Ancient Modern Family, VI: Kaleidoscope Faith

Acts 18:23–27

He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the Way [of God] more accurately.
—Acts 18:26

 

I love summer. I wish there were some groundhogs day equivalent for summer, with some designated rodent offering us another five weeks or so of summer if he sees his shadow. But, Neil deGrasse Tyson was right when he tweeted yesterday that 2015 had the earliest possible Memorial Day and the latest possible Labor Day, granting us the longest possible “unofficial” summer.[1] Maybe we have had more than our fair share? Maybe I can capitulate to the demands of fall, the colder weather, and the turn towards winter if I begin to welcome in the changing colors, the sweaters, and the pumpkin-flavored everything?

 

The end of summer also brings the end of this summer sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles. Jo Forrest and myself have taken you through almost all of the book of Acts through sermons and study, and I have found this story to be not-so-foreign and not-so-far-fetched and not-so-out-of-the-ordinary compared to our own modern lives. The characters make up an Ancient Modern Family, drawn together by some power beyond and within. They experience the unifying and demanding tug of what we call the Holy Spirit, and try to articulate, as best they can, with God’s help, what they experience together.

 

We end today, not quite at the end of the story. We end in chapter 18 with the story of Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos in Ephesus. Let us listen for God in this holy word, reading Acts 18:23–27.

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Among minor characters in scripture, Apollos is pretty far down the list, at least for the New Testament. However, unlike the Ethiopian Eunuch from chapter 8, we do find out his name, so Apollos plays more than just a bit part. And, unlike Lydia or Cornelius, Apollos does show up in another book of the Bible—First Corinthians—so he must not have been insignificant.

 

What might Apollos offer us about God and God’s promises, and even about ourselves? First, we should not be surprised that Apollos is an eloquent speaker stirred up by the Spirit. He is from Alexandria. Alexandria, Egypt, just west of Cairo. People in Apollos’ day would have known of Alexandria. In fact, in the same way that we might make assumptions about the business acumen of Kellogg graduates, the audience hearing about Apollos in the first or second century would have made their own assumptions about Apollos’ rhetorical skills because he was from Alexandria—a place celebrated for its school of rhetoric.

 

Alexandria was a place to behold, a cultural center. Philo was from Alexandria—the most famous of famous Hellenistic Jewish philosophers. The Septuagint, our very first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was translated there in Alexandria. And, while the Jewish population in Egypt has been shrinking tremendously since the 1950s and was reported to be as low as only 12 people as of 2014, in all of Egypt—at the time of Apollos, Alexandria would have been a hub for Hellenistic Judaism.[2] We should not be surprised that Apollos, the Alexandrian, was an eloquent speaker stirred up by the Spirit.

 

Second, we should not be surprised that, even within decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are already multiple groups of people preaching about what God might be doing. Apollos was preaching accurately about Jesus but only knew about John’s baptism. Though, we should not be surprised that, without Twitter to give him the most up to date celebrity gossip, Apollos had not yet heard about or experienced Jesus’ baptism.

 

Thankfully, when our power couple, Priscilla and Aquila enter the scene, they notice that Apollos has a few gaps in his theology, and instead of entering into debate with him in the synagogue, they wait until the end of the day, and quietly invite him into their home and teach Apollos more accurately about the way of God. We should not be surprised that there were many ways to talk about God.

 

Third, we should not be surprised that, although Paul and Apollos do not meet there in Ephesus at the time, Paul and Apollos do meet up later. In fact, I would not be surprised if this little story about Apollos in the book of Acts appears there just to help us along when we do read in First Corinthians about the drama that unfolded between Paul and Apollos.

 

Here is how Paul describes it in First Corinthians (since we have no record of Apollos’ side of the story): “When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you being unspiritual and living by human standards? When someone says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and someone else says ‘I belong to Apollos,’ aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? After all, what is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord. I, Paul, planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow.”[3]

 

I love Paul’s take on the situation, his humble brag about how he really got to the Corinthians first, he planted, and Apollos watered. And yet, Paul shows candid humility about how God is the one who makes anything grow. It is a powerful reminder for us, that God is the one from whom all blessings flow.

 

All of this—given Apollos’ short story—give us a larger picture than we might expect. The eloquence of Apollos, paired with his identity as a bit of a theological misfit in Ephesus, the mentoring from Priscilla and Aquila paired with the theological infighting that went on later—all point to how real, how authentic, how true to life our Christian ancestors were.

 

Maybe we should not be surprised when our diverse understandings of God divide us before we can remember that our God is bigger than any of the ways we talk about God—that our God is, beginning and end, one of forgiveness and radical transformation, turning us towards good, when it might be in our nature to do otherwise. We seek unity, and yet we cannot help but turn away from one another.

 

We came across a synopsis of the Bible this week, a cliff notes version of scripture so to speak, that highlights just that: the way that God calls us to do good, even when it is in our nature to do otherwise. It goes like this:

 

GENESIS

God: All right you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

Satan: You should do the thing.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

God: What happened!?

Adam & Eve: We did the thing.

God: Guys

 

THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.

People: We won’t do the things.

God: Good.

People: We did the things.

God: Guys

 

THE GOSPELS

Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.

Healed people: Okay! Thank you!

Other people: We’ve never seen Jesus do the things, but he probably does the things, too.

Jesus: I have never done the things.

Other people: We’re going to put you on trial for doing the things.

Pilate: Did you do the things?

Jesus: No.

Pilate: He didn’t do the things.

Other people: Kill him anyway.

Pilate: Okay.

Jesus: Guys

 

PAUL’S LETTERS

People: We did the things.

Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Jesus, you have to stop doing the things.

People: Okay.

 

PAUL’S LETTERS PART II

People: We did the things again.

Paul: Guys

 

REVELATION

John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.[4]

 

The end.

 

But that is the hard part, isn’t it? Figuring out how to stop “doing the things,” figuring out how to live, how to develop an ethic, how to make decisions based on how we know and experience God. Many of us come to Church for just that reason, to learn and develop a moral and ethical code, and to help our children do the same. How should we live, in response to God’s greater love for us?

 

On Friday, after the image of a Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach caught the world’s attention, a reporter from the BBC interviewed a Syrian schoolteacher who was stuck in Hungary.[5] A mother of three, she fled Homs four years ago and has been on the road ever since. She fled the war in Homs and went south to Damascus, and then west to Lebanon, then north to Turkey and across the Mediterranean on a rubber boat towards Greece.

 

In Homs, the war was constant. In Lebanon, it was not good for Syrians. In Turkey, there were no jobs, high rent, and a language barrier. Everyone there hated Syrians, she said. On the boat to Greece, this little flooded rubber boat, they lost everything. In Serbia, there was tear gas, and in Hungary, as of Friday, she was trapped in Hungary, forced to stay within the borders, unable to continue to Germany.

 

Now, maybe, maybe she was with the thousands who were allowed to carry on, walking or taking a bus through Austria. Maybe she will be one of the 80,000 who will be received in Germany.

 

Syria is just barely bigger than the state of Illinois, and 220,000 have been killed in the conflict in—four times the population of New Trier Township. Four million Syrians have fled the country seeking safety—that’s more people than we have in all of Chicago. And seven million more are still internally displaced.

 

Last week, I said that the book of Acts should come with a map, and that is still true. Hearing about this mother’s journey, it was difficult to ignore the parallels between her voyage and the voyage Apollos would have taken to get from Alexandria to Ephesus to Corinth.   The journeys would have overlapped. Her sacred map would have matched ours. The geography that saved her life, also, by way of Paul and Apollos, Lydia and Priscilla and Aquila, birthed the church, and in some way birthed this gathering here today. Her life and ours are intertwined here in Apollos’ story.

 

How, then, does Apollos impact us? How does his story give voice to our calling, to our ethic, to our way of living? I think the story of Apollos accentuates what we have been seeing in the book of Acts all along: that neither the book of Acts, nor any scripture, in and of itself is a map.

 

The Bible is not an instruction manual or a treasure map, guiding us to exactly the “right” way of living. Instead, the book of Acts gives us permission to do exactly what early Christians had to do—remain faithful to their tradition, while reinterpreting it for their new circumstances. Scripture does not dictate how people of faith should respond to refugees in Hungary or clerks in Kentucky, gunshot victims at Stroger Hospital or teenagers in crisis at New Trier.

 

All these ancient stories in scripture of oddballs and outsiders, tourists and migrants tell us not “how to live” but give us permission to live—not in fear, but in hope. And, with hope, we can take courage, and bring God’s tangible good news to the hard places of the world—with a meal, a blanket, a home, a night without gunshots or terror, a future for a child, a sigh of relief for a weary mother.

 

What will we do? How will we respond? The gospel does not tell us how to respond, but it does tell us to respond. And, it is through the kaleidoscope of these stories, that we can see God’s changing and life-changing love, calling us to participate in the tangible good news of the gospel.

 

May it be so. Amen.


 

[1] Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “2015 has the earliest possible.” 5 September 2015, 1:12 p.m. Tweet.

[2] BBC. “Egypt’s Jewish community’s lost future.” 18 September 2014. Online video clip. BBC. Accessed 6 September 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29249033.

[3] First Corinthians 3. Common English Bible.

[4] “The stories of the Bible in TL;DR form” Reddit, 18 November 2014. Accessed 6 September 2015.

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p031k44r