I wonder what Luke has been doing the entire time that Paul has been in prison. Obviously, he’s been nearby, waiting to accompany Paul to Rome, because now the pronoun switches from “he” to “we,” and there’s a sense that the old gang is back together again. What was this like to Paul, to move from his light imprisonment, where people, including governors, were free to join him, to a kind of floating imprisonment on the sea? I imagine that, although he had some chance to see his friends while imprisoned, he missed being immersed in the fullness of community. And that’s why, when I read this passage, I find myself focusing on the short lay over in Sidon, when Paul is allowed to go and stay with his friends. This re-immersion into community allows me to give some final thoughts about beloved community as a whole.
Way back in November I had a conversation with Amy Howton, the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s Becoming Beloved Community Coordinator, about how reading Luke and Acts fit in with the BBC initiative. You can read Amy’s write-up of that conversation here. In the course of our talk I said that “a community that has gone through a spiritual revolution is one in which people celebrate and take joy in each others’ efforts, ask humbly how they can add to them, and always ask whether the things they’re doing cultivate love.” As I think about that now, I realize that these communities are not at all unusual. My own church, St. John’s in Worthington, is just such a community. And because it is a transformed community, it has aided immeasurably to my own spiritual growth.
And yet, there is a great deal of spiritual work still to do within the institution of the church. We still sometimes work under oppressive hierarchies, make too much of being theologically right while ignoring the fact that we are spiritually lacking, and allow our traditions to dominate us, sometimes because we don’t recognize the blind traditionalism in our way of doing things. Leadership is necessary, but can it be a leadership that is self-emptying and humble? Theology is necessary, but can it arise from the joy of conversation and avoid the rigidity of dogmatism? Tradition is necessary (and, as an Episcopalian, I’m prone to say that it’s a positive joy), but can we set it aside when it interferes with the demands of love?
Even more than all of these things, we still have insiders and outsiders, high status people and low status people, a tendency to prize the spiritual gifts of some while ignoring the gifts of others. Can the people who are used to holding center stage move to the edge of the circle and sit quietly for awhile? Can the insiders choose to spend a season sitting with the outsiders and learning from them? Can we carefully pray over every person in our communities, and name the blessings of their gifts, and give ourselves space to wonder how those gifts might change us?
What is so powerful about Paul during his brief stay in Sidon is that he is open to being cared for. He, who was previously the leader, the teacher, who prided himself on his stamina and his ability to live with suffering, now falls back into the loving arms of his community, and places himself among those who must be cared for – among the widows and the orphans, whom Christian communities have always tending to with love. He trusts that the people whom he led will now lead him. And he is justified in that trust because this truly is a beloved community, full of joy, humility, and the cultivation of love.