Ugly Acts

This Sunday's first reading continues the post-Easter recitation of the growth of the early Church. Paul and Barnabas, apostles extraordinaire, travel to Antioch -- not the one in Syria, but the one in Pisidia, now Turkey. The pair spoke at the synagogue service, presumably telling about Jesus, and were so influential that by the next week, "almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord." At that point, "When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said."

Paul and Barnabas lash back. “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles." P and B, having performed the due diligence of trying to convert the Jews, can now turn their backs on them.

I found listening to this story unbearable. I could not respond with the customary, "Thanks be to God" after hearing it. It's an ugly story that by the end of the first century CE, already suggests that Jews, jealous of Christian popularity and favor, have been abandoned by God and found unworthy of heaven. And we know where that line of reasoning leads

But a look beyond the words of the Gentile author of Acts shows him to be writing a biased history. The cast of characters at the beginning of the story is completely Jewish or in sympathy with Judaism. "Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas." This was not a fight between Jews and non-Jews, but between Jews who believed a message that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus, and those who did not. There may have been bona fide Gentiles non-converts around, but this was basically a family argument between coreligionists who had different beliefs about the identify of a recently-dead (and possibly risen) Jewish prophet. Frankly, I would have been among the hardliners, refusing to trust a couple of blasphemous unknowns from out of town.

What is sad about the story is not that it happened, and not that Luke, the probably author of Acts, tells it in such a biased way. It is that we are still telling the story. It's like an old married couple whose only story of their honeymoon is about the vicious argument they had over which restaurant to eat at. Or Uncle Ned, who years after his divorce, still talks bitterly about what a witch his ex-wife was. The stories are true, albeit one-sided. But after so much time, they are also beside the point. And they are old. At some point, you wish Uncle Ned would just find something else to talk about. You just wish everyone would grown up a little.

The stories of our church's beginnings are important. For both Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-denying Jews, the stakes were sky high, even life-and-death. It must have been exceedingly frustrating and enraging to be unable to get through your oldest friend about a newfound and exciting belief. As it would have been to fail to persuade a brother or mother not to wander off after the latest nutty fad in first century messiahs. But for us, living nearly 2000 after the events, it's time to get over it. It's also time to dial back the dire threats (No eternal life for you!) that have made life hell for millions of Jews since that black day in Pisidia.

It is long past time to stop telling and retelling the story of a painful break in the family. It is high time to let go of the grudge that was ugly in its own day and stupid (and lethal) in our own.