Friday, October 21, 2005

Wild Times

If anyone thinks that the Church in apostolic times was peaceful and serene, one has only to read the Acts of the Apostles to get a different view. St Paul and his disciples were thrown out of town after town, their preaching caused arguments and even riots, and they were persecuted, imprisoned and beaten as well. One thing that is indicated by all the mistreatment they experienced was that fact that in those days, religion really mattered to most people, and so preachers of a new religion were regarded as threats to the very well-being of society.

But Paul was trying to say that his religion was not new at all—even though it is “good news.” Something quite new had in fact happened with the advent of the Christ, and especially with his resurrection, but Paul was at pains to show that this was in clear continuity with what God had revealed in the past, and that it reached all the way back into God’s eternal plan for the salvation of mankind. It was a fulfillment, not an innovation. This was so important that even in that wild and woolly time of the first century AD, St Paul went fearlessly into the enclaves of paganism and (hostile) Judaism to bring the message. He exclaimed: “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:23-24).

We live in some rather wild times ourselves. For some, religion is a matter of indifference, but for others it becomes a justification for hatred, murder, and war. Yet neither of these extremes reflects the good news of Jesus. For the true Christian, Jesus and his word can never be a matter of indifference, because eternal life is at stake. On the other hand, even though the word of God certainly inspires opposition among unbelievers or promoters of immoral agendas, Christians are not called to be aggressors but rather martyrs (i.e., witnesses), their only sword being the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).

But things get more complicated. It’s simple enough (though perhaps not easy) to seek converts among the heathen, to speak out against manifest evil. What makes things a little stickier is when those who are supposed to be on your side turn out to be against you: “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36). In his farewell speech to the believers from Miletus and Ephesus, Paul warned: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). And perhaps most chilling of all: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). It’s difficult to have a sincere and open discussion with someone who thinks it is God’s will for him to kill you! The animosities between those who claim to believe in the same God have always been a scandalous counter-witness to the truth of divine revelation. We would make so much more progress toward the overcoming of evil in our society if the ones who believe in the true God would present a united witness to the world!

Our times are just as wild as New Testament times; more and more they will become just as risky as well. We may not see religious riots or public floggings in this country anytime soon (though they do happen elsewhere), but the means of the suppression of truth are in place and active already. The very law of the land is being used increasingly to stifle the effect of Christian witness, to silence the “voices crying in the wilderness,” to discredit the Church and reduce her influence, to impose legal, political, or economic sanctions on those who would, like St Paul, fearlessly preach the truth in the public square. What is our response? Do it anyway! What do the persecutions and oppositions matter, if only we can accomplish our course and testify to the Gospel of the grace of God? Caesar is not our king. Even though we owe a certain allegiance to legitimate law and authority, we answer to a higher one, and that one decides all disputed issues. “Better for us to obey God rather than men,” declared the apostles when they were arrested and ordered to keep silent about Jesus.

The same Spirit who was with Peter and John and Paul and all the other witnesses to the Gospel is with us as well. We have only to meet the challenges of the present age with the same courage and determination to be faithful unto death. The grace of God is our strength and salvation in times of turmoil as well as periods of peace. Let us not shrink from the challenges of the present time, but live the truth in love, come what may. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).