POLITICS AND HOLY LAUGHTER
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
I’ve always heard that religion, money and politics are not polite dinner conversation. Fortunately, they are all fair game for the pulpit. I confess that I’ve only ever been mildly interested in politics so I never understood why the topic shouldn’t be brought up over dinner. Eventually I came to witness this breach of etiquette and saw how talking politics can elicit very visceral reactions from people and result in the ruin of not only dinner, but relationships as well. Regardless of your political leanings, this morning I want to offer a way of responding to politics that is visceral but not in a way that will cause your blood pressure to rise. I want to suggest that a faithful response to the political realties of our day is that of laughter.
We all know that laughter is good for the soul. I love sitcoms and have invested a good amount of time in watching tv shows like Friends, the Office and Community. In watching these shows, I’ve observed that comedy is about the unexpected. Often the funniest moments are when characters respond in an unconventional way or surprise you. My favourite moments are those of comic relief, when something tragic is taking place but you can’t help but laugh at the way people respond to the tragedy.
We see Luke’s comedic style in our passage for today. This is a serious situation with Paul being brought before the authorities for causing a riot. His life is, once again, in danger and yet we see that he is still very much in control of the situation. We also see that mistaken identities are causing a lot of confusion. It seems that no one can really figure out where Paul comes from? Are you Greek? They ask him. Aren’t you that guy from Egypt? Paul doesn’t really help the situation either as he is coy about his identity. First, he tells them that he is a Jew from Tarsus which they seem to accept as an indication that flogging him will be alright. It’s only once they have him in the interrogation chair that he comes out with his true identity… or the identity that will get him out of this mess, that he is a Roman citizen by birth. Upon hearing this, everyone takes a step back as they realize they’ve done something terrible. Amidst all the confusion and the back and forth, Paul appears to have the upper hand, even though he’s the one in the hot seat. You can almost see him smirking as he declares his citizenship.
I confess that I don’t spend much time thinking about my citizenship. One of the stories that has come out of our recent election is that many of the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada have become citizens and were eligible to vote on Monday. One young man spoke about working the election polls in Syria where the ballots were already marked with a “YES” as the voters arrived. He would hand it to them and they’d drop it in the ballot box. So, for him to be able to choose freely between multiple candidates was something he was grateful for. For those of us who were born with Canadian citizenship, we may take for granted, all that it encompasses. When I travel, I know that showing my Canadian passport allows me to cross borders with great ease. I didn’t realize this until about thirteen years ago when some friends and I were travelling into the States for Urbana, a big mission conference. Three of us had Canadian passports and three did not. I remember waiting for hours as they took our friends into an interrogation room to question them. That was the first time I became aware of the privilege my citizenship affords me.
For Paul, his Roman citizenship is a great asset to him, although it only comes up a few times in Acts. The first time was in Phillipi when he and Silas were about to be flogged. This part of his identity is something Paul keeps in reserve for the most dire of circumstances. Rome was the superpower of the time and this was a culture where elitism and classism were part of the dominant worldview. As a Roman citizen, Paul was subject to Roman laws and not provincial laws. A Roman citizen was privileged above all others. They could wear togas, they could vote and hold office, they were exempt from paying taxes. And no Roman citizen could be tortured, whipped, or receive the death penalty unless they were guilty of treason. When Paul reveals his citizenship, those putting him on trial realize they better make this right fast or their lives could be on the line.
Realizing the error of their ways, they release Paul and opt to gather in a civilized manner and talk it out. Paul is feeling rather bold by this point as we’re told he looks straight at the authorities gathered, to tell them that he has fulfilled his duty to God. The word he uses here in Greek in Ptoleumai and has connotations for citizenship. Not only is does he claim to be Roman, but he is claiming that what he does is in the name of God or, as he puts it later on in Philippians, he is a citizen of heaven. Why does this statement offend everyone? A couple of weeks ago we talked about the phrase “God-willing” and this is a case where Paul is presuming to know God’s will when all the religious leaders around him disagree. Paul was threatening some people’s view of God’s will and so they got very angry.
The high priest doesn’t like this and orders him to be struck and Paul, still feeling bold comes back on the offensive. Invoking the words of Jesus, he calls Ananias a whitewashed wall, inferring that like a tomb, he looks good on the outside but inside contains nothing but dead bones. This time Paul is the one mistaking someone’s identity. The law says that you are to respect those placed in positions of power and Paul, knowing the law well, apologizes. Then Paul changes his strategy. So far everything out of his mouth has brought the wrath of the Sanhedrin upon him, but this time he finds a way to redirect their anger toward each other. He has made claims to be a Jew, a Roman and a citizen of heaven and now he brings out one last piece of his identity – Pharisee. He declares that he, a Pharisee, stands on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead. Paul must have known that bringing up the resurrection would be like throwing a grenade into the assembly but he doesn’t say it in vain. He is there because he is spreading the message of the gospel and preaching the resurrection of Jesus. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection and the Pharisees did, so at this, they begin quarreling with one another.
This is the point in the story where, if we haven’t already, we can start to laugh. The whole narrative of mistaken or unknown identity is one that runs through Paul’s story right from the beginning. When he is travelling on the road to Damascus and is struck blind by a light what does he ask? Who are you, Lord? Unknown to him, this lord will become Lord of his life. He gets a new name – Paul and a new identity, a believer, and then has to deal with people constantly wondering who he is because they’ve heard of Saul who persecuted Christians but are confused by this Paul who preaches the forgiveness of sins through Jesus. If you think that Acts can get repetitive, you’re right, but it’s because Paul is always having to start from the beginning to explain to his listeners who he is and who Jesus is.
Speaking of Jesus, all of this should look familiar to us – the journey to Jerusalem, the arrest, the angry mob, the leaders who don’t quite know what to do with their prisoner. This is Paul’s passion narrative. But unlike the story of Jesus where he is condemned to die, Paul is rescued from this situation. The readers of Luke’s letter would have known what happened to Christ and, as they watched the story of Paul unfold, likely would have expected the same end. But instead, they get a pleasant surprise. They can laugh seeing the Sanhedrin collapse upon itself and the commander order that Paul be taken away to safety. This is not the end for Paul. This is a glimpse into life post-resurrection. The political powers and God are facing off and it’s not even a competition. God’s will cannot be stopped. This is an invitation to holy laughter. Not because we don’t grasp the severity of the situation before us, but because we see that God in his greatness continues to move the gospel forward despite human attempts to hold it back. Will Willimon writes that “Laughter occurs when we go on the offensive against despair, when we take the initiative against tragedy determined not to relinquish tomorrow to the powers of evil and death”. Holy Laughter happens when we trust God to do the unexpected.
We see holy laughter in the Old Testament when a visitor comes to see Abraham, a withered old man, and tells him that in one year, he and Sarah will have a child. Sarah is listening in her tent and what does she do? She laughs. One might assume this stranger bringing such news would provoke feelings so tragic that she can only weep, but it is too ridiculous to warrant tears. For a woman approaching a century old to have a child, well that it could only be the grace of God. It can be hard to know what a faithful Christian response to tragedy looks like. But sometimes, a faithful response is to laugh in the face of tragedy. Because in the most dire situations, it’s only God that can bring purpose and redemption. Our laughter is an acknowledgement of the struggle that is life in a broken world and a trust that God will be God and bring about his kingdom on earth in ways we cannot even imagine.
But until that time comes, we are to live with our citizenship in mind. Over the course of the election we saw that citizenship is an important issue. So perhaps the religious leaders in Paul’s story are right to be outraged at his claim of heavenly citizenship. Can any one of us claim such status? What does it even mean to be a citizen of heaven? Paul expands upon this idea in his letter to the Philippian church as he urges the believers to live a life worthy of their calling. He further reminds them that their citizenship is in heaven and they eagerly await Christ who has the power to bring everything under his control. A citizen of heaven knows that no political system will bring about deliverance for our world. Our prayers should be that our leaders will work for justice and righteousness and we see from this passage that Paul believes in honouring those in authority. But we can never put our hope in politics because the barriers of race, class, and gender are so ingrained in society that addressing one injustice often comes at the cost of perpetuating another injustice. We all know this. Whoever you voted for in our election, you probably didn’t do so because you believed that he or she had the power to bring everything under his or her control. If that were the case then there wouldn’t be people living in this country without access to clean drinking water. We wouldn’t have 100,000 children waiting in foster care. We wouldn’t have people dying on the streets of Toronto because they can’t afford a place to live. These are the burdens that come with our Canadian citizenship. It’s important to be thankful for citizenship but also to be aware of the responsibility it entails. Perhaps, even more so for those of us who choose to follow Jesus.
Our heavenly citizenship comes with responsibilities too. Dean Pinter in his commentary on Acts, points out that our heavenly citizenship draws us into the burdens of Jesus; caring for creation and the stewardship of resources, standing against racism and religious persecution, and attending to the questions of justice and violence. I got an email from our head office this week about Baptists who historically, have been very politically active. Alexander Mackenzie and Charles Tupper, our 3rd and 7th Prime Ministers were both Baptists. A Baptist minister named Tommy Douglas was the founder of medicare in Canada. And John Diefenbaker, our 13th Prime Minister, successfully introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights and extended the right of First Nations people to vote in federal elections.
My exhortation to laughter is not to say that we don’t act in the face of injustice because we should. When we see injustice, we should be speaking against it and acting against it as God enables us to do so. The challenge is not to despair because of politics but to dare to ask God how he will make things right. The challenge is to be like the woman described in Proverbs 31 who laughs without fear of the future.
Something else I find funny about this passage is how Paul can’t get a break. He’s barely escaped with his life after preaching the gospel and God comes to him that night and says, “alright Paul, on to the next!”. We read in the passage that the Lord stood near Paul. God is right there with him. The theologian Frederick Buechner points out that God doesn’t always give us answers, what he gives us, is himself. With this knowledge that he can take courage because God is with him, Paul begins the journey to Rome where the gospel will continue to spread. It will spread throughout Europe and Asia to Africa and the Americas and the Pacific. As it spreads, the message of the gospel will at times become entwined with politics to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable. Until those Baptists come along and fight for the separation of Church and State. Martin Luther King Jr. said “The arc of history is long and bends towards justice”. Or as Alexander Pope wrote, Truth and right have the Universe on their side. Or as we who are followers of King Jesus would say, God is Sovereign. Whether it’s through a toga-wearing, Jewish Pharisee or a small Baptist church in Toronto, God is working out his will on earth.
I’m going to finish with the way we started our service, by reading Psalm 126:1-3.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.