17When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. 18The next day Paul
went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. 19After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20When they heard it, they praised God.
Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. 21They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. 22What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.
23So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. 25But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”
26Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.
Acts 21:27-34, 22:22-30
27When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, 28shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
30Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. 31While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. 34Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.…
(quick bridge to Paul’s defense)
22Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Each of us plays different roles in our life. We are parents and children and spouses. We are employees and retirees and Christians. We are Americans and Republicans and Democrats. We are brothers and sisters, friends and swimmers, walkers, readers, workers. We are alumni of East High and East Ridge, Syracuse, Fredonia, Ithaca, Penn State and MCC. We have different roles and influences in our lives.
For Paul it was the same thing, and like us, sometimes that was complicated. Paul was a Jew and a Christian. He was a Pharisee and an evangelist to the gentiles. He was born in Tarsus, raised in Jerusalem and a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was a tentmaker, pastor and prophet.
Paul is a man of different worlds. He never stops being Jewish, regardless of persecution. He also holds his Roman citizenship tightly as it gives him the right to speak and be protected. When he is speaking to Roman officials, he talks about his rights as a citizen and how the charges against him have nothing to do with Rome. When he speaks to Jewish crowds he talks about the Law and the Prophets and how they predicted Christ. Even while he is in prison, he continues to be a pastor; in fact several of Paul’s letters were written during his final imprisonment in Rome. So, while as a prisoner he defends himself, as a pastor he also advises communities and coworkers on questions of ministry. In all he does, he seeks, first of all to be faithful to his ministry as an apostle of Christ.
As Christians, we live different roles in different parts of our lives, but in every part of our life we are called to live faithfully. That doesn’t mean that we are inconsistent or hypocritical, just that we do different things based on the situation.
In my role as a pastor, I lead with others, specifically the elders. That means we make decisions together. As a paramedic, I control a scene. A medical emergency is not a democracy; I tell people what to do. If I did that here, most people wouldn’t appreciate it, and if I invited people to share different ideas and vote about how to treat a cardiac emergency, I wouldn’t be an effective paramedic. I lead in different ways depending on the situation, but in every situation I strive to treat others with respect, compassion and love.
I imagine it’s the same for you. You do things differently at work than you do at home. You speak differently with your kids than with your friends. But in that diversity, there can be unity and consistency, because in everything we are called to follow Jesus. That means loving our kids and helping them to learn to be loving. It means doing our job at work conscientiously and treating our coworkers kindly so that even if we don’t talk explicitly about our faith, people can see love shining through.
Paul talks about citizenship in this passage, because as a citizen of the empire, he is entitled to a fair hearing in court. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about being a Christian and a citizen because of news and history. It’s been a blessing this week to hear excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” because this week was the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.
Like Paul, Martin Luther King was a citizen and a minister of the gospel. When he read the scriptures, it was clear that God created all people equal and calls us to treat each other with kindness and justice. That faith commitment led King to oppose the injustice of segregation and economic oppression. He spoke for justice because his humanity and his faith told him segregation was wrong.
As a citizen of the United States, King saw his calling and responsibility in the same way. King’s speech from the Lincoln Monument reminded America that equality is in the very foundation of the nation by quoting the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes we need to challenge our community to live up to its own best values, which is what the civil rights movement did. As a citizen, King quoted Jefferson; as a Christian, he quoted Amos, but in everything he sought to be faithful to his calling in Christ. That calling and the struggle for justice and equality continues today for us because it is part of our faith.
Syria has also been on my mind a lot this week, which is especially relevant as we think about what it means to be a Christian and a US citizen. Paul claimed his citizenship to give him the protection he needed to continue to preach. He never imagined that citizens could shape their government. We live in a democratic society, which means we have more political freedom than Paul could have imagined as well as a responsibility to use our political voice faithfully as disciples of Jesus.
That can be a hard thing to do, because followers of Jesus do not always agree on political questions. At last summer’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh I served on the committee on Middle East Peacemaking. Our committee talked about Syria, because the civil war there had already been going on for a year and a half at that point. On this question the General Assembly passed a resolution to pray for Syria and to urge the US and others not to intervene militarily in the conflict. This resolution passed by a vote of 621 to 19 with five abstentions.
Chemical weapons are terrible. The international community is right to condemn and oppose their use in any situation, and we need to find ways to work together to pressure both sides to respect civilian life. It’s hard to stand by and not respond to such a gross violation of human rights, but if we have learned anything from the last 12 years of military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan it must be that there are always unintended consequences. The Bible teaches that there is a time for war and a time for peace. Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. There may be times that military action is necessary, but Christians should always have a strong bias towards peace.
As citizens and Christians we speak in different ways, but we must always try to be faithful to Jesus. We have the blessing and responsibility to use our voice to encourage love, peace and justice. Faithful Christians disagree on how to handle issues like Syria. It’s not my role to tell you what you should think. I never want this to be a bully pulpit. I’m not an expert on foreign policy or the Middle East by any stretch of the imagination.
One of the blessings of our Presbyterian system is that the pastor doesn’t rule. Instead, my job is to help you think about your life in the context of the faith we share. In this case, that includes sharing an overwhelming agreement in the General Assembly that the US should not intervene in this civil war. Our wider church is speaking for peace today as we spoke as a body for peace a year ago. Our partner churches in Syria and Lebanon have called on the church to oppose military intervention as well as to pray and care for the victims of this enormous suffering.
What I can say clearly and with conviction is that your faith should be a big part of how you think about what it means to be a US citizen (and how you think about being an employee, parent, spouse and so on). Our job as Christians is not to change the course of history, though sometimes we will. Our job is to be faithful to our calling regardless of fear, danger and opposition. For me, that means writing to our president and encouraging the denomination to pick up what we have already said about this conflict. I don’t know what it will mean for you; if nothing else, I hope you will be praying for peace and for wisdom for our leaders as they struggle with difficult decisions.
Paul’s strategy in the last years of his life is interesting. He asks the Roman leader for permission to speak to the crowd and begins what he calls a “defense.” The goal of his defense isn’t to escape death. Instead, it is to tell the truth about his calling, regardless of whether that makes Jewish leaders accept him or reject him. His job is to tell God’s message, no matter what. And this wasn’t the only part of Paul’s calling. Sometimes we get sucked into thinking one thing defines us, or on the opposite side, that we have to do everything. The truth is we have to use our gifts and our time faithfully for our ministry. The question isn’t our success, but our faithfulness.
So in the footsteps of Paul and Martin we take our place as voices for God’s love in a challenging world. We take our place as people who live in many roles at the same time, united by faith in a God who loves us and, mysteriously, works all the chaos of life into a story that makes sense. We believe that God comes to us not with overwhelming force but in the cry of a child in a manger, the cry of a body broken on the cross, and the Spirit of love speaking truth through Christians in every age.
As we gather at Christ’s table to share the feast of love, this ancient symbol of the peaceful kingdom to come, we remember our brothers and sisters across history and around the world. We break bread together with scared families in refugee camps and in churches rattled by bombs. We break bread to find strength to live faithfully now in the tensions of life as we pray and hope for God’s new heaven and new earth where nation will no longer raise up sword against nation and we will study war no more.
Come, Lord Jesus; quickly come.