Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

“Tying Up Our Loose Ends”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

 

 

Acts 16:1-10

 

Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

I’ve done something a little different in this short series on “The Life of a Thread.”

 

I wanted to focus on the images of weaving and knitting, so I did a New Testament study on the Greek words that are translated “weaving” and “knitting.” I found they are used only a few times in the New Testament, but they are sometimes translated into English in such a way that you would never guess they were the Greek words for “weaving” and “knitting” unless you were studying the Greek.

 

Last week the Greek word epichorogia, which means “weaving” was translated “help” in almost all the standard English translations. 

 

In Philippians 1:19, Paul is in prison and some of the other Christian preachers and teachers are undermining and criticizing him but, in spite of all this, he writes to the Philippians:  I know that through your prayers and the help of the spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”

 

The word translated “help” here is really epichorogia. Literally what Paul is saying is that he knows everything will turn out okay as a result of the prayers of the Philippians and the weaving of the spirit of Jesus Christ. Paul is confident that the spirit of Jesus will weave events together in such a way that things will turn out for the good. Christ will be exalted.

 

So, in Philippians Paul used the Greek word for weaving as an image of the way the spirit of Jesus Christ works in our lives and in our world.

 

This morning we want to look at the Greek word for knitting sumbibazo. And we particularly want to look at the way it is used in the 16th chapter of Acts.  But again if you did not look at the Greek, you would not guess from reading almost any English translation of the Bible that it is the word sumbibazo that is being used.

 

So I want to start back in Acts 15 and review what is happening in the story leading up to Acts 16 because we won’t get the full significance of this unless we start back earlier in the book of Acts.

 

The first Christian congregations were entirely Jewish. Jesus’ disciples were Jews. They understood Jesus to be the Jewish messiah. Shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, an odd thing began to happen. Non-Jews, gentiles, began to accept Jesus and join the communities of Jesus-followers. Gentile conversions became more and more common. The first congregation we know of where the gentile presence began to equal or maybe even exceed the Jewish presence was the congregation in the city of Antioch in Syria.

 

Gentiles appeared to be especially responsive to the teaching and ministry of the Apostle Paul and his ministry team, but all this was very uncomfortable and unsettling for many of the Jewish followers of Jesus who had been taught all their lives, actually for generation after generation, for centuries, to keep themselves separate from gentiles…not to socialize with them, not to eat with them, not to eat the same food they eat.

 

It was very hard for Jewish followers of Jesus to make this transition in their thinking and practice…that gentile followers of Jesus could be part of their congregations, and eat at the same table they ate at, and share communion with them.

 

This issue colors everything you will read in the New Testament. The issue of Jewish/gentile integration is either in the forefront or the background of all of the Gospels and all of the epistles and all of the books of the New Testament.

 

During Paul’s first missionary journey which was in Asia Minor in cities where there was a significant Jewish presence, a number of gentiles had become followers of Jesus. The Jewish church leaders, headed up by James, back in Jerusalem watched this nervously but did not interfere. They let it happen.

 

Then some Jewish Christian preachers began visiting the churches Paul had established during his first missionary journey and began teaching that gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved…gentiles had to convert to Judaism, be circumcised, keep kosher laws, worship in the synagogue as well as the church, and all the rest, in order to be saved (Acts 15:1).

 

Paul asked the church council back in Jerusalem to rule on this question once and for all. Do gentiles need to be circumcised and become Jews in order to be Christians?

 

The church council ruled that gentiles did not have to be circumcised or follow kosher dietary laws or any of the rest. The council simply asked gentiles not to participate in certain activities which Jews found particularly distasteful, like eating food that had been part of ceremonies of idol worship, or eating animals that had been strangled (that means animals that had not been butchered but died some other way, like road kill), or drinking or eating blood, or sexual promiscuity (Acts 15:22, 29).

 

So with this issue finally resolved Paul wants to revisit all the churches that he and his team had established during their first missionary journey. This is when Paul begins to have a whole series of problems.

 

First, he has a serious disagreement with his associate pastor, Barnabas. Acts 15:39 says: “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.”

 

Donna Schaper has an article in the latest Congregations magazine about how hard it is to be an associate pastor. The only thing harder, she says, is being an associate pastor’s senior pastor. Her point is that when you get senior and associate pastors who work together well it is both rare and an occasion of great joy. Senior and associate pastors working well together has apparently been a problem for the church from day 1. So we here at Foundry are very fortunate.[i]  I’m not sure we are always as aware of this as we could be.

 

This is Paul’s first problem. Suddenly he needs another associate. The person he finds is a young man named Timothy, whose mother was Jewish and whose father was a gentile, and who had obviously been raised as a gentile because he was never circumcised (Acts 16: 1-3).

 

Because his mother was Jewish, Timothy would be considered Jewish. You became Jewish either by having a Jewish mother or by converting to Judaism. So Timothy was considered biologically Jewish but, as an uncircumcised male, he could not have been active in the synagogue or the Jewish community in any way. He was biologically a Jew but culturally a gentile.

 

In order not to offend the Jewish Christians in the churches he would visit, Paul had Timothy circumcised.

 

Do you know that when God changes cultural norms, during the time of integration, we do awkward things?  From the perspective of later church history, Paul having Timothy circumcised doesn’t make sense. I don’t know any Christian after Paul who would require someone whose mother was Jewish be circumcised in order to become a Christian. Even James Dobson would not require this. Paul probably would not have done this later in his ministry.

 

But during times of social transition we do clumsy and awkward things because we are trying to figure out the full implications of the new truth we’ve discerned. It happened during the civil rights movement, it happened during the time when the role of women in society began to change, it is happening today. We do clumsy things.

 

So Paul has a new associate minister who is biologically Jewish but culturally gentile. His intention is to revisit the churches of Asia Minor that he had started during his first missionary journey.

 

But it doesn’t work. The Holy Spirit blocks them. Acts 16:6 says: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”

 

 Acts 16:7 says “When they came opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”

 

The Holy Spirit kept blocking their efforts to retrace Paul’s first missionary journey throughout Asia Minor. How did the Holy Spirit block them? We don’t know. It doesn’t say.

 

Some scholars speculate that Paul may have had visions and drams. He was very big into visions and dreams. Others speculate that it was as a result of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, whatever weakness or illness he had that he talks about in 2 Corinthians (12:8).

 

We don’t know. I know how the Holy Spirit usually blocks things I want to do. Jane says “Over my dead body.”

 

Something blocked Paul’s plans and he believed it was the Holy Spirit. Or at least Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, believed it was the Holy Spirit.

 

So Paul and his team end up in the city of Troas, which is the most eastern city of Asia Minor. There Paul has a vision in which a man from Macedonia says to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).

 

Macedonia was a region in Europe. It included such cities as Philippi and Thessalonica and the next region over included Corinth. This was heavy-duty gentile country. In Asia Minor Paul and his team had ministered to primarily Jewish congregations that included some gentiles but a ministry in Macedonia would be to communities that were almost entirely gentile.

 

Acts 16:10—the verse after Paul has the vision—says this: “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

 

Here’s what I want you to know. Listen to the verse again:

 

 “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”

 

The word translated “convinced” in that verse is the Greek word sumbibazo – the Greek word that means “knit.”

 

None of the translators know how to translate the word in this context.

 

Here are the most common translations:

 

“And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.” (KJV)

 

 “As soon as Paul had this vision, we got ready to leave for Macedonia, because we decided that God had called us to preach the Good News to the people there.” (Good News Bible)

 

“After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (TNIV)

 

Here’s what I think it literally says:

 

“When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over into Macedonia, being knit by the call of God to proclaim the good news to them.”

 

Paul and his team suddenly saw in the course of events what had been frustrating them—that God was knitting, weaving, things together, in such a way as to call them to introduce Christianity into Macedonia, into Europe.

 

Look at what had happened. Paul lost the associate who had worked with him so closely and well during his entire first missionary journey.  A small disagreement between them so escalated that they parted ways.

 

This opened up a position on Paul’s team and the person they found to fill it was culturally a gentile. He grew up as a gentile. He fully understood gentile ways, gentile philosophies, gentile habits, gentile quirks.

 

Then the Holy Spirit blocks Paul’s plans again and again, until he has a vision of a Macedonian man asking him for help.

 

And then everything suddenly makes sense. Paul knows that in all these frustrations, he was actually being knit. He was a thread being knit for the purpose of introducing Christ to Europe.

 

The only translation that gets even close to capturing this is the Eugene Peterson paraphrase The Message, that says:

 

“The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans” (The Message).

 

All the pieces had come together. A more accurate image would be “all the loose ends were tied up.” That captures the sense of the Greek word sumbibazo.

 

I confessed to staff this week that I am having a bit of a hard time with these scriptures. I am always nervous that we will look for God too much in the supernatural and miraculous and miss God in the ordinary. Our faith says the holiest moments in our life are washing a baby and eating bread and drinking wine together. Teach us, O God, to find you in the daily wonders of life.

 

When I was sharing my hesitation about the theology of these passages, someone at the table said, “But strange things happen every day.” And that’s very true.

 

I wrestle with this.  I don’t want to miss the signs of God’s providence and care in our world. I don’t want to say the coincidences and synchronicities aren’t God things. On the other hand I don’t want us to need them. Signs and wonders can be like crack. This is why Jesus says, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12: 39). We don’t want to become hooked on signs and wonders. We walk by faith, not by sight.

 

But there is no denying strange things happen in our lives. Past frustrations and past disappointments can suddenly make sense.

 

When I was in charge of congregational development for the conference and we’d invest conference money in starting a new church, I used to make a joke that we ought to require two miracles of every start up to continue funding, like the Vatican requires two miracles to canonize a saint. 

 

So the start-up pastors would try to come up with miracles for me.  They usually came up with splashy miracles. A big newspaper article about their church out of the blue. A sudden influx of new members. The right musician showing up when they hadn’t even advertised for one. OK, I’d say. Whatever. 

 

But every once in a while there would be a story that was much more subtle, and it would make me stop and wonder. There was a new church start that rented a store front in a mall in southern Maryland. They grew to 60 or 70 people and decided they needed a name. So members of the congregation nominated names and then they voted and the name that won the vote was “Lakeside.” Lakeside United Methodist Church.

 

It made no sense at all. They were in a mall, nowhere near a lake. Instead of Lakeside, they should have named themselves Safeway-side or Ace Hardware-side.

 

They kept growing, and the storefront became too small; they decided they needed their own building. They went looking for land, and someone in the community heard about it and offered them a piece of land at a great location at a greatly reduced price, and the land was right next to a lake.

 

Those were the kinds of miracles that impressed me.

 

I think God is very subtle. I think God’s movement in the world is very intricate and complex like a woven tapestry or a knit multi-colored blanket. I think we can very rarely see the big beautiful picture.

 

But I do believe that somewhere down the line our frustrations and disappointments are redeemed and made part of an elegant pattern. I believe even our failures and sins will be redeemed. Even the failures and sins of others will be redeemed. 

 

Occasionally, like Paul, sometimes we may get a glimpse of the way we are being knit and things we’ve not understood will begin to make sense. But God grant us the faith to believe it and trust it, even when we can not see it.

 

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[i] Donna Schaper, “Pitfalls and Possibilities,” Congregations (Fall, 2009), 6-8.