David A. Davis
November 6, 2022
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With this story of Paul and Barnabas in the 13th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we are continuing to encounter stories this fall of the preaching, teaching, and ministry of the leaders of the early Christian Church. We are also continuing to encounter a consistent theme. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the apostles move about tell the story of Jesus and proclaiming the gospel. They are met by receptive and ever-growing crowds yearning to hear more about the grace and power of God. Again and again the religious leaders among the Jewish people are overcome with jealousy, sense the very real threat to their power and authority, and are determined to silence the rabble rousers by any means necessary. With the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the Risen Christ, the preachers, the teachers, the church, the movement that is the gospel of Jesus Christ just doesn’t stop.
In this morning’s text Paul and Barnabas are about to head out after Paul’s tour de force sermon on salvation history in the synagogue at Antioch. The people urged them to come back on the next sabbath day. Luke tells the reader that “the next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” If the whole city, when the whole city turns out, the religious leaders are not going to like it. Paul and Barnabas strongly respond to the rejection and the hostility and decide it is time for them to move on to the Gentiles. Those same religious leaders stir up powerful and important people to unleash persecuting forces determined to toss those preachers, those teacher, those apostles out of town. As they move on to Iconium, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” and hey shook the dust of their feet.
Shaking dust. “They shook the dust of their feet in protest”. You will remember Jesus used that expression in his teaching to the disciples. Earlier in Luke when Jesus sent the twelve to bring the good news, Jesus 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.” (9:5) Again in Luke when Jesus sent out the newly appointed team of 70, he told them what to say if they were not received. The words have a bit more of an edge. “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you. Yet know this, the kingdom of God has come near.” (10:11)
Scholars and commentators say surprisingly little about Jesus and his use of the expression “shake the dust off your feet”. The idiom may stem from the ancient practice of a Jewish person cleansing feet after traveling the unclean path of Gentile soil. Some scholars then suggest Jesus is making a not so subtle dig at keepers of the law telling the disciples to shaking the dust off on Jewish soil in response to the rejection and lack of hospitality. Many who write about the phrase focus in the area of evangelism and spreading the gospel and openness or the lack thereof to the Word proclaimed. A few commentators work to soften view any sense of judgment when shaking dust “in protest against” or “in judgment of the other”. I wonder if the use of the phrase may also be more metaphorical. An expression, an image that leans into the persistence, courage, and determination ever so necessary when it comes to preaching, spreading, living the gospel. Jesus giving a nod to how this gospel life won’t always be easy rather than Jesus doubling down on a sort of “I am done with you and you are going to hell” approach. Shaking dust,
After Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the temptation of the devil, when the devil had finished every test, Jesus returned to Galilees and he began to teach in all their synagogues. Jesus went right at it. That’s Jesus shaking dust. It is Luke who tells of Jesus not being welcomed in his hometown of Nazareth. The people are filled with rage and drive him out of town and try to toss him off a cliff. Jesus passed through them and went on his way. The next verse Luke writes that “Jesus went down to Capernaum…and was teaching on the sabbath.” Jesus kept at it. That’s shaking dust. When Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke, his first stop was Samaritan village where people did not receive him. James and John wanted the judgement and hellfire. Jesus rebuked them and went straight on to another village. Shaking dust. Along the way down the Mt of Olives, you remember the whole multitude of the disciples were praising God and shouting in in a loud voice. Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to make them stop. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out”. And then Jesus kept going up to Jerusalem weeping for the city as he went. Jesus shaking dust, not in his rebuke to the Pharisees, but in his still going up, still heading to the cross. A persistence, a bold courage, and unyielding determination to live for the gospel and the affirmation that the reign of God is here. Shaking dust.
If you have not read Dr Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from start to finish you should go to the Nassau website today, click on congregational life-small groups-more info-scroll down to this fall’s study guide and find the link to King’s Letter. Small groups and adult education participants read the letter this week. At one point King writes about the power of the early church during persecution and suffering. “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than [humankind]”. That’s Dr. King on the church in the Book of Acts and “shaking dust’.
Dr. King’s letter written from a cell in August 1963 in response to a published statement of concern from a group of white religious leaders has become over the decades an open letter to the church of Jesus Christ in America. The letter itself is a profound example of “shaking dust”. Making it clear that the silence, indifference, or opposition to civil rights and racial justice will not impede the movement of the gospel, the reign of God. “even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom… If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” A persistence, a bold courage, and unyielding determination to live for the gospel and the affirmation that the reign of God is here. Shaking dust.
This Sunday closest to All Saints Day, we read the list of names of those in our community of faith who have died in the last year. This morning Lauren and I will read 28 names. Last year there were 19 names. The year before that 21. When you listen to the names, the names of the saints, allow the words of scripture in Timothy to echo: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” To listen to the names is to remember that not all the saints were martyrs, not all the saints were the ones named in history. Rather the communion of saints, the list of those who have fought the fight, finished the race, kept the faith, most of the list, most of the communion of saints, most of those who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith are people like us, people like the ones we love whose names you will hear from the Table. And to fight good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith, you will have more than your share of shaking dust.
Like a coach encouraging the little league batter who got plunked with pitch to “run it out”, like the loving parent at the playground softly asking a fallen child, “if they want to rub some dirt on it”, like the best friend who promises the one with a bruised heart that “tomorrow will be a better day”, allow the voice of Jesus to echo and lift your soul, strengthen your heart, anoint your faith afresh. “Shake the dust” Not in judgment or protest but in perseverance and with bold courage and determination to press on. Jesus in his words and in his actions taught the disciples and taught you and me that now then you have shake the dust.
Whether working a life time for racial justice or daring to do sit in the cafeteria next to the kid everyone else has shunned. Whether speaking up again and again for those who have no voice, those the world can never seem to see or finding the strength to rise another day though the grief is so raw. Whether working for years to free one more wrongly convicted after 28 years or making the visit to that lonely neighbor part of the weekly routine. Whether it is speaking over and over again for the right thing to do at work or offering to sit with a campus friend whose parent is in surgery hundreds of miles away. Whether it is reaching down deep to take on the powers and principalities of this world or simply finding, in Dr. King’s words, “the strength to love”. Whether it is shouting from a rooftop in gratitude to God or barely whispering because you’re convinced God no longer cares. All of it, every part of the call to live the gospel life, to be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple, to live in his name, it is going take perseverance, bold courage, and unyielding determination. And yes, every now and then, you have to shake the dust.
So fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith, and along the way, come to Table to feast and be nurtured for the journey. Come to the table and shake the dust.