October 17, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Introduction to scripture:
I have been preaching this fall through the historical periods of the Hebrew scriptures, talking about the faith lessons the Bible wants us to learn from those periods and we are now going to turn to the Christian scriptures, the New Testament. While the Hebrew scriptures form 2/3 of our Bible and cover a period of about 2000 years, the New Testament, the last 1/3 of our Bible, covers only about 100 years and the earliest of those writings are the letters of the apostle Paul written to the first Christian congregations around 25 years after the resurrection of Christ. This can be a little confusing to people because even though Jesus historically came before Paul, Jesus didn’t actually write anything down, nor did his immediate circle. There are some letters in our New Testament that are attributed to the disciples but scholars, using textual, historical, and translation analysis, believe that those letters were most likely written by someone else’s hands. It was acceptable in those days to use the name of a well respected figure as an indication that your writing was within that tradition or school of thought. Moreover, four decades passed before Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John began writing their gospels and until then the story and teachings of Jesus’ life were passed on orally by his followers. Paul says this explicitly in his letter to the Corinthians in a passage that we repeat every month: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you… For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” When the early church celebrated communion, they said those sacred words from memory just as they had been taught them by those who came before them.
Paul’s letters, then, are the first written documents we have of life and belief among the earliest Christians. Paul wrote these letters to churches he had visited in his travels, many of which he had helped to start. He often writes in response to theological questions the churches had, or problems that have come up in the congregation since he has left. In Paul’s letters, then, we get a first look at how Jesus’ death and resurrection affected people’s understanding of God, the world, and their own faith. We are so steeped in the gospel that it is hard for us to imagine what it was like to hear about Jesus for the first time; what it was like to try to understand how his life, his crucifixion, and God’s raising him to new life fundamentally changed the way you thought about your world. And reading Paul makes it very clear that not everyone agreed on what that change was or should be.
Acts 11:19-26 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
Galatians 2:7-13 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for 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. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
This past week, the borders between Canada and the US were finally fully re-opened for the vaccinated. I was elated to hear this because my favorite travel destination is Toronto. It’s close enough for a quick overnight but eclectic enough that when you walk its streets you feel like you are far from western NY. Over the years, I have become quite a Canadaphile, immersing myself in Anne of Green Gables, CBC programming, and the Toronto Blue Jays. I can even sing all of the words of the Canadian National Anthem. And when I go to Canada, I do my best to act as Canadian as I can trying to blend in with the natives. It’s not that I dislike being an American but I like to see how much of my cultural costume I can shed when I am in a foreign country. Anyone who has traveled to a place where there are a lot of international tourists knows how easy it is to pick out the residents of other countries: Germans usually wear hiking boots and sensible travel clothes, Japanese juggle three different cameras, and most Americans are the ones dressed in jeans and Nikes, the men sporting baseball caps. Americans are also the ones who don’t bargain in the market but pay the first price quoted and are the first ones in line waiting for the restaurant doors to open. If I go to dinner in Wellsville, the restaurant is filling up at 5:30 but in Toronto, if I go before 6:30 or 7:00, it will just be me and other tourists from the States.
And so, when I’m in Canada, I try to conform to Canadian customs and dress, leaving my sneakers at home and confidently handing over two dollar coins as if having my dollars jangle in my pocket is an everyday sort of experience. The last time I visited Toronto (pre-pandemic), I was walking down Front Street with a confident sort of Canadian air and as I passed the CBC offices, a street reporter stopped me and said, “We are doing a documentary on Canada and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions about American’s attitudes toward Canadians.” I graciously agreed and waxed eloquent about my love of Canada but during the entire interview, I was thinking in the back of my head, “How did he know I was from the States? What gave me away? What’s that aboot, eh?”
It’s not easy to shed all of the cultural accumulations of your geography. The geographical regions in which we were raised leave their fingerprints all over us and not just in our choice of clothing. The geography of your childhood has affected the syntax of your language, your feelings about the weather, your taste buds, your manners, and your expectations of what is proper and what is not. Moreover, there is an emotional and psychological geography that we carry with us as well that affects us in deeper ways, shaping our moral expectations of others, our racial judgments and identity, and our openness or conversely discomfort with people different ourselves. When we travel to new places and meet new people, we often find that what we assumed is a universally held way of being is in fact, particular to our little piece of earth.
Such discoveries should humble us and change us but in fact, I know — and I am sure you know — many people who travel but come back unchanged by what they have seen. They may have a lot of photos and funny stories about tour guides and a suitcase full of souvenirs, but there is no deeper understanding of all of the ways in which people experience life. Instead, other cultures are to them interesting curiosities with the unspoken assumption that their own way of life is still the best way. When I was a teenager, my grandfather, having been a widower for several years, remarried choosing a woman who turned out to be very provincial in her outlook. Once when they returned from a trip to Paris, we asked her what she thought of France and she said, “I hated it. The French are just so rude. No one there spoke English!”
I believe that there are two ways to travel: the most common way is to take a trip in which you change your geography momentarily and return home with photos of nifty buildings and beautiful landscapes but you yourself are no different from when you left. The other way to travel is take a journey, and when you take a journey, you to not only with open eyes but with an open heart allowing the experience to deepen you, and change you. Trips will leave you with souvenirs but a journey can leave you a different person.
What journeys have you made in your life? Maybe you traveled somewhere that made you re-think all of your assumptions about what can make a person happy. Maybe you spent some time among people very different from yourself and it opened your eyes to your own limitations or prejudices. Or maybe your journey wasn’t even a physical one but a journey of the heart in which you traveled an arduous path from one way of believing to a new one — from condemnation of homosexuality to acceptance of a gay family member, from the hurt of past wounds to forgiveness, from a faith of hell, fire, and brimstone to a faith grounded in grace, a journey like that of Paul’s who said: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
Trips leave us with souvenirs but journeys make us into new people.
In our scripture lesson for today, Barnabas took a trip to Antioch but Paul took a journey.
Christian tradition credits Paul with initiating a mission to the Gentiles but the Bible suggests that Gentiles were already converting to Christianity before Paul arrived on the scene. When the apostles first began spreading the gospel, they initially took their proclamation to their fellow Jews. There in the synagogues they preached of the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus who they called the Christos, God’s anointed one. It is doubtful that any of the apostles intended to start a new religion: they believed that the Jewish covenant had been fulfilled in Jesus and so this good news was news for the Jews. When they sent preachers out to carry the word beyond Jerusalem, the apostles targeted the cities where they knew there were Jewish settlements and synagogues that they hoped would welcome them and listen to what they had to say but then, Acts says, a few creative fellows in Antioch said to themselves, “Hey, if this is such good news maybe we should be telling anyone who wants to listen.” These entrepreneurs of the faith went into the marketplaces of Antioch and said to the Gentiles walking by, “Hey, let me tell you about this man named Jesus.” And to everyone’s surprise, the Gentiles listened. And more than that, many of them wanted to join up, to follow this Jesus as well and make a commitment to the gospel they were hearing.
Now you’d think that this would be a good thing, and so did the apostles at first. They hurried Barnabas off to Antioch to supervise this new and unique ministry to the Gentiles and soon Barnabas, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the reception the gospel was getting, recruited Paul to help out. It wasn’t long, however, before everyone began to realize that this huge influx of new Gentile members brought with it a huge number of problems – or actually one problem that was huge in size; the problem being that the Gentile culture was vastly different from the Jewish culture. When the apostles insisted that any Gentile convert first adopt all of the Jewish laws before committing to Christ, it was quickly evident that this attitude wasn’t sitting easily with the Gentile prospects. Not only were they reluctant to give up their pork but it meant the men would have to be circumcised before they were baptized, a pretty high bar for recruitment. Paul, unlike Barnabas however, understood that they were not just on a faith trip but they were on a faith journey. Paul let go of his assumptions about what it meant to live a godly life and worked to how Christ could fit into this new culture in ways that made sense to the Gentiles. It wasn’t easy for Paul to make this change but Paul allowed the experiences of the Gentiles to enter his heart and trouble his mind. He faced the difficult questions that their conversion raised for him and he tried to sort out how much of the gospel that he was preaching was really Christ and how much was just himself and what he was used to.
It’s hard to admit that our assumptions about what is right and proper for our faith may be more culturally conditioned than Christ conditioned. It’s hard to finally and absolutely put our trust only in the power of Christ and not in the power of our practices, our customs, and our own personal biases. It’s especially hard when you, like Paul and Barnabas are going to another country with the avowed intent to bring a word to save them to then admit that maybe those people have something valuable that they can give to you, something that will ultimately change you as much as you change them. But that is what it is to make a journey. To journey in faith is to so open yourself to seeing the world through the eyes of another that you yourself may become a new person.
A life of faith should be a journey, not a trip. If we live our lives as Christ calls us to live them, at the end of our lives, we will be different people than we were when we began. Our hearts will be larger, our spirits deeper than they were when we were children. We will be more humble and accepting, less quick to judge and more quick to forgive than we were even yesterday. Though few of us will start new churches as Paul did, all of us will encounter people who think differently than we ever were taught to think, ways of living that make us uncomfortable, new customs, new ideas, and new ways of understanding God, and if we are serious about our faith — serious about Christ’s call to us — we, like Paul will treat this as a lifelong journey of discovery in which we learn more about ourself, more about others, and more about the very nature of God.
Where has your faith journey taken you so far?
And where will it take you tomorrow?
For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old order has passed away; now everything is new!