Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them. While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, ‘Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’ Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?’ Those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’ And Paul said, ‘I did not realise, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”’ When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamour arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’
You have to feel sorry for the Tribune really; his efforts at finding out what on earth the problem was with Paul wouldn’t have been helped by the Sadducees and Pharisees rowing about theology! The Sadducees were the elite, the people who ran things, the theological liberals of their day who didn’t believe in the resurrection. Whereas the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection and were anxious to follow the Law. Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees were often about Him calling them out for hypocrisy not theology.
We’re tempted to have sympathy for the Tribune partly as we can see the funny side of a theological row dividing a council and stopping them making any decisions and partly because we live in an age which is indifferent to theology. Political theory can be described, disparagingly, as “theological”. The union leader, Mick Lynch, wrong footed several interviewers with his grasp of politics which is more sharp than we’re used to hearing – though times maybe changing as the current Prime Minister’s pitch to her party was to return to more doctrinaire politics than we’ve seen for some time.
How important are theological tenets to us as a church? Years ago a speaker on a promotional URC video assured viewers that “we can believe what we like in the URC!” Which, of course, is nonsense. What he might have meant is that we’re a broad church with a range of views around a central core.
If you were asked to stress the central features of what you believe, what would you say?
Give us love, Eternal One, for Your truth. Give us grace, O Most High, to understand Your ways. Give us courage, O God of the Ages, to speak your word. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston, Minister for Digital Worship, member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.