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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Today’s Scripture Reading | Acts 21:15–26

After these days we got ready and started to go up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came along and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay. When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When 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. They 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. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join 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. But 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.” Then 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. (NRSV)

This passage from Acts—like so many that detail what led up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), how it took place, and what happened afterward—is wonderfully consoling in its depiction of the early church as . . . people.

Biased, faithful, stubborn, thoughtful, political, authentic people.

After the early chapters of Acts set out a beautiful picture of what church could and should be (e.g., 2:42–47, 4:32–35), these chapters show how messy it actually was. There were no catechisms or commentaries to tell them who they were or what they were supposed to do. They were figuring it out in ways that seem so familiar: talking, meeting, strategizing, talking some more—all with an eye on the “optics” of what they were doing.

It’s hard enough when one person’s identity shifts because of a change in job or relationship, revelation or transformation. But imagine what it must have been like to undergo a change of identity en masse, navigating personal questions and adjustments, as well as corporate ones. Whether Jew or Gentile, these were folks who were trying to let go of what they knew, intellectually and viscerally, so that they could become something else. But they had to work out what that something was together. It was hard.

So this is consoling when I worry about how hard church is today. When the disagreements and disappointments and failures seem overwhelming, I try to remember that the body of Christ was never (or, at least, for very long) anything other than human and flawed and messy. And yet here we are. Together.

Loving God, thank you for your patience with our chaos and conversations. Help us to imitate you, and our forebears, as we do what must be done to grow even more into who you want us to be. In the name of Jesus, ever-present and ever-encouraging. Amen.

Written by Susan Quaintance, Director, Center for Life and Learning

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