Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 31-32 and Acts 15

Sirach 31 – On riches: “The sleeplessness brought by wealth makes a man lose weight, the worry it causes drives away sleep” (31:1).

“Remember how bad it is to have a greedy eye; is anything in creation greedier than the eye? That is why it waters on every occasion” (31:13).

On wine: “Wine is life for man if drunk in moderation. What is life worth without wine? It was created to make men happy. Drunk at the right time and in the right amount, wine makes for a glad heart and a cheerful mind” (31:27).

Sirach 32 – On banquets: “Speak, old men, it is proper that you should: but know what you are talking about, and do not interrupt the music (32:4).

Young men should speak only if they have to and no more than twice.

“The sinner waves reproof aside, he finds excuses to do what he wants. A sensible man never scorns a suggestion; a proud and godless man will be immune to fear” (31:27-28).

“Do not venture on a rough road, for fear of stumbling over the stones. Do not be over confident on an even road, and beware of your own children” (32:20-21).

Acts 15The controversy over circumcision: Ray Brown was an interesting source for helping me to understand this chapter of Acts. He notes that the circumcision issue was not settled in Acts 11 by Peter’s vision and its apparent lesson that eating and creating community with the uncircumcised was not something offensive to God; they were now facing whole churches made up of Gentiles, not just reconciling association with one or two of them (Brown 305).

In these congregation of Gentiles, the only real tie to Judaism was a “veneration [of] the Jewish Scriptures” and this was a problem for some. Brown points out that maybe the conservatives were correct on this issue – realizing that abandoning all requirements of the Law would mean that Christianity would grow without any real connection to the Jewish community. Paul thought perhaps it was just something temporary, but it turned out to be permanent. The “branch” Paul thought he was “grafting onto” the tree God had started would eventually BECOME the tree.

I find the observations of Brown interesting because there is part of me that believes that the huge divide that exists between Jews and Christians was never meant to be – and maybe even the divide between Christians and Muslims. I have always felt a deep feeling that we are all part of one salvation narrative and that somehow God will one day pull us together some day.

Anyway, returning to Acts, Paul and Barnabas argue with pro-circumcision men who have come from Judea and finally Paul and Barnabas decide to go up to Jerusalem with a few others (Galatians mentions Titus, a former pagan, as one of those who accompanied them) to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders there.

Brown points out that we can compare the account of this visit in Acts with Paul’s more personal account in his Epistle to the Galatians. The following are some comparisons that Brown makes:
·          Acts depicts the meeting as less acrimonious than Paul does in Galatians.
·          Acts seems to accept that the “pillars” of the church would decide the issue; Paul calls them the “so-called pillars”
·          In Galatians, Paul notes that he first laid out his arguments privately – this was smart
·          James is seen as the most important voice in Acts and in Galatians he is seen as the most unpredictable
·          Both Paul’s and Peter’s testimony is “experiential” while James bases his reasoning on Scripture
·          Interesting that no one makes any reference to anything Jesus might have had to say on the issue
·          In the end “koinonia” is maintained

Verses 5-7 tells it like this: certain “members of the Pharisees’ party who had become believers” (15:5) insisted that pagans should be circumcised and keep the whole Law. After the apostles and elders discussed it, Peter stands up and speaks.

Peter says God chose him to learn the Good News of Christ; and he showed his approval of the pagans by giving them the Holy Spirit not making any distinction between them and the original followers of Christ, the Jewish converts. It would make God angry to impose Mosaic Law on them at this point. They are saved “through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11).

James, the “brother” of Jesus, claims to have the last word, and he says they shall not make things more difficult for the pagans, and that all they need to observe is abstention from foods polluted by idols (sacrifices made to idols), fornication [marriage with close relatives], and the meat of strangled animals or meat with blood in it. They send Paul and Barnabas back with Barsabbas and Silas, and they send a letter. They say they “unanimously” elected delegates to send with Paul and Barnabas and outline the decision.

The community at Antioch is pleased with the decision. The two who came with them return, but Paul and Barnabas stay for a while.

Later they go and visit all the towns where they preached the gospel earlier. Barnabas wants to take John Mark, but Paul objects, angry about his having left them when they were in Pamphylia. Barnabas gets pissed off and goes off with Mark to Cyprus. Paul goes with Silas on his mission.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 30 and Acts 14

Sirach 30 – On raising children: While the spirit of wanting one’s children to grow up well and not be spoiled or self-centered is here, the advice runs so against the modern sense of what is wise it is remarkable. So while usually I include quotes here that I like, her I am including them just to show how utterly alien they seem.

 “A man who loves his son will beat him frequently so that in after years the son may be his comfort” (30:1).

“A horse badly broken-in turns out stubborn, an uncontrolled son turns out headstrong” (30:8).

“Do not share his laughter, if you do not wish to share his sorrow and to end by grinding your teeth. Allow him no independence in childhood, and do not wink at his mistakes. Bend his neck in youth, bruise his ribs while he is a child, or else he will grow stubborn and disobedient, and hurt you very deeply” (30:10-12).

On being healthy: “Better a poor man healthy and fit than a rich man tormented in body. Health and strength are better than any gold, a robust body than untold wealth” (30:14-15).

On happiness: “Do not abandon yourself to sorrow, do not torment yourself with brooding. Gladness of heart is life to a man, joy is what gives him length of days” (30:21-22). 

Acts 14 – Again, in Iconium, they start at the synagogue, converting many. They stay for some time (14:2). Iconium is in Asia Minor – toward the center, a little north and west of Tarsus.

The city becomes divided and eventually they are forced to leave. They go to Lycaonia. When Paul heals a cripple, the people begin to think they are “gods” dressed as men – Zeus and Hermes –they plan a sacrifice to them and Paul goes nuts (14:13). They rush to try and teach them: “In the past he allowed each nation to go its own way; but even then he did not leave you without evidence of himself in the good things he does for you; he sends you rain from heaven, he makes your crops grow when they should, he gives you food and makes you happy” (14:16-17).

Jews come and turn the people against them so that they stone Paul and drag him outside the town, leaving him for dead (14:20). He is ok, though, and gets up to go back to the town. They go and win converts in Derbe [just south of Iconium] and then turn back, returning the way they came pretty much. They report on the great success they had and the trials they endured.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 27-29 and Acts 13:26-52

Sirach 27 – The dangers of being in business or commerce: “It is difficult for a merchant to avoid doing wrong and for a salesman not to incur sin. Many have sinned for the sake of profit, he who hopes to be rich much be ruthless” (27:1).

“The kiln tests the work of the potter, the test of a man is in his conversation” (27:4). 

Do not betray the confidence of friends. You will lose them, “[f]or a wound can be bandaged and abuse forgiven, but for the man who has betrayed a secret there is no hope” (27:21).

On hypocrisy: “The man with a sly wink is plotting mischief, no one can dissuade him from it. Honey-tongued to your face, he is lost in admiration at your words; but behind your back he has other things to say, and makes your own words sound offensive” (27:22-23).
Sirach 28 – On vengeance: “He who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the Lord, who keeps strict account of sin. Forgive your neighbor the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven” (28:1-2).
“Remember the last things, and stop hating, remember dissolution and death, and live by the commandments” (28:6).
“[A] man’s rage depends on his strength, his fury grows fiercer in proportion to his wealth” (28:11).

Sirach 29 – On Loans: “Lend to your neighbor in his time of need, and in your turn repay your neighbor on time. Be as good as your word and keep faith with him, and you will find your needs met every time” (29:1-3).

“Many, not out of malice, refuse to lend; they are merely anxious not to be cheated for nothing” (29:7).

“Better let your silver go on brother or friend, do not let it go to waste, rusting under a stone. Invest your treasure as the Most High orders, and you will find it more profitable than gold” (29:10-11).

“The first thing in life is water, and bread, and clothing, and a house for the sake of privacy. Better a poor man’s life under a roof of planks, than lavish fare in the house of another” (29:21-22).

Acts 13:26-52 - He tells of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “[I]t is through him that forgiveness of your sins is proclaimed. Through him justification from all sins which the Law of Moses was unable to justify is offered to every believer” (13:38-39). Then he cites Habbakuk, warning them not to “mock” his message. God is “doing something in your own days” and it is hard for people to accept.

I think this last note is very insightful. I can only imagine what it must have been like for early Christians to be telling Jews that the living God who had nurtured them for so long and given them a narrative and a tradition so important to them was now acting again in history, but in a way that changed the direction they had thought so unmovable. I think that today as ever, our God is a living God. It is utter foolishness to assume that God has sent his last prophet or spoken his last revelatory word to man. I believe he will come again – himself? through prophets? -- to move us forward toward a closer unity of the religious narrative, weaving the separate threads of divine intervention together through prophets who can speak to man through the haze of disbelief, unwarranted certainty and doubt.

The success of Paul and Barnabas raises hackles in some who finally convince some of the more influential members of the synagogue to expel them from their territory. They go to Iconium.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 25-26 and Acts 13:1-25

Sirach 25 – “There are three things my soul delights in, and which are delightful to God and to men: concord between brothers, friendship between neighbors, and a wife and husband who live happily together” (25:1-2).

The three things his “soul hates” are a “poor man swollen with pride, a rich man who is a liar and an adulterous old man who has no sense” (25:3-4).

The old should rejoice in their experience and wisdom.

And then come what are called “numerical proverbs”: he lists mostly what he has already said in various chapters.

On women: “I would sooner keep house with a lion or a dragon that keep house with a spiteful wife” (25:16).

“Bad temper, insolence and shame hold sway where the wife supports the husband” (25:22).

“Sin began with a woman, and thanks to her we all must die” (25:24). What lame thinking – doesn’t seem wise to me!

Sirach 26 – On the happiness of those with “really good wives” (26:1): “[R]ich or poor, they will be glad of heart, cheerful of face, whatever the season” (26:4).

He goes back to the “three things [his] heart dreads, and a fourth which terrifies [him]” (26:5): “slander by a . . .town, the gathering of a mob, and a false accusation” (26:6) The fourth thing is “a woman jealous of a woman” (26:7). Things valued in women – her grace, accomplishment, silence, modesty, chastity, goodness and beauty.

Acts 13:1-25 – The church at Antioch had recognized prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (raised with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul. During worship one day, of which fasting had been a part, they felt the Holy Spirit calling them to send Saul and Barnabas to a particular task. They went to Seleucia and Cyprus (Barnabas’ home). John was with them too.

They go to Salamis (on Cyprus) to the synagogues first. The travel the whole island and in Paphos they meet a Jewish magician (Bar-jesus), an attendant of proconsul Sergius Paulus (very intelligent). Paul reprimands Magos for trying to “twist. . .the straightforward ways of the Lord” (13:10) and he strikes him blind. The proconsul is converted.

They then go to Perga (S. Anatolia) – John returns to Jerusalem – and then to Antioch in Pisidia: Paul is asked to address congregation. He talks about their origins. Then, from David, he jumps the Jesus. “To keep his promise, God has raised up for Israel one of David’s descendants, Jesus, as Savior, whose coming was heralded by John when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the whole people of Israel” (13:24).

Acts 13:26-52 - He tells of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “[I]t is through him that forgiveness of your sins is proclaimed. Through him justification from all sins which the Law of Moses was unable to justify is offered to every believer” (13:38-39). Then he cites Habbakuk, warning them not to “mock” his message. God is “doing something in your own days” and it is hard for people to accept.

I think this last note is very insightful. I can only imagine what it must have been like for early Christians to be telling Jews that the living God who had nurtured them for so long and given them a narrative and a tradition so important to them was now acting again in history, but in a way that changed the direction they had thought so unmovable. I think that today as ever, our God is a living God. It is utter foolishness to assume that God has sent his last prophet or spoken his last revelatory word to man. I believe he will come again – himself? through prophets? -- to move us forward toward a closer unity of the religious narrative, weaving the separate threads of divine intervention together through prophets who can speak to man through the haze of disbelief, unwarranted certainty and doubt.

The success of Paul and Barnabas raises hackles in some who finally convince some of the more influential members of the synagogue to expel them from their territory. They go to Iconium.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 24 and Acts 12

Sirach 24 – “Wisdom. . . glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One” (24:1-2). ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and I covered the earth like mist. . .Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I searched for rest, and looked to see in whose territory I might pitch camp. Then the creator of all things instructed me, and he who created me fixed a place for my tent.

He said, “Pitch your tent in Jacob, and make Israel your inheritance” (24:3-8).

“Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my fruits, for memories of me are sweeter than honey, inheriting me is sweeter than the honeycomb. They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me will thirst for more” (24:21).

The Law, the “Tradition” is like the waters that bring forth all fruit. “The first man never managed to grasp her [Wisdom] entirely, nor has the most recent one fully comprehended her; for her thoughts are wider than the sea, and her designs more profound than the abyss, and I [the sage], like a conduit from a river, like a watercourse running into a garden, I said, ‘I am going to water my orchard, I intend to irrigate my flower beds’. And see, my conduit has grown into a river, and my river has grown into a sea. Now I shall make discipline shine out, I shall send its light far and wide. I shall pour out teaching like prophecy, as a legacy to all future generations” (24:23-34).

Acts 12 – Herod Agrippa I, the king of Judaea, who ruled from 10 BC to 44 AD, started persecuting Christians. He beheaded James (son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John) and arrested Peter. Peter is put under guard and chained, but an “angel” comes at night and frees him.

Peter himself “had no idea that what the angel did was all happening in reality; he thought he was seeing a vision” (12:9).  It is only after going though the city that Peter “comes to himself” (12:10). He goes to the home of Mary, mother of John Mark [author of the gospel of Mark, and cousin to Barnabas]. Peter knocks on the door and the servant – Rhoda – is so startled she goes and tells others before letting him in. He finally gets in and asks them to go tell James [Jesus’ brother and head of the Hebrew section of the church in Jerusalem]. Meanwhile, Herod orders execution of the guards. When Herod addresses the people as if he were a god, he is struck down. It must be 44 AD.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 23 and Acts 11

Sirach 23 – God is addressed as “Lord, father and master of my life. . .” (23:1). 

“Do not habituate your mouth to coarseness and foul language, for this means sinful talk. Remember your father and mother when you are sitting among princes, in case you forget yourself in their presence, and behave like a fool, and then wish you had not been born, and curse the day of your birth” (23:13-14).

“The man who sins against his own marriage bed. . .does not realize that the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun, observing every aspect of human behavior, seeing into the most secret corners. All things were known to him before they were created, and are still, now that they are finished” (23:18-20).

Acts 11 – The Christians of Judaea learn that pagan Gentiles too are being converted, so when Peter returns, they challenge him on the propriety of his visiting and eating with gentiles. He tells them of the vision he had of that made clear to him that God did not divide the world between clean and unclean, “chosen people” and rejects.

The narrative returns at this point to Antioch – last seen in chapter 8 when Stephen was martyred and the church suffered a severe persecution.  The survivors went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch where they converted good numbers of Hellenists. Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch to check on them. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Paul; they returned together to Antioch where they spent a year teaching the new converts. It is here they are first called “Christians” (11:26).

Reference is made to prophets in the new community – charismatic’s who have an ability to foretell future events. Here they predict a serious famine that will hit the empire during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD). A collection is made for the “brothers” living in Judaea.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 21-22 and Acts

Sirach 21 – “Flee from sin as from a snake, if you approach it, it will bit you; its teeth are lion’s teeth, they deprive men of their lives. All law-breaking is like a two-edged sword, the wounds it inflicts are beyond cure” (21:1-3).

“To build your house on other people’s money is like collecting stones for your own tomb” (21:8).

“To the senseless fellow instruction is like fetters on his feet, like manacles on his right hand. . . . The foot of a fool goes straight into a house, but a man of much experience is respectful in his approach; . . .” (21:19-22).

“The lips of gossips repeat the words of others, the words of wise men are carefully weighed” (21:25).

Sirach 22 – About idlers, degenerate children, wisdom, friendship and vigilance: “Shed tears for the dead man, since he has left the light behind; shed tears for the fool, since he has left his wits behind; Shed quieter tears for the dead, since he is at rest, for the fool, life is sadder than death. Mourning for the dead lasts seven days, for the foolish and ungodly all the days of their lives” (11-12).

“A tie-beam bonded into a building will not be dislodged by an earthquake; so too, a heart resolved after due reflection will not flinch at the critical moment” (16).

On friendship: “If you have opened your mouth against your friend, do not worry; there is hope for reconciliation; but insult, arrogance, betrayal of secrets, and the stab in the back—in these cases any friend will run away” (22-23).

Acts 10:1-23 – In Caesarea, a man named Cornelius, a centurion, has a vision of an angel—“a man in dazzling clothes” (10:30), who addresses him and tells him that his prayers have ascended to God and that he is to send men to Joppa to get this man Peter. He sends two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks.

The next day, while these men are en route, Peter, up on the roof of Simon the tanner's house, also has a vision. It is of a large sheet being lowered. It is full of all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds. A voice tells Peter to get up and eat but he says he has never eaten unclean foods. “The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’” (10:15).
The men finally appear and call for Peter. “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’” (10:20). Peter does and hears about Cornelius.
Acts 10:24-48 - The next day, he and some other believers go to Joppa. Cornelius greets Peter by dropping to his knees but Peter tells him to get up, that he is only a mortal. Inside, many are assembled to listen to what Peter has to say. His message is as follows: “God show no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:35). Just as there are no unclean and unacceptable creatures, so there are no unclean and unacceptable people. The gospel is meant to go out to all and it is not a message of cultic legalism. Gentiles will receive the Holy Spirit just as the earliest disciples of Jesus were blessed with it.

Peter preaches that Jesus’ message of peace began with John’s baptism in Galilee, where God “anointed Jesus . . .with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (10:38). They put him to death on a tree, “but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses . . .”(10:41). While Peter speaks, the Holy Spirit comes down on the whole assembly. The Hebrew Christians with Peter are amazed “that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47) - the whole household of people are baptized, and Peter is asked to stay several days.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 18-20 and Acts 9

Sirach 19 – The writer deals with the very serious issue of rumor mongering: “Never repeat what you are told and you will come to no harm; whether to friend or foe, do not talk about it, uness it would be sinful not to talk about it, unless it would be sinful not to, do not reveal it; you would be heard out, then mistrusted, and in due course you would be hated” (19:7-9).

“Have you heard something? Let it die with you. . [if you find offense in what you’ve heard] Question your friend, he may have done nothing at all, and if he has done anything, he will not do it again. Question your neighbor, he may have said nothing at all, and if he has said anything, he will not say it again. Question your friend, for slander is very common, do not believe all you hear. A man sometimes makes a slip, without meaning what he says; and which of us has never sinned by speech? (19:10-18).

Sirach 20 – About speaking and silence, paradoxes and inappropriate talk. “Better a slip on the pavement than a slip of the tongue” (20:18). There are few passages in this chapter that seemed quotable.

Acts 9Saul is furious with these Hellenized Christians – remember they are still part of the Jewish community and they are preaching a very controversial message – that the Temple and strict adherence to the Mosaic Law are no longer necessary. He goes to the High Priest and from him gets letters that will permit him to pursue these now scattered “heretics” and have them returned to Jerusalem where they will meet the same fate as Stephen

As he is traveling near the city of Damascus, he suddenly sees a light from heaven and hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4) He asks who it is, and he hears “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5). The men with him hear the voice too but do not see anything. Saul is blinded by the intense light; they lead him to Damascus, where he cannot see for three days.
Meanwhile the Lord appears in a vision to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. He tells him to go to the place where Saul is, that Saul too has had a vision that a man named Ananias will bring his sight back. Ananias is afraid, knowing Saul’s reputation, but the Lord says, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (9:15). He goes and lays his hands on Saul, and immediately “something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored” (9:18).

He stays a few days with Ananias and immediately “he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God” (9:20). His preaching has great “convincing power” as early Friends said. When some “Jews” [remember they are all still Jews, but these are Jews wedded completely to the Law and Temple worship.  They plan to kill him; he learns of it and escapes the town.

He comes to Jerusalem, but the disciples are all afraid of him, “for they did not believe that he was s disciple” (9:26). A man named Barnabas tries to help him, bringing him to the apostles and telling his story to them. But now he starts to preach and “argue” (9:29) with the Greek speaking Jews that seem to agree with their conservative Aramaic-speaking brothers. They try to kill Paul, but when “the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus” (9:30).
Now Luke’s attention turns to Peter’s work. Peter comes down to the “saints” living in Lydda. There he meets a man named Aeneas who was bedridden and paralyzed. Peter heals him and wins many converts. Healing parallels Jesus’ healing in Luke 5:24. In Joppa a disciple named Tabitha dies. They carry her to an upstairs room. The disciples send for Peter. He goes into the room, kneels down and prays. He turns to the body and tells her to get up. She gets up, and word of her recovery brings in many converts. Again, this closely parallels Jesus’ raising of Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8:49. Peter stays with Simon the tanner.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 17-18 and Acts 8:25-40

Sirach 17 – “The Lord fashioned man from the earth, to consign him back to it. He gave them so many days’ determined time; he gave them authority over everything on earth. He clothed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image” (17:1-3).

“He filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil. He put his own light in their hearts to show them the magnificence of his works” (17:7-8).

“Their eyes saw his glorious majesty, and their ears heard the glory of his voice” (17:13).

“One day he will rise and reward them, he will pay back their deserts on their own heads. But to those who repent he permits return, and he encourages those who were losing hope” (17:23-24).

Sirach 18 – “He who lives for ever created all the universe. The Lord alone will be found righteous” (18:1).

“What is man, what purpose does he serve? What is the good in him, and what the bad? Take the number of a man’s days; a hundred years is very long. Like a drop of water from the sea, or a grain of sand, such are these few years compared with eternity. For this reason the Lord shows them forbearance, and pours out his mercy on them” (18:8-11).

“Man’s compassion extends to his neighbor, but the compassion of the Lord extends to everything that lives; rebuking, correcting and teaching, bringing them back as a shepherd brings his flock” (18:13-14).

“In a time of plenty, remember times of famine, poverty and want in days of wealth. The time slips by between dawn and dusk, all things pass swiftly in the presence of the Lord” (18:25-26).

Acts 8:25-40 - Peter and John return to Jerusalem. There Philip experiences “the spirit of the Lord” (also referred to as an angel), telling him to get up and go south toward Gaza. On the way, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Ethiopian Queen on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He was seated in his chariot reading Isaiah.

The Spirit impels Philip to go and engage him. He asks him if he understands what he is reading, and the man answers, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (8:31), and he invites Philip into the chariot. The passage he is reading is about the suffering servant: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter . . .” (Is 53:7). Philip, using this scripture, proclaims to the man the good news about Jesus. When they come by some water, the eunuch asks if there is any reason why he may not be baptized.

A Jerusalem Bible note says that there is a verse, verse 37, that is an ancient gloss preserved in the Western Text that says “’If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The verse is omitted in the NRSV and in the Jerusalem Bible translation (also the Good News version).

Philip does baptize the man. “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing” (8:39). Philip finds himself in Azotus (a town right on the Mediterranean in Gaza) and there proclaims the good news to all the towns between there and Caesarea (8:40).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 15-16 and Acts 8:1-24

Sirach 15 – “[W]hoever grasps the Law will obtain wisdom. She will come to meet him like a mother, and receive him like a virgin bride. She will give him the bread of understanding to eat, and the water of wisdom to drink. He will lean on her and will not fall, he will rely on her and not be put to shame” (15:2-4).

“Do not say, ‘The Lord was responsible for my sinning’, for he is never the cause of what he hates . . .He himself made man in the beginning, and then left him free to make his own decisions. If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power” (15:11-15).

“He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him. For vast is the wisdom of the Lord; he is almighty and all-seeing. His eyes are on those who fear him, he notes every action of man” (15:16-19).

Sirach 16 – “However many [children] you have, take no pleasure in them, unless the fear of the Lord lives among them” (16:2).

“[M]ercy and wrath alike belong to the Lord who is mighty to forgive and to pour out wrath. His mercy is great, but his severity is as great; he judges every man as his deeds deserve: the sinner shall not escape with his ill-gotten gains, nor the devout man’s patience go for nothing” (16:11-13).

“Do not say, ‘I will hide from the Lord, who will remember me up there? I shall certainly not be noticed among so many; what am I in the immensity of creation?’ Why look the sky and the heavens above the sky, the deep and the earth tremble at his visitation. The mountains and the base of the earth together quail and tremble when he looks at them. But who bothers his head about such things? Who attempts to understand the way he moves? The storm win itself is invisible, and most of what he does gods undetected. ‘Who will report whether justice has been done? Who will be expecting it? The covenant is far away.’ Such are the thoughts of the man of little sense, the rash misguided man who loves his illusions” (16:17-22).

Acts 8:1-24 – We are told that “Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]” (8:1).

A severe persecution begins in Jerusalem “and everyone except the apostles fled to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria” (8:1). The Jerusalem Bible note and Ray Brown both indicate that those scattered were the Hellenist believers in Christ, not the Hebrew believers. Their testimony against Temple worship brought on the persecution. The Hellenists were “scattered” and became the first Christian missionaries (Brown, 51). Saul is seen as behind the persecutions. He ravaged the church “by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” (8:3) and committing them to prison.
Philip goes to the province of Samaria to carry the work. He did many signs there as well, curing the paralyzed or lame, healing the possessed. Now a man there name Simon was a great magician, and he too was converted by Philip. He “stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place” (8:13). When the apostles heard that Samaria was being converted they sent Peter and John there, that “they might receive the Holy Spirit” (8:16). They laid hands of them and they received the Spirit. When Simon saw this, he offered them money for this power. Peter rebukes him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God” (8:20-21). Simon seems to repent and asks them to pray for him (8:24). Simony, the practice of profiting from sacred things, comes from his name.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 14 and Acts 7:45-59

Sirach 14 – “Happy the man whose own soul does not accuse him, and who has never given up hope” (14:2).

I can relate to this one very deeply. I have not always been a “believer.” Or, it’s more complicated than that – I have not always felt comfortable with the very deep sense I always seemed to have that there was/is a God. I’ve always had a deep intuition that there must be, but my “reason” has not always been comfortable with that intuition. For some years I just turned my back on religion, but eventually decided it was more “rational” for me to concede that a good deal of what I most deeply “rested on” had to do with an acceptance of the divine, a connection with the “cloud of witnesses” the Judeo-Christian tradition offered me. So I again become a person of “faith” and “hope.” Can I KNOW that there is a God? Can I KNOW that the Christian message is THE TRUTH? I cannot KNOW. But I can live by it; I can rest comfortably in it; I can leave this life knowing that I lived well, lived faithful to a message that raises me to life every day, every minute.

“The eye of the grasping man is not content with his portion, greed shrivels up the soul” (9).

“My son, treat yourself as well as you can afford, and bring worthy offerings to the Lord. . . . Do not refuse yourself the good things of today, do not let your share of what is lawfully desired pass you by” (14:11-14).

“Every living thing grows old like a garment, the age-old law is ‘Death must be’. Like foliage growing on a bushy tree, some leaves falling, others growing, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies, another is born” (14:17-18).

Acts 7:45-59 - He tells of the building of the Temple by Solomon, and God’s rejection of the idea of being given a home in anything man-made, but does not connect David to this. He simply repeats the passage from Isaiah (Is 66), which says, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool” (7:49-50) The “Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (7:48).

Then, to conclude, he calls them a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears . . .forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (7:51). They become enraged at him.

Suddenly, he has a vision of God’s glory and “Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” (7:55) which he proclaims to the people. At this they rush against him, drag him out of the city and stone him, laying their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. Stephen kneels and cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and he dies (7:60).

The interesting thing about Stephens’ preaching to me is his reliance upon a narrative approach to elucidate what it is God wants the people to understand. Stephen’s memory of the details of the story is not perfect—it is as he remembers it, that God calls Abraham out of Mesopotamia (not Haran), that Moses is forty or eighty or one hundred and twenty at different points along the way. He clearly uses the numbers in a schematic kind of way, probably from an extra-biblical tradition. This shows that it is the community’s use of the story that counts as much as the details of the story itself.

The points of the story that seem important to Stephen are the continuity of God’s care for his people and work to redeem them, the tendency of the people to reject his prophets, particularly Moses and by implication Jesus who is for Stephen clearly the prophet God was to raise up “like Moses.” And the particular point Stephen wants the people to hear is that the time of the Temple is over. God does not dwell in it, but in Jesus and in the creation. It is hard to know if the thing that makes the people murderously mad is his accusation of their stiff-necked refusal to be led by God, his denigration of the Temple or his claim to see Jesus at God’s right hand—I rather think it was that.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 12-13 and Acts 7:1-44

Sirach 12 – Bad advice here, at least from a Christian perspective: “The Most High himself detests sinners, and will repay the wicked with a vengeance. Give to the good man, and do not go to the help of a sinner” (12:6-7). Jesus broke this “wisdom” rule a time or two. But this, after all, is human wisdom. If you lend aid to someone who is bad, you are making him stronger in his wickedness.

Sirach 13 – Beware of rich and influential men. They will take advantage of you and leave you humiliated.

“When the rich man stumbles he is supported by friends; when the poor man falls, his friends push him away. When the rich man slips, there are many hands to catch him, if he talks nonsense, he is congratulated. The poor man slips, and is blamed for it, he may talk good sense but no room is made for him. The rich man speaks and everyone stops talking, and then they praise his discourse to the skies. The poor man speaks and people say, ‘Who is this?’ and if he staggers they push him down” (13:21-23).

We are very tribal: “Every living thing loves its own sort, and every man his neighbor. Every creature mixes with its kind, and man sticks to his own sort” (13:26-27). He extends this especially to class-tribes, but democracy has bred political tribes as well. Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is great on describing the moral psychology of these tribes.

Acts 7:1-44 – After Stephen is accused, the High Priest asks for his response: Stephen addresses his “brothers and fathers” (7:1) by reviewing the whole story of his people. Starting with Abraham, he retells the story slowly and in great detail.


The Jerusalem Bible notes that accompany Stephen’s address emphasize that he is in some instances using a “non-biblical tradition” (211). He begins with Abraham even before he moved to Haran and focuses on the promise made to him, his faithfulness to God despite never getting “a square foot of ground” (7:5) or a single child; then he touches on the institution of circumcision. He tells the story of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s rise in Pharaoh’s court and the eventual return of return of Abraham’s body to the tomb at Shechem.


He proceeds to tell the story of Moses and his call, and the difficulty that the people – his people – had in accepting his leadership. It is the rejection of Moses’ leadership that Stephen focuses on because he is trying to show everyone that Jesus was the expected “prophet like Moses” [see Deuteronomy 18:15]. Stephen says of Moses, “it was he who was entrusted with words of life to hand on to us. This is the man that our ancestors refused to listen to: they pushed him aside, turned back to Egypt in their thoughts” (7:38). Again, a Jerusalem Bible note is great. “For the Christian, the gospel preaching is ‘the word of life’ . . . ‘the word of salvation’ . . Since life springs from God’s word, this word is itself ‘living’ . . . And Jesus is himself ‘the Word of life’ “ (213).


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Daily Bible Reading: Sirach [Ecclesiasticus] 11 and Acts 6

Sirach 11 – “Do not praise a man for his good looks, nor dislike anybody for his appearance” (11:2)

“. . .the Lord’s deeds are marvelous, though hidden from mankind” [11: 4 note translates: “unseen and unforeseeable. One turn of the wheel and all conditions are reversed”]. The lives of the very important and the lives of the lowly are all impossible to predict, but the writer encourages us to believe that all things flow from the hand of God.

“Do not find fault before making thorough inquiry; first reflect, then give a reprimand. Listen before you answer, and do not interrupt a speech in the middle” (11:7-8).

“My son, do not take on a great amount of business; if you multiply your interests, you are bound to suffer for it; hurry as fast as you can, [you will not achieve, if you do not seek, you will not find—Hebrew translation from footnote d]” (11:10).

“Good and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, all come from the Lord” (11:14). Still we must trust in the Lord and keep doing what we know we must do. Some of these verses seem very apropos in our times of economic uncertainty and arguing over who is responsible for the hardships so many endure and the windfall profits that seem to go to the few.

“In a time of profit, losses are forgotten, and in a time of loss, no one remembers profits . . .Call no man fortunate before his death; it is by his end that a man will be known” (11:25-28).

The section ends with warnings against trusting too liberally. There are evil-doers and scoundrels in the world. We must be somewhat cautious in trusting others.

Acts 6 – A rift develops between Hellenists (Jews from the diaspora who read the scriptures in Greek) and the Hebrews (from Jerusalem who spoke Aramaic but read Hebrew Scriptures). A Jerusalem Bible note says that the missionary movement was to come from the Hellenists.  The Hellenists complain that their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of food (6:1).

The 12 have a meeting, worried that staying involved with such details will take them away from preaching the word (teaching and elaborating the gospel) and praying. Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmens and Nicholaus of Antioch are named (by laying on of hands) to do this work. These names are all Greek.
Many continue to be attracted to the community, even many priests. Stephen, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). Some in the Synagogue of Freedmen begin to challenge him. “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (6:10). The Freedmen are probably descendants of Jews who had been carried off to Rome by Pompey in 63 BC, who were sold into slavery and later released. It was a Hellenistic synagogue from the list of peoples who worshipped there. 

They instigate some to accuse Stephen of blaspheming against Moses and God. They stir up people against him and then seize him, bringing him before the council. They send in false witnesses who claim they have heard him say that Jesus will destroy the temple and change the customs that Moses handed on to them. His face, we are told, “was like the face of an angel” (6:15).

Ray Brown tries to make a case for the proposition that the Jerusalem Church and the apostles, in particular, had a period during which they did not have to deal with persecution, from about 41 to 62, when James was martyred in Jerusalem. But this would put Stephen’s martyrdom outside the circle in a way I don’t feel comfortable with. I don’t think the church would have experienced itself as not persecuted when Christians of the Hellenistic branch were suffering.  He does point out that there were frictions between Hellenistic and Hebrew members of the Church. Twelve men are appointed leaders of the Greek-speaking Christians, including Stephen. And it is true that these Christians did not seem to place as much emphasis on the Temple as the others did, hence Stephen’s remarks before his martyrdom. But Jesus had said these same things.