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two questions I need to keep asking

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I am reading through the book of Acts. It is an account of the beginnings of the early Christian church. It is jam-packed with adventure, action, and amazing stories. Take Acts 16 for example. The summary or thesis statement of this chapter could be identified in this sentence in verse 5: "Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size." But what exactly does "becoming stronger and larger" look like in practice? Not quite the continuous upward trajectory that we might envision. The details are found in the remainder of the chapter.

1. Paul and Silas set out on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus. 
2. They plan to go into Asia province but the Holy Spirit blocks them (really?).
3. They try to go north to Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus won't let them go there either.
4. So they go on to Troas and there Paul has a dream in which a Macedonian says, "Come over and help us!"
5. So Paul and Silas travel to Macedonia and arrive at Philippi.
6. On the Sabbath, they go down to the river and meet with the women who have gathered there.
7. A woman named Lydia hears what is being said and believes in Jesus, gets baptised, and invites Paul and Silas to her home. (Her home becomes the meeting place for the Philippian church).
8. Some days later, when Paul and Silas are on their way to a place of prayer, a slave girl (working as a psychic for her masters) starts to follow them, shouting, "These men are working for the Most High God!" After a few days of this, Paul turns to the girl and commands the evil spirit to leave her and it is gone, just like that.
10. The owners of the slave girl are upset because their source of income has disappeared, so they drag Paul and Silas into the market, rough them up, and turn the crowd against them.
11. Paul and Silas are arrested for disturbing the peace, beaten, and thrown into jail and put into leg irons.
12. Around midnight, Paul and Silas are praying and singing a robust hymn to God. The other prisoners are astonished. 
13. An earthquake shakes the prison and every cell door flies open, leaving the prisoners free to go.
14. The jailer awakens, sees the open cell doors and, knowing the loss of the prisoners will in all likelihood cost him his life, is about to kill himself when Paul stops him, saying, "Don't do that! We are all still here!"
15. The jailer runs to Paul and Silas and drops to his knees, asking them, "Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?" They reply, "Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus."
16. The jailer puts his trust in Jesus and he and his entire household are baptised. The jailer dresses Paul and Silas' wounds, sets out a festive meal, and they celebrate together.

Often this story is told with an emphasis on how God sets Paul and Silas free from prison. Indeed, that is a good part in the story, but it is only a part. I believe it is important to note that the strengthening and growth of the church included a lot of ups and downs, a lot of detours where people tried things and they didn't work out. There was uncertainty about how to proceed, there were arguments and disagreements and fractured relationships (Read Acts 15). People were beaten and arrested. Officials as well as crowds of everyday people got angry and violent. In the midst of it all, there were many people who heard the good news of Jesus and put their trust in Him. I ended the story at a positive point in the narrative, but the book continues with more ups and downs, more disappointments and beatings and suffering. And yet, Paul and Silas keep going.

Because we in the West currently live in relative peace and enjoy a lot of religious freedom, we can be surprised and appalled when faced with trials and suffering. We are perhaps too accustomed to a triumphalist gospel, a prosperity gospel, a gospel which is supposed to make everything okay. But that is not the gospel which Paul and Silas were so passionate about. I don't know that they ever asked questions like: What caused people to turn against us? Will this affect how many people come to our church meetings? Why are we suffering? Why doesn't God do something about the evil out there? Where is justice? These questions, interesting as they are, are not all that helpful in showing us how to live.

In a short video found here, Father Rob Ketcham talks about the tendency we have to be upset by a culture which is increasingly ambivalent or antagonistic regarding matters of faith. He identifies two questions which bring us back to what is important. 

The first is this: 1) What are we for? In other words, what is God calling us to? What is our vocation? For Paul and Silas, it was to tell the good news of Jesus. No matter what they encountered, whether it was their travel plans being thwarted by the Holy Spirit (confusing), whether it was a new church started at Lydia's house (encouraging), whether it was being arrested and beaten (painful), they never stopped being witnesses to Jesus. This was their calling, to bring freedom in Jesus (to the slave girl, to the jailer and his family, to women like Lydia), and it directed them every day. 

The second question is this: 2) Do we love God? We can fight against evil and injustice and enter into debates about this controversy or that controversy, but the ultimate question is not how hard we push or fight for change in our world, but do we love God? And the next question is, what does it look like to love God? In Acts 16 it looks like prayer, like worship, like a robust hymn sung while bleeding in a jail, like faithfulness, like saying Yes to God's call over and over again, like not giving up when things get hard, and perhaps especially like loving everyone whom God loves, even our jailers and those who seek to do us harm. In the ups and downs of following Jesus, when we come across opposition, disappointment, and even terrible tragedy, we must remember the important questions which will keep us from getting distracted or confused, the questions which never change: What are we for (what is our vocation)? and do we love God? The answers will determine not only what we do but what kind of people we become in the process. 

YHWH the Lord says: "So don't be afraid. I am here, with you; don't be dismayed [intimidated] for I am your God. I will strengthen you, help you. I am here with My right hand [of blessing and strength] to make right and to hold you up... After all, it is I, the Eternal One your God, who has hold of your right hand, who whispers in your ear, "Don't be afraid. I will help you." (Isaiah 41, adapted from The Voice and God's Word Translation)

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thank you Matte!

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