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01 March 2019

Where your church meets, and where the needy are.

My church (I’m not a pastor; just a longtime member) meets in a strip mall. We’re next to a Walmart Neighborhood Market. We moved in during the recession, before Walmart moved in and the building owners drove up the rental prices. The higher rent was part of the reason we had to give up our Fellowship Hall; there’s a carpet store there now. It’s next to a junior high school, next to a 7-Eleven, across the street from a health club. It’s not a good neighborhood. We got crime. We got homeless people. Which means it’s a really good place to put a church. Needy people and sinners need Jesus!

So occasionally homeless folks come into the building. Usually it’s because we have coffee in the hall. They see free coffee; they want free coffee; I don‘t blame ’em. Come in and have some coffee! Sometimes we also have pastries, doughnuts, muffins, or other baked goods; they’ll eat those too. The hope is they’ll also stick around for the worship service. And every once in a while they do.

We had the same situation at one of my previous churches. (Still wasn’t a pastor; just a board member.) We met in the city’s community center. The building used to be a Lutheran church, so it was a really suitable place for a church to meet. Because it was centrally located, and pretty close to a bus line, sometimes transients would wander in to use the bathroom. And they’d notice we had a table with coffee and bagels and pastries on it.

THEY. “Is this for anyone?”
ME. “Yes. Help yourself.”
THEY. “Thank you!”
ME. “You’re welcome to stick around for the service too, if you want.”
THEY. [some excuse to get out of that]
ME. [shrug; well I tried]

But every so often one of the church ladies would come to me, scandalized: “There’s a homeless person over there. Eating our pastries. What should we do?”

“Invite ’em to the service,” I said. Duh.

But you know how suburban Americans are: We want our churches to accommodate us, not the needy.

28 February 2019

How Paul remembered the Council of Jerusalem.

Where the problems with the legalists came to a head.

Galatians 2.1-10.

In Acts its author, Luke, provided no dates, no timeline. Exact dates weren’t relevant to historians back then, and it’s not like average people kept track. So when Paul provides something of a timeline in Galatians, it’s a little rough. All dates, other than the year the Holy Spirit started the church, are loose guesses:

  1. The Holy Spirit started the church.
  2. Stephen got killed; Paul started persecuting the church.
  3. Jesus got hold of Paul and flipped him.
  4. Paul’s trip to Jerusalem to see Simon Peter, “after three years.” Ga 1.18
  5. Barnabas gets Paul to join him in Antioch.
  6. Barnabas and Paul’s missions trip begins.
  7. Barnabas and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem for the Council, “after 14 years.” Ga 2.1

Give or take the possibility Paul’s persecution began later, or lasted longer… or maybe all those events happened in the very same year, 33. Also bear in mind these might be rough estimates in Paul’s mind: Stating “14 years” isn’t a sign of accuracy and precision, but a sign Paul remembered two shmitas (or “Sabbath years” Ex 23.10-11) had taken place between one event and the other. Regardless, most scholars agree the Council of Jerusalem happened around 50CE or so.

And here’s how Paul remembered it.

Galatians 2.1-10 KWL
1 After 14 years I went up to Jerusalem again with Joseph Barnabas, taking Titus along.
2 I went up because of a revelation. I submitted to them—to those of us we think highly of—
the gospel I preach to gentiles, in case we were running, or might run, off track.
3 But Titus who was with me, being Greek, wasn’t ordered to be circumcised 4 because of fake “fellow Christians.”
They slip in to check out the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so they will enslave us.
5 We don’t even grant them an hour to explain their view—so the gospel’s truth can survive within you.
6 Those thought to be Christian: Possibly once they were. Makes no difference to me.
God doesn’t accept people as they appear, 7 but on the contrary.
Once they saw I was entrusted with the gospel to “foreskins,” just like Simon Peter to the circumcised
8 —for the one who empowered Peter to be an apostle for the circumcised also empowered me for the gentiles—
9 and once they knew the grace granted me… James, Simon Kifa, and John, those thought to be pillars,
gave me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; we for the gentiles, they for the circumcised.
10 Only we should remember the poor, which I also earnestly do.

After the apostles had sent Paul home to Tarsus, Ac 9.30 he spent an undetermined length of time there until Joseph Barnabas, the man who’d first brought him to the apostles, Ac 9.27 came to get him. Barnabas had been sent by the apostles to check out a church in Antioch, Syria, where Syrian Greeks—who were of course non-Israelis, or gentiles—had been led to Jesus. Enthused, Barnabas went to Tarsus and got Paul to join him. Antioch became where the followers of Jesus were first called Χριστιανούς/Hristianús, Christians. Ac 11.19-25 (I deduced the year Paul moved to Antioch as anywhere between 38 and 41, ’cause a later prophecy about a famine didn’t come to pass till Claudius became emperor, Ac 11.28 and he wasn’t till 41. As for Barnabas and Paul’s first missions trip, that didn’t take place till Agrippa Herod 1 died in 44. Like I said, loose guesses.)

The Council of Jerusalem was set into motion to sort out a growing problem in Barnabas and Paul’s church:

Acts 15.1-2 KWL
1 Certain people who’d come down from Judea were teaching the fellow Christians this:
“When you’re not circumcised, following Moses’s manner, you can’t be saved.”
2 Creating an uproar, and not a little debate between Paul and Barnabas and them,
the church decided Paul, Barnabas, and certain others of them
were to go to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem regarding this controversy.

They did try to sort it out themselves, but the visitors from Judea weren’t at all willing to accept Barnabas and Paul’s view, so the church decided they’d better hear it from the Twelve—or the Three, as the case was, plus all the mature Christians among them. Christians consider this to be the first of the early church councils, where major theological issues were hashed out between all the leading Christians in the world… and of course once the Roman Catholics and Orthodox split, we can’t do these councils anymore. (Not that Catholics don’t try to claim their councils still count for all of Christendom. But nope; they’re only internal councils now, for the rest of us don‘t feel constrained whatsoever by them.)

The issue is of course what we have to do before we become Christian. Legalists figured gentiles had to convert the very same way they would to Pharisaism. Which began with ritual cleanliness… and for men, this also included ritual circumcision. The LORD had made it mandatory for Abraham and his descendants:

Genesis 17.9-14 KWL
9 God told Abraham, “You. You keep my covenant. You and your seed after you, for generations.
10 This is my covenant, which you keep between me, you, and your seed after you: Circumcise all males.
11 Trim off the flesh of your foreskins. It’s to signify covenant between me and you.
12 An 8-day-old son is to be circumcised by you. Every male in your generations.
Born to a house, and sons of foreigners bought with silver which aren’t your seed:
13 Circumcise, circumcise those born to your house, and bought with your silver.
My covenant in your flesh is a permanent covenant.
14 An uncircumcised male, whose foreskin flesh isn’t trimmed off:
Cut off this soul from his people. He broke my covenant.”

It’s physical, permanent, and hurt like crazy. Not that opium wasn’t around back then, but the only anesthetic Pharisees ever mentioned was wine! Which doesn’t dull pain so much as keep you from seriously resisting that guy who’s coming at your penis with a knife. It definitely meant commitment, ’cause that’s your penis—a part of a man’s body with a whole lot of nerve endings, which means it’s only to be treated nicely—and you’re cutting it.

For Pharisees, circumcision was simply what you did if you’re gonna follow God. Wasn’t debated, wasn’t optional. That nasty foreskin had to go! And Pharisees frequently referred to an uncircumcised gentile—even in this Galatians passage here—as an ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin.” No I’m not kidding. The KJV, and most bibles, tone this down to “uncircumcision,” but akrovystía is a compound of ἄκρον/ákron (“tip”) and πόσθη/pósthi (“penis”), so… yeah, that’s in the bible now. Sorry. Hey, I didn’t write it.

26 February 2019

The former persecutor turned evangelist.

Where Paul first declares he got the gospel straight from Jesus.

Galatians 1.11-24.

So I did the bit where Paul wrote there’s no other gospel than the one he got from Jesus, and preached—and if anyone teaches otherwise, ban them from teaching, if not from our churches altogether. The Galatians were being peer-pressured, as Paul’s letter further makes clear, into the common pagan “gospel” of good karma: Be good, and in so doing earn God’s favor. Which sounds fair and commonsense, but isn’t at all how God’s kingdom works.

As to how Paul got the proper gospel—i.e. God’s kingdom has come near, for Jesus’s self-sacrifice makes it available to all—most every Christian hears Paul’s story at some point. (Heck, it’s told three whole times in Acts.) Saul, a Benjamite Pp 3.5 from Tarsus, Cilicia, born a citizen of the Roman Empire, had moved to Jerusalem to study under rabbi and senator Gamaliel Ac 22.3 in a Pharisee academy. It was there he first encountered Christianity in the person of Stephen the deacon… and decided he personally needed to stamp it out. But enroute to doing a little persecuting in Syria, Jesus stopped him, blinded him, and turned him 180 degrees in his direction. Saul was Christian ever after, proclaimed Jesus all over the empire, and was ultimately beheaded because the empire demanded its citizens and subjects worship not just their own gods, but their emperor. (Kind of a problem for us monotheists whose LORD God forbade that.)

Paul described his backstory to the Galatians thisaway:

Galatians 1.11-24 KWL
11 Family, I want you to know the gospel shared by me isn’t from other people,
12 for I never got it from people, nor was it taught me by them.
It came instead by a revelation from Christ Jesus.
13 For you heard of my former lifestyle in Judaism:
I excessively persecuted God’s church, and was destroying it.
14 I was advancing in Judaism over many in my class, in my family,
becoming a superabundant zealot in my ancestors’ traditions.
15 When God, who appointed me in my mother’s womb and called me by his grace,
thought it best 16 to reveal his Son to me, so I might share Jesus with the gentiles,
I didn’t quickly go to flesh and blood for advice, 17 nor go up to Jerusalem to the apostles preceding me.
Instead I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 After three years, then I went to Jerusalem to examine Kifa (i.e. Simon Peter) and stayed with him 15 days.
19 I didn’t see other apostles, except James the brother of Master Jesus.
20 Look, what I write you—I promise before God I’m not lying.
21 Then I came to the foothills of Syria and Cilicia.
22 I was unknown—well, my face was—by the Judean Christian churches.
23 The churches were only hearing this: “Our former persecutor now shares the faith he was formerly destroying.”
24 The churches glorified God because of me.

Various people, much as they have with Historical Jesus, have invented a Historical Paul—the guy they blame for anything in Real Jesus they don’t like. To them Historical Paul was an ancient Pharisee rabbi who ditched Pharisaism, adopted the teachings of the recently-dead Jesus the Nazarene, and shaped it into a new religion about grace instead of religious rules. Historical Paul, they claim, invented Christianity; not Jesus.

But their rewrite of history disregards Paul’s own writings. Every reference to Paul’s conversion points out no evangelist won him over, no logical explanation got him to change his mind. Paul was absolutely convinced Christianity was heresy, and Christians like Stephen needed to be dead lest they outrage God and trigger the cycle again—this time with the Romans destroying Jerusalem instead of the Babylonians. As the Romans did, y'notice—less than 20 years after Paul wrote Galatians.

Paul was certain he was doing right by God to purge the world of Jesus’s followers, and nobody but nobody could tell him different. This is decidedly not the behavior of someone who wanted to adopt, nor create, another religion. This is what a περισσοτέρως ζηλωτὴς/perissotéros zilotís, “superabundant zealot,” does. It’s typical cage-stage behavior. But, y'know, more murdery—’cause if the overzealous “defenders of faith” could, you know they would. Historically, they always do.

25 February 2019

The alternative gospel of good karma.

Introducing Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches.

Galatians 1.1-10.

Probably the first epistle Paul of Tarsus ever wrote was Galatians, his letter to the churches of central Asia Minor (now Turkey), called “Galatia” because it was settled by Celts (whom Romans called “Gauls”). The Celts invaded Bulgaria in 279BC, moved into the Turkish highlands later that century, and took that over too. Yep, there were a whole bunch of white people living in the ancient middle east. History’s full of odd stuff like that.

The New Testament epistles aren’t in order of date, but length: Paul wrote the most of them, and Romans is his longest letter; the sermon of Hebrews is the next-longest writing, James the longest after that, 1 Peter the longest (well, not all that long) after that, then 1 John, then Jude. All were written in the years 40 to 70, so the ancient Christians didn’t think their date of authorship was all that relevant. Present-day historians care way more about that sort of thing, and a number think 1 Thessalonians was written first, ’cause Paul wrote it with Silas and Timothy, 1Th 1.1 so they speculate it was written in the middle of one of their missions, and Galatians after that mission was over. Me, I figure Paul introduces himself to Christendom in this letter: Many followers of Jesus knew who of him, but hadn’t yet heard from the man himself. And some—as this letter points out—weren’t so sure he was really Jesus’s apostle.

See, then as now, people assume you can’t be an apostle unless Jesus personally appoints and sends you, like he did the Twelve. But once Jesus was raptured, he supposedly stopped making apostles. (Christians nowadays make an exception for Paul, ’cause of Jesus’s special appearance to him… ignoring the fact Jesus still appears to people and sends ’em on missions.) So here, as he did in other letters, Paul explained how he’s an apostle same as the Twelve. Maybe with a slightly different mission, but still.

But the core of his mission is the same as that of the Twelve: Share the gospel. God’s kingdom has come near, Mk 1.15 and if you wanna live in it forever, Jesus made it possible. Trust that he did it; repent and follow him. Popular pagan belief presumes any way we earnestly approach God, with or without Jesus, is totally fine with him, ’cause he’s flexible like that. But this profoundly confuses theological apathy with grace. If it was all the same to God, he’d never haave bothered to send us Jesus!

Hence the only way to get to the Father is via the door, the road, the truth—that is, Jesus. He’s the king, and holds the keys, of God’s kingdom. There’s no getting into the kingdom around him. And there’s no alternative to the kingdom but weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is no other gospel. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Problem was, people were totally telling the Galatians different. And it was working on them. Hence Paul’s letter… which I oughta start quoting, huh?

Galatians 1.1-10 KWL
1 Paul—not sent by humans nor though humans as an apostle,
but by Christ Jesus, and Father God who raised him from the dead—
2 and all the Christian family with me, to the Galatian churches.
3 Grace to you, and peace from Father God and our Master, Christ Jesus.
4 Jesus, who gave himself for our sins to take us out of the current evil age,
by our Father God’s will— 5 glory to God in the age of ages! Amen.
6 I’m wondering at how you so quickly switched from your calling in Christ’s grace
to another “gospel”— 7 which isn’t another gospel.
Is it that someone’s bothering you, and wants to twist Christ’s gospel?
8 But even when we, or an angel from heaven, “evangelizes” you away
from what we evangelized you, you’re to ban them.
9 Like we said before, and I say again now: If anyone “evangelizes” you away
from what you received, you’re to ban them.
10 For do I rely now on people, or on God? Or do I seek to please people?
If I were still pleasing people, I’d never have become Christ’s slave.

Three things to unpack here. First is how humans didn’t make Paul an apostle… which I’ll get to in another article, ’cause Paul really delves into it there. Second, there ain’t no other gospel. And third, banning anyone who says otherwise—which tends to get interpreted as cursing them. And since nobody needs to be told twice to curse others (as Paul seems to have), this interpretation has been awfully popular throughout Christian history—even though it’s wholly inappropriate for Christians to curse anybody.

15 February 2019

No, Jesus didn’t declare all foods clean.

Mark 7.19.

Mark 7.17-19 NIV
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Jesus has an actual point to make with this passage, but a number of Christians skip it altogether because of how they choose to interpret it. Namely they take the clause καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα/katharídzon pánta ta vrómata, “cleansing [out] all the food,” chop it off the sentence Jesus was speaking, and turn it into the declaration, “All the food [is] cleansed.”

This spin isn’t just found in the NIV either:

ASV.This he said, making all meats clean.”
AMPLIFIED. “(By this, He declared all foods ceremonially clean.)”
CSB.(thus he declared all foods clean).”
ESV/NRSV. “(Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
GNT. “(In saying this, Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten.)”
MESSAGE. “(That took care of dietary quibbling; Jesus was saying that all foods are fit to eat.)”
NASB. “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)”
NET. “(This means all foods are clean.)”
NLT. “(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)”

It’s not found in every bible. A number of ’em take Wycliffe and the KJV’s lead, and use some form of their “purging all meats.” I did too:

Mark 7.19 KWL
“Because it doesn’t enter their heart, but into the bowels, and comes out into the toilet.
All the food gets cleaned out.”

I did it because that’s the literary context. Katharídzon pánta ta vrómata isn’t a sentence fragment Mark inserted to interpret Jesus’s teaching; it’s a clause that’s part of the teaching. Jesus is explaining how food goes in the face, goes out the butt, goes down the toilet, and doesn’t corrupt the heart like our depraved sinful nature can. So when Pharisees fixated on external ritual cleanliness, they were missing the point.

Kinda like we miss the point when we insist this passage is all about how there are no longer any kosher rules… so now we can eat fistfuls of pork.