Sunday, May 22, 2005

 

Wayfaring Strangers, Part 14



(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

The Acts of the Apostles

I've finished reading the book of Acts, and I have to admit, I've struggled with understanding a lot of what I read. I've resisted turning to theology or Bible study to sort it out, instead trying to make myself come to an understanding of it on my own first. It's a book that represents something of a challenge to my logical, almost clinical ideas about faith. That's a big part of the reason I decided to read it. I wanted something that would make me uncomfortable... challenge me... even rattle me a little bit. Well, Acts definitely rattled me. I'd love to know what my spiritual mentor, C.S. Lewis, made of that book in specific... but I've not tried to find out yet. First, I've felt that it was necessary for me to come to terms with it personally and individually. At times, as I've immersed myself in the book of Acts, I've felt like a button-down banker in a church full of snake-handlers.

I've always been uncomfortable about the Charismatic arm of the Christian church, and it's natural that someone as stoic as I tend to be would be put off by a religious practice as lively, unscripted, and (pardon the phrase) in-your-face as Charismatic and Pentecostal church services often are. It's obvious to me why those kinds of Christians draw so much inspiration from the book of Acts. With it's tales of visions, speaking in tongues, and other supernatural elements, it's a natural source of inspiration for Charismatics. A lot of it rubs me the wrong way, though, and I have to work through that.

I've had strong reactions of all kinds to the people who make up the book of Acts:

St. Peter: Peter is the most instantly likable person in Acts for me. I like his single-minded determination to preach the word. I like him for his humble response to the Lord's message that he must take the gospel to the gentiles. (Being a gentile, that part means a lot to me.) A lot of what he does makes me really love the guy. I can't get over a passage wherein he and other disciples get arrested and thrown in jail for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and an angel comes to their jail cell in the night and frees them. So what do Peter and his friends do? Do they high-tail it out of Jerusalem like fugitives, counting their blessings that they got out of jail on the sly? No. They go right outside, right back to the courtyard, literally only a few feet from the jail they were just freed from, and start preaching the gospel of Christ again. The next morning, the jailers find out that they are gone and panic. They hurry out of the jail to begin searching high and low for them, and they don't have to go far. There they are, Peter and his friends, right out front, preaching the same gospel they were arrested for preaching the previous day. There they are, preaching away, oblivious to any law that says they shouldn't. Pardon my slang, but that's just the coolest thing ever. Talk about fearlessness! Talk about selflessness! Peter wasn't worried about his own human freedom. He was more worried about the spiritual freedom of his friends and neighbors. It just makes me want to hug the guy. By the way, when the jailers found them, they dragged them back inside and flogged them and put them back in their cells. I can't help but imagine Peter being flogged, barely even aware of the physical pain, just thinking what a distraction it was and how it was keeping him from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ananias and Sapphira: To make the church stronger, Christians had taken to selling everything they had and offering it to the church. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold some land they had and kept back some of the money for themselves, but gave some of it to the church, pretending that they were giving every dime of it. Peter saw right through them, though, and called them out on it. When their lie was exposed, both of them literally dropped dead. When I first read this passage, it bugged me. It seemed like the passage presented Peter as almost omnipotent and I saw the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira as really harsh; a punishment that they maybe did not deserve, considering that they'd given at least most of the money to the church. Besides, couldn't they have repented and given all the money? Then I thought about it and came to a different understanding of the passage. I imagined Ananias and Sapphira, both nervous, wide-eyed with paranoia, both literally trembling with panic as they pretended to offer all of the profits from the sale of the land, knowing that they'd kept some of the money in secret. I imagined them so sweaty and nervous that Peter just had to know that something was up. I could just see Peter asking them "Ananias, Sapphira, what's going on with you two? What are you so worked up about? Are you holding something back?" At that, I imagine, Ananias and Sapphira would literally be overcome with panic. Being exposed would have been too much for them, and they literally both would have dropped dead from massive heart attacks. I suppose that the lesson in that is that you shouldn't give to God in a false way. It's probably better to give nothing at all than to pretend to give something you're not really giving. We weren't built to deceive God, and we're hard-wired to go all to pieces, both physically and mentally, when we try to. The price of that kind of deceit is paranoia, panic, cold sweat, trembling.... Maybe even a massive coronary. It's not good to pretend to be something you're not. I'd do well to remember that.

St. Stephen: Stephen was martyred for refusing to stop professing his faith in Jesus Christ. He died a Christ-like death, his last recorded words were a prayer to God that his murderers be forgiven for murdering him. That's humbling. How often do I hold grudges against people for even the slightest thing? Yet, here's Stephen, literally being stoned to death (that had to be agonizing), begging God to forgive the people who are killing him. Wow.

By the way, present at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats for the men who killed him and rooting them on, was a weasely little guy named Saul. He'd go on to have his name changed to Paul, and become the most perplexing and frustrating of all the apostles.

St. Paul: If I'm going to continue to be honest here, and I suppose I should be, then I have to admit that I don't much like Paul. I think he's a jerk. Well, I shouldn't say "jerk." I should say "self-righteous, whining, opinionated, stubborn jerk," since that's pretty much exactly what I think of him. Hey, at least I'm honest. And yet, this jerk was chosen by the Lord, who appeared to him on the road to Damascus, as an apostle and a forefather of the Christian church. This really takes some serious study and consideration.

Keep in mind that Paul is the same Saul who participated, even if only peripherally, in the murder of Stephen. After that, he made his living by going around and rounding up Christians and having them beaten, jailed, killed... you name it. He wasn't exactly the Christian's best friend. On road to Damascus, he was blinded by a vision of the Lord and eventually returned to Jerusalem as a Christian. Now, imagine that you're one of the disciples of Christ. Imagine that you're in Jerusalem, trying to spread the gospel, dogged by people who want you literally MURDERED every day... and then, one day, this guy who you know to be a CHRISTIAN KILLER comes up and says "Hey, guys, remember me? Saul. Well, actually, it's PAUL now. That's right, drop the S, add a P. Oh, and along with having changed my name, I'm now a Christian. That's right, I'm done killing Christians because I am one now. Christ himself appeared before me and told me that from now on I was to do his work. I was blinded for a few days by that, but now I can see again, and here I am! I'm ready to join up with you guys and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ! Oh, and, by the way, I have a few ideas about how you should be preaching that gospel from now on."

I imagine the disciples looking at him and saying "Are you out of your mind??!??"

The book of Acts indicates that the disciples pretty much did respond that way, in fact. It wasn't until Barnabas took Paul under his wing and listened to him and eventually persuaded the others to take him in that he was welcomed into the fold.

Oh, and get this... this is what a jerk Paul is.... A short time after that, Paul and Barnabas were on the road together, spreading the word, and they start arguing about this other guy who Paul doesn't like or trust. So they get into such a heated argument that they end up going their separate ways. Keep in mind, this is the same Barnabas who stuck his neck out for Paul in the first place. And how does he pay him back? By picking a fight and storming off on his own. Here's the Christian church, in it's infancy, and it's already splintering, thanks to Paul!

Oh, and before I forget, get this... this is just beyond comprehension... the whole reason that Paul and Barnabas were on the road together was that they'd gone to Antioch, Syria and Celica to tell newly converted gentile Christians that, no, contrary to rumors that they'd be hearing, they didn't have to be circumcised in order to be Christians. The disciples had decided to send them to deliver that message. So they deliver the message and then Paul and Barnabas have that big bust-up and Paul goes his separate way to Lystra, where he meets the Christian Timothy, who was half Jewish. Timothy wants to come with Paul and participate in his ministry... so what does Paul do? He has Timothy circumcised! That's right, the very thing that Paul had gone all the way to Syria and Celica to tell the new Christians that they DON'T have to do. The nearest I can figure out as to why is because Timothy was half Jewish and Paul was trying to appease the Jews in the area. Still, I can't get over it. They'd just delivered the message that circumcision isn't necessary, and here's Paul having Timothy circumcised. Again, I can't help but imagine looking at Paul and asking saying "Are you out of your mind??!??"

And don't get me started about what a crybaby Paul was. At one point he was beaten and falsely arrested in a city, and thrown into jail. Afterwards, the city magistrate decides that he had, in fact, been arrested improperly, so he has Paul freed and tells him to "go in peace." So what does Paul do? Because of his wounded pride, he demands a showy, official escort out of the city. He'd had his feelings hurt, and he was sure enough going to make them make it up to him.

Later, he goes back to Jerusalem, where most of the Jews have heard nothing but bad about him (imagine that), and they want to have him killed. He ends up arrested again, mostly for his own good, and spends several years in jail and stands trial several times. Eventually, he demands that his case be appealed to Caesar. That just rubs me the wrong way, too. I mean, think about Christ... who has a better claim to false imprisonment and mistreatment than him? Yet, Christ stood fast and didn't waver, claiming only what he knew to be true, never asking for an appeal.

I guess that's the root of my problem with Paul. He was a key figure of the New Testament... he wrote a lot of it, in fact... but his Christianity wasn't very Christ-like. At least, he wasn't very Christ-like when compared to Stephen and Peter.

Right?

Well, no. Not really.

Peter, after all, is the same disciple who denied that he even knew Jesus three times when it mattered the most.

Stephen, who died a martyr's death, did beg for compassion for those who were killing him... but still, before they killed him, he did deliver a pretty angry speech to them, and even resorted to name calling at the end of it. I guess he wasn't perfect, either.

And now that I think about it, I feel kind of dumb about judging Paul. He was beaten, tortured, and jailed for his faith. Have I ever even been slightly inconvenienced because I'm a Christian? No. I've had it easy. Yeah, OK, so Paul was stubborn, often bitter, a bit pushy, and he couldn't get along with people most of the time. But, uh... well, if I'm honest... that kinda sounds like me, too. In fact, except for murder, I've been guilty of just about all of Paul's sins.

I guess that's the point. If God could turn that guy into one of the most important and prolific forefathers of the early church, maybe he could do good things with me, too, if I made myself totally available to him. Don't get me wrong, I don't think I can be the next Apostle Paul... but I could probably be a better version of me if I were even half-way willing to pay more attention to the voice of God.

Look, I'm not going to lie... I still don't like Paul much. But, when I really examine his shortcomings, the ones that really irk me, I realize that they're my shortcomings too. I guess it takes a self-righteous, whining, opinionated, stubborn jerk to know one. I'm sure of one thing, though... I've only just begun to learn what there is for me to learn about St. Paul.

Acts concludes with a dramatic shipwreck, which Paul and his companions survive, and their eventual arrival in Rome, where Paul lives in relative comfort as a minister of the gospel of Christ for a while.

Between the Pentecost and Paul's arrival in Rome, a lot of other stuff happens, too. Some of it I think I may understand, some of it I can't get my mind around. Now comes the fun part... since I've read Acts and really tried to digest it, I think that now it's OK for me to turn to Bible study and theology to get more out of it. The bible I've been reading from is Wendy's, and it's a small Bible with no study section and nothing expansive. Just the unadulterated Word of God staring you right in the face. I haven't even read the footnotes in the internet version I linked to above. I think it's OK for me to break out the study Bibles and the theology now and try to figure out more about Acts before I move on to another book of the Bible.

Next stop: Philippians. No real reason, it's just what I want to read next.

Comments:
There is no such thing as the 'unadulterated' Word of God. When you start your biblical studies, be sure and start your 'History of the Bible' too.
 
Porchwise wrote: be sure and start your 'History of the Bible' too.

Ah, yes... the familiar, bitter smirk of Biblical revisionism. No sale, pal. Been there, done that, back when I was agnostic, and found it hollow, empty, and unrewarding. I'd honestly rather die physically than go back to being spiritually dead.
 
Yes start with a history of the bible. Many Penecostal Protestants have little or no knowledge of the history.

They take the book at face value.

What they don't understand is a group of men got together many years after all persons of the bible had died. These men put together the bible deviously.

Some really good books were left out:

Gospel of Peter
Revelation of Peter
and
Gospel of Matthais(Judas' replacement).
 
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