The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Alert: today I’m going to talk a bit more about our show than the immediate context of these passages.
When Sherwin and I wrote this show nearly 30 years ago it was the first thing in my adult life I’d done without Lisa. Lisa and I were (and are) best friends, lovers and partners. In the years that we left Boston to start a church in New York, other groups were going out (in our fellowship) planting churches all over the world; and the paradigm was to go two by two.
This meant that two men with their wives would go and plant a church; and as valuable and talented as all those wives were, the understanding was that the men were the two partners planting a church.
When we decided to move to Manhattan and plant a church in New York City, I was asked who my partner would be. My answer was quick and simple and I thought everyone already knew.
“Lisa is my partner.”
I’m not being falsely modest when I say that Lisa is the talent in our partnership. Anyone who knows us knows that if you want consistent, sound advice and inspiration, you talk to Lisa. With me, well as my friend Mike Patterson says, “with Steve you never know which one is going to show up.”
I own that.
But when we wrote “Upside Down” Lisa was pregnant. This would be our first baby and she got very sick and the doctor confined her to bedrest trying to save the baby; but as time would tell the baby had died in utero and Lisa nearly died trying to save a dead fetus. This all began during the three months in the beginning of 1987 when Sherwin and I wrote the musical. Her miscarriage was called a ‘failed abortion’ meaning her body failed to reject the baby and they had to do a DNC that summer. The details of that whole experience are gruesome and further in my mind the legend of Lisa. She’s amazing and has been through some of the most horrific physical assaults of anyone I’ve ever known; yet, look at her:
Throw cancer, shingles, ruptured discs and old age at her and she still looks like a million bucks. I’m 60 pounds over weight and look like I should have been buried already but have the pulse and blood pressure of a marathon runner. Go figure.
And btw, this is one of the children who has grown up in our house. We don’t have grand children, but I can’t find a picture of Lisa that doesn’t have her holding a baby. This one calls her Yaya.
All to say, other than inspiration, Lisa wasn’t exactly my partner on “Upside Down” and it was the first thing in our married life that we didn’t really do together. She was trying to save a baby and I had reverted to being that teenager who played guitar and wrote silly songs and now had a genius musician for a best friend who was crazy enough to want to write a musical with me. Had Lisa been a writing partner back then our show might have been different.
Maybe not. She and I both have grown a lot over three decades and the way we see some things has surely changed significantly. Back then we probably didn’t have the insights to do much more than what I was trying to do at that time; go chapter by chapter through the book and entertain while preaching about the things that were clear to us back then.
And on a side note, one of the coolest things to me is how much Sherwin and Debbie and Lisa and I, in spite of so many years apart and different roads taken, keep finding out how much we are in cahoots with one another on so many issues that seem to strain other friendships. They are a couple who minister to our souls and have come to visit us in some great times of need. Forget the musical, I need Sherwin and Debbie in my life in so many ways; thank you, Lord.
And another piece of trivia: back then I didn’t know I could type. I wrote the book and lyrics on legal pads in a writing style similar to martian and gave Sherwin a melody direction on a dozen tunes that had bounced around in my head; then I’d use my writings as a guide and then dictate looking over Sherwin’s shoulder and he would pound it out on his … word processor?… did we even have computers back then??? … and we seldom slept, never slept, and I’m not sure that we even have a copy of that script anymore; but if we could find one it would be an ancient word doc covered in fossilized Ray’s Pizza and cold noodles. Sherwin typed and I yelled, crooned and strummed and he made it all sound pretty. I’d carry around a cassette recorder to make up songs that I hadn’t already made up when I was 16 and he’d fix them all and add some of the most beautiful stuff I’d ever heard. Or I’d scribble in my illegible monkey paw on a legal pad and Jeri Carlstadt… who can do anything anytime anywhere that needs to be done… who could decipher secret code that the CIA can’t break… heck they should have given her that dude’s iPhone; she’d have figured it out and cooked dinner for 50 hungry NYU students at the same time… Jeri would type it out, give it to Sherwin who would incorporate it in the show. Three months. That’s what we did for three months giving birth to our first musical.
Oh, and it was all a cappella. Another story for another time.
But if we were starting over, without so much of the heritage that our early show demands that we honor (again, we have some old loyal fans who think that the 1987 version is the bible and in 1994 we fell away), if we were starting from scratch I’m sure there would be differences in how we’d tell the tale.
For one thing women would play a more prominent role and we’d have as many female leads as male.
But for another thing… and I will eventually segue into this Acts 11 devotional… for another thing, if I could, I’d like to tell the story in a way that represents better how I understand the Jewish faith of that time. I’ve got a zillion directions I’d like to go on that subject, but lest I start rambling and forget, let me tell you this:
I’ve really enjoyed the chance to make this show a clearer story telling event; almost every character on stage has a complete story arc now. Again, thank you Ken Cavett for pushing my brain in that direction. You’ve got to remember, I’m not a genius Lin Manuel Miranda; I’ve just been a reckless imagination running amok in the modern day kingdom of God for almost 50 years. I still enjoy learning how to tell a story and I’ve enjoyed more than anyone envisioning the kinds of lives these brethren of ours, from two millennia ago, must have had. And I’ve had a lot of help. My daughter Skylar more than anyone has influenced my thinking and if I was good enough to half way write what she imagines than we’d really be blown away.
Shari Simpson-Cabelin, and she pushed and edited and made me come up with stuff that I never would have done on my own. Love you, buddy!
But what I wish I could do… and I could do it, too!! but the show would be an hour longer!! … what I really wish I could do is paint a clearer picture of what I think the “bad guys” really were like.
You see, I don’t think they were bad guys.
I believe every character in our show has the same motivation; and it’s the same motivation that I believe still makes the world go round: love.
In our story every character is motivated by love, maybe misguided; but it’s love. No one is doing that evil cartoon laugh and rubbing their hands together. Seldom do we know we’re in league with the devil when we’re deepest in the darkness. I’m aware that there are evil people who, when you say they are motivated by love, you must understand that it’s love of power. And I’m sure that existed with some of these characters. But most of the ‘villains’ in our story don’t understand that they’re guiltiest for loving something more than the Lord. Love of family, love of the temple, love drives the religious leaders who fight to stop the spread of the gospel and if we miss that then we’re just like every other sectarian group in the world. We have to be totally committed to Jesus, and love him above all others; but we have to do that without painting everyone else with a one dimensional brush that makes us miss what’s really going on in the world. As one preacher said it years ago: the world is dark and everyone has a little birthday candle trying to make it through the day; we have to shine the light of Jesus so bright they throw their little candle away…
Even Simon the Sorcerer is motivated by love, but for him it’s self love. He’s the closest thing to a villain that we have in the show; a true narcissist fueled by revenge.
But 30 years ago everyone I wrote was more of a cardboard cut out. Especially Iraceus, captain of the temple guard, and all of the “Jews” who didn’t convert; they were ‘bad guys’, disciples were good guys and life was simple.
But life isn’t really like that now or then. I don’t think I’ve gone all weak and unscriptural on you; I just think that until we understand why we all do what we do we’ll never be able to convince so much of the world that Jesus is Lord. If we don’t understand what compels people to do what they do, how can we convince anyone that God does love us… all the equally, we’re all his children… and that Jesus came with a message that’s still the greatest message ever, even if it’s been abused, convoluted and minimized.
So, I wish I could take the time to develop Iraceus and you’d see him holding his children; a loving father fearful that their world is going to be polluted by people who are trying to change what is supposed to be unchangeable. He doesn’t understand that the messiah has come; the prophecies are fulfilled. His fear has clouded his mind so that he cannot see the truth.
So, since I didn’t feel I had time to develop these characters as much as I’d like, I have tried casting and directing the show in such a way that these men are not so villainous. We have tremendous talent, but let’s be honest; these are sweet faces:
That’s Hank McDaniel. A drama professor at University of Oklahoma. His dad was my mentor and friend. And he had a thing about ‘circles’. It’s deeper than just saying life goes in circles, and cycles, but I know that he’s smiling at us… I even have a picture to prove it:
That’s Henry on the wall, in mime saying ‘i love you’; looking down over Hank and me… that’s a circle coming complete, and starting another one all over again… this is our Iraceus. A man who won’t stand for people trying to change the way God wants things to be. Not on his watch!
When we were casting the people who represent the powers against the early church, I didn’t want to push them to be ‘bad guys’. In those days, like today, the lines are blurry.
I don’t think the lines between lost and saved or believers and none believers are blurry. But the lines between good and bad aren’t always as clear as we think, and at that time were changing. Take Gamaliel for instance:
Marc Persing is a dear friend and a Professional Chorister with The Metropolitan Opera. His Gamaliel is going to bring the house down. And he’s a perfect fit for my picture of Gamaliel. Gamaliel comes in and then disappears in the story of Acts; just like the old timey preachers would say: he blew in, blew up, and blew away!
As far as we know, Gamaliel never became a disciple. He may not have lived long enough to realize his words were prophetic to the extent that the church spread in spite of opposition; you can’t fight God! But he stood by while the disciples were flogged. Was he a good man? A bad man? We see him in a good light today, and I think rightly so. But he was still part of the system that refused to change. Thanks, Marc, for taking on this role and helping to paint a picture of a time of turmoil and conflict. I can’t wait for everyone to see this!
And when you put these men together and understand that while one of them is in a position to order arrests of disciples, one of them is able to carry out the order, and still one of them is able to alter the order through persuasive speech… well … think about it. These people were as complex as the political landscape we can watch on the news at this very moment.
So, in this chapter, when it says the circumcised believers criticized Peter, I think it’s good to understand that over the first 30 years of the church there would be days when you’d be persecuted and days that such terror would subside and there would be a little peace. But the biggest distinction between the believers and the persecutors was over the issue of Jesus. On so many other things, like the law of Moses and circumcision; they still saw eye to eye.
4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
Notice in the last chapters how often an event happens, then that event is reported, and sometimes repeatedly reported. Here Peter repeats the story we’ve already read. Watch what happens in the end.
8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
See that? At the beginning of this chapter these guys are critical. Peter tells his story and see what happened? They change their minds just that easily. Are they lacking convictions? Are they spineless? Are they easily swayed? Seems like maybe the mark of true believers is an open heart and an open mind.
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
The point of this story is that at the time of the dispersion back a few chapters, the mind set was still that the gospel was only for the Jews. What isn’t clear here is when did those men from Cyprus and Cyrene go to Antioch? Because the implication is that this is record of the gospel going to the uncircumcised, the gentiles, before Cornelius, without compelling them to become Jews.
Antioch is in Syria. North of Israel. Remember during Jesus ministry, “News about him spread throughout Syria and they brought to him all those who were sick and ill from various diseases.” (Somewhere near the end of Matthew 4, look it up)
The scripture says, “men from Cyprus and Cyrene…” see that little island slightly left of Antioch? That’s Cyprus. Bottom left of map is Africa, we’re seeing Egypt and maybe a sliver of Libya, which is where Cyrene is. Remember Simon of Cyrene? When the persecution hit, the verse says people spread the word as far as Phoenicia, which is just north of Israel on the coast and was part of Samaria; Cyprus and Antioch… but they only preached to Jews. These men from Cyprus and Cyrene however went to the same town, Antioch, and preached to Greeks, and in this instance implying they were not Hebraic Greeks. They were gentiles. Like when Paul, in a couple of chapters, will circumcise Timothy because everyone knows that his daddy is a Greek.
I’m convinced that we have some severe limitations in our understanding of the bible because of our linear, western way of thinking. We are programed to need an outlined paradigm that categorizes and makes sense of complicated things. And it inhibits our ability to see perhaps the fluidity of how the church grew and the gospel spread in the first century.
Our fellowship is part of a Restoration Movement theological school that leads us to conclude that the word came first to the Jews and then, not until Cornelius would the word finally go to the gentiles. That makes sense, it is what I’ve believed and taught most of my life, and I can’t prove… and wouldn’t want to prove… that it isn’t true. Peter makes a point that the gift given them was now given to the gentiles and that sways the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem to accept the gentiles.
But when you teach this way, you have to add in a mental step; a deduction that any gentiles converted before Acts 10 had to first become Jews and then they could get baptized. I’ve taught that for years, so much that I’ve never questioned it, and to this day I’ve always believed that that’s what scholarship has confirmed for centuries.
But this passage about the Cyprus and Cyrene mission team goes back to the dispersion, which happened long before Cornelius got baptized. “Some of them, however… went to Antioch” this was during the dispersion and is making a point out of the fact that they preached to gentiles.
Now maybe when some of those men from Cyprus and Cyrene fled from the persecution and instead of going back to Africa or to their island home made a bee line for this little city in the shadow of the mountains; maybe there were some folks who’d been healed by Jesus and were receptive to the message… you get the picture… but these Cy and Cy dudes, they preached to Greeks and maybe they made them become Jews first, and then baptized them. (Those who argue against baptism would say, “Why are you dragging water into the passage?” It’s my conviction that you can’t take water of any passages that has people becoming believers, but that’s for another time, too.) But we don’t have any indication that they made them convert to Judaism. In fact the next part about Barnabas heading up there implies it was just for this reason, something new, gentile converts, that drew Barnabas up to further instruct this young church; a church started totally by lay preacher disciples fleeing persecution.
So we’re making some deductions based on some assumptions. But never forget that when Peter preached on Pentecost, the kingdom, as far as God is concerned, was opened up to everyone, even if Peter and the apostles didn’t understand it. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Peter said in that sermon that the promise was for “… you, and your children, and for those who are far off…” .
The expression “those who are far off” was an expression reserved for the gentile world. On the day of Pentecost the message was clear about God wanting all men to be saved and come to understand the truth long before the apostles were able to understand it fully. It would take years of Samaritans, eunuchs, and a centurion before the Jerusalem gang would come around. And it took the miracle of Cornelius and the prominence of the holder of the keys to the kingdom, Peter, to get everyone to listen and change their minds and accept gentiles without burdening them with the law of Moses.
But what was going on in Antioch all those years? I don’t know, except for what it says, “the Lord’s hand was with them and many believed and turned to the Lord.”
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas…
I’ll say it again, Barnabas deserves his own show.
…to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Barnabas was certainly a special man. Look at what he’s doing in Antioch and in the middle of the wonderful work going on he gets this thought: You know who’d be good here?
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
This is a go-to memory verse these days. But try to look at it fresh. They were called Christ-like. You’ll hear sermon after sermon about whether that was meant as compliment, accusation or criticism. But whatever, they were called Christ-like.
We’ve now pretty much come to the real reason why I called this series “The Attempt”. That’s what life is all about, I believe. To attempt to do it right.
This is my goal in life: to attempt to live in such a way that before I die I can be called Christ-like. I know I’m not there yet, and will never be, completely. And that’s not false modesty. I’m scared of the word Christian in many ways. It’s means so much more than which box to check on a form that asks what “religion?” you are.
To be a Christian is meant to be, I believe, an aspiration; not something we can get lulled into believing we’ve already accomplished. It’s a life time of making every effort.
This is not in conflict with what it means to ‘be saved’, though that is a longer devotional, too. The most eternal definition for being ‘saved’ happens when we actually make it through those pearly gates. But of course I believe that when we are baptized into Christ we are made one with Him and are saved as long as we stay faithful. But baptism is just a step along the way. A HUGE step; an important and essential step; but just a step. To not do it is like saying I drove to St. Louis, but you never got in the car. To get in the car but stop driving… well … you see? … save this for another time? Let me stay on my point:
To be a Christian is the greatest of all attempts we’ll ever make. It’s not something that we do once and done. It’s a forever effort. It is, The Attempt.
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
I’m sure, if my attempt is successful and I complete this series as I mean to; I still will not be able to honor and remember and do justice to all of you who are donating your time and talent to our show. I sit with my laptop and tissues and meds and type and try to remember as much as I can; please forgive me if I leave out someone or something that I should have said. I know this is meant to be a devotional time to just read the book of Acts. I never like to waste and audience so I take the opportunity to ramble as often as I can. But ill prepared as I am, I’m sure to omit someone or something.
… look at that picture!! She doesn’t look old enough to have been my sister for as long as she has! Gia is going to make all of you look awesome on stage. There’s a lot of people involved in making that happen, but I have to thank one of my dearest friends who is assisting Gia, Beth Staff:
Beth was one of the first people to contact us and say that she wanted to help to make our show happen. She’s driven miles and miles all night long to meet and inspire us as we put this team together. Thanks so much Beth!
I asked Gia to put down her designs for a moment and lead us in prayer:
Dear God, Heavenly Father you are so awesome. Thank you so much for for all you have given us. I especially thank you for my talents and all the amazing people you have put in my life. Please be with all the details of our upcoming production Upside Down. Hope that I with your help, can bring all the characters to life through costume. Putting that together with the talents of the cast and crew we hope that everyone will be inspired to know you better
Thank you for the friendships that are being formed through these endeavors . God please provide this as a vessel for us to reach many people. We pray all this in your name Amen.
slj june 11th, 2016