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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shaking off the dust

Acts 18:5-11

One of the difficult themes that is consistent throughout the New Testament is "shaking off the dust." We don't like this much, and we tend to de-emphasize it in our preaching, our reading, and in our practice.

What is it?

When Jesus sends out the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6, he tells them: "Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." The assumption is that many people will welcome the good news of Jesus and his kingdom, but others will reject the message. The disciple is not called to keep trying to get through or to compromise the message to make it more palatable to a difficult audience. Instead, the disciple is instructed to leave that audience and on the way out of town, to shake the dust off his or her feet "as a testimony against them." This "shaking off" is part of the message -- it is a warning.

There is ample Old Testament precedent for this. Most specifically, Ezekiel is instructed by God to warn the people and if they don't receive his warning, their blood is on their own hands. (See Ezekiel 2-3). The Bible is very realistic that some will receive the message and others will reject it. The disciple, called to announce the kingdom, is advised to spend his or her time and effort on those who receive the message. The rejection of the hard-hearted is to be acknowledged -- then abandoned. The abandonment is its own message.

So Paul, in these verses in Acts 18, is rejected by his Jewish hearers. Undoubtedly some of the Jews listened to him; it is not that all Jewish people rejected his message. We learn later, in fact, that Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, is baptized with all his family. So we know that some of the Jews received this message in a way that changed their lives. But apparently many -- even most -- of those in this particular synagogue "opposed and reviled him." So Paul shook off the dust from his clothes and spoke words of warning (Acts 18:6). He then announced his plan to go to the Gentiles and announce the kingdom to them. The next several verses detail how Paul set up a mission to the Gentiles in Corinth right next door to the synagogue. (Do you suppose Paul was rubbing it in the faces of his own people, just a little bit?) The text leaves it a little ambiguous, but sort of suggests that possibly Crispus and his household became believers after Paul spoke this judgment on the Jewish synagogue. In any case, many people from Corinth -- probably mostly Gentiles -- became believers. Paul spent a year and a half proclaiming Jesus, equipping leaders, building a church.

What does any of this have to do with us?

I have rarely seen Jesus followers in this day and age willing to speak a word of judgment. We are very critical, but that is different. We stand in our own little group and criticize the world, we criticize those darn teenagers, we criticize other churches. That's not the same. Rarely is a preacher willing to name hard-heartedness and then turn from the hard-hearted to focus on a more responsive audience.

I know a rural congregation that has been served by excellent pastors over the decades -- pastors who have preached God's word passionately and carefully. Many, many times I've seen these pastors try to lead people deeper into God's Word through Bible studies, through retreats, through programs or small groups or any number of initiatives. Consistently the same four or five people show up, but the vast majority of this congregation's members blow these things off. They have an attitude that says they want to come to worship on Sunday, passively listen to a sermon, bring their kids to Sunday School, and talk about the weather over coffee and cookies after church. That's it. Nothing more.

What is a wise course for these pastors to take? In this particular setting, these pastors serve multiple congregations -- over the years, somewhere between three and eight congregations at a time. They are spread thin already. They barely have time to suggest a Bible study, let alone time to really invest. They don't have emotional energy to deal with the frustration and heartache that shaking off the dust would require. I don't think most of them have even considered that shaking off the dust, living out a word of judgment, might be God's call to them in that situation.

The question comes down to this. As workers in God's kingdom, how are we best to deal with the hard-hearted? Do we keep cajoling, encouraging, inviting, hoping? Or do we speak a bold -- though perhaps gentle and compassionate -- word about boundaries and consequences, then walk away to focus our time and energy on those who respond to the word? Paul's actions in Acts 18, and the witness of the rest of the New Testament, certainly seem to provide an answer. Do we have ears to hear?

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