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Guilt by Association

Date: May 4, 2020

Acts 17:1-9

Sunday morning worship, May 3, 2020.

Posted by First Christian Church Butler Missouri on Sunday, May 3, 2020

It’s a staple in political campaigns. Candidates are criticized for the company they keep. In 2008, much was made of Barack Obama’s association with a former 1960s radical, not to mention his membership in a church with a pastor who had said some things in sermons that a lot of people found quite inflammatory. Similarly, we were subjected to quite a lot of salacious gossip in the 2016 election about who Donald Trump spent time with in his off hours. When a president is unpopular, Congressional candidates who have supported them—or even belong to the same party—are attacked for their association with that president, and it often works.

Is this fair?

When I was growing up, a lot of the teen girls’ fashion magazines had articles about our need to protect our reputations. We were cautioned to watch our behavior, lest we gain a reputation as, for instance, a drinker or drug user, or a gossip, or whatever. We didn’t want to have friends who were drinkers or drug users, or gossips, or whatever, either, because the fact that we hung around with people like that could result in people believing we also did those things. And we were told to be careful about who we chose to date, because if we dated the “wrong kind of boys,” the “right kind” wouldn’t want anything to do with us. (Back in those days there was never any mention in the magazines of girls who preferred to date girls, but my experience in high school was that girls who did things like play baseball were given that kind of reputation, and often bullied for it.)

Is this fair?

I think we could argue that guilt by association is very unfair. Why aren’t we judged by our own behavior and not the behavior of our friends and associates? But at the same time, a case can definitely be made that the choices we make about the friends we have, the people we choose to ally ourselves with professionally, say something about our character.

We’ve skipped quite a bit of Acts between last week and this week.

I think a big part of that is that the Narrative Lectionary includes readings from Acts between Easter and Pentecost all four years, and the people who created it wanted to emphasize certain stories in each season—and to connect those stories with readings from Paul’s letters. But I don’t pretend to know their mind, and I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of the way the Narrative Lectionary handles the Eastertide readings. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose; the reading before us today is the reading before us today.

A lot has happened between Acts 3, where we were last week, and today’s story in Acts 17. When the ethnically-Greek members of the community began to complain that they didn’t think their widows and poor were being treated equally in the daily food distribution, the apostles chose a group of men, themselves also ethnically-Greek, to be the first deacons. One of those deacons, Stephen, turned out to be a very gifted preacher, which got him the wrong kind of attention and led to his being the first Christian martyr, touching off a major persecution of the early Christian community. A young Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus was involved in this persecution, and then one day as he was traveling to Damascus to find Christians and arrest them, Jesus met him in a blinding vision. This man, who also went by a Roman name, Paul, was eventually ordained by the multicultural church in Antioch and sent out to bring the Gospel to Gentiles throughout the Roman world.

But his efforts bothered the believers in Jerusalem, because he wasn’t requiring the Gentile believers to become Jews, and resulted in their calling a special meeting to decide what to do. Ultimately they decided, after much prayer and deliberation, that what Paul was doing was indeed God’s will, that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism or follow the Jewish Law to become members of the church. The stage for that decision was actually set by Peter’s vision in which God showed him that what God has made clean should not be declared unclean by humans, and his subsequent encounter with a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius.

So all of that happened between where we left off last week and where we pick up this week. By now Paul is out on his missionary journey, and is in Asia, what we now call Turkey. His usual practice when he went into a community was to find the synagogue and begin by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews living in that community; this is what he did in Thessalonica, where today’s story takes place. Some of them became believers, but many did not, and some of the ones who didn’t objected to Paul’s message, and they often tried to stir up trouble for him and his associates, in this case Silas (known in Paul’s own writings as Silvanus).

So here in Thessalonica some of the Jewish people found a willing group of ne’er-do-wells in the town square and “set the city in an uproar,” as the text says.

By this point Paul and Silas had been there for at least three weeks and had not actually caused any particular trouble. They stayed with a man named Jason, probably one of the Thessalonian Jews—Acts doesn’t tell us anything about Jason, as though the first readers of Acts knew who he was so there was no need to describe him.

So this mob went looking for Paul and Silas, who’d been working and teaching without any controversy to this point, but they couldn’t find them. Luke doesn’t tell us why they couldn’t find Paul and Silas; maybe the Thessalonian believers had found them a secure place to hide, but we don’t know for sure. Since Luke also told us back in his Gospel about a pair of disciples who didn’t recognize Jesus even though he was walking right down the road with them (Luke 24:13-35), it’s not entirely unthinkable that what he had in mind was that God made it so the mob couldn’t recognize them. But we have no way of knowing because Luke doesn’t tell us.

Since the mob couldn’t find Paul and Silas, and they’d been whipped up into a frenzy where they thought they needed to do something to somebody, they instead grabbed their host, Jason, and some of the others who had become believers, and took them to the city authorities. They said, “These people, Paul and Silas, have come to our city, and their reputation as troublemakers preceded them. They are turning the world upside down, and Jason has been palling around with them and letting them stay in his house. He’s as guilty as they are.”

The city officials had Jason and the others post bail, and then he let them go. There’s no indication whether they later had to stand trial.

Presumably, Jason had been a reasonably respectable member of the community before this. But now he was in trouble, mostly because he chose to associate himself with Paul and Silas, and ultimately with Jesus.

Was this fair? Is guilt by association ever fair?

What do you think?

You know, we Christians are very blessed in this country. We have the freedom to believe as we choose and worship as we choose. This isn’t the case in some other parts of the world. In some places you can lose everything—even your life—if you’re accused and found guilty of being a Christian.

What if that were true here?

After 325, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending the persecutions that had taken place in various parts of the empire for centuries, the leaders of the church had a dilemma on their hands.

When there was a persecution in an area in the empire, Christians had a choice to make. They could either stand by their beliefs and be arrested, tortured, or even killed; or they could renounce their faith in Jesus Christ and go on their way.

After 325 it was safer to be a Christian, so many of those who had denied it in the face of persecution wanted to come back. But how could they be allowed back in as though nothing ever happened? To avoid guilt by association, these people had denied what should have been the most important thing in their lives, being followers of Jesus. The church had to decide what to do when these folks came back looking to re-activate their membership.

We’re very blessed here; while our culture no longer centers its belief system on the Christian faith, no longer makes it completely easy for us to live as believers, we are not actively persecuted. People might think we’re weird, but chances are we’re not going to be arrested or tortured or executed for it. But what if that were the case here as it was in parts of the Roman Empire before 325, or as it remains in many parts of the world even now?

If we were hauled up on charges for being Christians, followers of Jesus, would we be found guilty by association, or would the case be dismissed for lack of evidence?