Thursday of the 6th Week of Easter
Acts 18:1-8; Psalm 98:2; John 16:16-20
Perhaps more than any other New Testament author, Luke loves success stories. The first part of the Acts of the Apostles is full of them; chapter after chapter, the Apostles heal, defy the Sanhedrin, preach, baptize thousands, and ordain deacons.
At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from problems; in fact, in the middle of the book, he runs through a list of them: First, Mark deserts Paul (or so he thinks); then, after an argument, he and Barnabas go their separate ways. Next, Paul is imprisoned in Phillipi, gets chased out of two other towns, and is pretty much ignored in Athens. Meanwhile, in Rome, the Christians have fared so badly that the emperor threw them out, as Aquila and Priscilla know firsthand. In today’s reading, the three of them are in Corinth, but nothing has improved; in fact, Paul is so disgusted by yet more rejection in a synagogue that he says he is abandoning his mission to the Jews entirely.
Loving success as Luke does, why talk about failure? I think it’s because he’s trying to tell us something. Consider: Because Paul went to Corinth, he founded the Church there; because he did that, and poured himself into it for a year and a half, we have two of his greatest letters, which we read, study, and pray to this day. Because Aquila and Priscilla were kicked out of Rome and went to Corinth, they met Paul and became not only co-workers but friends; they housed him, helped him, even risked their lives for him (Romans 16:3). Finally, because Paul preached Christ to the Jews despite his frustration, the synagogue official became a Christian, which seems to have triggered a series of conversions to Christ. God only knows how many lives were changed for the good in spite of those seemingly bad events. Given that, what is success and what’s failure?
That is Luke’s first point. We know, because Christ has told us, that our job is to bring him to the world. What we do not know is the plan – how that will be done. When we act as if we do know, we fall into the trap of defining success and failure on our own terms. Paul knew this, which is why he later wrote to this same church in Corinth, I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7). In other words, we each have an important part to play, but God has the plan.
This brings up the second point, which is that even the work that is ours to do cannot be done without others. Paul couldn’t do everything alone. We already know about Aquila and Priscilla, but remember Silas and Timothy; Luke told us that it was their coming to Corinth that allowed Paul to occupy himself totally with preaching the word (Acts 18:5). And, even in the broken or problematic relationships, the Apostles and others were still on the same side. If the man Luke calls “Mark” is the evangelist, then we know what he did! Also, although Paul and Barnabas separated, both continued in ministry (1 Corinthians 9:6). Paul would be the first to admit that if he succeeded, he didn’t do it alone.
What held true in Luke’s time still holds true for us. While we too we know the joy of seeing people come to faith and the heartbreak of seeing others walk away, we must keep a few things in mind. First, success and failure are not ours to assign; that job belongs to Christ. Our job is to keep bringing him to others by what we say and do, no matter how hard that is. Second, we have no idea what seeds of success lie in each apparent failure; that, too, is for God alone to know. Third, we can’t do it without each other. God has given each of us gifts and intends us to use them together. Like Mark, Paul, and Barnabas, we may not always see eye to eye, but we are on the same side, bound by the love of Christ and pledged to serve him in and with each other. Finally, and above everything else, let us praise God for whatever success we achieve; for, although we speak the words, only God moves the heart; although we teach the truth, only God reveals himself; and although we reach out to others, only God draws them near.
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