Sunday, 2 March 2014

Acts 25 - Doing Away with Labels

Labels are invidious.

I have recently finished reading Alan Argent’s excellent biography of Elsie Chamberlain.  She was very much a pioneer – of religious broadcasting, being the first woman minister to be employed by the BBC as a producer of religious broadcasting, she pioneered the way as the first woman chaplain to the forces in the late 1940’s.

A remarkable person in all sorts of ways, one of the things I remember about Elsie was her refusal to accept a label.  She was an evangelical and liberal, charismatic and catholic, congregational and ecumenical.

It’s something I have felt resonates with me.

I resist being labelled in my theology, in my churchmanship.

More seriously than that there is a danger to labelling people.

Slap a label on someone and then you treat them in that particular way.   Too often it is as a stereotype.

It’s one of the things I have become more and more aware of with regard to the New Testament and how you tell the New Testament story.

I think I grew up with labels that were very easy to apply.

The Jews and then there are the Christians.

Jews keep to the law, the letter of the law, the ritual, the Sabbath … and Christians delight in grace and the good news of the Gospel.

It is since the war and more and more in the last three decades that people studying the Bible have come to be very aware of the way Jesus is Jewish and the followers of Jesus, not least, Paul are also Jewish.
That’s something I have been trying to explore as we have read through Acts.

This particular theme is crucially important for us Christians because of the part Christians have played down through the centuries in the anti-Semitism that came to a head in the middle years of the 20th century with the Holocaust.

The danger is that we put the label Jewish on someone and then we know exactly what they are – the tragedy is that that label was actually a physical thing that was attached to Jewish people.

The reality is that there is a whole range of ways of being Jewish – and we need to appreciate that in today’s world.  In Cheltenham there is an Orthodox Hebrew Congregation and in the last few years also a  Reform, Liberal Hebrew Congregation.  Fascinating to see the differences and to begin to appreciate those differences.

There are Orthodox Jews and … I find myself using labels again that are invidious, ultra orthodox Jews.   Secular Jews and religious Jews.  A wonderful array of different ways of being Jewish.

Jesus is fully Jewish – honouring the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

Going out of church last Sunday Alan put me on the spot with a question that is worth exploring further.  He thought Chrsiians were those who saw Jesus as the Messiah and the Jews were those who did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

Helpful … in so far as it goes.

But the Chrisians in the NT are, many of them, Jews who see in jesus the Messiah.

By Acts 25 we are approaching AD 60 – AD 61

It is interesting to ask what is going on in the Jewish world at this time.

And it is in quite a ferment.

The big problem is the power of the Roman presence.

How do you cope with that?

A Jewish historian whose writings are available and date to the second half of that first century chronicles the build up to what becomes a major Jewish war against the Romans – and that is only about five or six years away at this point.

There are the Romans –

The Pharisees emphasise a return to the Law – different schools become different Rabbinic schools – and in some ways that tradition is one that takes a real hold in the later Jewish world.

The Saducees are powerful, rich in support of the priests who are keeping the temple going – but the temple is one that has been re-built by

Heord – and the Herodian dynasty – Herod, Herod Antiaps,  Herod Agrippa I and now we meet Herod Agrippa II.

They have some influence – are lauded but don’t have real power.

The Essenes are a group  who have a base in a monastery near the Dead Sea and collect a library of documents discovered as the Dead Sea Scrolls – a rule of life to follow – looking to a righteous teacher.

And then there are the revolutionaries, the fourth philosophy that Josephus describes – who want to overthrow Rome.

They are becoming more and more vociferous.

The rebellion is going to start up in Galilee – it will involve initially Josephus who later changes sides and sides with the Romans.

The rebellion is moving down to Jerusalem.

Into this mix has come John the Baptist – who stands out as a new Elijah – challenging the powers that be, wanting people to  have a whole new way of thinking about the world and about God’s rule – the kingdom of God, the rule of God has come near.

When Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan it is as if Jesus is lining himself up with John.  And he too carries out this prophetic role.

More than that he comes to be recognised as the one who is actually ushering in a new kind of kingdom

This is a location in this spectrum

But the kingdom he talks about is not by force of arms but it is quite different from that.

Paul’s mission has lasted twenty to thirty years.  And we now find him in Caesarea – held in custody for two years under Felix.

The Roman Governor then changes – Porcius Festus – he wants to transfer Paul back to Jerusalem – to tidy things up essentially.

He goes to Jerusalem and brings back to Caesarea leaders – but the ones he brings back – are the Jerusalem elite –
Paul is adamant he has not done anything wrong.

Is it an exasperation – but he appeals to the Emperor,.  And Festus accepts the appeal.

You have appealed to the Emperor – to the Emperor you will go.

Then King Agrippa the II and wife Bernice
“Herrod Agrippa II, described on his coins as Marcus Julius Agrippa ( his name as a Roman citizen) was the son of Herod Agrippa I,  born in AD 27.  He was in Rome when his father died in 44 and Claudius was disposed to give him his fatehre’s kingdom, but was dissuaded ) on account of the son’s youth) and Judea again became a Roman province.  In 50, however, Claudius gave Agrippa the kingdom of Chalcis (in Lebanon) in succession to his uncle Herod, together with the right of appointing the Jewish high priests.  In 53 Agrippa exchanged Chalcis for Batanaea,  Gaulanitis, Trachonitis, and Abila, which had formed part of his fatehr’s kingdom; three years later Nero gave him in addition the regions of Tiberias and Tarichaea, west ot he sea of Galilee, together tith Julias in Peraea and 14 neighbouring villages.

As a compliemtn to Nero he changed the name of his capital from Caesarea Philippi to Neronias.  Like his father he called himself Great King, fiend of Caeasar and friend of Rome.    FF Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (3rd Edition, Apollos, 1990)

Who they are is interesting – they come with ‘great pomp’ and are at home in Caesarea – with an audience hall.

Here we catch a glimpse of the Herodian power, its wealth, its determaination to latch on to the Romans.

There is an ugliness to this power.

A contrast with the simplicity and the humbleness of Jesus and of Paul.

But Agrippa II is an intetersing character.

What the Herodians are doing is treading a fine line between Rome and making the most of the opulence … and the Jewish people.  They are trying to get the best of both worlds.

And that world is about to fall about their ears.

Josephus records a speech in AD 66,  when Agrippa II tries to persuade the rebels not to take up arms against Jerusalem.

He wants to dissuade the Jewish people of Jersuaelm from taking arms.

And so he speaks.

Josephus records his speech at great length.

As if he had heard it.

See the might of Rome – you cannot win.

See what they have done to the Greeks, to the Gauls, in Spain.

And then comes a remarkable reference.

A reminder that what is going on here in these islands is in the same world as the world of the New Testament.

“consider the defences of the Britons, you who feel so sure of the defences of Jerusalem.  They are surrounded by the Ocean and inhabit an island as big as the land which we inhabit; yet the Romans crossed the sea and enslaved them,l and four legions keep that huge island quiet.”   (160)

Not even the Britons could withstand the might of Rome he argues in spite of othe fact their island is surrounded by the ocean.

A remarkable comment.

Because he is referring surely to something that is happening in Britain at exactly the time Paul is here in Caesarea.

The Boudica revolt.

The Romans overstretch themselves and take Anglesey – and the Icenii and Boudica take their opportunity, Colchester, even London fall to the rebels.

What do the Romans do?  Sit back?

No they march down the A5 and meet Boudica near Mancetter, near Warwick, and Boudica and the rebellion is destroyed.

Roman power is established.

That’s the lesson Agrippa II wants to share.

He wants to keep his power.

The tragedy is that the people take to arms.   They overthrew the  Romans for 4years.  And the Romans responded as they had done against Boudica.  The legions came down from the north, the city was laid waste and the temple destroyed.

And as for Agrippa II, he remained loyal to the empire throughout the war and was rewareded with a further increase of territory and in 75 with pro,motion to praetorian rank.  (FF Bruce 490f)

Paul following in Jesus’ footsteps has another way of being under God’s rule.  Not by force of arms, but by living out the way of life that Jesus has mapped out. Romans 12ff iand the last part of each of the letters.

This is the way to follow.

But Paul is not heeded by so many of them.

I want to see the JHNewishness of Jesus, how he offers a different way.

And then that opens up to be all invlusive of all people.

We too become the people of God.  Part of this wonderful people whose history goes back to Abraham.

What’ sinteresting here is the willingness Agrippa has to listen to Paul.

Paul holds his own – before the Roman Governor, before the people who have come down from Jerusalem, before Agrippa II – and he is clear – at the heart of his faith as we shall see is the encounter with Jesus.

What is all important for him is who this Jesus is and all he stands for.  He is the one who shapes the kingdom, the rule of God.   And it stands and falls with him.

The centrality of Christ.

Not so much labelling a Christian over against  a Jew.

But rather seeking to follow Christ.

The key is not to have a religion – but it is a whole way of life that shapes the people we are under the rule of God in the way that Jesus makes real.

This goes beyond labels.

Our measure has continually to go back to this jesus – and the difference he makes.

Not least in the resurrection victory he wins, a victory we too may share.

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