Reading Ramblings – May 17, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2020 – COVID-19

Texts: Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Context: The common themes in the readings this week is a little harder to discern at first glance (or second!). But what strikes me is that the first three readings make sense only in light of the Gospel reading. Without the promise of God the Holy Spirit with us until Jesus takes us home, how – or even why – would we be willing to share the Gospel when ridiculed (Acts) or praise God even when He tests us (Psalm) or again, or be willing to suffer for no reason? What could possibly enable us to do such counterintuitive things if not for the very presence of God with us? Surely we can’t hope to complete any trial God sets before us unless God is with us to sustain us and enable us! And surely we can’t hope our meager words can convey the depths of spiritual truth unless it is the Word made flesh guiding us through the Holy Spirit! And surely nobody would be willing to suffer disrepute or even legal threats unless they were assured that not only is God real but God will accompany in and through all things?

Acts 17:16-31 – Some Christians are inclined to read this passage and take from it a burden of guilt. Here’s Paul, fearlessly sharing the Gospel with perfect strangers! That’s what I should be doing, and God must be so disappointed in me that I haven’t! I’ve failed so many times, had so many opportunities! Surely this passage is meant to spur me to more resolve in the future! But what’s interesting is how this passage begins. It begins not with Paul or a resolution on his part, it starts with Paul being provoked. The Greek term here can mean stirred or spurred on. In other words, Paul doesn’t decide to evangelize on his own as his Christian duty. Rather, the Holy Spirit provokes Paul to the point he can’t keep silent. God is not just leading Paul but driving him to engage the Greeks. Not in anger but out of love. Not in derision of their pagan beliefs but in an earnest effort to engage them through their own culture and understanding, the very idols around them become more than empty tributes to non-existent gods, but by the power of God the Holy Spirit they become tools for Paul to engage the Greeks to share the Gospel. If there is a lesson to take from this it is that God the Holy Spirit will make it clear to us when we are to speak, and will provide us with the words and examples to do so!

Psalm 66:8-20 – Many Christians are nervous of evangelizing to friends or family or strangers. It might be much easier just to give God thanks for who He is and what He does, both in our lives as well as in history and the world around us. Very few people will take offense at you describing a way God has delivered you from difficulties, and even from praising and thanking him for this in their presence! Our mantras of tolerance and diversity give us that permission more easily than we suspect, even if it isn’t the sort of thing that tolerance and diversity ultimately want to hear! Being in the Word of God and resting in his power and presence allows us to see our lives through the Holy Spirit. Coincidences are transformed into examples of God’s presence, love and care. Even our losses and sorrows become opportunities to give thanks and praise to God for carrying us through difficult times, and instill greater faith and confidence that He will do so in the future. Living out our lives of faith in this fashion is simply a witness to the God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us. It allows us to witness without the pressure of somehow being responsible for instilling faith in another person (which is never our duty!). Rather, in bearing witness we allow others to see not just us and who we are in our faith, but the God in whom our faith is both sourced and completed.

1 Peter 3:13-22 – Mysteriously, our reading today skips over the section providing guidance to husbands and wives in how to be with each other in Christ! But thematically the assigned reading does fit in better. Faith in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God will sometimes incur suffering. The early Church knew this as tensions continued within the larger Jewish community of which they were one subset, until those ties were finally severed. Religious and political persecution of Christians has continued steadily through the world for 2000 years, regardless of the relative calm we have enjoyed as Americans for nearly 250 years. Is suffering evidence of God’s disapproval or judgment or lack of care or concern? Hardly! Rather we are exhorted to faithful trust in our God despite human sin and persecution. We are to conduct ourselves by his rules rather than what is reasonable according to our own ways of thinking and doing. There is more at stake than preserving our lives or goods – what is at stake is the witness we give to our God. Is He only a god of convenience and prosperity, or does He remain the good and loving God even when we are mistreated? Our conduct during persecution becomes a testimony and witness to the living God!

John 14:15-21 – We continue in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his disciples, trying to prepare them to handle the events already starting to unfold which will lead to his arrest and execution. He has assured them their separation will only be for a time (14:1-14), though how well they understand this is highly debatable. He shifts to describing that in the meantime, they are not orphaned or left alone. Far from it! They will have the very Holy Spirit of God – the very Spirit Moses wished was with all people (Numbers 11:29)! The coming traumatic events will trigger further fulfillment of Scripture as the Holy Spirit comes in power (Joel 2:28), something the apostles will only understand fully after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:17).

We are not in this alone! Not in any aspect of our lives, least of all during difficult times and situations. God is with us! As such, the Holy Spirit may direct us as He directed Paul in Athens, equipping us to give a bold witness in a moment of opportunity. Or the Holy Spirit may lead us to praise and thanksgiving of God not just in a Sunday morning prayer but in every aspect of how we live our lives, transforming us into witnesses of our God’s power and presence. And even in the midst of persecution, the Holy Spirit will be with the people of God to empower them and give them the right words with which to answer their accusers.

Notice we are not promised deliverance or exemption from persecution. We are simply not to fear it, trusting as we do in the God who is not only with us in this very moment, but preceded us in our Savior and promises to bring us to him. Everything else in this world will fall apart, there is nothing we have the power to hold on to. Not our rights or freedoms, not our health or long life. As we’ve been shown in the past few weeks everything can be changed in practically a moment’s notice, with the decree of a State official or the arrival of an invisible contagion.

But our lives in Christ can never be taken away from us by any external power, and God the Father will never change his mind in his love for us through Jesus Christ. So we are bold. Bold to live. Bold to love. Bold to witness. Not for our own glory or our own agendas, but only and always in response to the love of God continually poured out into us.

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