Brief synopsis of the readings: As with all of the Easter season, we turn to the Acts of the Apostles for our first reading. Here Paul and Barnabas spoke of Jesus to a synagogue in the city of Antioch. Among those gathered were people who converted to Judaism to follow Jesus. But Jews who didn’t follow Jesus criticized them. Paul then said: “We had to proclaim the word of God to you first, but since you have rejected it, since you have rejected it, since you do not think yourself worthy of eternal life, we must turn to the pagans.” In John’s Gospel Jesus describes himself as a shepherd and his sheep will recognize his voice and will never be lost.
All religions, all faiths, and (let’s face it) all human institutions go through the same process. They begin enthusiastically with the belief that they have found the new truth, something that has eluded history and will now put us all on the path that will make us all free, brilliant, and thin. This new truth will end suffering and disease and will provide all of us with an unlimited supply of likes on social media.
But it never lasts. The early followers find, to their horror, that things weren’t turning out the way they had hoped and they needed to scramble to find the way forward. Some tossed reason to the wind and insisted on doing things the way that had hoped, and were eventually marginalized or defeated.
Others recognized that they needed to adapt to the reality they faced and take the core values that brought them to this place and move on.
That’s what we find in our first reading. I’ve spoken before about how the earliest followers of Jesus saw his resurrection in narrow terms: Jesus was the Messiah, the one who God promised to send to make all things right. This Messiah would defeat the Romans and return Jerusalem to its zenith when David was king and all was right. All Jews would recognize this And it would last forever.
But here’s the problem: it didn’t take long after the resurrection to recognize that Jesus didn’t do what they expected. Jesus ascended into Heaven and the Romans were still in charge, and they still oppressed the Jews. So what now?
Frankly, they split into a few factions. Some believed that Jesus was the Messiah and others didn’t The Gospel of Matthew, written 40 years after these events, tried to convince the outliers that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. He leaned heavily on prophecies from the Old Testament to make his point, and we can look at readings from Advent to see this.
The Jews who refused to see Jesus as the Messiah aroused the anger of many, including the author of John’s Gospel. When he speaks with contempt of “the Jews” he isn’t fueling the fire of later antisemitism but instead recognized that Jesus’ message didn’t reach everyone he intended.
So what now? By the time of our first reading it became clear that not all Jews would follow Jesus and his followers may well have constituted a small minority of Jews. Continuing on this course they probably would have died out within a few generations.
Clearly plan A wasn’t going to work. Not all Jews were going to become Christians. We only need to look at the first few chapters of the Acts of the Apostles to see that.
OK, so what was plan B? I think the first few decades after Jesus’ resurrection looked to this: not all Jews will follow Jesus but we’ll be OK and we’ll survive. We’ll be small and a subset of Judaism but we’ll be ready when Jesus returns.
But today’s first reading gives us plan C. Plan C goes outside of Judaism and brings the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the entire world. To Jews. To Romans. To pagans. To those who live in lands who have no idea what we mean when we talk about Jews, Romans, or pagans. To all continents of the world.
We live in a world with religions that were founded thousands of years ago and religions that came to us just last week. And while recent faiths give us the ability to ignore the difficulty of time, many of us recognize that older faiths need to live in plan C, and well, let’s acknowledge it, plan Z.
The followers of Jesus spent their first few hundred years recognizing that both the Jews and the Romans saw them as a problem (and many of Jesus’ followers were executed). Around 313 AD the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire. By the Middle Ages we saw competition between secular kings and bishops.
In the 18th Century we saw nations write into their constitutions that civil government would allow religious freedom and not decide which faith was true.
A few months ago the United Methodist Church voted to ban same sex marriage to the consternation of may Methodists who assumed their church would open the doors to the LGBT community.
I write this because in our earliest days nobody expected that Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire in 250 years, or that nations would allow religious freedom in 1700 years, or that churches would grapple with homosexual orientation in 2000 years.
But they did learn that the resurrected Jesus gave us a set of core values that would lead us forward: care for the poor. Feed the hungry. Welcome the marginalized. Love you enemy.
Paul and Barnabas likely had no idea where they were going, but when they decided to reach out to pagans with Jesus’ message of salvation, he started us on a road that made us who we are today. They not only allowed us to become a world religion that today includes over 2 billion people but also allowed us to take our core values and learn how those values grapple with modern issues.
My hope is this: 500 years from now when our descendants look to issues that we can’t imagine today they will do exactly what Paul and Barnabas did.