don’t know it all and God is in charge. We don’t have to be right; on many questions we have now, we probably won’t know the truth until Christ returns.
Regardless of what we agree or disagree on, God calls us to treat each other with love. In God’s house everyone is welcome and everyone has a voice. That means not only welcoming people who are gay; it also means welcoming people who have a hard time welcoming people who are gay. There’s space for everyone in God’s house, so we need to make space for everyone in this community and in our hearts.
Our job isn’t to establish God’s truth for all time, so we don’t need to persuade each other of anything. Instead, we each need to seek God’s guidance in prayer and be honest and loving with each other. Then, as we live our faith and talk about scripture and life together, enough of God’s truth will shine through that we will find the guidance we need for our ministry. And in our ministry together, even when we don’t understand, we will reach the people we need to reach with the good news of God’s love.
God sends us to reach the people in our lives. Some will hear and some will not. Sometimes we end up planting a seed for faith by not saying something. All of our words and actions can be a part of how God saves the world, even when we don’t know what is going on. So live your faith boldly; speak with love and humility and conviction, and let God do the rest.
Thanks be to God.