We’ve looked at readings from the Psalms and Hebrew Scriptures for this week, so now we turn to readings from the New Testament. I invite you to read along with me as I reflect on these texts for this week. The readings this week remind me of the words of an early church father:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity . . . They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers . . . They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.” —Epistle to Diognetus 5
As you read Scripture along with me, I hope and pray it challenges you to consider what it means to see your citizenship in heaven and live by a different set of values than the prevailing ones of whatever culture you live in.
Let’s open our Bibles and explore its words of promise and challenge together.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Acts 23. I’m struck by how Paul does not just lay down in the face of persecution and injustice. Sometimes well meaning believers will think “turn the other cheek” means to accept abuse without resistance and to just accommodate unjust systems. Paul, however, follows the true meaning of Jesus’ words. In Jesus’ day, to turn the other cheek was to force your persecutor to look you in the eye and recognize your full humanity. It forced them to touch you not just with the hand reserved for touching inferiors but the hand for hailing superiors. Paul uses every nonviolent technique, legal tool, and tool of persuasion at his disposal to cause his persecutors to see him as a fellow equal, not deserving of harsh treatment. It reminds me that none of us need accept abuse or unjust systems but must find ways, like Paul and Jesus did, to make clear we are equally children of the Creator and deserve respect.
I remain amazed in reading Paul’s trial before Felix in Acts 24 that there are believers who can really read the examples of persecution faced by early Christians and still walk away not believing in separation of church and state. To me, these examples show us how dangerous and destructive wedding a faith to the government can be. You end up doing one of two things: on the one hand, you reduce that faith from a vital force to transform your life, family, & community through a breaking in of the divine into a cold dead accomplice of the state to bolster and defend the status quo. Or, you end up with the state becoming a tool of religious discrimination that not only abuses instead of protects religious minorities, but even places itself in opposition to new moves of God which come in each new generation. After all, these new moves of God are hard at first to recognize as God at work, for they rarely come wrapped in the old wine skins of official church orthodoxy but often the new wine skins of questioning and reform. Because of this, so often the established church fears when a new work of God enters the scene. History shows us when the established religion is given power to enforce its tradition by being wedded to the state, it uses that power to stamp out these new movements of God as in Paul’s day. Wedding faith and government together in this way can lead both instruments away from their intended purpose.
What strikes me in Acts 24:24-25:12 is how Paul creatively uses his hardship — imprisonment on false charges — to do something beautiful, spreading the message of God’s love even further. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to transform our trials into expressions of beauty. When we can learn to do so, I think this is a distinctively Christian response to pain and heartache. The cross, a symbol of Jesus’ shameful execution on trumped up charges, was turned by Christians into the symbol of undying hope because of their communal experience of this crucified one somehow beyond all hope alive and present in them. Bringing beauty out of suffering is a way we live a resurrection faith. How have you done this or seen others do this?