The ending of the season finale of comedian John Oliver’s show on HBO, “Last Week Tonight,” was cathartic. After an expletive-filled rant regarding how “bad” (euphemism) the year has been, he pressed a trigger and pyrotechnically blew up the gigantic numbers, “2020.”
For some reason it feels good to vent anger and pain vicariously like this. It gives you a sense that at least you’re doing something.
An insight from the Book of Acts, though, helps put 2020 into perspective and is a bit more positive about the future. It offers a ray of hope.
In retired Bishop Will Willimon’s commentary on the book, from the Interpretation series, he noted a curious phenomenon: Persecutions seemed to strengthen the church instead of weaken it.
In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested then ordered to stop preaching. The result? Increased preaching, a second outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a more cohesive fellowship, and an increased number of “signs and wonders.” In Acts 8, a “great persecution” arose in Jerusalem. The result? The gospel moves into Samaria. In Acts 12, Herod ramps up violence against believers. The result? “The word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24).
Persecution seems to bring out the Holy Spirit in new ways.
And hasn’t 2020 been a year of persecution?
A pandemic that kills, wounds, financially devastates, and shutters businesses, schools, and churches?
Overt, unapologetic displays of racism and xenophobia?
A political climate that encourages paranoia and fosters unrest?
Through it all, I’m amazed at, and appreciative of, the resilience of people in coming together. Checking in and visiting with neighbors. Ordering take out to support struggling restaurants. Leaving bigger tips. Turning out at the polls. Packing bags of food at service agencies. Wearing masks for the sake of each other.
I’m particularly impressed by the strength of churches. Adaptation, creativity, resolve. A renewed appreciation of what we’ve had pre-pandemic, and a dedication to reclaim that in new ways. The character of clergy and laity shines brightly, more brightly than when people saw church as an option instead of a necessity.
The Holy Spirit has always been with us, regardless of creed or lack thereof. Maybe Pentecost embedded Her somehow in our spiritual DNA. Maybe it’s in our most vulnerable times we are best able to open the gate, let Her loose, and see what happens.
The lesson from Acts, and the good news for today, is that the Kingdom will push back. Hard. God will see to it. The Spirit will stir up people in new ways.
Believing this is a lot better than just blowing up an old year and hoping for a better one.