(Acts 11:19-30; 2 Esdras 10:21-23; Psalm 43 LXX/44 MT; Genesis 22:15-18)
For you see that our sanctuary has been laid waste, our altar thrown down, our temple destroyed; our harp has been laid low, our song has been silenced, and our rejoicing has been ended; the light of our lampstand has been put out, the ark of our covenant has been plundered, our holy things have been polluted, and the name by which we are called has been profaned; our free men have suffered abuse, our priests have been burned to death, our Levites have gone into captivity, our virgins have been defiled, and our wives have been ravished; our righteous men have been carried off, our little ones have been cast out, our young men have been enslaved and our strong men made powerless. And, what is more than all, the seal of Zion — for she has now lost the seal of her glory, and has been given over into the hands of those that hate us! (2 Esdras 10:21-23, RSV)
This cry of lament was written about the same time as our New Testament, and expresses the desolation of the Jewish community when the Temple was finally destroyed in 70 AD, and the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem, losing “the seal of Zion”— the Temple, which they considered to be their glory, and the sign of God’s presence among them.
This lament is only a final lament after a long series of harrowing experiences for the Jews, which began when “the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold” of the ten Northern tribes. This proud people, chosen by God to be a light in a pagan world, was subject to the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Medes and Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. For them, the Dispersion of the ten tribes’ leading families by the Assyrians, and then those of the two southern tribes by the Babylonians, meant that the monarchy could be no more, and foreshadowed the end of the people as a gathered nation. Though the “Diaspora” (the dispersion) brought some good—such as a renewed desire for loyalty to God, and a forced clarification of what it meant to be the people of God—it also foreshadowed the end, which would come under Rome. Without the Temple, the people lost their focus, or rather, replaced it with a fixation upon the Torah, and few of them saw that Jesus Himself had become the living Temple of God, and the fulfillment of that Law.
The Christian community, too, had its Diaspora. This word is used in the letters of Peter, for example, and we meet it also in our reading of Acts this Sunday of the mid-feast between Easter and Pentecost. The first wave of Christian scattering began when the protodeacon Stephen was martyred. But consider what our reading tells us happened as a consequence:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. [And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).] So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:19-30)
As we can see, the scattering, or Diaspora, is the preface to good things, though I am sure that those who had to leave Jerusalem and their family were upset and disoriented. We hear about how the scattered community took the gospel with them, aided by “the hand of God”—first to Jews of the Diaspora who would have understood the Hebrew Bible, and understood the believers’ proclamation that Jesus fulfilled it; and then to Hellenists, that is, to Greek Gentiles, probably adherents to the synagogue or God-fearers who had been attracted by Israel’s faith. Now they understood God’s greatest action for humankind, in Jesus of Nazareth, and their faith was complete. For the first time in Antioch, the Church has an infusion of non-Jewish members, a great number that believed in the LORD. Paul himself is brought into this new situation of a mixed Church, and with the encourager Barnabas, helps it to get on its feet with sound teaching: remarkably, it is here, and not in Jerusalem, that the followers of the Way became known as Christians. For them the faith was not centered on Jerusalem’s Temple (as it was for the Sadducees) nor on the Torah (as with the Pharisees), but on the one who was the True Temple and the fullness of God’s Word, the Logos Himself. But there was still an organic connection between the believers there and those in Jerusalem. Christian prophets from Jerusalem come to Antioch, and there they declare God’s word to the assembled Christians. Our reading excises the prophecy, but I have restored those two verses, because we need them to understand—a great famine is coming, and so God tells his people about it, just as Joseph was told about the famine in Egypt. As a result, the new converts in Antioch take a love offering for the original Christians in Jerusalem, and send it for relief down to the Christians in Judea, by Barnabas, the encourager, and Saul (also known as Paul), who had once persecuted Stephen and others in that great city.
Consider all the wonderful things that have happened—new converts have been made, both among Jews and Greeks; a full community, comprising believers of different sorts, has been strengthened and has matured in Antioch; the name “Christian” has come to typify God’s community; true communion has been seen in the connection between Jerusalem and Antioch; true love has been expressed as the new believers respond to the word of prophets from the first community; and Saul himself goes home to Jerusalem as a witness to how God has changed his mind and brought him to faith. This Dispersion is no disaster, but a Divine Dispensation, a new way that God is working in the world—not novel, for it is in continuity with what He did before, but fresh, for it includes new elements and new members! As Jesus declares in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new!”
So, in this passage of Acts, Luke witnesses to how God brings his good purpose even out of what appears in the first instance to be sorrow and destruction. Good men and women mourned Stephen, and the other martyrs that followed. The mark on the community was so severe that at first the Jerusalem Christians did not believe that Saul had changed, and he had to be introduced to them by Barnabas. It was a trauma. But, in retrospect we see good that came, for Christians, forcibly scattered, took the Word with them—both a new way of reading the word of the Old Testament, taught to them by the apostles, and the Word Himself, present with them by His Holy Spirit.
To have this insight marks a difference between Christians and the Jewish community. Indeed, there are times when we lament. But, because of the Lord Jesus, who trampled down death by death, we see that even the worst has been turned to our good—and so God can do that with all the sorrows of life. “Blessed are those who mourn!” “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you: rejoice and be exceedingly glad!”
Compare Luke’s insight with what the Psalms record of the desolate response to the Dispersion of the Jews in the exile:
We have heard with our ears, O God,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds thou didst perform in their days,
in the days of old:
… not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm give them victory;
but thy right hand, and thy arm,
and the light of thy countenance;
for thou didst delight in them….
Yet thou hast cast us off and abased us,
and hast not gone out with our armies.
Thou hast made us turn back from the foe;
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
Thou hast made us like sheep for slaughter,
and hast scattered us among the nations….
Rouse thyself! Why sleepest thou, O Lord?
Awake! Do not cast us off for ever!
Why dost thou hide thy face?
Why dost thou forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our body cleaves to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help!
Deliver us for the sake of thy steadfast love. (Psalm 43/ MT44, selections)
This is, of course, a clean and uncomplicated lament. I have taken out some of the verses to shorten it, but it even insists that the Jewish people have remained faithful, and suggests that God should be proud that they have done this even while chastened. Some of them, of course, did remain faithful—we have the witness to Simeon and Anna in the Temple, who awaited the deliverance of God. But we also know that the Diaspora, the scattering, was a chastening of the people, many of whom had contaminated their worship by adopting pagan practices. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of this when some of them returned to rebuild the Temple. This disaster had come upon them, and God used it to recall them to Himself. And so they lamented that God saw them as sheep for the slaughter, and called for Him to wake up and act again.
But the Almighty was not sleeping. And when He did act, He came as a man who slept, like us, who grew tired, like us, who ate and drank like us—and who died a death we never would have imagined, for our sake! HE became the sheep for the slaughter. HE showed the meaning of suffering. HE showed that God acts in our midst, touched by our sorrows, turning even our worst nightmares to good.
And so, through the blood of the martyrs, the Church grew, and matured, and learned true fellowship. This appears to be something novel, but in fact, what happened at Antioch was the fulfillment of the promise God had given to Abraham, as in a misty vision:
And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham… from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:15-18).
Yes, Abraham, heard this at a time when he had been released from what can only have seemed a nightmare—the conviction that he had to slay his beloved son! God says to him, what I have not required of you, I will do myself. I will send my only Son, and bless you, and multiply you, so that you become the father of all nations, and by your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed! Jesus was that seed, the seed who “possessed the gate” of God’s enemies—the One who broke down the bars of Hades, releasing the dead, and bringing them out:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
And if He is for us, who can be against us? As some of us turn to yellow states and counties, we rejoice that we will be able, in some measure, to meet again. Spring appears to be finally bringing new life, though we do not know if our modified freedom will last. We do not want to be too dramatic: our experience is not like anything the early Christians suffered, or that others in Christ-hating countries suffer today. But some have been through a great ordeal—being patient in dire illness, even losing loved ones! The extroverts among us have found isolation very difficult, and the lonely have been lonelier. But nothing is wasted in God’s economy. May we now see that our time in seclusion bring forth fruit and maturity, though it has been hard. For in God’s dispensation, there is no disaster except the unthinkable possibility that we will not accept God’s gift of Himself. For even destruction can be turned to good, to the divine purposes, bringing life –even eternal life—and forging us into a single community, through baptism into His death!