The book of Acts chapters 11 and 12 highlight several stories in the birth and growth of the early church that allow us to see many facets of this community. They include death and imprisonment of the disciples for preaching the Gospel of Jesus, miraculous signs and wonders of God displayed for the Church to see, the organizing of outreach mission to the Gentiles, and even the story of how Christians were first given their nickname in a city called Antioch. Amidst these things that were occuring in the church’s life, I’d like to speak about something that was also happening in the lives of individual believers. It’s something as simple as what we can call “uncertainty”.
The disciples were facing uncertain times in their own stories and in their journeys while resting on the great hope of the Resurrection of Jesus. In Acts 11 and 12 here is a list of some of the areas of uncertainty that these early Christians were dealing with.
Peter had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit being poured out on gentiles in neighboring regions. He then relayed to his fellow comrades essentially that “church” and “salvation theology” as they knew it was now changing. What would the church / synagogue look like now with a greater influx of more and more non-Jewish, non-Hebrew speaking believers? What would become the Scriptural and theological approach for guidelines and traditions of behavior, morality, worship and culture of all these people in community together while still centering on the Risen Jesus as the Lord of the Church?
With the increase in the preaching of the early church came much transformation and positive change in the lives of many people. But this also posed a threat to the religious and political leaders of the day who refused to believe in the message and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. This reality produced an increase in violence against the followers of Jesus. The result was a greater uncertainty of how long these disciples would be safe and how long they would live. Up to this point in the story, countless Christians had already been imprisoned and tortured and Stephen and James (the brother of John) were executed for their faith in Jesus and Peter was arrested several times for preaching the gospel. While life already had its challenges in the 1st century AD, for followers of Jesus, safety and protection was in an even more perilous state than their average neighbors. The church was going to wrestle with what it meant to trust in God for their protection, when some of the most faithful among them were being tortured and killed.
The book of Acts tells the stories of many miracles, signs and wonders that occured as God’s word was spreading throughout the world. In these chapters we have Peter’s vision, the prophetic words of a man named Agabus, the deliverance of Peter from prison by an angel, and even the sudden death of Herod as a judgment for his tyranny and arrogance. These miraculous events and many others occuring in the life of the church were certainly worthy of awe, wonder and reverence for God and the move of the Holy Spirit. The question was, why did they happen sometimes and not others? The church was constantly in prayer for all of its leaders, so why was James executed and Peter delivered? This and many other questions could have plagued the church then and they still intrigue the church today. How was a church that believes in the glorious miraculous resurrection of Jesus, going to live out its faith without being able to consistently rely on miracles for everything?
I mention these three uncertainties and the questions that they pose, not to try to make us have more doubts in God’s work. I actually mention them for the sake of the opposite. It seems that the movement of God’s gospel, kingdom, salvation and reconciliation was happening INSPITE of these uncertainties. These early Christians (like us today) had to navigate their trust in God even when certain paradigms, beliefs, traditions or their own safety, was being challenged and not certain to last forever.
One of the consistent themes running in the book of Acts points to the reality that no matter what is happening in the world, the word of God is still powerfully at work. Acts 12:24 sums it up this way, “But the Word of God continued to spread and flourish.” It’s the author’s way of reminding the reader, no matter what was happening theologically, culturally, physically or even violently to the church, God’s word was still at work and it was flourishing doing its life giving work in so many people and communities. The word of God was bringing people to saving repentance and faith in Jesus, it was transforming how the church gathered and worshiped with others, it was reconciling communities to one another, it was demonstrating justice and compassion to the marginalized, it was addressing systemic and spiritual evil forces head on, it was boldly proclaiming the resurrection and the return of Jesus the king.
So what about us today? Uncertainty is present everyday and in every situation we face, especially with the times that we have faced in this year 2020 with the spread of COVID19 in our world. As of the day of this writing there is still no vaccine to stop the effects of the spread of the virus. Talk about an example of global uncertainty. There are also many other personal and communal uncertainties we face in our everyday lives. You may be experiencing uncertainties in your own physical health, finances, relationships, faith journey, sexuality, marriage, race, career, politics, etc.
Whatever the case, I believe that we can be encouraged by the example of our sisters and brothers in Christ in the book of Acts who sought to follow Jesus amidst these uncertainties. Like our family in the book of Acts, we are not guaranteed our health, safety, money, prosperity or even our own lives, but we have found a deep healing and joy in the good news of Jesus. We have found purpose in living for the kingdom of God. We have found satisfaction in serving our neighbor. We have found worth in being generous. We have found boldness in being witnesses for Jesus. We have discovered that we can have a vibrant faith, in the midst of uncertainty. May the word of God, continue to spread and flourish through us corporately and individually. Amen.