26 May 2019, 15:12
© Stacey Steck
In one sense, it is the most underwhelming of visions: there are no fearsome creatures, no natural disasters, not much symbolism to interpret, no threat involved. Simply “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” from the lips of the man of Macedonia. The dream was clear enough and understandable enough to get the job done, but as biblical visions go, it was pretty tame. And so Paul and his band of believers pack up their things and bring the Gospel to yet another part of the Roman empire, this time in what we would now call Europe, and more specifically northern Greece. They’ve been laboring in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, but this vision impels them to go west and so we read about the places through which they passed to arrive in one of the biggest cities of the region, Philippi, named after the son of a former emperor, a colony filled with ex-military types in retirement. And there they find Lydia, about whom we heard, who listens, is baptized, and opens her home to Paul and his companions.
If we were to read on, we would hear about Paul’s interaction with a slave girl in Philippi, whom he releases from spirit possession much to the chagrin of her owners who were profitably exploiting that situation. And we would hear about Paul’s time in prison in Philippi after he was charged with disturbing the city for casting out that slave girl’s spirit. And we would hear about the earthquake which released him and Silas from their chains and opened the doors to their cell, and how they prevented their Roman jailer from completing suicide and how they lead that man and his family to begin their journey as followers of Christ. And then we would hear about more of Paul’s exploits and how he finally ends up in Athens, in yet another Roman province, and still, still, we would be waiting to meet the man of Macedonia. You see, during the entirety of his time in Macedonia, at least in the parts recorded for us, Paul never meets up with the subject of his vision, the one who asked him for help. You keep reading and reading and expecting this great reunion where the identity of the man of Macedonia is revealed, a culmination of the episode in which he give thanks for what Paul has done for him, but it never comes. The character remains but a moment in a dream, and Paul is soon off to Athens to challenge the Athenians to embrace not an unknown God, but the God “who made the world and everything in it,” and we are left to wonder who the mystery man of Macedonia might have been.
One possibility is, of course, that he is Jesus, disguised perhaps as one of those whom he called “the least of these,” the unknown and the infamous, the faceless and disinherited who would have seemed not to deserve blessing and rarely received it. The appearance of Christ then in the form of a regular citizen could be some sort of a test of the Apostle’s newfound fervor for reaching the Gentiles with the good news of the Gospel. Sure, it’s easy to get excited about ministry when Jesus comes a-callin’, as happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, but what about when it’s those people who stand at the traffic light with a handwritten cardboard sign asking for your spare change? What about when it’s those members of your family who can’t seem to stay out of trouble and who keep coming to you for money, promising to pay it back, even though, like the man of Macedonia, you’ll never see it again. Sure, it’s easy to feel jazzed to do the Lord’s work when the Lord asks you, but when it’s one of “those” people? So maybe Jesus wants to see just how sincere Paul is.
Another possibility is that when they wrote down these stories, they just ran out of paper and couldn’t include everything that happened in Macedonia, no matter how good or interesting it may have been. In the Gospel of John, we are told that “if every one of the things that Jesus did were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” and though the library might be smaller for Paul, it would certainly be big enough. It may be that the identity of the man of Macedonia and the great reunion that took place are recorded in one of those books that never got written, in one of those volumes of incredibly valuable spiritual conversations and divinely inspired meetings for which there simply can never be enough paper. Even here, you can read about our ministry in our Annual Reports for last year, but know that what is written down there is just a fraction of the experiences of this group of Christians during the last year, and that everything you and we did in the name of Jesus Christ was worth writing down, but we just don’t have enough space to store that many books. And so, only some of the ways we have been the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County have been recorded for posterity, and perhaps like Paul’s meeting with the man of Macedonia, future generations of Thyatirans will look back and wonder, but never find, a record of what impelled us to take the steps we took in the year 2018.
Most likely of course, is that the “man” of Macedonia is Lydia, and he is the spirit possessed salve girl, and he is the Roman jailer, and he is the jailer’s family, and everybody else whom Paul and Silas met as they shared the gospel during their travels. Most likely, the man of Macedonia was every person in that region who needed to hear how his or her life could be transformed by good news, by the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who raises us to new life. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he pleaded -- they pleaded. Come over and help us make sense of our place in this world, come over and help us be liberated from the situations that keep us from being all that God intends us to be, come over and help us learn how to be a blessing to others. The call for help went out, in the form of a vision in the night, in a dream, and Paul recognized it and responded, and numberless men of Macedonia and numberless women and children of Macedonia had their hopes met and their prayers answered by the help Paul and his companions brought with them.
My hunch is that Paul probably never expected to meet the man of Macedonia, and probably was never disappointed if he didn’t. What I take from this is an important lesson for us today, that even though we may never come face to face with the person who inspired us, or who moved us to action, our ministry is still worth doing, even if we never get the gratification we might like to have. Paul was wise enough to discern from the vision that he was not to seek the man, but rather the ministry. In the way our society promotes the cult of personality, it is very easy to get caught up in the messenger rather than the message, to try to have our needs met through identifying ourselves with people who might as well be in a dream, instead of grounding ourselves in the call to serve and the one who has called us to serve. Paul could have spent his time in Macedonia searching for the man from his vision, but doing so would have meant missing the opportunities that presented themselves. He could have been so obsessed with meeting that man’s particular needs, or finding out what the man thought the Macedonians’ needs were that he would never have got around to meeting anyone’s needs. But instead, he was able to recognize the vision for what it was – God’s call to use the gifts he had been given – and responded to the vision using the gifts he had been given.
Let me give you a couple of tangible examples of what I like to call disinterested love or disinterested giving Paul was doing, and by disinterested, I do not mean uninterested, and I don’t mean self-interested. Self-interested love or giving is done so that we can get something for ourselves out of the transaction, whether that payback is a warm and fuzzy feeling or a kickback from a politician. Uninterested love or giving is a “going through the motions” kind of loving or giving. I’ll do it because I have to, but it doesn’t really mean all that much to me. But disinterested loving or giving is done not because it has to be done, but because it must be done, and it’s done without expecting anything in return. We get a glimpse of this kind of disinterested love and giving this Memorial Day weekend when we remember those who have given not only their service but their lives in our Armed Forces. Maybe their service was not completely unselfish, and maybe it wasn’t completely whole-hearted, but they were certainly giving far more than they were receiving, especially since what they gave was their lives. Thank God for that kind of disinterested love and giving.
We can see disinterested love and giving in our charity at home as well. It is an understandable, if lamentable, trend in charitable giving that increasingly donors want to give what are called restricted gifts, funds which can only be used for a more narrow purpose in the organization’s activities. Examples of such gifts would be scholarships, or teacher education programs, or a specific collection of books for a library. This trend is understandable because it speaks to the desire of the donor to invest in something meaningful for him or her, and to have a more personal connection with the institution to which the gift is made. The trend is lamentable because it suggests that one or more of the following motivations is at work, namely that the gift is only worth giving if it more narrowly gratifies the giver, or that the giver does not trust the administration of the gift. An unrestricted gift is a lot more nebulous, isn’t it? You don’t know exactly where or how the money will be used, or if it will be used responsibly, and even if it is reported to you that such and such activities were made possible by the gift, you can’t really take someone there and say, “This is what I was able to provide for this institution.” But an unrestricted gift implies a lot about the trust the donor has in the organization, that he or she believes that those charged with guiding the institution have the wisdom and the vision to use that gift to advance the overall well-being of the institution independent of the donor’s more specific interests.
I believe Paul was making an unrestricted gift to the Kingdom when he went to Macedonia and ministered to everyone but the man who called him there. Indeed, in the story just before this one, we are told that although Paul wanted to go to Asia to speak the Word, they were prevented from doing so by the Spirit of Jesus. It’s as if God was saying, I’ll receive your gift, but you’ll have to give it freely so that I can direct its use where I believe it is needed.” And Paul honored the Spirit and did not rebel against it. He did not place his own desires above those of his God and so he was led to offer the help the Macedonians needed. Sometimes it is tempting to offer ourselves only where we feel comfortable or when we are reasonably certain to gain something from the experience, or when we have an “interest” at stake. But the call to ministry, of an individual or a church, is a call to disinterested service, service which does not depend on our wants or needs but on those of God and those of the people in need. If that seems challenging, it is, but it is also the way of Christ, whose life and death demonstrated a disinterested form of love that we are called to follow. Christ was very interested in us, but practiced a disinterested love that lead him to the cross. Paul may have wanted to go to Asia, but he ended up in Macedonia because he was willing to practice a disinterested form of ministry. We may have our desires for how we want Thyatira to be in the future, but those desires must always be disinterestedly subordinate to what God has in mind for this community.
As Thyatira moves forward with God’s vision for our church as the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, it may well be that we will be faced with our own version of the choice of going to Asia or going to Macedonia, and if we choose the latter, of seeking the man of Macedonia, or ministering to all the Macedonians. I’m excited about seeing how God means more specifically to make us the good News Capital of Western Rowan County, but a little afraid of where that might take us. Hey, I want to be hang out in my comfort zone as much as the next person. And so I will need to trust that God will always be at our side to strengthen us for whatever form of service we are called to, no matter how far outside my personal comfort zone that may be. I hope you will be able to do the same. May God bless us as Paul was blessed when he responded to the vision of the mystery man of Macedonia. Amen.
19 May 2019, 16:01
Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35
© Stacey Steck
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” God says to John, “the beginning and the end.” The beginning and the end of everything, of the world, of the discussion. But sometimes I wonder if we think that God is only the beginning and the end, and not everything in the middle. Sometime we act as if, having been given a beginning, we are free agents until our end, and that our time, talent, and treasure is our own, to do with as we please. But no, we must proclaim, when God speaks of being the Alpha and the Omega, what it really means is everything in-between. Nevertheless, there are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet, and God has claimed only two of them for the divine use: Alpha, the first, and Omega, the last. That leaves 22 letters for the rest of us. But here’s an interesting fact about those twenty-two letters. No matter how you arrange them, they only spell one word. And that word is “love,” not only because the Apostle Paul has used a lot of letters in First Corinthians to tell us that, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love,” but also because Jesus said to his disciples, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And when we consider just how thoroughly Jesus has loved us, it will take all of those other twenty-two letters to do the job. And so, if God is the Alpha and the Omega, let me suggest that we are the saints of the middle of the alphabet who are called to love from beginning to end, as Jesus has loved us.
Maybe it takes twenty-two letters to spell love because if there is a word in the Christian vocabulary more stripped of meaning in the centuries between when Christ spoke it, and when we are considering it, I’m not sure what it is. The old saying goes, “Love is a many splendored thing,” and that is surely true, but it is also a “thing understood in a great many ways.” The word love is used to talk about our feelings in relationships, from family to romance to lust. It is used to signify that we really like something; like I love cheesecake and deviled eggs. It can be used to express our admiration for ideas, incapable of reciprocation, as in “I love my country.” Perhaps we owe the variety of its usage to the Greek language itself which has three words that are commonly translated into English as “love,” but which are not as identical to one another as our one word “love” might suggest. Yes, love is an overused word and under-practiced behavior, despite being commended to us by the very author of love, Jesus himself. But since he has made it a subject of such great value, it is important for us to dig through the rubble to find what is really useful to live out his command.
We’ll not do that this morning by going back over the difference between the New Testament Greek words of eros, filios, and agape, but rather by visiting the future as it was described to John of Patmos in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. I want to do that because it is very easy to get bogged down by definitions and expressions of love and never get around to the living out of it, and that, I think, is the heart of what Jesus was sharing with his disciples that night. You see, the night on which he gave that new commandment was the night on which one of them would betray him, one of the many who said, with great loyalty, “Surely not I, Lord.” To be sure, loyalty is an expression of love, but love must go farther than that, into the kind of action that washes feet, and carries a cross, and proclaims good news. So what does the coming of the new heaven and new earth tell us about loving one another? I’ll tell, I’ll tell you. But before I do, let me just say that the reason we look to the book of Revelation for our clues is because this vision lays out for us God’s priorities, the basis for God’s idea of love, lest we confuse our ideas of love with God’s. Our priorities are so often to hoard love rather than give it away, protect it rather than promote it, expect it rather than project it. But in John’s vision is the antithesis of all that. And so that is where we must begin. And that vision is also somewhere in between the alpha of Christ’s first coming, and the omega of his final coming, an age in which we too find ourselves called to be faithful. Jesus is no longer here to take us by the hand, and so we need some other resources, and this vision is a good one.
The vision John of Patmos records, the one that we call the book of Revelation, was given in a time of empire running amuck. The virtues and the vices of the Roman Empire are well documented, and Christians were not exempt from either. The Gospel spread quickly through the Roman Empire because its roads were good, but the Church suffered mightily because it appeared to be a threat to the very order that produced those roads. All religions were tolerated, including Christianity, as long as none tried to usurp the claim the Emperor made as the Son of God. And so, Christians found themselves on the wrong end of a system that did as it pleased to anyone it pleased, usually at a high price to those who could least afford it. But you couldn’t really talk about it, not without getting into even more trouble, and so God provided a way to make a contrast between the life and love Jesus brought to the world, and the death and destruction the empire brought to the world. And so the vision, Code Name: Babylon, was given. Babylon, you may remember, was that ancient city in what is now modern-day Iraq, the city from which came the armies that ended the kingdom of Judah nearly five hundred years before the time of Jesus, and sent God’s people into exile. And since it had played such a prominent role in the memory of God’s people, it served as the perfect metaphor for the current competitor to God’s kingdom, and it allowed the church some cover to proclaim God’s victory over all such competitors without having to name any of them. And described in the chapters immediately preceding what we have read this morning is the fall of Babylon, and all the horrors associated with it. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great…Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city. For in one hour, your judgment has come.” And so, the old, worn out creation with its center of that old, wicked city, is replaced by the new, glorious creation, and it wondrous, holy city: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
And so, our first clue about how to love between the Alpha and the Omega is that it must be concerned with overcoming the death and despair peddled by any empire, any institution, any church, any family, any self that pretends to compete with God’s vision for its human community. God is the beginning and end of all things, but not everyone acknowledges that, not everyone acts like its true. Most of the time we don’t! And so we must be ever watchful of ourselves and of those groups of which we are a part for when we do as empires do: when we treat people as it pleases us to treat them, rather than how Christ would treat them, how Christ loves them; when we exact a price in a relationship that is too high, when we demand too much from someone who cannot possibly fulfill our expectations. I remember one Sunday during Seminary when I was a guest preacher at a local church. And after I had given the sermon and sat down, the elders of the church took over to celebrate Communion. And as they marched down the aisle to the front of the church to begin serving, the old woman next to me who was helping to lead the service leaned over and whispered, none too quietly, in my ears, “Just look at ‘em, the little Napoleons.” In her none too gracious expression of disgust, she showed that she recognized the emperor in others, but not in herself. It is just as hard to confront the tyrant in ourselves as it is the tyrant in the palace.
So, the New Jerusalem supplants the old Babylon, life replaces death, justice prevails over oppression, all great stuff, but just how does that work? What does it mean for you and me and the rest of the saints of the middle of the alphabet? How do we do that? How do we love? Well, we love in the ways God shows love coming down with that holy city. The first way is that we recognize that God isn’t taking us anywhere, but rather that God is coming back to us. When it is all said and done, God redeems all creation, declares it very good once again, comes down from heaven to dwell with us, it says in the text, to dwell with us. Maybe you recognize that phrase from the beginning of the Gospel of John where it says that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to dwell with us, literally, to pitch his tent with us. Not to make a pit stop or a presentation, but to live side by side with us, to be our neighbor, our friend, our co-worker, our fellow sufferer and celebrant of life. God has, and God will again, make a home among us. And in the meantime, God calls us to live side by side amongst those same people. We love when we stop and really, really get to know people, when we get past the superficial question and answer stage of “Hi, how are you? Oh, I’m fine, thanks, and you?”, to a kind of concern which doesn’t need to ask the question, because it sees the state of the life, the soul, of the other in their eyes. We love by being constant, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love. We love by allowing people to be who God has made them to be, instead of what we think they ought to be. We love by bringing casseroles to church dinners and grieving families. We love by showing our children and grandchildren what love looks like in the relationships in their lives, how we treat each other as spouses and brothers and sisters ourselves. We love by opening ourselves to what others have to teach us, by being vulnerable, even by risking getting hurt when we put ourselves out there.
You see, being hurt is nothing new. It won’t kill us. It might sting for a minute or it might have us down for a decade, but you know what? There is someone there to wipe every tear from our eyes, someone to remind us that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, that the first things have passed away. Is it Jesus? No, it’s not Jesus with a handkerchief. It’s you and me, and other people who have learned how to love. Maybe the people who know best how to love are those who have experienced the most pain and sorrow in their lives, and who have found the comfort described in our passage this morning offered by an unexpected other. Those who love are those who have experienced, one way or another, through one person or another, little by little, sorrow by sorrow, the one who sits on the throne and proclaims, “See, I am making all things new,” because they have seen things become new in their own lives, and are a living testimony. The famed preacher David Buttrick makes this observation about the new Jerusalem: “Now, do you want to know a secret? Making new; that’s what’s going on in the world; that’s what’s happening. The Holy City is not future perfect -- it’s present tense. Now the Holy City is descending. Now God is making things new. Right now God is wiping tears and easing pain and overcoming the power of death in the world. Now! There’s nothing otherworldly about the vision; it’s happening Now in the midst of our worn, torn, broken world. And with the eyes of faith, you can see it happening.”
It is said that John, the disciple who first recorded Jesus’ words, in his old age would remind those around him to love one another. When questioned why he told them this so very often, his reply would be, “Because it is what our Lord commanded. If it is all you do, then it is enough.” God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between. But you and I are there in the middle of it all, loving, because it is what our Lord commanded. And if it is all we do, then it is enough, and God’s vision is fulfilled, now and forever more. Amen.
05 May 2019, 08:24
© Stacey Steck
Another week, another school shooting, this one a little too close to home. Two people dead and four injured at the hands of someone who apparently thought he had nothing to lose but his life, and I guess that didn’t matter too much either. And so he took the lives of people who matter to someone, and who matter to God, and, in the big picture, must matter to us all. People with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world, aren’t they?
This morning, we are introduced once again to the character of Saul, the Pharisee who would have loved Guantanamo Bay. As a frontline agent in a first-century War on Terror, Saul could have used such a place to detain the Christians he tracked down for daring to have an allegiance at odds with his own. Notwithstanding the story of Stephen, one of the earliest martyrs who was simply stoned to death in the street, we might imagine that post-capture, there was some interrogation taking place, some attempts to smoke the terrorists out of their “caves,” or the other such places in which Peter and the other disciples were camped out. Then, after all the information was extracted, the punishment could be meted out, maybe even without the secret and shady trial Jesus received. After all, since he had already been convicted, his fellow co-conspirators would be too. Why bother with due process or pesky little things such as truth or evidence. These people had to be eliminated. They were a threat. They were willing to do anything for their God, even die. From Saul’s perspective, they had nothing to lose, not even their lives, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.
In the early days of the church as recorded in Acts, we get a picture of what the early Christian community was like, what they valued, how they conducted themselves. These were a people empowered by the Holy Spirit who had given them the power to heal the sick with their touch, as Peter did with a crippled beggar. These were people who had overcome the powerful sentiment of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,” and, overcoming it, had decided to share their goods in common, that all might eat. These were a people who publicly proclaimed that they owed an allegiance to a higher authority than the emperor or the high priest when they said, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” These were a people who dared to speak the truth to power and criticize those responsible for the death of Jesus, saying, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” These were a people who did not have a fear of death, that most valuable instrument of torturers everywhere, that understandable human desire to cling to life that has caused many a torture victim to reveal information. Such a people, such an Easter people, had to be eliminated, they were a threat, they were dangerous, for they had nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.
The world doesn’t know what to do with people as dangerous as that, with World War II Japanese kamikaze pilots willing to make suicide runs that crash their planes into the sides of ships, with the David Koreshes of the world who don’t surrender when surrounded by the FBI, the ATF, and half a dozen other government agencies, with fundamentalist Islamists who strap explosives on their bodies and detonate them in crowded marketplaces, with the campus, concert, and church shooters that seem to be multiplying like weeds. The world doesn’t know what to do with these people who act like they have nothing to lose, and so the world does what it does best when it cannot comprehend something: it exerts its will and unleashes its violence and tries to put an end to what it feels is threatening it. Sometimes that violence works and the threat goes away, but most times the threat just grows and grows and justifies yet more violence in a never-ending spiral of death and destruction.
And so at the beginning of our story in Acts this morning we find Saul acting out the world’s fear. That he is doing it on the part of the religious establishment rather than the political order need not concern us. In those days, the leaders of the religious establishment had a symbiotic relationship with their Roman overlords, and keeping the peace, even in this vigilante style, was part of the price of occupation. If Caiaphas the high priest couldn’t keep things under control, the Romans would find someone else who could, and so it was in the best interests of those like Saul to quash anything that resembled a threat to their privileged position. And Saul has been successful in his anti-terror campaign and he’s on his way to smoke out of their caves even more of the faithful when he meets his maker on the road to Damascus and suddenly everything changes, the persecutor becomes the persecuted, and the man with everything to live for now has nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.
At first glance, it might seem strange to describe Christians as people with nothing to lose, especially when we consider the experience of the early church, and perhaps our own experiences of church, both good and bad. The pictures of the Easter community we glimpse in Acts are wonderful, the kind we’d want to hold on to: we read that “the whole group of those who believed…were of one heart and soul…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” That sounds like something worth living for! That sounds like Thyatira! Those of us who have experienced church conflict know just how valuable are those moments and seasons of unity and oneness of Spirit. God has given us the wonderful gift of community and it’s worth holding on to.
Yet at the same time, we know that this community is but a foreshadowing of a banquet even grander, the one to which all the saints of every time and place are invited. We know that since Christ is the first-born of the dead, we will follow as his risen siblings. We know there is a new Jerusalem a-comin, one with a river of life as bright as crystal and streets paved with gold transparent as glass. We know, as Jesus reminded us, “that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” and that “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We know all of these things and we know that we’ve already gained far more than we could ever hope for from a source which will never take it away, never take it away, and so we are able to live life as if we have nothing to lose, and you know that people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world.
I’ll bet you thought you didn’t have a single thing in common with that UNC Charlotte shooter, that man with nothing to lose. But you do. The truth is that we have a lot in common. He has family. We have family. He got angry. We get angry. He got frustrated. We get frustrated. We’re a lot alike. Yes, there’s a difference. We haven’t grabbed our guns and shot anyone. But let me suggest that not only do we have something in common with him, but that maybe we should have even more in common with him than we think. That we should make it our business to be as dangerous as he is. Because we too have nothing to lose. When you’ve gained it all, what is there left to lose?
Do you feel dangerous? Do you feel menacing? Are people afraid of you? Does anyone perceive you as a threat to their well-being or national security? Does the government have a “file” on you or Thyatira? They had a file on Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who led a people with nothing to lose. Christian leaders in places like China are watched by their governments because they lead churches full of people with nothing to lose. You see, the mere existence of people who are determined that “we must obey God rather than any human authority” and who act in decidedly countercultural and non-violent ways, is just cause enough for persecution and violence. Imagine what awaits those who have the audacity to proclaim aloud and publicly the value of human life over economic interests, the power of God over the power of the state, and the witness of grace and forgiveness over fear and violence.
The early church must have been doing something right. You know you are on the right path when the powers that be get provoked to action against you. From a certain perspective, the early church really was like a religious terrorist group whose behavior confronted the dominant culture in a very challenging way. Mind you, it was the peaceful nature of the movement that caused so much turmoil, and not any violence, but it nevertheless created quite a stir among those with the power to do something about it. You see, the impulse to cling to life no matter the price, that best instrument of the torturer, is the same impulse to seek life that is authentic and compassionate and just. And given the choice, most people would choose the life demonstrated by the early Christian community over that of Empire or that represented by those who sold out the lives of others to save their own, as did Caiaphas and his lot. Empires and fiefdoms don’t stand a chance without the odds stacked in their favor by violence and persecution. And so they use the means at their disposal to dispose of the threat.
It so happens in this story that God put an end to one persecutor’s anti-terrorism career, but like the mythical beast of the hydra, multiple heads spring forth when you cut off one. There is never a shortage of troops for such a purpose. Indeed, Saul, who we will come to know as Paul in subsequent chapters, finds that he now has nothing to lose and is therefore a threat worth eliminating. God even promises him a life of persecution when Jesus tells Ananais, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Be that as it may, there is still far more power in the hearts of those with nothing to lose than in all the weapons of Empire, and the fact that we read today of Paul’s new identity and not Caesar’s iron rule tells us much about that power. Paul’s own life tells us that God has not left us defenseless even if our shields don’t ward off physical blows. God has not left us unprepared for the battle, even if our weapons are but love and grace. Indeed, Christians are the most dangerous people on the planet, if we really practice what Jesus preaches.
You may be flashing back to the beginning of this sermon when I named such people like campus shooters and kamikaze pilots as dangerous people with nothing to lose, and then went on to identify ourselves as being in the same lot. What should cause you concern is not that the church may actually be like those people and those groups who return violence with violence, or that Empire doesn’t really care if there is a difference between types of dangerous people and punishes both equally. What should concern you is if there is no one after you, if you are not on anybody’s terrorism watch list. Is your lifestyle as a Christian a threat to anyone? Does it make people question their choice for the values of Empire or do we make it easy for them by living those values in our own lives? Remember what distinguished the apostles and their followers. Remember what made them dangerous in the eyes of Saul and Caesar. Remember that it was that they loved one another in such an authentic and sincere and genuine way that people could see a real alternative for their communities and were choosing it.
On the road to Damascus, Paul learned that he had nothing to lose, that on account of the same Jesus Christ he was persecuting, he had gained the life Christ died to give him, a life about which he could later say, in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.” Indeed, for as many people as he had killed and imprisoned, Paul was far more powerful and dangerous a man as a Christian than as a Pharisee. He was the best kind of dangerous, a peaceful and loving witness that helped people like us know that we have nothing to lose. May God help us to be as dangerous as Paul, because, you know, people with nothing to lose are the most dangerous people in the world. Amen.