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Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold

May 24, 2013

paul-barnabasFEW, we imagine, will be familiar with the readings appointed by the old Prayer Book for the Ember Days at the four seasons. These observances having been rather inexplicably written out of the 1979 revision, we really only have the 1928 book as a guide to what we should be thinking about on these days and in these weeks when we focus on the Church.

Most striking is the New Testament lesson, taken from the Acts of the Apostles:

THE next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region.1

In the contemporary lectionary, apart from the Sundays in Eastertide, we hear really very little of Acts in the Sunday morning rotation, and it is not difficult to imagine why this particular passage is on the outs: the Jews come out of the episode looking rather bad, and culturally sensitive Christians wouldn’t want that. In obscuring the lesson, however, the Church misses an important teaching moment.

If we are offended by the surface reading (Jews: rejecting Jesus again), then we are also missing a deeper point that a fuller and more proper examination would reveal. To our minds, this is not entirely, or even principally, a story about the Jews and the Gentiles. Rather, it is a story about Paul and Barnabas, apostles, and therefore it is a story about all of us, their heirs in the Church.

Many clergy spend their time in the pulpit talking about mission, but they spend precious little time there preaching the Gospel. Conventional wisdom within the mainline churches holds that Mission Will Save Us, and so we see our priests and rectors leading trips to Africa or Central America, where they build houses, or libraries, or schools, or all of the above. We will not suggest in these pages that they are wrong to do so. They are not.

But, as we have remarked before, there is nothing explicitly Christian about this volunteerism and charity. Indeed, a sermon preaching good works alone is afflicted by a terrible theological poverty and a conception of mission too thin to nourish the Church. There are really two problems here.

FIRST, social justice, taken alone, is a kind of latter-day idol. A gospel of social justice looks toward an earthly kingdom and is as deserving of rebuke as was the hope of a messianic military triumph for which Jesus rebuked Simon Peter:

And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.2

While we are never wrong to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or pity the afflicted, a gospel of social justice comes dangerously close to the prideful and heretical notion that we can, through our own efforts, save the world. We cannot, a fact about which all but the most doe-eyed optimist can make no mistake.

SECOND, a gospel of social justice leaves Christians—both bad and good—in the lurch. It offers us nothing individual, nothing personal, and it reveals little understanding of the holy God whom we seek. Everyone leads an imperfect life, and even the most well meaning among us can grow sad, discouraged, and angry. If we believe only in the merits of the world’s good works, what then are we to do when confronted with the world’s violence, anger, and indifference? What access does a gospel of social justice provide to God the Father, by whom Jesus taught “even the hairs of your head are all numbered”?3 What could God care about me, little me?

Predictable, pastorally empty sermons of do-goodism can be found by picking up the newspaper or reading any of the innumerable blogs devoted to the laudable, non-sectarian good works being undertaken by good men and women throughout the world. However, no one needs to come to church to hear about social justice, and having heard nothing else, no one needs to come back. The church’s declining numbers tell us as much. But a real sermon, a sermon worthy of the Church, a sermon that preaches the Gospel of Christ can blow the doors off of anything from a country chapel to the cathedral of the realm, as it can electrify the minds of anyone with ears to hear, just as it did the Gentiles of Antioch.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that “Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed us of our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity.”4 That is the formula. That is Christianity, and THAT is what the seeker comes to church to find, the real answer to what God cares for the world that He has made. Our chief charge as Christians is to proclaim, to preach, to tell the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, and any sermon that omits this, the Good News itself, fails in the most fundamental way possible.

For most mainline Protestants, evangelism sounds like a dirty word. As Episcopalians, we consider ourselves kindred with our evangelical brethren by only the most extreme, attenuated filament. But a Christian is by definition an evangelical. Sunday morning worship is evangelical in nature: the Bible is read, we confess our faith in the words of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, and, if we are lucky, we hear a sermon that does not impede the Gospel of Christ from breaking over us.

As we have remarked, if the Episcopal Church is to shrink, how much better that we do so upon our feet. A pivot away from the Good News of redemption toward a tale of radical acceptance without radical transformation and of works without grace has given us a smaller, weaker, and less credible church. This is no time for more of the same.

At Baptism, the newly baptized is exhorted to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his Resurrection.” In the old Prayer Book, a more complete sentiment was provided: “We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign her with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter she shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto her life’s end. Amen.”

Confess the faith of Christ crucified. Fight manfully under his banner, and continue His faithful soldier and servant unto life’s end. If we fear that we cannot do this, if we fear that we are not up to the task, then we ought to remember Paul and Barnabas.

Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold.

The admirable RSV translates the above passage into contemporary English as, “and Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly,” but this seems not quite right. It fails to capture the sense of rhetoric, of an oratorical doubling down, that the Authorized Version gives us. Merriam-Webster defines the intransitive verb “wax” as “to assume a (specified) characteristic, quality, or state.” By this definition, Paul and Barnabas didn’t speak out boldly. They became bold. They were emboldened.

The word apostle itself indicates as much. In Greek, the word apostolos, derived from the verb stelleinto send,” means “one who is sent.” Apostles do not undertake their work of their own direction, nor even exactly of their own accord. On Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, the disciples—followers of Christ (from Latin discipuluslearner,” from discerelearn“)—were transformed into apostles, sent from above.

In the Church’s calendar every year, on May 24, we commemorate Jackson Kemper, the Episcopal Church’s first missionary bishop. Unlike the Church of England, which sent missionary priests to the ends of the earth but reserved bishops as the crowning ecclesiastical jewel of an already-developed diocese, the General Convention in this country felt that the deployment of a bishop, a successor of the Apostles themselves, could not but make a statement to the unchurched peoples. Although not readily apparent in most cases, it is in the peculiar calling of bishops to go forth and spread the Good News, as befits those ordained in the apostolic succession. And go forth he did, preaching the Gospel and building not only houses, not libraries in foreign lands, but churches, right here in these United States of ours.

These days, the Church is doing a fine job of serving the poor, of sending money to the far-flung peoples of the earth, of reorganizing the structure of its own governance, and of issuing resolutions in support of the maligned identity group of the moment, but it is doing a poor job of building up the Church. It remembers the poor but forgets Christ; it remembers the afflicted but forgets that we are all afflicted; it remembers that we have a mission but forgets that our mission derives entirely from Jesus’ saving death, once for all. This forgetting has given us some of the theologically “thin gruel” of which Fleming Rutledge has often written.

For Paul and Barnabas, things turned predictably south after the events of Acts 13:44-49 (quoted above). Having waxed bold to the Gentiles and made believers of them, the pair was quickly run out of town, as the Apostles so often were. In spite of this and their many other hardships, the writer tells us that “the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost.”5 This is the nature of preaching the Gospel: it fills those who preach it and those who receive it with joy, and it empowers them all to go forth into the world with gusto. This is the work of the Holy Ghost, and a conception of mission rooted in anything else is tiresome and puny indeed.

On this, an Ember Day on which also we also commemorate Bishop Kemper, let us consider the example of Paul and Barnabas, for their work is unfinished; their ministry is ongoing; and their mission is our mission. When we consider the Church and what we are all doing here, on Sunday mornings, in our individual ministries, and when we feel that our beloved church is going to Hell in a handcart, we will be well to consider what our forebears did in the face of adversity: then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold. They honored their Baptismal vows, and their preaching has lit the world for two thousand years.

May it do so for thousands more.

1. Acts 13:44-49
2. Mark 8:31-33
3. Luke 12:7
4. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 58.
5. Acts 13:52

2 Comments leave one →
  1. NAK permalink
    May 24, 2013 14:34

    Amen. If only THIS sermon could be preached to the multitudes, we might have a chance. By the grace of God.

  2. Rdr. James Morgan permalink
    May 25, 2013 20:13

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, restoring life!

    That is what I hear every sunday, in one way or another, in the Orthodox Church. and that is not what I heard every sunday, in the episcopal church. One reason I converted!

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