Acts: Love Trumps Hate

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest  and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.  “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

Acts is the second book in the New Testament attributed to Luke, and parts of it appear to be eyewitness accounts as a shift in syntax occurs midway through the book from third to first person plural. It begins with Jesus’s commission to “go and make disciples” and that’s what the book is about: the beginnings of Christianity, both its early successes and its setbacks. The first few chapters describe the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and a few of the “acts” of the original disciples, especially Peter. My favorite story in these earlier chapters is the account of Peter’s vision of the great sheet which Peter interprets to mean that the kingdom of God is open to all people who seek him, not just to observant Jews who follow all the rules. But it is Paul’s adventures which seem to dominate most of the book of Acts.

We first meet Paul in chapter 7, where he is a witness to (and apparently a cheerleader for) the stoning of Stephen. By chapter 8, he has become an active persecutor of the new faith, which he views as dangerously heretical. But in chapter 9, he undergoes a dramatic conversion and spends the rest of his life promoting the faith he once tried to exterminate, travelling throughout the known world. His adventures are detailed in the remaining chapters of Acts, which include acts of mob violence and police brutality, assassination attempts, and shipwreck. Although Luke ends Acts on the up note of  “for two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.  He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance” tradition tells us that he was executed shortly thereafter, probably during Nero’s reign.

So why did I choose such a deliberately provocative title for this post? It’s because as always, I find the Bible speaks to me at the point of my deepest need. I was stunned and disappointed by the results of the election, and I’m frightened about what may happen in the next few years.  Although Hillary had her faults, as we all do,  I think her heart and mind were in the right place, and I resonated to her vision of love and justice and inclusiveness. I try, and I think I can understand, the viewpoints of my conservative and libertarian friends who think less is more when it comes to government. What I can’t come to grips with is how so many people could have chosen someone whose rhetoric (whether he believes it or not) is so incendiary, cruel, and decidedly incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Do the ends justify the means? What does it accomplish to gain the whole world and lose one’s moral center?  Isn’t that what the third temptaion of Christ was all about?

What Acts says to me is that in the end, love will win, even if in the interim things get very unpleasant. There are people bent on evil in the Biblical sense- those who worship self-centered idols of pleasure, money, and power, those who don’t care what happens to other people as long as they get what they want.  There are well-meaning people who can cause terrible harm and suffering, perhaps more so than those obviously bent on doing bad things. There’s all the collateral damage to the little people just trying to live and love in their own lives who are unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. There are people who suffer precisely because they are trying to be kind and helpful and good.  Sometimes the world as it is seems awfully chaotic and random. But faith tells me that God is present, and still working to bring good our of evil, order out of chaos, love out of hate, and hope out of hopelessness. Sometimes this comes in surprising ways, as Paul found out on the road to Damascus. I’m sure neither Paul nor the people he was persecuting could have imagined that scenario. But often God shows up in less dramatic, even plodding ways: in simple acts of kindness by image-bearers who try  to follow the teachings of Jesus in loving their neighbors as themselves, and of not growing weary in doing good.

Stephen died a martyr, as eventually did Peter and Paul, but the teachings of Jesus continued to spread, and still do. Along the way, there has been a lot of backtracking and wandering off the path Jesus blazed for us and invited us to follow. Sometimes I think that the church today has gone as far off the rails as the medieval pre-Reformation church did.  The kingdom of God comes not by power and control, but by self-sacrificing love and servanthood. There is a moral arc to the universe, and it does bend toward justice, even if the curve is so slight as to be indiscernable to me.. God is still working, and he hasn’t given up on us yet. And that’s good news to me.

Joel: In a Time of National Disaster

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

This year marked the 15th anniversary of the  9/11 terrorist attacks, and as I read through Joel in my annual trek through the Bible, I couldn’t help but see a parallel. When disaster strikes, where is God?

The timing of Joel’s writing is uncertain, but his short book is written in response to an particular,  and unusually severe and  devastating plague of locusts. Interestingly, unlike most Biblical prophets, Joel doesn’t attribute this disaster to God. He doesn’t say that God sent or allowed this plague because of their unfaithfulness, or bad behavior toward their fellow men. He just uses some unforgettable poetic metaphors to describe how bad things are, and implores the people to call upon God as their only hope.

I’ve always liked the passage in Joel, which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost, for its inclusivity. The spirit of God is not limited by age or gender or ethnicity or station in life. It is available to everyone. And one day, God will put all things right that have now gone wrong. And that’s good news to me.