The days grow rough. Times are turbulent. The nation isn't what it used to be. The last eight years have really gotten under our skin. Everywhere you go, people seem angry all the time. Seems like, by the week, more and more stories of violence come seeping out the woodwork.
Nationalism is on the rise – you know, the idea that this nation comes first, before every other loyalty; that compromise is betrayal; that foreigners are mighty suspicious; that anybody who doesn't look like us, sound like us, talk like us, say the right buzzwords... is an enemy.
People are especially frustrated with politics – far-off leaders threatening what's sacred, thinking they know best; a string of corrupt politicians only in it for themselves; and, what's worse, no end in sight. So yes, people are angry. They're mad as you-know-what, and they don't want to take it any more!
Does this all sound familiar? It does to me. But I'm actually not talking about twenty-first century America. I'm talking about a time centuries upon centuries ago. Jerusalem in the late 50s. Because in the years before Paul's arrival, they were going through just that same process. Years of rage, years of anger, frustration, were all just boiling beneath the surface. Violence was bursting out all across the city. The Roman emperor Caligula had threatened to violate the holy temple, intruding his own ridiculous policies into the Jews' religious lives.
Locally, Rome had sent plenty of inept governors: for four years, they suffered under Ventidius Cumanus, who just could not keep peace with the Jews and who turned a blind eye when some Galileans were murdered by Samaritans. He ended up banished for his failures and was replaced by Marcus Antoninus Felix, a harsh, cruel man, always on the lookout for a bribe. One Roman historian said Felix “thought he could do any evil act with impunity.” And so the Jewish historian Josephus tells us Felix even arranged the murder of Jonathan, the high priest.
This environment brought out the worst in the people of Jerusalem and the countryside. Gentiles were no longer just unclean, no longer just different. Now it could be dangerous to be an unarmed Gentile in this territory – or a Jew seen making nice with Gentiles. An absolute hatred of foreigners was bubbling up within the hearts of many in Jerusalem. All other loyalties faded into the background, and there in the foreground stood one loyalty above all – not to God, but to Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, the Jewish nation. Anyone with other loyalties was a traitor.
In this environment, crime and chaos took hold – revolutionaries agitated to form a militia, fight the government, and there were cases of people actually being assassinated in the outer courts of the temple.
A rough and tumble place, that Jerusalem. And it's into that Jerusalem that Paul marches, bringing a pack of Gentile Christians in tow. What kind of church does he find? The Twelve Apostles are gone – the ones still alive have gone forth as missionaries, leaving Jerusalem under the supervision of Jesus' brother James and a group of wise elders. They try to steer the church in a healthy direction, but that's no easy task. Because the atmosphere of Jerusalem has seeped into the Jerusalem church. The attitude that prevailed at the Jerusalem Council belonged to a different time, and now even the believers in Jerusalem are suspicious, angry, exclusive... zealous for the Law in a way that could bode trouble.
So when Luke opens this scene by writing, “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly” (Acts 21:17), that might as well be a miracle. The core of the Jerusalem church is still holding strong, still resisting the temptation to give in to hatred and rage. And in this environment, that takes a miracle of God.
The next day, Paul goes in and shows deference to James and the elders – Paul makes clear that he's a team player (Acts 21:18). And when the stories come out about everything Jesus has been up to through Paul and his churches, all the things “God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry,” they replied by glorifying God (Acts 21:19-20). Now that is how the church should look! And they, in their turn, tell Paul how there are thousands of Jewish believers now in Jerusalem and Judea.
But then... then they mention something that could be a real sticky wicket. “They are all zealous for the Law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs” (Acts 21:20-21). In other words, the rumor mill has been hard at work. Because that's what happen when people get angry, when people get polarized. They jump at any story that confirms their biases, no matter if it's true.
These believers have given in to the blindness that enveloped the nation. These believers have been co-opted by another agenda. It isn't that they've abandoned the gospel. But their zeal has taken a troubling turn, and combined with this misinformation, it leads them to mistrust Paul and the work Jesus has been doing through him. And they might be unwilling to sit down at the table with Paul and his Gentile friends, Gentile believers. Even if the believers knew better – even if they remembered the lessons the apostles had taught them – well, in this atmosphere, it was so tempting to disown the Gentiles, to try and fit in. Because in this Jerusalem, it's dangerous to not fit in.
So “what then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come” (Acts 21:22). Paul's stay can't be kept secret. News will get out. So James and his team feel the need to do some quick public relations work. If there's ever going to be a chance of the Jerusalem believers accepting Paul's mission, then they have to see evidence that contradicts the rumor. They think Paul disses the Law, so they should see him going all-in for the Law.
So he can go to the temple and sponsor some Jewish Christian guys under a Nazirite vow. All the Jews recognize that sponsoring Nazirites is like Law-keeping plus. “Do therefore what we tell you: We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the Law” (Acts 21:23-24).
In other words, they're saying to Paul, “We know maybe this isn't your usual style. We know this isn't your emphasis. But this is where we are, this is where our people are. Will you help us keep the peace? We're not asking you to compromise your principles; we're asking you to 'be a Jew to the Jews' – to go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of peace. Don't worry – we remember the council, we want to welcome your Gentile believers. But we have to welcome you in a way our members and our neighbors can accept.”
Now, the irony is that, in hindsight, Paul's vision – the one the Jerusalem church thought was unrealistic and couldn't work in their time and place, the one they judged impractical, the one they found maybe even offensive and troubling – that vision was, even then, the only hope. Because a few years later, things would get worse. A few years later, after Felix's successor Festus dies and while his replacement is on the way, the high priest Ananus would take advantage of the situation to murder James himself – and even the leading Pharisees would call foul on that one. In four more years, war would break out; and in the middle of that seven-year tribulation, the temple would be destroyed, never to be rebuilt, save for the temple of God that is the church of Christ.
But in the meantime, the Jerusalem church can't see that. They don't know what Luke and his readers know. They can only see the demands of their increasingly nationalistic city. But Paul wants to keep the peace. So he does what James asked. Because Paul really is a team player (Acts 21:26).
Sadly, what James didn't foresee was a band of Ephesian Jews showing up, looking to cause trouble for Paul. Glimpsing Paul in the temple's inner courts, they cry out that he's defiled the temple by bringing Trophimus, a Gentile convert from Ephesus, inside (Acts 21:27-29) – and there were signs all over, saying that doing so would get the death penalty. And in this one thing, the Romans gave the priests permission to carry that out... even against a Roman citizen.
So they lay hands on Paul, and the mob drags him out to the outer courts, where he can be killed. Paul is at heavy risk of a lynching... not unlike Stephen, once upon a time. The irony is that this crowd, trying to defend the Law, is actually stopping Paul from obeying the Law, while they themselves betray it. The Levite police shut the gates. A Roman sentry runs up the stairs from the temple's outer courts into the Fortress Antonia, and the tribune – commander of one of the five cohorts in the auxiliary legion that serves Governor Felix – gives orders to take Paul into custody (Acts 21:30-34).
And given the choice between custody and a lynching, Paul isn't exactly complaining as the soldiers muscle through the crowd, haul him over to the stairs, and hoist him over their heads to lug him, single-file, into the fortress (Acts 21:35). And “the mob of the people followed” to the bottom of the fortress, “crying out, 'Away with him!'” (Acts 21:36) – much as they once did to Paul's Lord.
And all Paul was trying to do was to keep the peace. But the truth is, peace with the world can't be a one-way street. Oh, we can try, and we should try, where it doesn't betray the gospel. But there's a reason Paul himself would later write, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). There's a part of that peace that we can control. We can be peaceful. We can be peacemakers. But a one-sided peace is the limit of possibility. Takes two to tango. Paul lived that verse. So far as it depended on him, he was making peace. He can't be blamed for what the mob did. He went out of his way to work for peace. Just as the church always should – where it doesn't compromise the gospel or unduly tie our hands.
But Paul also had to work toward peace in the church. And the gospel doesn't call that an option; it calls that a given and a necessity. It is written, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). It is written, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). And it is written, “Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
Brothers and sisters, we live in a world and in a nation not so unlike that Jerusalem. And too often, the church gets infected with the culture's noxious air. I don't just mean licentiousness, I don't just mean lust and greed and pride; I mean nationalism, suspicion, division. Our culture in our day is in a constant cycle of “us versus them” – natural-born citizens versus immigrants; nationalists versus globalists; Republicans versus Democrats; ethnic minorities versus law enforcement. You know what happened this week. And you know that, in all these cases, culture says, “Pick a side – pick one side – no more, no less. Stand there, no matter what, and rant and rave and rail against the other side's evils.”
And often, we listen. Often, we get sucked in. Often, we feel our sympathies tugged to one faction more than another. That's natural – but can we remember that the gospel comes first? Can we remember we aren't defined by our factions, our opinions, our partisan loyalties and biases, but by the peace of God in Jesus Christ? And can we remember that a church of peace is a living witness to the world?
Why, when Paul sums up the mission of Jesus as tearing down dividing walls, are we so eager to build them again? And why do we let our petty opinions drive wedges between us and our brethren from other tribes and tongues – other backgrounds, other ways of talking and thinking about the culture and its issues?
Imagine if we didn't. Imagine if we refused to pick one side. Imagine if we picked both “sides.” Imagine if we took seriously Paul's words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16).
Imagine if we wept with the men and women in uniform who know they risk their lives in the course of serving and protecting – that the badge they carry is a target for all rebellion against authority.
Imagine if we also wept with men and women who know that they too face risks in showing the color of their skin – that society's gone wrong, and it feels like their lives don't matter to their neighbors.
Imagine if we wept with both. Imagine if we bent over backwards, like Paul, to see what we can identify with in both struggles, both stories, both “sides.”
And imagine if we brought them together, listened to both on their own terms, in their own words, and then helped them weep together and work together for peace.
I honestly can't think of any other way the peace of God might leak out of the church and into our broken, hurting world. We have to show the way. But to do that, we have to keep the peace.
And may we see in our own lives and in our own world the fulfillment of the words, not just of Paul, but of James: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). The peacemakers are blessed indeed (Matthew 5:9).
In a couple minutes, we're going to approach the Lord's Table. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is the host, and he invites all to approach in faith. Long ago, when Peter gave in to pressure and stopped eating with believers who weren't like him, Paul called him out – and Peter knew Paul was right (Galatians 2:11-14). This table, this meal, is a meal of peace and of peacemaking. It's not a Republican meal, not a Democrat meal; not a white meal, not a black meal; not an American meal, not a Mexican meal, not a Chinese meal. But it's a meal of peace for a people of peace – a people made one, not by the worldly culture they share in common, not by loyalties to a nation, but by the blood of Christ that brings us close together and close to God. So let's come together and, in the loaf and in the cup, meet our Divine Host, who once promised, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Hallelujah! Amen and amen.