A reminder from Acts about what truly matters
By Cherice Ullrich
If your December looked anything like mine, you’re tired.
We shopped for gifts. We watched my son hold up the three French hens in his kindergarten Christmas concert. We hid the elf (when we remembered). We decorated our house, inside and out.
If you’re really like me and you have little children, you had to do all of the decorating after they went to bed and finish it all in one shot because they’d get into the boxes the next morning if you weren’t done. So you may or may not have stayed up ’til midnight and then had to pile all of your other decorations on a table so you could put them away three days later because that’s when you had time.
This year, as in many others, we prepared our house for family to stay with us over Christmas: two sets of family, one with a dog. December is fun, hectic, exhausting, and somewhere in there, we remember Jesus and how all of this is for his birthday.
Which was probably in April anyway.
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We always talk about how people are the important part of the holidays — how it’s not about the presents but about sharing love with family and friends. Then why did I care so much about what people were buying me? Why did I feel that in order to host a party, I needed a house that’s blog or magazine worthy? Why do I spend so much time noticing what I don’t have, instead of what I do?
Three years ago, my husband Rob and I decided to downsize and simplify. We moved to a smaller house so we could spend our money and time in better ways: to focus on being together as a family instead of focusing on our stuff (and what people thought of it). In our first eight weeks after the move, we opened our new home to eight different groups of friends and family who were traveling through Rockford and needed a place to stay. We had just moved and my house looked nothing like a magazine, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Home is not my house. Home is people. For a few years, I somehow missed this in a culture of Pinterest and HGTV. I still want to beautify our house, and we slowly have been. You should have seen the ugly wallpaper in our bathrooms! While I still love the color we painted our front door, it’s become more important that it’s an open door, a welcoming place where others can also feel at home.
In a culture that tells me I need to work full-time and be the world’s best mom by cooking everything from scratch and placing it on a beautifully set table while simultaneously posting on social media about it, I needed to let go. Practically, this looks like me being OK that I didn’t get everything picked up and put away before people came over. It looks like me not vacuuming and not stressing about it when the doorbell rings. It looks like me serving food on paper plates around a table that minutes ago was covered in school papers, bills, crayons, stuffed animals and random puzzle pieces.
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Recently, in the high school Bible class I teach, we turned our attention to poverty. We read about how God even seems to show preferential love for those who are marginalized. I asked my students, “Do we see ourselves as poor, or rich?” In other words, do we focus our minds on those who have more than us, or those who have less? Who is really rewarded in Christ’s kingdom? And why does Jesus say it’s harder for the rich to enter it? Why does the rich man, after Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, walk away in sadness?
As we processed these questions, we also read from Acts 4, where in the early church community there were “no needy persons among them.” The kingdom is for everyone, rich and poor. But really, there was neither because in the early church community, everyone shared everything: wealth, assets, even property. They eliminated poverty in their community. When people became Christians, something happened to their previously held ideas of money and status. The result? People came in droves to be part of this community.
Bible scholar Richard Bauckham says Luke wrote a different kind of story than most historians of his time. Instead of highlighting the powerful rulers and the elite, or the “great men” who fought “great wars” that changed history, Luke writes about the common, everyday people who really formed societal change. His history of Christ’s ministry (Luke Part 1) and his history of the church (Acts, or Luke Part 2) are “histories from below,” or “people’s histories.”
In his story, Jesus is one of these people from below: born in poverty, then a refugee, then growing up in a no-name town. During his ministry, he often spent time among the destitute, diseased and demon possessed — in other words, the outcasts or marginalized. And what is more lowly than dying a criminal’s death in the Romans’ most humiliating and shameful practice — so shameful almost no Roman historian would recount the details of crucifixion? In Luke’s writing, Christ’s kingdom is where the lowly are exalted.
Yet, Jesus didn’t only hang out with poor people. Luke introduces us to characters who were part of the wealthy elite. Think of Zaccheus, the tax collector (or maybe better termed extortionist), or Joseph of Arimethea, who buried Jesus. Think of Nicodemus, part of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus did not exclude or discriminate against those with money or status. He engaged them in conversation, ate in their homes, attended their parties.
By the time we reach the book of Acts, Luke has already established in his gospel that God shows no favoritism. He continues the theme throughout Acts, as the early church community accepts all people regardless of gender, race or economic status.
One good example occurs in Acts 16, where Luke juxtaposes two stories about Paul and Silas ministering in Philippi. We usually think of a different aspect of this story: Paul and Silas being rescued from prison. While this was miraculous, I believe Luke also wanted us to see something else — a parallel between two people at opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
When Paul and Silas first arrive in Philippi, they go first (as always upon Paul’s arrival in a new city) to find a place of prayer. They would always speak the Good News of the Messiah to Jews first, then to Gentiles. Here, they find a place on the outskirts of town where women have gathered for prayer. They meet Lydia, called a “worshipper of God.” That’s a title used to indicate a Gentile who has embraced Judaism. We also read that she is from Thyatira, a city known for its wealth. Lydia is a “dealer in purple cloth,” which implies she is a wealthy merchant selling luxury fabric to the upper class or even royalty; purple dye was expensive in the ancient world.
Lydia hears the gospel from Paul and Silas, is baptized with her whole household, and invites them into her home.
Later in the same chapter, Paul and Silas are imprisoned and we meet their jailer. The earthquake happens and everyone’s chains fall off, but no one leaves the jail (possibly more miraculous than the earthquake). In the Roman empire, being a jailer carried no prestige but high risk. If any prisoner escaped, the jailer would be held responsible and killed. This man, a Gentile, was likely in a career he had not chosen and was probably poor.
The jailer hears the gospel from Paul and Silas, is baptized with his whole household, and invites them to eat a meal in his home.
Both Lydia and the jailer become Christians. Both are baptized with their whole households. And here’s what struck me most: Both invite Paul and Silas into their homes. In Acts, when people hear the gospel and respond, their initial response is to thank those who shared the message with them by eating a meal together.
In one short passage, Luke has shown us the kingdom’s radical equality: Jews (Paul and Silas) equally accept Gentiles, whether men or women, into the Christian community, and show no favoritism or economic discrimination when invited to their houses.
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I wonder what Lydia’s home looked like. She probably had everything desirable and trendy. She probably had servants to do all of her cleaning. I’ll bet her home was gorgeous, spotless, well-equipped for guests. I wonder if Paul and Silas were impressed. I wonder if Lydia felt proud of how much she could share.
Then I wonder what the jailer’s home looked like. Was his family upset that he brought guests in the middle of the night? Did he have kids? Was his wife frazzled at the thought of company she was completely unprepared for? (Going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing it wasn’t common practice to bring home people from the jail.) I wonder what they ate. It probably wasn’t as great as the food at Lydia’s. I wonder if the jailer felt any shame.
Luke gives us no indication that any of this mattered. Both households welcome Paul and Silas with joy. No recorded apologies like, “I’m sorry it’s such a mess.” No false humility like, “Oh that old thing? I’ve had that forever.” The point didn’t seem to be where they were eating but rather with whom they were eating.
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I get all of this. Yet, so often I still catch myself comparing my life and my stuff to others’ (funny how I always seem to compare with those who have more, but not less). I think about how nice it must be to have their house, or how much better my house would be if I could only change this one thing. Sometimes I even buy things in hope that guests will notice them and comment.
Pinterest and HGTV already have enough model homes. As we welcome people through our front door this coming year, I hope we can model something more like Lydia and the jailer did: a humble sense of equality, generosity and community.