HONOUR, EQUIVALENCE AND UNITY
Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed, they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings. (Romans 15:25-27)
I need to make a confession about my experience of identifying what I have been calling ‘NoPlaceLeft’ Trail Markers. It exposes something I find myself doing and notice others doing as well when it comes to embracing revelation. In my initial draft of these ‘Trail Markers,’ I was going to move now to the end of this little segment of the story to talk about the need for a prayer base (see vs. 30-33). It is an expression of my bias. I need to confess, first of all, my profound trust in the text of the Bible. I have no interest in producing a sharply reasoned doctrinal position. It is more a testimony of my experience. I have come to see that the Bible is actually a whole collection of stories. I counted them a little while ago. I think there are somewhere between 1450 and 1500 different stories. So I have come to see that the revelation is in the story. The story is the message and the message is the story. I have become profoundly suspicious of the idea of ripping a set of single-verse texts from their place in a particular story with the notion that understanding will only come if we create collections of verses supposedly giving insight into a certain pre-selected subject or theme. When we use the Bible like this, we do it at the expense of the form it was first gathered and then handed down. So when I re-read this story, I realised that I was leaving out part of the ‘story’ that Paul was telling. By making a list and then some observations about the different elements of Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ ministry I was leaving out his reference to his intended journey to Jerusalem. I realised that this was as much an essential part of the overall vision as any of the others. To get to the universal principle, we need to notice the historical particulars.
Paul was engaged in gathering a financial offering to take to the church in Jerusalem to care for the people there who had been impoverished by natural disaster and economic oppression (see, e.g. 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8,9; Acts 20). It is clear that Paul experienced tension, especially with some groups within the Jerusalem church. This church had been strongly influenced by followers of Jesus who had given Jewish religious tradition a place of equal importance to the offer of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. This tension gets a mention in almost every one of Paul’s letters. It is the exclusive theme of Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews (possibly but not certainly written by Paul). Look at Paul’s bold statement to Peter when he withdrew from sharing meals with Gentiles in Antioch upon the arrival of some of the ‘circumcision party’ from Jerusalem,
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Galatians 2)
I reference all of these issues only to brag about what Paul spent many months of travelling and visiting to bring about. The church in Antioch had already sent aid to the Jerusalem church courtesy of a prophetic word from Agabus. This project was much bigger, being gathered from all around the Gentile churches. Paul spends two whole chapters of the second Corinthian letter encouraging them to be generous and stirring them by the example set by the Macedonian churches. Those chapters are interesting from the fact that he doesn’t say much about what is going on in Judea. He doesn’t have a PowerPoint presentation showing hungry children; he just urges them to be generous because it is a godly thing to do.
When Paul speaks about the matter, purely as an explanation for his intentions as to when he would be coming to Rome, that he gives more insight into the deeper reasons for the project.
They were pleased to do it, and indeed, they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
At the risk of unjustifiable exaggeration, I think the main reason why there wasn’t a massive split in the church was due to Paul’s leadership in these and other ways. The post-reformation way of solving such problems is to create yet another church split. The many issues we divide over are no less justifiable than this believing-Jew/believing-Gentile division. Look at the forty thousand-plus divisions we have invented and justified. Think of the blood that has been shed by Christians against other Christians. Think even more of the tragic vitriol that gets poured out, decade by decade, the accusations and the slander. You’ll notice that even though Paul defends the gospel against the ‘circumcision group,’ he doesn’t get embroiled in the character assassination of his detractors. He just points out what is genuine and non-genuine gospel. Even though he warns the people against those who would intimidate them with Jewish traditions, he doesn’t set out to destroy them. We hear the cry of his heart for his people earlier in the Roman letter (Chs. 9-11).
When we read the first two chapters of Ephesians, we are made aware of the powerful foundations incorporated in the message of the gospel. God was making one new kind of human person in Christ – he destroyed the dividing wall through his death. Jews can no longer claim the high ground by their traditions and Gentiles find no barrier to knowing and serving in God’s new family. Such a view was at the heart of his enthusiasm for the Gentile churches to provide a relief fund for the poor in Jerusalem. He saw it as an opportunity for the Gentile churches to honour their fathers and mothers in the faith – by a generous act of love shown by all of the churches in the Gentile regions around the Mediterranean.
In the individualistic modern world, sacred relationships across the board are sacrificed on the altar of self-centredness. We should rather treat the temptation to withdraw into our small tribal territory with the contempt it deserves. Just look further at the other ways this heart for unity was manifest. When Paul returned to Jerusalem at the end of this journey, he was immediately confronted by leaders who were nervous that his presence might cause trouble. They convinced him to make a traditional Jewish offering in the hope that such a situation might be avoided. Ironically, if he had not done so, he might not have ended up in gaol. It was because when he went to the Temple, some of the religious leaders recognised him and presumed (falsely) that he had brought Gentiles into the Temple area. The result was some serious death threats from the Jewish authorities and a two-year stint in a Caesarean prison where the only way to get to Rome was to make an appeal to have his charges heard by Caesar. Paul went to the Temple for the same reason as he took up the offering. There isn’t a single hint that he ever complained about their request or the resultant impact on his circumstances. We need to dwell on these heart attitudes and cry out to God until they are our own.
We need to have a long hard look at what Paul was willing to DO. He wanted the Gentile church to honour and serve the part of the church that criticised and obstructed what he was trying to do. It could well have been the part that he, and his colleagues, could have spent time criticising for their rigid adherence to Jewish tradition.
Paul never compromised the truth of the gospel but he was equally unwilling to compromise relationships with the Jerusalem church. He became a spokesman for Gentile believers in the presence of Jewish believers and he became an apostle of love for the Jerusalem fathers when he was among Gentiles. When you have the time and opportunity, you should read Acts 9-28 and all of Paul’s letters just to see this in operation. He was the one who said that “circumcision means nothing” (1 Corinthians 7:19) but was the same one who had Timothy circumcised just to remove a possible cause of offence among Jews he was seeking to win to Christ (Acts 16:3).
We have not done what Paul was prepared to do to maintain relationship with the ‘mother church’ in Jerusalem. The bottom line of the message incorporated in the offering was nothing more complicated than, “We love you!!” If this is the historical detail, we need to establish the universal principle. It is the matter of unity. I have come to see that there are many different kinds of unity. Paul never allowed his calling to be limited by the Jerusalem church but, at the same time, he openly honoured and blessed them. We are often guilty of dishonouring a previous church or group just because it makes us more convinced that we are right and they are wrong. Because we live in the “what’s new is true” culture, we can gain its fickle support to look with disdain on anything that might seem old-fashioned.
There is no question that a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ is going to be all consuming. I am aware that this, like most passionate visions, has its dangers as well as strengths. I’ve been around many leaders who have deeply felt and clearly articulated goals. The problem is not with the vision or its aims. The problem is that they have allowed it to become tribalized. By that, I am referring to the fact that the vision itself has become their world. When you speak with them, you discover that what they are doing is all they can talk about. It is the single source of their identity and significance. It drives their ambition and measures their success. It is the basis upon which they measure others and it is the world that consumes their attention. The problem with this centres around the fact that their world is not even close to being God’s world and therefore not the kingdom of God world.
We can see this kind of thing happening during the ministry of the prophet, Elijah. In the shadow of his major success on Mt. Carmel and the drought being broken things didn’t work out the way he expected. Instead of turning the hearts of the king and queen toward God, Jezebel let it be known that she was going to kill him. This disappointment rocked “his” world so badly that he wanted to end his life. Fortunately, he decided to seek God in a special way, by going to Mt Horeb in the Sinai where God had met with Moses (First, Kings 19). When he finally heard from God he discovered that the cause of his problem was not Jezebel’s threat it was the fact that he had limited his ‘world’ by the false presumption that he was the only one left who was serving God. That perception had blinded him to the fact that there were seven thousand others out there serving God faithfully. They were scattered among the northern tribes of Israel, but his selective self-focus had rendered him incapable of seeing or acknowledging them. It had also caused him to think that a single disappointment somehow disqualified him from further things God had called him to do. Part of that ongoing work was to recognise that the Elijah’s own life was not the ‘end of the world.’ He was to appoint a successor who was actually going to do bigger and better things than he had done. All of this came down to a wrong set of assumptions about his own call from God. He had tribalized the ‘kingdom of God call’ on his life.
The fact that Paul refused to allow his personal call and ministry to become his ‘world’ and the fact that he was willing to send a message to the Jerusalem church to say, “We love you, we love you.” How’s that for a kingdom response toward people who include some of your most strident critics. It is profoundly Jesus-looking and spells an end to the power vested in an adversary who preys heavily on divisive attitudes and actions. It was made possible by the fact that he understood the world of ministry to be before, after and beyond his own. He had a message and a ministry that was important but it was never going to be exclusive. If we are going to embrace a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision, we need to make sure we have the same heart and the same attitude. For us to be able to honour and bless the wider world of ministry that is beyond our own call and work will directly make the fulfilment of that vision the more possible. Instead of competing we should complement. Instead of criticising others we should direct our energies toward getting on with our primary purpose. Instead of separating we should take every opportunity to affirm openly what others are doing to serve God’s purpose in the earth.