COVID-19 has wrought havoc on our world. The disease itself has been challenging enough. But the collateral damage is even more widespread, disrupting our social life, our worship, even our economic structure. Many are out of a job. Businesses have been frantically reinventing themselves, and many have closed or changed locations.
For me, the academic year will begin soon, and it feels like the axis of the entire educational world has shifted. What I had hoped would be temporary adjustments to a short-lived pandemic are looking more permanent. The taken-for-granted past is gone, and we will probably never do things quite the same way again.
Is this a burden or an opportunity? As with many things in life, it’s both. We need to approach life with a firm grasp on our vocation, on how we have been called to serve God in this world. And with that, we can better adjust to taking that vocation to a new location.
. . .
As we’ve seen in recent posts, the apostle Paul had a rough time of it in his final visit to Jerusalem. He had been beaten by a Jewish mob, threatened with flogging by the Romans, then nearly torn apart in a meeting with the Sanhedrin. He came to the city knowing that somehow, he would end up being imprisoned. But he probably never gave up on the vision of continuing to preach the gospel to the westernmost ends of the Roman Empire.
Recent events had to have been discouraging. We should not imagine Paul being unfazed by his experiences. Indeed, in his letters, the apostle himself writes candidly about his physical and emotional suffering. His faithfulness was in continuing to follow his calling to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus no matter what — in, through, and beyond his discouragement and fear.
Earlier, in the city of Corinth, Paul had needed some encouragement. And Jesus was there to provide it, appearing to him at night in a vision: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9-10, NRSV). With that word of comfort, even though he had come to Corinth in fear (1 Cor 2:3), Paul was able to stay and minister in the city for a year and a half (Acts 18:11).
Now, in Jerusalem, after all he’d been through, Paul needed encouragement again. And once again, Jesus provided it:
That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (Acts 23:11, NRSV)
Paul had testified to Jesus throughout the eastern half of the empire. In city after city, in synagogue after synagogue, he preached the message of Jesus. Some believed. Most did not. And many wanted and even tried to kill him.
But he endured, to the point of being nearly pummeled to death by his own people in his beloved city of Jerusalem. There, he testified in love to the angry mob in the temple, speaking from the steps of the Antonia Fortress, telling them the story of his encountered with the risen Christ. That testimony, unfortunately, was rudely interrupted. But Paul had done his part.
Jesus gave Paul the encouragement he needed. It wasn’t, “You know, my friend, I think you’ve suffered enough. Why don’t you retire to Tarsus? I’ll get you some consulting work there.” It was, “Paul, you’ve been a faithful witness here in Jerusalem. I know you’re itching to move on. Don’t worry, you’ll get to Rome. I need you to witness there too.”
The circumstances would not be what Paul had probably imagined; how much did chains ever enter the picture? He would not be able to continue evangelizing in the ways to which he had grown accustomed in other cities, and he would never make it out of Rome. But since Damascus, his central vocation had always been to be a witness for Jesus, and Jesus himself was calling him to take that vocation to a new location.
And at that news, I take it, Paul’s heart was glad.
. . .
Whatever new “locations” we find ourselves in, our chains are more metaphorical than literal. But they are still burdensome. The question is whether we will be able to take hold of the opportunities they present.
And to do that, we will need to take hold once again of our vocation. How, in the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of trouble of every kind, can we be a living witness to Jesus?