Scripture for the seventh Sunday of Easter:
Acts 16.16–34 (Apostle Paul exorcises a girl with the gift of discernment); Psalm 97; Revelation 22.12–14,16, 17, 20-21; John 17.20-26 (Jesus offers a prayer of commissioning for his followers)
There’s a saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.” The Apostle Paul learned this several times: in Philippi the exorcism of a girl landed him in jail, after a severe beating. But why did he have to exorcise the girl? Apart from being repetitively annoying, surely her message contained truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Well, this is where semantics, and the context and presupposition of the hearer comes into play. “Most High God” in Philippi would have been understood as Zeus, or someone equivalent. “Salvation” would have been understood as material prosperity, or rescue from disaster. As Paul himself knew only too well, living and proclaiming the Christian gospel was hardly the path to a comfortable and prosperous life – in material terms. Spiritually, it had much to offer.
But this is why the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is a heresy: to teach that one can buy material wealth and prosperity through acts of faith runs quite contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. He was concerned with prospering in fulfilling God’s will, which is for justice and peace, and care for the needy. And Jesus expects us to undertake this mission in communion with others.
This, of course, might be something of a challenge. What about people who are strange, or different? What about people we don’t like? In the Eastern church, the state of communion is viewed as salvation itself – something that can happen throughout our lives, not just when we die. And communion with Christ leads us to communion with others.
This means that we must ask ourselves not how we individually are to succeed, or prosper, or achieve salvation, but how we can help others to succeed, or prosper (spiritually, intellectually and emotionally, as well as materially), and how we can gently make an easier path to salvation for others.
Jesus prayed – and continues to pray – that we all may be one. He didn’t pray that we become identical, or think alike, or act alike, or agree, and certainly not that we collectively ignore injustice. He simply prays that we come into communion with him, and that through him we can be in an accepting, caring, loving relationship with one another.
I suspect that he’s going to have to keep praying like that for a long time, because humanity certainly hasn’t managed to fulfil his goal yet, even with divine assistance: we are too distracted by individual, material prosperity.