First Presbyterian Church of Guymon

Peculiar People: Easter People

We are nearing the final chapters of our journey through the book of Acts this summer.  We have come to the place where Paul has completed his missionary journeys and returned to Jerusalem.  Last week we read that he was  attacked by a mob of religious Jews, who would have killed him had he not been rescued by being taken into protective custody by the commander of the local Roman military outpost.  This marks a turning point in Paul’s life and ministry – all of his activity from this point on will be focused on the events during his journey to Rome as a prisoner under Roman escort.  I’m reading from the Message version of the Bible, beginning with Acts Chapter 23, verse 1:  Hear the word of the Lord:

1-3 Paul surveyed the members of the council with a steady gaze, and then said his piece: “Friends, I’ve lived with a clear conscience before God all my life, up to this very moment.” That set the Chief Priest Ananias off. He ordered his aides to slap Paul in the face. Paul shot back, “God will slap you down! What a fake you are! You sit there and judge me by the Law and then break the Law by ordering me slapped around!”

The aides were scandalized: “How dare you talk to God’s Chief Priest like that!”

Paul acted surprised. “How was I to know he was Chief Priest? He doesn’t act like a Chief Priest. You’re right, the Scripture does say, ‘Don’t speak abusively to a ruler of the people.’ Sorry.”

Paul, knowing some of the council was made up of Sadducees and others of Pharisees and how they hated each other, decided to exploit their antagonism: “Friends, I am a stalwart Pharisee from a long line of Pharisees. It’s because of my Pharisee convictions—the hope and resurrection of the dead—that I’ve been hauled into this court.”

7-9 The moment he said this, the council split right down the middle, Pharisees and Sadducees going at each other in heated argument. Sadducees have nothing to do with a resurrection or angels or even a spirit. If they can’t see it, they don’t believe it. Pharisees believe it all. And so a huge and noisy quarrel broke out. Then some of the religion scholars on the Pharisee side shouted down the others: “We don’t find anything wrong with this man! And what if a spirit has spoken to him? Or maybe an angel? What if it turns out we’re fighting against God?”

10 That was fuel on the fire. The quarrel flamed up and became so violent the captain was afraid they would tear Paul apart, limb from limb. He ordered the soldiers to get him out of there and escort him back to the safety of the barracks.

11 That night the Master appeared to Paul: “It’s going to be all right. Everything is going to turn out for the best. You’ve been a good witness for me here in Jerusalem. Now you’re going to be my witness in Rome!”

Peculiar People:  Easter People

I haven’t seen very many fistfights in person.  I remember breaking up a fight between my son and the neighbor boy when they were about 8.  And the only one I’ve seen between adults happened in the lobby of the Dallas Opera where we’d gone to see Othello.  A ticketholder tried to enter the concert hall after the overture had started and was blocked by an usher, and the man who was trying to get in decked the usher for blocking his way.  Pretty refined, the opera! 

Christians, for all our talk of peace, are no strangers to one-on-one confrontations.  There is a memorable YouTube video of a Christmas Eve brawl between the priests of the three denominations that control the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The Church of the Nativity – supposedly built over the place where Jesus was born – is divided into three areas, each controlled by either the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox or the Armenian denominations.  The fight started when they were sweeping up for the Christmas Eve service and a priest from one denomination pushed his broom into an area that was controlled by another denomination.  This sparked a fight between 100 priests and monks that had to be broken up by the Palestinian police. 

And today we have Paul taking a shot in the mouth from the Chief Priest’s aide for saying that he’d lived a clean life.  So goes the story of the church from the very beginning.

We know that for the first ten days after the crucifixion that the disciples were divided over whether or not Jesus had really been physically raised from the dead, or if his sightings were just a group hallucination.  This divide was only temporary, and we don’t think anyone came to blows, but we do know that Thomas was angry enough about it to stay away from the other disciples for a time.    

Then we know that the new church was divided over whether or not a convert had to first become a Jew and undergo circumcision before being welcomed by the Jesus-followers.  Then there was a division over clean and unclean foods that was preventing evangelism among the gentiles.  Last week we read about a division in the Jerusalem congregation between the legalists who still worshipped in the temple and made sacrifices, and those who agreed with Paul that Jesus had replaced the need for the temple.  This was what got Paul into trouble and arrested this time.

Nothing much has changed.  God’s people remain divided on many things, but the church managed to hang substantially together for its first 1,000 years, until a huge split in the 11th century known as the “Great Schism” which divided the church into the Eastern Orthodox Church, with its Pope and capital in Constantinople and the Western Roman Catholic Church with its Pope and capital in Rome.  There were several reasons for this schism, but three of them were 1) how to calculate the date of Easter; 2) whether or not unleavened bread should be used in the mass and 3) the wording of the Nicene Creed.  The Eastern Church said that the creed should say that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father” and the Western Church said that the creed should say that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Now from our vantage point of 1,000 years later, how important to Christian unity do we think any of these things are?

The next big division was the “Western Schism” in the 14th century, which was marked by a period when there were two competing Catholic Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, France.  The argument was partly political, as European nations lined up behind one pope or the other for their best advantage; and partly about the power of any individual pope versus the power of group councils.  One view held that the Pope was the sole head of the Church, whose rulings and teachings were infallible; and that the Church was made up of only ordained priests; and everyone else considered the “people.”  The other view was that Popes were human beings who made mistakes; and that the Church consisted of all “the Faithful” followers of Christ, and that when Popes fell into error, councils of the faithful could be convened to judge the Pope.   Papal infallibility won that one and Rome carried the day.

Of course, we are the heirs of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, when men like Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in France and Switzerland, Jan Hus in Czechoslovakia and Menno Simons of the low country regions of Southern France and the Netherlands sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church but ended up dividing it instead.  Ultimately, a big reason this did not result in one, single Protestant denomination is because of a disagreement between Luther and Zwingli over what happened to the elements during the Lord’s Supper; and the Annabaptist Simons’ objections to infant baptism and his views on re-baptism.

Now Christianity seems to have fully embraced the idea of denominationalism, with estimates ranging between 20,000 and 40,000 different denominations worldwide.[1]  The United States has 2.5 million Presbyterians in roughly 7 different Presbyterian denominations, (and more if we count the Disciples of Christ and the United Churches of Christ) ; and tiny South Korea has 10 million Presbyterians, including the largest Presbyterian denomination in the world, plus 99 others.  We can then add to that the various Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran and other Protestant denominations worldwide.

Truth be told, many of these denominations are the result of schisms over things that most of us would dismiss as relatively unimportant in the way I mentioned earlier that most of us would view the way we calculate the date of Easter or the kind of bread we use in the Supper.  The church is indeed made up of people – prideful, imperfect people, who are both prone to conflict and at the same time conflict-avoidant.  It is important that we examine ourselves when we have disagreements within the church – is this thing that we disagree on worth dividing the body of Christ over? 

Over the years, denominationalism has taught us something:  Not everything matters.  There are things that Christians of good conscience can disagree about and still call one another brother and sister.  We can disagree over worship styles, the kind of music we use in worship, what we wear to worship, how we administer baptism, whether we completely immerse people or sprinkle them; whether we baptize children or only adults.  We can wonder together about what heaven and hell will be like.  We can have different forms of church government.  We can have different views on the roles of men and women in the church and in the home.  Some of these things are more important than others, but all of these things can have at least two different views that are well-supported by Scripture.  So we say, on these items, “no harm, no foul” between us.  It’s pretty easy to make lists of the things that aren’t worth arguing about.  It’s a little harder to decide on the list of things that we would consider the “essential beliefs” of the Christian faith.

It’s not because there are no essential beliefs – things that all Christians everywhere must believe and embrace to take the name “Christian” with integrity - it is that such a list can quickly become long and complicated, and lose the intended simplicity implied by the description “essential.”  Perhaps another way of putting it is to say, “What is the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”  There is even a book by that title – I can’t recommend it, because I haven’t read it – but here is what a reviewer wrote that the author had to say some of the areas of essential agreement should be:   “Who is Jesus?  Am I accepted?  Where is God? Who is the Holy Spirit?  What is God’s dream for the world?  And, “Is there hope?”[2]

Some of us would start such a list with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Surely that is an essential belief held by all Christians.  And John 14:6, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”  I consider that to be essential, but there are, sadly, many who do not.  Most Christians we would probably add to that, Romans 5:8, that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” but I can say that even though I believe that, I know of theologians who call themselves Christian and who pastor churches and who teach in seminaries, even though they do not believe that.  I could go on, but you can see that if there is disagreement on such basic, historical beliefs based on Scripture, that finding agreement on this is harder than it seemed to be at first.  It should make us all sad and drive us to much prayer.

But let’s go back to the text and see what was happening in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council made up of representatives of two different sects of Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  We know that Paul was a Pharisee, and this is what he said that started the brawl in the Sanhedrin:  “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)” 

“I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”  I suggest that this answers all of those questions I listed before.  “Who is Jesus?”  The one who raises the dead.  “Am I accepted?”  Jesus died for me so that on the last day I will be raised from the dead.  “Where is God?”  Jesus is from God and we will be raised from the dead so that we can be with him where God dwells.  “Who is the Holy Spirit?”  Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be our comforter, to be his living presence in our hearts, and to be the guarantee of our resurrection from the dead.  “What is God’s dream for the world?”  To redeem our souls with his life and to replace our spirits with the Holy Spirit of Christ so that we might live eternally together with him in our resurrected bodies.  And, “Is there hope?”  Our hope is in Jesus, the “pioneer and finisher of our faith,”[3] and who is the “hope and anchor of our soul,”[4] because he is the “firstfruit of the resurrection of those who have fallen asleep.[5]   

This is the first essential of the faith:  the resurrection of Christ that guarantees the resurrection of those who believe.  The resurrection proves his divinity, his death for us proves our personal worth and our acceptance by God.  No one else has done this, no one else could do this.  Because of the work of Christ we can say that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.”[6]

In his letter to the Corinthian church, a church that was divided on many matters, a church that had deep pagan roots and many false teachers, a church much like the church of today, Paul wrote:  “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.   And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

All people in the world who claim the name of Christ are Easter people.  This is our common belief and our common hope: the tomb is empty, the grave clothes have been laid aside and we have seen the risen Lord!  

Let’s pray:   Holy God, only you could have planned for the redemption of our fallen selves and our fallen world in such a marvelous way.  Christ is risen!  It is so simple and we make it so complex.  Christ is risen!  That is our hope and our certainty.  Christ is risen!  If the other mysteries of God divide us, may this be engraved on our hearts until the day we can say together, with the whole body of Christ, all the saints who have ever lived, “Hallelujah, Christ has raised us!” We pray this in the name of Jesus, the pioneer whom we follow in the way of eternal life, Amen.   

[2] Martin Thielen, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?, Westminster-John Knox Press 2011.

[3] Hebrews 12:2

[4] Hebrews 6:19

[5] I Corinthians 15:20

[6] Ephesians 4:5-6

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