It’s the last Sunday of the Easter season this week; next Wednesday, we will celebrate the Ascension, and a week from Sunday, Pentecost. But as we come to the conclusion of this season, I cannot help but reflect on the themes that came from the lectionary this year. As you would expect, many are about faith. But surprisingly, they were not about how we attain faith, but what we do with our faith. Whether that may mean being bold in our declarations of God, or reaching out in love for our neighbor, it is the theme of action which is the core of faith.
This is contrary to much of the current thought concerning the church. Like most in our society, the question of church and expectation of God comes down to that old line, “What’s in it for me?” Even in traditions like ours which shun a sense of “works righteousness,” we often are motivated by our own desires over our call to connect more deeply and fully with others.
This made sense in the context of the early church, since the early Christians were facing a world where they were truly countercultural. Their morals were focused on the corporate faith, not individual gain, which was the hallmark of the Roman Empire. Keeping everyone focused on themselves helped the Roman powers to keep people both happy and in fear¾happy for what they had, and fearful for what they could lose.
Those who had wealth lived to protect it, and those without lived in fear of persecution or death. So the countercultural corporate faith of the early church challenged this paradigm in very real ways, some of which we are being called to explore today.
Although contextually the time of the early church was different, it was still very similar to the world we live in today. As I read the story from Acts this week, I could not help but laugh. It is about an annoying person, an annoyed couple of disciples, an unjust legal system, fear, and ultimately redemption. I do encourage you to read Acts 16:16-34 . I think you’ll like it!
The thing that makes me laugh about this passage, other than hearing that Paul was annoyed and acted on it, was how similar it was to what often happens as we try to live out our faith. At some point in in our journey, we encounter a situation where we have to deal with very annoying people. We all know how frustrating that annoying person is, and can understand when Paul and Silas had enough and asked the spirit to shut the person up.
But what is interesting and gave me a chuckle was how God used the annoying person to ultimately bring another person to faith. This is not unique in the Bible, but it is interesting how a series of events can lead to something vastly different than what is expected. Over and over in the Bible, God shows us that his way is not ours. Moreover, it means that we are living not for our own wants and needs, but for God’s.
As for the implications of this for modern society, on a meta level, we can point to the rhetoric of the presidential election. But that is almost too easy! On a local level, we can look at our own neighborhoods and some of the real problems that are starting to arise. Whether that is the housing crisis, police-community relations, homelessness, homophobia, Islamophobia, or something else, when discourse breaks down, and especially when violence enters, it is when we are far more concerned with ourselves then we are with God and our neighbor. This is part of the power of the story from Acts. There is no question that Paul and Silas were wrongly imprisoned, but when they had their chance to “save themselves,” they did not, and as a result, they were able to bring a very important person to faith.
For a society based on what is best for the self, this does not mean much. But when we are living for something more, the fact that one more person came to believe means everything, because that helps others to strengthen their faith as well.
So as we think back over this Easter Season, and forward to the time of Pentecost, we must ask ourselves two fundamental questions: “How are we living for the Lord?” and “How are we called to live out our faith?” The way we answer those questions will make a big difference in how we prioritize our journey forward.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen