After these days we got ready and started to go up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came along and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay.
When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.
Luke’s telling moves from travelogue to negotiation weighed down with unease as Paul reaches Jerusalem and James and the other leaders of the early Church respond to news of his Gentile missionary successes. Whilst there surely was rejoicing at the stories of conversion there is also deep alarm at the potential backlash amongst Jewish converts to the way of Jesus. Probably it is Pentecost again in Jerusalem and the city, crowded with pilgrims and the nervous soldiers of the empire, is a fertile place of faith and fear.
Stories swirl around Paul’s activities. There are those who speak against him amongst the Jews within and beyond the Christian communities, accusing him of denying the Laws of Moses symbolised especially in his denial of circumcision and ritual cleanliness. These are the undercurrents of opposition we hear Paul responding to in letters like Corinthians, Philippians and Romans. In preaching salvation as God’s gift of grace embraced through faith in Christ Paul opens himself to allegations of negating Jewish faithfulness. In highlighting one vital thread of faith, Paul can be caricatured as opposing others.
Time for something of a public relations exercise! It seems four Jewish members of the church have taken vows, perhaps like the Nazirite one Paul himself took (Acts 18:18). According to Jewish law accidental defilement after taking such a vow can be addressed by a week of purification, shaving the head and offering sacrifice (Numbers 6:1-21). Paul is to cover their costs and join them publically in the process. He is to underline his Jewish credentials. So he does.
Looking outwards, this text speaks of avoiding a fight in public that might damage the Christian community. The credibility and unity of the believing community is at stake here. Looking inwards, this text speaks of demonstrating to other believers the authenticity of faithfulness when it might be open to question. That has a very contemporary resonance.Think of the debates that strain and divide denominations and traditions and local congregations. Whether it’s over our sexuality and relationships, our attitudes to war, our understandings of scripture or ordination or a host of other fundamentals we have to navigate the tumult as did James, Paul and the others. If we are to bear witness to the light of the glorious Gospel then that same light needs to shine in how we deal with one another. What might this mean for us in our context today? What does God demand of us as we live alongside others? What does humility invite us to let go of or accept? When might being right trap us in self-righteousness whilst God asks of us something bigger?
Living God, in the midst of the choices we must make come alive through your Spirit amongst us. In the name of Jesus Christ open our hearts and imaginations to the promptings of your Word and the wisdom of others. Hold us accountable. Help us to hear your voice so we know and do the truth. Amen.
The Revd Neil Thorogood is Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge and member of Bar Hill LEP.