Acts 21:17 When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. 18 The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 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. 21 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. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24 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. 25 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.” 26 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.
I don’t know how I would ever be able to comprehend the magnitude of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles without visual aids. Throughout my seminary studies and specifically in the courses on the New Testament and Paul’s corpus, I found myself multi-tasking on my laptop just to keep my head above water with all the information coming my way. Lecture notes in one tab, Google images and maps, in another, links to TED talks on the subject in yet another. Not to mention my Logos Bible Software in the background, as well as my Amazon Prime account at the ready for any book that was referenced – I had to ‘see’ the cover,’ to commit the reference to memory. I had to see what house churches really looked like, the ones in which Paul and other early Christians gathered, worshiped, prayed the Eucharist. They were quite large, actually – not as I had imagined at all.
So, I learn with the help of visual aids. Words, alone, to describe or teach something aren’t enough to stick in the deep recesses of my mind. And so often when reading scripture, I find I have to lift my eyes from the written word to allow the Holy Spirit breathing room to illustrate for me what Paul, or John, or Hosea or anyone else is saying, is writing. I need images to comprehend.
The passage from the Book of Acts today is not all that complicated, but because I had recently seen this particular scene in a film – Paul’s visit to James and the new Jewish Christians in Jerusalem – I felt the depth of what was going on here as I haven’t before.
It is so easy to read Acts as a ‘how to’ book or travelogue, even. A book in the bible with a plan to follow for church building, for organization, evangelism, etc. A book of information more than one of revelation. With the help of imagery, I am able to access the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts – the revelation, not just the information. Give me a visual of the context – the scene – and I am better able to connect dots for what the Holy Spirit is revealing on any given day.
In the film, it is the facial expressions of James, Paul, Barnabas – all those gathered to honor the work of one another and to express gratitude to each other for bringing so many new believers into the broad place, into kingdom living. In their facial expressions I see what I don’t read in the Acts account – empathy, love, a softness that the words alone don’t convey.
This was a big deal – what were the Jerusalem Jewish Christians under James going to demand of the new Gentile Christians – those that Paul had gone to – with regard to Torah and to identity?
Paul had anticipated the anxiety amongst the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem before arriving. He knew their reservation about those who came to Jesus not through the Torah, not through the law, but would insist that the new believers were as much a part of God’s church as those who were born into the Torah. That edginess – that conviction of Paul’s that insisted on things – may have left no room for compromise or breathing room for the spirit to soften Paul’s heart, James’ heart, to do the work God was doing through each of them.
Point is, that this tension between the two factions – Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians – is all coming to a head in the meeting referenced in today’s New Testament passage. The tension is about power – who had the power to determine the nature of God’s church and a Christian’s identity? It is also about pride and territory and leadership, about who is in and who is out, about who was called to proclaim, about the difference in value between those apostles who had walked with Jesus and those who were called after his resurrection. All this tension is there, in this scene and yet, the film helped me see the Holy Spirit’s presence which trumped all the tension. The words of James and the other elders to Paul are delivered in love. They are received in love. There’s a peace in the room that passes understanding.
Jesus used imagery to teach. A lot. He used the context of the hearer to break through pre-conceived notions of who ‘the other’ was or was not, what commandments to follow, how to pray, how to love, welcome, heal. Jesus was the master illustrator of God’s Word and Will.
Paul used lots of words – lots and lots and lots of words and not much imagery (though that being said, it is Paul’s imagery of church as the body of Christ that is one of the most memorable and profound of all biblical images). He was, after all, the revered student of the law. Perhaps because of his wordiness, it takes great effort on my part to comprehend. To get past the words and all the information to the revelation and comprehension requires of me ongoing study. It takes total concentration to connect all the dots Paul throws out, especially in his letters to the Galatians, to the Romans, to the Philippians, and Philemon – the letters that come later in his ministry, the letters where he is having to work out some of the inconsistencies he preached early on when he thought Jesus was coming back any day.
Jason Mraz is a singer-songwriter known for his wordiness. In a single released after his first year’s success on the music scene, he croons about how his passion for words has determined for him a very narrow bandwidth for being heard or understood in the music world. And yet, it is because of this gift of gab, this gift of wordplay, that his music breaks through that narrow bandwidth to reach such a vast audience. Mraz is one of the top selling singer songwriters, today.
Here’s the tune, Wordplay.
This is how many read Paul, I think. A wordy, exhaustingly wordy, proclaimer. But his gift for gab, his gift for words is precisely what reached the Gentiles and broke through the narrow bandwidth of the Torah and the law to bring into the broad place, God’s people.