“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  In this simple chant, the very heart of today’s story, we find a great insight into our own idolatry as a nation.  From hyper-nationalism to Capitalism to love of money to the “cult of celebrity” and beyond, we as a culture live lives that put ideas, people, and most often ourselves above God.

The Ephesians, led by Demetrius, do not object to a new religion, philosophy, or worldview.  As always, their objection was that this new belief was impinging on their business.  Money is by far the greatest idol we fight, both personally and religiously.  Unlike in Thessalonica where the mob was made up of ruffians, here Demetrius makes a mob of the businessmen of Ephesus.  And these start up the chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

Artemis, better known to us as Diana, Huntress and the protector of women, was the patron of Ephesus.  And her temple was so wondrous that it became one of the 7 Wonders of the World.  No wonder the statue/idol/”image of Artemis” business was thriving.  But Paul and The Way (their name for Christianity) were so compelling that people were turning away from the worship of Artemis, and that was hurting their idol business.  So they rioted against Christianity.

Today, this is not much of a worry for the church, and that is deeply shameful to us.  This society need not fear our stealing customers away from them because we have instead joined them in their idol business.  We teach that the tenets of capitalism, of American-ism, are God’s will and we draw people not away from the idolatry but right into it.  Try telling the average church-goer that God wants them to give up their money, their comfort, their authority, and you’ll see a riot all right.  I have never even referenced the story of the rich young ruler without someone immediately telling me that God wanted him to BE WILLING to give up his belongings, not to actually do it.

We have to watch carefully that we don’t fall into the very idolatry God calls us to fight against.  Otherwise, we may find ourselves taking up the chant, “Great is the Captialism of America!”

Today we look at the world around us as it is easy to wonder with the Psalmist why the wicked seem to prosper so much.  We question God’s justice when we see the corrupt gain influence, power, and wealth.  We wonder about God’s omniscience when we see the poor and powerless constantly cowed at the hands of the powerful.  And when we don’t know what words to use in our prayers, when we don’t even know how to address God in His seeming absence, the Psalms give us words.

Psalm 10 is a cry of lament for the injustice of the world.  While it seems like the minority, whether in race, gender, or any other category, is finally finding a voice through movements like #MeToo, the reality is that injustice continues to not only exist but increase.  To paraphrase my son last night, we live in a society where our protests feel like just so much rage at a corrupt system and accomplish nothing of lasting worth, but to NOT protest is morally irresponsible.

The good news is that we are in a place to truly rediscover the power of the Psalms.  Rather than a nice set of memorized lyrics, the Psalms give voice to situations where we have lost our words.  “Why, Lord, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” the Psalmist asks, and we along with him.  When we can’t run away from it for fear of being caught up in it, when we find ourselves angry at God and at the unjust of this world, then we can find solace in the Psalms.  And not just in knowing that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that the same issue we face today have been faced for millennia, but to know that David, “a man after God’s own heart” shared his frustration, fear, and anger publicly and allows us to do the same with him.

Aquila and Priscilla are a fascinating study.  Minor players in Paul’s history, they are still amazing missionaries, church planters, and leaders in their own rights.  Born and raised in Pontus, he moved to Italy, to Rome where he either brought or met his wife Priscilla.  They were believers in Jesus, and were kicked out of Rome when Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in AD19.  This was the second expulsion of the Jews from Rome, both times because the Jews were proselytizing too publicly.

Expelled from their home in Rome, they move to Corinth where they set up both shop (as tentmakers) and ministry.  This sets the stage for Paul’s Corinthian ministry, which was co-lead by both Aquila and Priscilla.  Years later, they have grown so attached to Paul that they leave with him and sail to Ephasus.  There, they begin a ministry that sees Paul leave this second missionary journey to return to Jerusalem, then return as the first stop of his third and final journey.  Eventually, this center of Christianity was overseen by Timothy, and eventually John the Apostle and was included in his letter we know of as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ”.

Priscilla still stands as an argument for women in ministry, though many have argued from silence that she must have been the second in command, working under Aquila, since Paul didn’t allow women to lead.  But since she is not the only woman Paul places in leadership, and there is no textual evidence of her inferiority, she stands as a woman leader placed in leadership by Paul himself.

Regardless of her gender or marital status, Priscilla and her husband Aquila certainly led interesting, faithful, and important lives of Christian leadership, lives to which we can all aspire.

The balance between being “holy” (“set apart”, “different than anything else”) and being part of the culture around us is a tricky one to maintain.  Some say that we as Christians should remain separate from the world, avoiding it’s entertainments (Christians have shunned everything from movies and television to games and cards to sports and shopping for this reason) and morals.  Others have said that “if we are so heavenly minded then we are no earthly good”.  This story from Paul gives us a clue about this balance.

Paul has obviously read non-Jewish (there were no “Christian” anything yet) philosophers and teachers, for he quotes them to win his audience.  He has strolled their boulevards and examined their statues and artwork.  In fact, an idol to a foreign god becomes the opening illustration of one of his greatest sermons.  You see, the Athenians didn’t want to offend any of the gods because they were vengeful and would lash out at entire cities over the slightest offense.  So they no only made idolatrous statues to every god they knew but then made one last one, titled “to an unknown god” which they could claim was for any god they might have forgotten.  A nice plan for appeasing any god.

But Paul uses this, saying, “you don’t know this god, but I do and need to tell you about Him.  In fact, He’s the king of all gods, and the Creator, the Greatest of all of the gods.”  He then goes into an evangelistic sermon and converts many.  And even those who are not converted are at least intrigued.

So is this story permission if not command to keep up with the latest trends, to know the latest movies and shows, and to read non-Christian thinkers, all for the purpose of evangelism?  Many of my youth pastor seminars were about this very thing.  They called it relevance, but Paul called it evangelism.  I’m not suggesting that you binge Game of Thrones in the name of God, but maybe staying holy is less about the shows we watch and the games we play and more about our hearts and goals.

The people of Thessalonica really outdo themselves in trying to stop the gospel from spreading.  When we watch the news today, we can remember these folk and feel a little better – this has been going on for centuries.

Paul, Silas and Timothy enter Thessalonica and head for the nearest synagogue.  As was Paul’s custom, he would go to the synagogue and argue there that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting.  Splitting the synagogue, he’d then take the ones who would believe and start his own church.  Can you imagine someone actively using this method today?  Entering a town, going to the biggest local church around, splitting the congregation and then starting their own sect?  They’d be destroyed on social media, and possibly by their church leadership.  Yet this is Paul’s method.

The Thessalonicans get upset, hire a bunch of rowdies, and start a riot.  Bad form, guys.  But next, in the general hubbub, the mob pulls Jason, Paul’s host and sponsor, from his house and takes him to court for aiding and abetting.  Paul and company are forced to leave town to protect Jason.  The typical supervillian ploy – when you can’t beat the hero, you go after the ones they love.

But we’re still not done.  Paul and company move on to Berea and repeat the process.  But this time, it’s not the Bereans who rise up against Paul but the same Thessalonians, who have followed Paul for miles just to stop him.

When I hear about the lengths people will go to harass a church, or shut down a ministry, or attack a minister, I think of Paul and the Thessalonians and I don’t feel quite so bad.  After all, Jesus promised this kind of persecution and trouble.  I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.

We can get pretty proud of our own righteousness.  We look around and see people who are acting more sinfully than we are and we puff up a bit.  “After all I don’t smoke/swear/get drunk/sleep around/act with physical violence/watch pornography.  I am a much better parent/employee/student/Christian/person than they are.”  Oh, we would never say this out loud – that wouldn’t seem humble – but we think it way too often.

The next assumption we make is that if we are more righteous than others, then we get rewarded.  “What did I do to deserve this?!” people cry out.  “Wow, you must have been good to get that reward” is the same thought with a different direction  But this idea that good behavior brings rewards and bad behavior punishment isn’t Christianity but karma.  If it were true, we would have no explanation for Job, Jesus, or Paul’s lives.

When people come to me and ask what sin they have committed that God seems to be working against them, I assure them that God doesn’t act this way.  God doesn’t punish or reward us based on our righteousness.  In fact, Jesus tell us plainly that this righteousness of which we’re so proud is no more than a soiled undergarment in relation to God’s expectation of us (“Be perfect, then, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”)

Paul and Silas would have been freed from their prison regardless because that is what God planned to happen.  It wasn’t their obedience or their righteousness that freed them but God’s will.  So why should we obey?  What’s the benefit of a righteous life?  For Paul and Silas, because they were faithful and worshiped God all night in jail, their jailer and his whole household were saved.  Our righteousness doesn’t give us good outcomes – God does what God does – but it will win others to Christ.

So before we get too proud of our own righteousness, let’s remember that it too is a tool for mission, not a badge of honor.

God speaks to us.  It’s a reality that few have experienced as directly as Job and Paul in our readings today, but a reality that we profess regardless.  For Job, God speaks in a tone I sure wouldn’t want Him using with me.  After 35 chapters of Job defending his own honor and railing against God’s unfairness to him, God speaks.  And His tone is one of impatience and even anger.  We like to translated it into the voice of a loving Father, but read at face value, God is tired of Job’s railing and arrogance.  And His argument (“I am eternal, all powerful, and omniscient.  You are Job.  Do you have the right to question me?”) is pretty compelling and indisputable.

For Paul, God speaks in three ways.  It is interesting to note that the language of the communication, though only 3 verses apart, speaks of three different means of communication.  First, the “Holy Spirit” keeps them from preaching in Asia.  Then the “Spirit of Jesus” keeps them from entering Bithynia.  And finally, Paul has a vision in the night of a man.  Why the differing language for each communication?  What is the difference between “the Holy Spirit” and “the Spirit of Jesus”?  And why would God speak in 3 different ways?  Questions for heaven someday.

I have people weekly speak to me of hearing God’s voice.  “God has told me to” is the rarest since it implies a direct vocal communication from God.  “God has called me to” is more common, and is unfortunately used of most decisions.  Yes, God does call us to action and actions, but when someone tells me God called them to work at their job, only a week later to tell me that God is calling them on to another job (almost always with a higher salary or better benefits) I wonder.  “God has told me to tell you” some complaint or another is also not uncommon.  I fear that we use God the way we use “lots of people” to give weight to our own opinions, as in “lots of people think the same way that I do about ________”.

But when people tell me that they think God is telling them to do something unpleasant, painful, or dangerous, I tend to listen more.  Biblically, God’s call is to salvation most of the time, but on occasion it is to an activity, and that activity is usually unpleasant.  Because God doesn’t have to call us to the things we want to do, does He?

There were a number of churches in a previous hometown of mine that were all very similar.  I asked a knowledgeable friend about it to see if a single church had planted the rest or what.  It turns out that this was the case, in a way.  One group in the original church had gotten disgruntled and left, planting another church very similar to the first.  Another group saw the success of this church and in the next disagreement left and planted another.  From this plant, a disagreement arose and so they split and planted yet another.  Eventually, there were a number of churches that were all very similar, all doing good ministry, and all existing because of conflict.  While not an ideal way of planting churches, God seems to have blessed this situation, and one of these churches was adopted in to the Covenant recently.

Conflict within the church is both a painful time and a time for true growth.  Little growth happens when all is going smoothly.  Nonetheless, we all strive for a conflict-free life, and the early church wasn’t much different.  This is why rabble-rousers like the Apostle Paul who stirred up uncomfortable trouble were so, well, troubling.

Another example is here in today’s reading.  What happens when the missionary pair of Paul and Barnabas disagree about something as important as who travels with them?  Barnabas trusts John Mark even though he abandoned them during their last trip for unknown reasons.  Paul, on the other hand, disagrees and doesn’t want to take the risk of being abandoned again.  So what do you do?

These two simply split up, each taking a different “second” and so created two missionary teams where once there was one.  We don’t hear much about Barnabas and John Mark after this, but not because they are ineffective.

We avoid conflict primarily out of fear of this kind of division within the church.  But we also trust God to redeem every situation.  Maybe we can trust God in the midst of our own conflict as well.

The Jerusalem Council is one of the turning points of the New Testament.  We have Peter who, through the vision of the sail full of unclean animals, has entered the home of a Gentile, shared the gospel with him, and baptized his whole family.  And we also have Paul, who has been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles all through Galatia with plans to expand all the way to Rome itself.

But this leaves the Church with a very difficult question: what does “conversion” look like for Gentiles? For Jews, who follow the Old Testament law, it means following Jesus’ interpretation of that law, his “yoke” which He claims is easy and light. But for Gentiles who do not follow the Old Testament law, how does that work?

The Pharisees among the believers believed that conversion for Gentiles was a two-step process.  First, they had to become “Jewish” by following the Law of Moses, and then they could become Christians.  But this didn’t work for Paul’s company who believed they could simply follow Jesus.  So, what to do?

James gives them the answer after consulting with the other church leaders.  The limit of the OT law they had to follow was (1) no meat offered to idols, (2) no sexual immorality, (3) no meat of strangled animals, and (4) no blood.  This was to “make it easy for the Gentiles”.

Does this mean that beyond these four things, the OT law doesn’t apply to Gentiles?  Does this mean that we should require the same of our churches?  What exactly is covered in “sexual immorality” since the other three are pretty clear cut?

These questions have been argued and battled over for centuries, so we’re not going to answer them here.  But it does show that from the very beginning, what parts of the OT law are relevant and which are not has been a hot topic for the Church.

(Note:  This is a continuation from yesterday’s writing.  If you haven’t read it, please do to clarify this blog)

From yesterday, our list of Good and Bad were…
Good:  weep for those in trouble, grieve over poverty, hospitality, caring for the homeless.
Bad: lust, lying, adultery, denying justice to workers, not helping the poor/widow/orphan,  not clothing the needy, put my trust in gold instead of God, idol worship, rejoicing over my enemies misfortune, hiding sin out of fear of others’ opinions.

In this, the earliest vice list in the bible, what do you notice about what God calls Good and Bad?  Notice how many of them are communal: caring about, grieving over, being kind to others.  Even the things we consider individual vices today (lying, adultery, lust) are really communal.  In fact, the only ones that don’t involve another person involve God: idolatry and faithlessness.

Today we’ve taken this to an unhealthy extreme.  “As long as I’m not hurting anyone, anything is fine.”  “What we do in the privacy of our home is none of your (or God’s) business.”  But this list is so much more than our individualistic take on morality.  It once again shows that the Christian life, and therefore Christian morality, is communal.

Today, while we rail against people for their stance on abortion or human sexuality, we tend to ignore the things in lists like this, things like caring for the poor and homeless, and clothing the needy.  And we seldom think about our emotions as being sinful, things like weeping for those in trouble, grieving over the poverty in our world.  But without the emotion behind it, without compassion for others, our care for them will be short lived.

What if we prioritized community not just in the church but in the city in which we’ve been placed?  What if the greatest sin we could think of was that someone might have to live in their car while we could help them?  Or wear tattered clothes when we have closets-full that we don’t even wear?  It’s easy to demonize adultery or courtroom injustice, but what about our own sinful misuse of wealth, or lack of compassion for the poor, the neglected, the homeless, the foreigners and aliens in this world?

What if we reordered our own vice list to better align with the Bible’s?