The Apostle Paul and his friends are visiting the cosmopolitan city of Antioch in Syria. They have been sitting in the synagogue there, listening to local leaders read from the Law and the Prophets. And then, one of the leaders welcomes Paul and his entourage by asking if they have anything to say. Paul leaps to his feet, raises his hand to ask for silence, and dives into his first and longest sermon recorded in Acts.
Bless his heart, he has a lot to say. Like all of it.
Paul is that really chatty coworker on your last Zoom call of the day. The guy who stays on video with his mic on long after everyone else on your team turns their video off and starts making dinner. He’s like an extroverted preacher in the time of COVID-19. So much to say, though so few have asked.
In this speech, Paul takes them all the way back to slavery in Egypt, recalling salvation through the Red Sea, antics in the wilderness, and wars waged over land in Canaan. He remembers the generations of judges and prophets and kings and John the Baptist and Jesus. He covers thousands of years in just thirteen verses.
And then, in the portion I just read, he makes connections between the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus as the Messiah. He describes Jesus as the living fulfillment of King David and mentions the witnesses who saw Jesus raised from the dead. He reaches all the way back in their human story, and finally ties the narrative to those who can hear his voice right there in Antioch.
Paul declares this story their story. The story their ancestors passed on through food, clothing, language, worship, laws for daily life. With each telling, this story evokes a sacred sense of identity they cannot shake — not even in the height of their victories or the dredges of their despair. It has made them a people who are simultaneously set together apart and scattered throughout the world. This list of Israel’s greatest hits will not let them forget — they are blessed to be a blessing, they are ordinary people, made holy because God keeps declaring them so.
Lest the listeners then or now think this sermon is for the Jews alone, Paul addresses the full population of Antioch twice, at the beginning of his speech and again where we joined in today’s reading.
Listen, you faithful Jews AND you curious Gentiles.
You descendants of Abraham and Sarah,
AND ALSO you who are curious about the Living God.
You are wrapped in a story. In generations of law and promise. In the unveiling of God’s keen interest in our whole lives: our celebrations and struggles alike! We know that God cares because God is written all over our human story: slavery and freedom, belonging and exile, discernment and leadership, empires rising and falling. Our habit of putting deep trust in things that decay instead of the one thing that cannot be kept by death. God has been with us through it all and in Jesus, the story expands from one nation, becoming personal for all people and every living thing!
In telling the story for a wider audience, Paul declares God’s resume of presence and power as a new reality for everyone. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s promise opens to bless the whole world, to include every generation under heaven’s banner.
There are no prerequisites — no need to be circumcised like a Jew or to try lutefisk like a Scandinavian before you can belong to the story that is still expanding, still claiming us for the one thing that does not fade or decay with the seasons of this world.
This is a good time to remember that whenever there are prerequisites for belonging or receiving, it is Law not Promise.
Law operates within an IF/THEN model.
The law can be measured with precision,
compared to a precedent,
and is focused on the ways we participate or ignore it
for the sake of consequences.
IF you finish your distance learning and chores,
THEN you can play video games.
IF you wear a face mask,
THEN you will be allowed into the store.
But Promise is different. We heard Promise in the story the Davis family read. Promise operates with a BECAUSE/THEREFORE model.
BECAUSE I love you and I have chosen to bless the world through you, THEREFORE your descendants will outnumber the stars.
BECAUSE we care deeply about our neighbors, therefore we are willing to stop and stay apart to keep them safe.
The promise is untamed and generous and expansive. It refuses to be owned by one party or limited to a portion. In fact, it rarely obeys the law — it goes beyond what can be measured to stretch and fulfill what’s possible.
Paul’s telling is tangled up with both laws and promises, good order and wild freedom. Preservation of what has been and an unfolding toward what can still become. It’s how they honor what matters and lasts. It’s how they remember who they are and whose they are. It is the story that sets them apart, but also reminds them that they belong to each other and it builds compassion for the generations and populations being gathered as one.
Perhaps it’s the kind of story we need right now, too.
LIVE CHAT INVITATION
Traditionalists/Silent Generation (before 1946)
- Formed by the risks and lack of the Great Depression and World Wars.
- Salvaged valuables and cleaned their plates.
- Resilient inner drive, work ethic for the sake of simple security.
- Works Progress Administration/ New Deal.
Baby Boomers (before 1964)
- Until last summer, the largest living generation.
- Benefactors of the GI Bill, suburban sprawl.
- Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Woodstock
- The fall of Communism, the rise of Christian Nationalism.
- The first modern consumers and heroes of institution.
Generation X (before 1980)
- Resourceful, self-sufficient. Viewed as unmotivated.
- Value freedom and personal responsibility.
- Challenger explosion. Rodney King Riots.
- OJ Simpson’s Trial.
- New skepticism of large institutions and government authority.
Millennials (before 1996)
- Coming of age with digital tech and social media.
- School shootings. 9/11. Never ending wars.
- Values services over goods.
- Increased mental health awareness
Gen Z (under the age of 24)
- Terrorism, Climate Crisis
- Black President/Black Lives Matter
- Social Networking/Global Mobilizers
- Black Lives Matter/Black President
- Gender Equality, Parents
- Expectations of Inclusion/Diversity
We are five generations of people, of church, still learning how to be together, still coming to terms with the ways we impact one another, still learning to believe there is a shared future that does not decay, that does not rise and fall like the stock market and empires and our own will for this world.
We are still learning to tell our story, ancient and new, the layers of becoming that remind us: everything that demands a prerequisite, a condition, a division, or an excuse — is dying. But the belonging we have to one another and to Christ, the life and love still unfolding this Easter cannot be held by the bonds of death. It breaks free with promises that do not need our permission to be true.
Friends in Christ, what stories are you telling and living this season? How are you accounting for your purpose and identity? What meaning do you make of these flashpoints in our common experience of hope and despair, celebration and struggle? It matters.
The world already has enough storytellers writing people out of the narrative, turning Promise into Law, and immortalizing the things that decay.
We are called to stand, like Paul and address all people with a story that is still expanding, that is written in the stars AND on our hearts, that bears witness to a God who is deeply and actively present in the milestones that shape our becoming and the sticking points that can no longer keep us apart.
Because are one people, created and liberated by God, who keeps putting death in its place, who never stops Promising an abundance of love that matters and lasts,
Therefore we bear witness and live.