A pattern has developed in the book of Acts of getting rid of Paul. Paul is not a zealot knifing Roman solders and officials. Paul is not a revolutionary leader, gathering together men willing to bring commotion in the street. What Paul is doing is traveling through cities in the eastern Roman empire, getting together with Jews and Gentiles who gather in the Diaspora synagogues to make a few theological points:
- That Jesus of Nazareth is the anointed one (Messiah) of Yhwh (The creator god of the Hebrews revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures) sent to deliver not only the Jews from Roman military and cultural domination, but to deliver all of humanity from the age of decay.
- That the mission of this Jesus of Nazareth was not to lead a military insurgency (as popularly imagined) but rather to lead us all through his path of suffering into the resurrection of a new creation
- That this Jesus has already passed through the resurrection and he calls us to follow him into his suffering, his death and his resurrection
Paul’s mission is not fruitless. In many of the cities he visits he leaves groups who believe that these things are true. They gather together for prayer, for the breaking of bread in obedience and remembrance of Jesus, for further teaching, and to embody together Jesus’ way of life empowered by the promised Holy Spirit.
The irony of the process is that the tools that Paul will not use, political bullying, gathering together of men available to cause unrest in the streets, and assassination are all employed against him. Paul becomes a literal persona non grata in many of these cities.
It is clear that part of the reason for resisting Paul is simply the desire of the present leadership to maintain their own positions of preference and power. It is clear that these very common motivations are moving both synagogue and civic leadership to get Paul out of these towns just to preserve the peace, the status quo, and the order they are invested in. There is something deeper though. The message of the resurrection is disruptive at a far deeper level than it immediately appears. The synagogue leaders and the civil leaders are not being petty or dim in opposing this.
We are Future Oriented
We live our lives leaning into the future. We do it instinctively and we do it mindlessly. I know this by asking you one simple question. “Do you worry?”
Worry is the emotional expression of our concern for the future.
As people we learn very early on that even though things may be OK in the moment, the future is a threat. In the short term the future brings all sorts of threats. Will my job be there tomorrow? Will the people I love and depend upon continue to be there for me? Will I have an accident or a health crisis?
Politically and economically we live more in the future than in the present. Watch the stock market news.
I like to follow technology news and for a long time now people have been predicting the demise of RIM who makes Blackberry and Nokia, one of the world’s largest cell phone makers. Even when these companies dominated the market their stock prices began to plunge because Apple was increasingly eating more and more of the market. Now revenues have fallen, workers are being laid off, all because of a judgment about the future.
In the US we are once again in the midst of a presidential election. What would happen if there was no chance that the election would be close in November? All kinds of things would be different. People wouldn’t vote on both sides because they would say “What I do doesn’t matter” and what they mean by “matter” has to do with meaning.
“Meaning” as we experience it is all about the future
People’s hopes, dreams and desires are all pursuing a desired future. As individuals, as communities, as a nation we live this way. We can’t help it. Once we figure out that something, someone or someplace has no future, we abandon it and look for something else that has a future.
People date because of the future. People divorce because of the future. People open and close churches and businesses because of how their imagined future looks today. The future gives present activity meaning. If there is no future, then much present activity appears pointless and we abandon it. Future hopes drive the world of the present.
The future has given meaning to some of the greatest projects the world has ever seen. The pyramids were built for a future. The Great Wall of China was built for a future. All of the great dams to control flooding, provide power, irrigate agriculture were built for the future, and many are now being torn down for the future. Hitler envisioned his Third Reich to last a thousand years. Steve Jobs built Apple to be a great company, one that would have a glorious future.
I get the chance to walk with a lot of people as they get into their last chapters of life. I notice that the future, based on the present they experience, has everything to do with when they are ready to die. I hear very honest statements like “what do I have to live for anymore?” These statements are all about the future. They are reading the signs on their body and they know they can no longer participate, produce, create, move along the human story. Once there is no longer a desirable future, they are ready to give up the present.
The Future We Don’t Talk About
One of the hot pieces in The Atlantic recently was a piece by a very successful and powerful Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”. In this article she offers somewhat of a challenge the feminist assertion if they work hard enough and if gender discrimination is removed THEN they can have it all.
To me the interesting part of the piece is what does she mean by “having it all”? The article basically gives advice how women can both have the kind of a family they desire (launching children who mirror them in terms of success, influence and power in the world) as well as having a lucrative and meaningful career. Is there really time for women to spend time mothering family (having a child really doesn’t take as much time as raising a child, obviously) “successfully” and climbing the corporate, political or academic ladders? Her basic answer is “if husbands cooperate and society re-arranges itself to accommodate these ambitions”.
What’s at the center of the anxiety, of course, is the clock. A woman faces a biological clock different from what a man faces. Men make sperm throughout much of their lives, women are born with all of the eggs they will ever produce. As those eggs age, her ability to successfully pass on her genes is reduced. The threat to women who want to have “it all” is time. Do you have the power (time, money, opportunity) to arrange the things of your life to align with the preferred image of yourself that you desire for your self? How would the conversation be different if time were not an issue?
We like to envision futures where our lives, the lives of our children and loved ones, and the fruit of our labor moves forward indefinitely extending ourselves into the future. At a deep level we know this only goes so far. Our bodies break down. Businesses break down. Institutions break down. Governments go away. The future as we know it, the future as every good physicist will tell you, is dark, cold and empty. When the sun runs out of fuel, when the energy of the Big Bang which we are still living on runs out, everything you’ve ever loved, ever cared about, ever found as beautiful, ever thought was good, will be gone and there won’t even be a place to remember it no more.
The age of decay takes a little bit from us every day, and one day it will take it all.
Not a New Message for Diaspora Synagogues
When Jeremiah admonished the Babylonian exiles to “seek the welfare of the city” he was helping them align themselves with the coming cruciform Jesus. The resurrection is anticipated by joyful, cruciform generosity. This was Paul’s message.
Undoubtedly Paul was attempting to re-calibrate his synagogue hearers to this message, but the effects of the message would be potentially disruptive to the synagogue leaders towards Paul and the Apostles in Jerusalem. Embracing Jesus as Nazareth as the Messiah and accepting the belief in the resurrection would mean a re-orientation of their project and they simply weren’t prepared for this. In order to oppose it they grabbed the methods of power in this world, take power and use it against your adversary. Paul needed to go.
A New Predicted King
Not only was this disruptive to the synagogue in a way it shouldn’t have been, it was disruptive to the empire in a more overt and predictable way. Caesar was the great protector, the great benefactor, the ruler whose favor brought prosperity and whose rejection brought destruction. Now Paul brings the message that “Jesus is Lord” which challenges the reign of Caesar. The book of Revelation will add vivid images of that conflict applied to the seven churches of Asia Minor a half century later.
This new and coming king will not simply be another king like Caesar but will be an entirely different king with a kingdom that works very differently from Rome or its predecessors. Jesus’ benefaction will be different from Caesar’s. Jesus’ kingdom exalts the weak, the meek, the oppressed, the neglected, and the powerless.
The message of the resurrection is disruptive in the world around us to the degree that we believe it and live in orientation to it.
We are Apathetic Towards What We don’t believe
ThinkChristian.net had a piece on “The Real Reasons Kids Abandon the Faith”. I’m not sure the post lived up to the title but one commenter told the story of the pain he feels at the apathy his 20 something adult children are showing towards Christianity and the church. It’s probably a safe bet that these same individuals are showing a lot let apathy about global warming, upcoming elections, their career tracks, their romantic relationships, their future as parents, their future financial state, their future health, etc. They are all living their lives oriented towards the future oriented by a host of other intended future outcomes, just not the resurrection. They are at least as apathetic about the resurrection as they are about the eventual depletion of fuel for the sun that will extinguish all life on earth. It is not a reality to them in a significant way.
The twenty somethings are apathetic. The high powered academic mom is in a hurry. Stock owners are taking money out of RIM and investing it in Google and Apple (or Microsoft if they can get their act together in Windows 8). This is their real world. Change the imagined future and the present world adjusts.
Future Living Draws Attention Based on whether people start to believe
Why does Paul get the attention of the synagogue and civil leaders in the cities he visits? Not just because he’s talking about the future. Lots of people make predictions about the future, but because he’s getting a hearing in the present. People are starting to believe in this resurrection and it is impacting the decisions they make today.
We recently, thanks to Harold Camping, had a large and visible social experiment in future and past meeting. During the run up to both the May 21 2011 date and the October 21, 2011 date I followed a Yahoo Group of people awaiting the date. The group is still active as of today. It is interesting reading. The question I have in my mind when I read the posts is “How does their view of the future impact their behavior in the present?”
The behavior of the group tended to be received along the lines of our expectation of such a message. The actions seemed oriented towards self-preservation (do what you need to do to survive a coming catastrophe), self-validating (let’s get others to think like we do) and self-indulgent (let’s party like it’s 1999). When the group behaves according to our expectation, we find it less compelling, less interesting and attractive.
The record of the best of the New Testament church, despite all kinds of chaos that was natural in a complex social context, was that the belief in the resurrection led believers to live as Jesus lived, sacrificial for the sake of his enemies. What is noteworthy in this world where we are programmed for self-preservation is self-sacrificial generosity. Whether or not people would initially believe the message of the resurrection, they would be attracted to the character of those who believed it.
Resurrection Oriented Christian Living
Unlike the natural self-preservationist impulses of catastrophe predicting movements what Paul’s message is designed to deliver is an ability to live free from fear while also being fully engaged in the welfare of our planet today.
Modern, secular living is motivated by the anxiety of the clock and your short lived window to “have it all”. This perspective will undoubtedly yield a selfish orientation even towards those you wish to thrive. Your children MUST succeed because you need to see yourself as a successful parent. Your career MUST pan out because you need to see yourself having spent your brief time in some failed, fruitless, unsuccessful endeavor. You are imprisoned by your desires and the truth is that the vast majority of us will fail them.
The Christian life is a journey through the joyful, cruciform generosity of Jesus with the resurrection speeding towards us. In this way we can engage the world without the anxiety of the secular ladder climber who simply must “have it all”. We confess that in the age of decay we will never have it all but in the resurrection we will have far more than this age can sustain.
Anne-Marie Slaughter in her plan to afford female ladder climbers behind her an easier path lays out an agenda for yet another round of social conflict and transformation. She wishes to further disrupt the status quo in order to re-orient the future to something better. That’s a fine thing and I don’t have a problem with her prescriptions. What I see, however, is that this too becomes another level of bondage and anxiety. In fact, part of the strategy for the transformation is a bondage TO anxiety because it is our anxiety about the future that fuels our motivation to change the future according to the roadmap of our desired future.
Orientation by the resurrection motivates us with joy, not fear. It assures us of rest, not another revolution binding us to anxiety. It is disruptive not just to the particular institutions that we have constructed to deliver shalom within the age of decay, but also to the means in which we trust to deliver that shalom.
A Happy Exchange
Paul will be ushered out of the city again and again, often after beating, stoning, torture or imprisonment. He will get up, heal up a bit, and go to the next city to do exactly what he did before. In his wake he will leave a string of struggling, chaotic churches struggling to craft a new kind of living oriented to the resurrection. Paul will not do so in the quest of “having it all”, but rather because he already “has it all”. Read Ephesians 1.
Paul’s life had already been massively disrupted and I’m sure those around him who knew the old Paul before the road to Damascus would have questioned the responsibility and advisability of his exchange. Read Romans 8:18-39.
Each of us have to ask ourselves, what do we believe. Are we anxiously striving to “have it all”? Few of us will have anything like what Anne-Marie Slaughter has been able to compile for herself in this world according to the public metrics we are offered daily by the world around us.
Do we believe in the resurrection? Does it draw us to itself through the joyful, cruciform generosity of Jesus?