Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
1 May 2022
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Wednesday of this past week marked Yom HaShoah, the day when Jews remember the holocaust. While I was born well after the war, I have always known the holocaust to be part of my history as well, for it was my grandparents who lived in Germany during the holocaust and who were bystanders to it. The same can be said for much of the church in Germany at that time.
On Tuesday evening the youth at Beth Tikvah gathered to observe Yom Hashoah. In her brief address the rabbi raised the question of why one would want to be Jewish if the world hates you. Why not be like everyone else? A question appropriate for the context. Appropriate also in light of the history of antisemitism that goes back not only to the pogrom of Alexandria in the year 38 AD but all the way back to Persia in the fifth century BC, in the story told in the Book of Esther, and of increasing antisemitism today.
Why would one choose a hard life when one could choose an easy, or at least easier life?
It is common wisdom that humans generally navigate life by choosing the path of least resistance.
In a recent piece on the influence of money in our lives, writer Andy Crouch tells of the time friends helped him and his wife move into their first apartment. He tells of heavy and large items being carried up impossibly narrow stairs. He says that to this day he owes his friends his thanks and his affection. To be a friend, he says, is to be intertwined with someone else.
He then tells of another move a few years later. That move was paid for by his wife’s new employer. The professional movers went through the same ordeals that their friends had gone through a few years earlier but he cannot remember their names, or even a hint of their faces. He concludes that this is the power of money: It allows us to get things done, often by means of other people, without the entanglements of friendship.1
When looking at the witness of the scriptures we see that God never chooses the easy way. This begins with the creation of human beings in God’s own image. It is the beginning of God’s relationship with humanity. It is deepened in the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, with the people Israel, and with the church. The people God created and loves are forgetful, often unfaithful, slow learners, and often more committed to their personal goals than to the life God has called them to. If God had wanted it easy, God would not have made us.
In God’s persistent love for Israel and for the church we see that it is when love informs our decisions that we will not choose the easier way but we will do what is required to be faithful to those we love, and to the God we love. Our relationships inform our decisions. That our relationships inform our decisions may not always result in good decisions but when they are motivated by love we don’t make them simply for our own sake. Of course, this is also true for anyone who has sheltered or aided people who are persecuted. And these are the people we would like to be like, they are our moral examples.
I am not sure whether the Apostle Paul had a cushy job before Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Perhaps persecuting people brought it’s own hardships, and especially the breathing of threats and murder. But I imagine that his job was a relatively safe job, especially since before Constanine Christians would not raise arms.
This was in the days of the Roman Empire, but you are never entirely safe from a totalitarian government. But at least Paul was on the right side of power and Paul was a Roman citizen. Usually our lives are safer when we are on the side of power, because those who have power expect those without power to dance to their tunes. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that in our world, if you aren’t strong enough or smart enough to verify your ideas by putting them into effect, then you have no business saying how things should be in the first place: follow somebody else …2
I think that tradition has usually focused on the miraculous of Paul’s experience, as well as on his personal conversion away from persecution to a life in the service of Jesus. But there is another aspect we may have neglected. Paul trades what I would deem a relatively safe life on the side of power for a life of insecurity and risk. Paul turns from persecuter into persecuted. And that brings us back to our initial question of why one would choose such a life.
Paul trades power for powerlessness and safety for persecution. In Philippians Three Paul writes, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”
This is of course, the same Paul who a few verses earlier admonishes the Philippians to let the mind of Christ who emptied himself dwell in them.
There is a school of thought that believes that western Christians have had it pretty easy. Although, there are challenges, they are different and perhaps often hidden.
But we haven’t faced persecution and only recently has the culture shifted enough that we are starting to realize that we are no longer representative of the dominant culture. But not saying The Lord’s Prayer in school is not persecution.
In a book on Mark’s gospel it is argued that a) Mark’s gospel is written for a persecuted church, and b) that martyrdom is not Christian witness gone wrong but the ultimate paradigm of Christian witness.3
Later in the book we learn to understand that the young man in a white robe who is sitting in the tomb (Mark 16) is not an angel as in the other gospels but is the young man from chapter 14 who escaped from the garden in shameful nakedness. He is now dressed in white, the colour of the martyrs and is seated at the right which is what James and John had argued over without understanding that the only way to be seated at the right was to share in Christ’s suffering.4
This is dramatically different from the prosperity gospel preached in certain segments of the church, that says God wants us to be wealthy. Rather, in Mark we learn that without suffering we cannot see the resurrection and that discipleship includes kenosis, self-emptying as Paul writes about in Philippians, and as we see in the slaughtered lamb of Revelation.
I am not exactly sure what all this means for a church that does not suffer persecution.
But I believe it means at the very least that we shift our goals from living as easy a life as we can to living as faithful a life as we can, that relationships guide our decisions, and if not our relationships, then God’s relationship with the world.
That love makes life harder we ultimately see in Jesus.
We also see that it gives our lives meaning and makes our lives beautiful.
2 Quoted in The Calling of Crappy Citizenship: A Plea for Christian Anarchy, by Richard C. Goode, The Other Journal, 1 November 2018
3 Craig Hovey, To Share in the Body – A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church, Brazos, Press: 2008 Grand Rapids, MI, page 18
4 ibid. 118 ff