Friday, July 15, 2011

Even in the Best of Churches

In what city did Euodia and Syntyche live? Philippi (Philippians 4:2)

Paul risked his life to found the first European church in Philippi (Acts 16:12-40). Later, he wrote the church a letter from prison (Philippians 1:13) preserved in the New Testament as Philippians. The Philippian church served as a source of constant joy for Paul (Philippians 1:4). Even so, in Philippians’ fourth and final chapter, contention between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, concerned Paul enough for him to address it publicly (Philippians 4:2). Even in the best of churches there can be (and usually is) dissension.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. (Philippians 4:2, NASB)
This marks the only time Euodia and Syntyche appear in the Bible and their history is as vague as the nature of their argument. They and their squabble were prominent enough to reach Paul and affect the church’s cohesion.

Modern parishioners have a reasonable expectation that they will not be named for their sins from the pulpit. Jesus too advises handling conflict first privately, then with “one or two others”, and finally to take the matter before the community as a last resort (Matthew 18:15-20). By the time Paul intercedes, the feud has already escalated as evidenced by his mere knowledge of it. The dispute is no longer private making Paul’s public petition justified.

What do you think Euodia and Syntyche argued over? What church divisions have you seen? What is the pettiest church dispute you have ever witnessed or heard of?

Paul does not take sides in the dispute as his concern is harmony. Paul typically stressed unity (I Corinthians 1:10, 12:25; Ephesians 4:3,13). Ironically (and tragically), most major schisms in the church have disseminated from Paul’s writings.

Unity is critical to Christian identity. Jesus urges us to make peace with our fellow Christians even before going to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24). He also said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35, NASB).” The early church was so noted for their love that Tertullian (160-220) observed pagans identifying Christians by commenting, “See how they love one another” (Apology 39.6) . Could the same be said today?

Paul enlists help in arbitrating the dispute (Philippians 4:3) as unity takes the entire church working together. Paul also advises the women to agree “in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2). If we cannot agree for our own sakes, we ought to cooperate for God’s.

We cannot be certain that Paul’s intercession was effective but there is hope. Writing in the second century, Polycarp (69-155) writes the same Philippian church, “I rejoice also that your firmly rooted faith, renowned since early days, endures to the present and produces fruit for our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Polycarp to the Philippians 1:2). At the very least, the church and its reputation survived the conflict.

Who do you need to make peace with?

“The kingdom of God rises and falls on what happens between Euodia and Syntyche; on how well or poorly we are able to embody, in our everyday, ordinary little lives, the love of Christ.” - Will Willimon(b. 1946)1

1Marianne Niesen (2009, February 22), “Euodia and Syntyche.” Sermon presented at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Helena, MT.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Remembering Shalmaneser

Hoshea, last king of Israel, was defeated by what king of Assyria? Shalmaneser (II Kings 17:9, 10)

The northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrians under the leadership of Shalmaneser V, known in the Bible simply as Shalmaneser (II Kings 17:3, 18:9). As a result of Hoshea’s undoing, the tribes of the northern kingdom dissolved and became the fabled ten lost tribes of Israel.

Hoshea had become Israel’s ruler by conspiring with Shalmaneser’s predecessor, Tiglath-Pileser III, to assassinate King Pekah (II Kings 15:30). For nine years, Hoshea served as Tiglath-Pileser III’s vassal but when Shalmaneser assumed the Assyrian throne, Hoshea attempted to form another cabal. He ceased paying his annual tribute and instead attempted to enlist Egyptian support (II Kings 17:4). In response, Shalmaneser directed a punitive campaign, imprisoning Hoshea (II Kings 17:4) and leading a three-year siege on Israel’s capitol Samaria (II Kings 17:5) that resulted in the Israelites’ deportation (II Kings 17:6).

What is the biggest loss of your life? Have you ever been forced to do anything you did not wish to by the government? How can Americans, who have never lost their homeland, relate to the magnitude of this loss?

Shalmaneser ascended the throne unchallenged in 727 BCE after his father, Tiglath-Pileser III, died of natural causes. Tiglath-Pileser III (referenced in II Kings 15:29, 16:7, 10) founded the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Shalmaneser was born Ululayu but took an Assyrian throne name. Like his predecessor, Shalmaneser ruled not only Assyria but also Babylon.

Shalmaneser’s reign lasted less than five years as he lost a succession war to his brother, Sargon II (721-705 BC, referenced in Isaiah 20:1). The circumstances of his dethroning are tenebrous but it can be assumed that they were violent. The succession is presumed awkward as Sargon II wrote an expansive body of royal inscriptions and the only mention of his predecessor condemns Shalmaneser as a godless tyrant who deprived the city of Assur. Shalmaneser likely met his death in the struggle for the kingship of Assyria. His grave has never been found.

None of Shalmaneser’s royal inscriptions, if he composed any, have survived either. As such, knowledge of his reign is indirect. One of the primary sources is through the Bible. In addition to II Kings 17-18, Shalmaneser also appears in the Apocrypha, in the book of Tobit, where Tobit finds favor in Shalmaneser’s court, only to lose influence under Sargon II’s son, Sennacherib (Tobit 1:15, 16).

Despite serving as his nation’s ruler, Shalmaneser’s own writings are largely absent from the annals of his own nation’s history. Instead, remembrances of him survived in the documents of a nation he conquered.

What do you feel you will be remembered for? Who will be remembering you? How many times are you in the background of other people’s snapshots?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paul is Dead

In what chapter of the Book of Acts is Paul’s death recorded? None.

Though Paul is the primary human protagonist in the second half of the book of Acts (Acts 13-28), his death is not recorded. At the book’s conclusion, Paul is awaiting trial in Rome (Acts 28:16, 30). The only apostle whose death is documented in Acts is James (Acts 12:2).

The consensus among scholars is that Paul was indeed dead at the time Acts was written. Though the Bible and history are silent regarding Paul’s death, church history indicates that he was martyred in Rome during Nero’s reign around 64 CE. His death is commemorated at Tre Fontane Abbey. Early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339) references Paul’s martyrdom twice (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.21, 2.25). He claims that Paul successfully defended himself before Nero in Rome (correlating to his incarceration in Acts 28) and was released only to be imprisoned again and ultimately beheaded. While Peter is crucified upside down, Paul is decapitated, the standard form of capitol punishment for Roman citizens (Acts 22:28). Eusebius sites Caius of Rome as his source and was likely also influenced by the non-canonical Acts of Paul, which he lists among spurious works. The Acts of Paul also depicts the famed apostle being decollated (Acts of Paul XIV).

Some have dated Acts at 62 CE because Paul’s death is absent [e.g. Norman Geisler (b. 1932), Donald Guthrie (1915-1992)]. Eusebius, himself, believed that the book was published prior to the apostles’ martyrdom (Historia Ecclesiastica 2.22). Most scholars, however, assert that Acts was written at the earliest in 80 CE, long after the death of Paul. Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989) concludes, “The farewell speech in Miletus [Acts 20:25-38] leaves no doubt as to how this came about: Paul was executed. But Luke did not wish to tell about that. The purpose of the book has been fully achieved; therefore we ought to reject all hypotheses which understand the book as incomplete or which declare the ending to be accidental.” 1

Joseph Fitzmyer (b. 1920) notes emphatically, “Homer’s Iliad is not seen to be incomplete because it does not describe Achilles’ death!” .”2

If Paul was dead at the time of the writing of Acts, why is his death omitted? Why leave the reader in doubt as to a hero’s fate?

The book of Acts is not a biography of Paul, but rather a documentation of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the world. Acts is the last narrative book in the canon and details the history of the early church. The book’s conclusion is open-ended, leaving the reader to continue the story.

How are you carrying out the Holy Spirit’s work in the world?

1Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Hermeneia: a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible). (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987) 227-228.

2Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: a new translation with introduction and commentary. The Anchor Bible v. 31. (New York: Doubleday, 1998) 791-792.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Born Again In The U.S.A.

Who said, “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable through the living and abiding word of God?” Peter (I Peter 1:23)

In Christian circles, “born again” delineates a spiritual rebirth, as opposed to the universal experience of physical birth. Being born again is synonymous with salvation. Though the phrase “born again” is featured prominently in the evangelical lexicon, it is not stressed in the Bible where the term appears only three times (John 3:3; I Peter 1:3, 23).

The designation gained popularity in evangelical circles in 1976 with the publication of the book Born Again . In the memoir, Chuck Colson (b. 1931) describes his conversion from Watergate conspirator and convicted felon to Christian disciple. The book helped solidify “born again” as a cultural construct in the United States.

Do you identify yourself with the term “born again”? Birth is a painful process. If you are a born again Christian, was there any pain associated with your rebirth?

The phrase “born again” originates with Jesus. Christ affirms “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3, NASB).” Jesus uses the nomenclature “born again” with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1). Pharisees were a powerful and educated Jewish sect and it is significant that Jesus uses this terminology with this audience. Jesus challenges the traditional Jewish notion that salvation was rooted in being the seed of Abraham (Genesis 22:18; Psalm 105:6; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:16), a physical lineage. Instead, Jesus declared that redemption occurs through being born again, a spiritual inheritance.

I Peter expounds on the concept of being born again and assures that the second birth is an improvement over the first as it is imperishable (I Peter 1:23). The Greek for “imperishable” is aphthartos meaning “uncorrupted, not liable to corruption or decay, imperishable”. I Peter uses the word three times (I Peter 1:4, 23; 3:4), more than any other book in the New Testament . The epistle stresses the eternal nature of Christian blessing as it is written to a community suffering persecution in the present (I Peter 2:12, 3:9, 16, 4:4, 1, 5:9).

Do you find comfort in having been reborn of imperishable seed? Do you ever take salvation for granted as I Peter’s original audience likely did?

Why were humans not born with imperishable seed in their initial physical birth? Why were we designed in need of rebirth?

“He not busy being born is busy dying.” - Bob Dylan (b. 1941), “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Eutychus: Bored to Death?

Who fell out of a balcony while Paul was preaching? Eutychus (Act 20:9)

During, his third “missionary journey”, Paul and his entourage stayed in Troas for seven days (Acts 20:6). The only event recorded from this sojourn is a peculiar incident involving a young man named Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). The name “Eutychus” appears in only one verse of the Bible (Acts 20:9). Its origins are pagan and it means “fortunate”. Eutychus’ name was Lucky.

Fortunately, Eutychus heard the apostle Paul preach. Unfortunately, Paul’s sermon dragged on until after midnight and as Paul continued unabated, Eutychus fell into a deep sleep (Acts 20:7). Unfortunately, Eutychus fell off the third story ledge he was sitting on to his death (Acts 20:9). Fortunately, his luck had not run out as an apostle was on hand to revive him after literally preaching him to death (Acts 20:10). Fortunately or unfortunately (depending upon your perspective), after partaking of some light refreshments, an undeterred Paul continued preaching until daylight as if nothing irregular had happened (Acts 20:11). It would have been very fortunate if Paul was preaching on the resurrection as Eutychus might have been the best object lesson ever.1

Have you ever fallen asleep in church? What is the most bored you have ever been in church? (If it was during one of my sermons, please do not tell me.)

There is some debate as to whether or not Eutychus actually died. The text states that he was “picked up dead” (Acts 20:9, NASB) but when Paul reaches the young man ,the apostle diagnoses that “life is in him” (Acts 20:10, NASB). Commentators including William Barclay (1907-1978) and F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) contend that Eutychus did not die from the fall. I suppose, in the terms of The Princess Bride, Eutychus was “mostly dead”.

Regardless of his condition, Paul restores Eutychus and he returns home fully recovered (Acts 20:12). If he did die, Eutychus is the last person resurrected in the Bible.

Why is this story included in the Bible? To illuminate the dangers of falling asleep in church or sitting in the balcony? To provide consolation to preachers whose parishioners sleep during sermons? To deter preachers from speaking for hours on end? To demonstrate that one should persist in doing what they feel God has called them to even if someone drops dead in front of them? Is it merely for comedic effect?

Some feel Eutychus’ story may have answered a false charge, later cited by Tertullian (160-220, Apology c.8), that the early Christians performed esoteric rituals under cover of night. Dennis R. MacDonald, who correlates the Bible with mythology, draws parallels between Eutychus and the character of Elpenor in Homer’s The Odyssey.

Are there any insignificant stories in the Bible?

While its doctrinal merits can be debated ,the story of Eutychus is a beautiful picture of the divine invading a seemingly mundane, all too human event. May God do the same for us.

1Note: The format of the retelling of the Eutychus story in the second paragraph is based upon the children’s book Fortunately by Remy Charlip (b. 1929).