It turns out that was a trick question. But there are two good reasons to be sure that it was meant to motivate the listeners, not to trick them.
One is that it came as a gift at the end of an exposition of two very important documents that illuminated both as only a scholar of their genre could. The other is that the scholar in question was the Dominican Father Joseph Allen who has spent more than 50 years working to put people in living touch with the words of Scripture. He put a spotlight on how two books of Scripture are really a continuing narrative left us by communities of people remembering what they had heard and learned, though perhaps never witnessed in person. They are chronicles of how communities discover themselves and start to evolve from their earliest roots.
One of those books is called Acts of the Apostles and it chronicles the community building adventures of people from dozens of places all over their known world. It is a tale of fear growing into courage; predictable enemies becoming friends and allies, and communication achieved across areas that would still be daunting in the 21stCentury.
What then was the “trick question?”
“Have you read Chapter 29 of Acts?” Father Alllen asked us. Our answers varied from gestures signaling “Yes,” or “Maybe” or “Probably, at some point, but I’m not really certain.”
Then, the real point of it all. The preacher that brought us to the gate of the Chapter 29 in question reminded us that there is no Chapter 29. And more to the point, that is because it is up to us who aspire to create communities (of any kind) to keep writing not just that chapter, but all the ones that will follow, no matter what your religion.
For those with whom I share my faith, the touch points are based in our beliefs. But heroes are heroes wherever you find them exceeding the expectations you might automatically anticipate finding in human beings. One of my favorites is a man named Ananais. We hear of him only once when he is deputized by his local community to go to an unknown street and house in Damascus and help a person named Saul who has fallen from his mount and ended up blinded. The unsuspecting Ananais doesn’t know why he has a sense of unrest, but vaguely recalls hearing that Saul is best known as a dangerous enemy committed to eliminating Ananais’ fellow believers.
Put yourself in his shaking shoes. He not only went as directed but greeted Saul as “Brother” and witnessed the scales falling from his eyes as vision returned and he saw this new-found Brother. No doubt he acted on inspiration (as it turned out Saul had on the road from Tarsus to Damascus). But that does not make him any less courageous. Nor any better a model for our fragmented times when it takes advancing into the unknown and unpredictable to address one as “Brother” who has previously only been identified as “Threat.”
Another of the pre-Chapter 29 heroes is a fellow named Stephen who served as a deacon, providing meals and other basic needs to the members of the growing community. When a hostile mob gathered and laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul to facilitate their stone throwing against Stephen, with a peaceful expression, Stephen left them and their barrage of stones after wishing them only good things. One can only hope that inexplicable serenity remained in their memories when the next stoning was suggested.
Women were among the most notable philanthropists in the pre-chapter 29 period and all who value the role of those who share hospitality and goods of this earth for a cause in which they believe would do well to think of Damaris and her sisters open-handed sisters. And of course, Lydia the purveyor of purple goods, whom I take to be a sort of a 1stCentury upscale supplier to designers of elegant formal wear. So were propertied men like Barnabas who owned a piece of land that he sold and brought the money to the community leaders to distribute as needed. Their generosity didn’t go astray, as this early history reports that no one in need went unaided. And let us not forget Aquila and Priscilla an early and unusual “Power Couple” whose role in the growing community exemplified the image of a marriage of equals.
And how was the relationship of the growing young community with people like the jailers that were warned that they would be in very big trouble if a couple of big names in the young community were not held securely when imprisoned. Then an earthquake hit, and all the jail’s doors sprang open and the bolts that held the prime prisoners were shattered. The guards feared the worst and so were on their way to committing suicide when they heard those prisoners call out to beg the guards not to harm themselves, assuring them that they would find not only the two prime value prisoners, but all the others who were awaiting them in their now-unlocked cells. The young community grew by the addition of at least the guard and his family that night when the prisoners accepted their invitation to come home with them and share a meal of celebration and reconciliation.
The stories continue through the 28 chapters, celebrating the first landmarks of growth and inviting readers to be courageous enough to dare to join in the writing of their own brave and distinctive Chapters 29. These will likely record how commitment to an ideal and to the hard work it will take to tell its story will assure growth. The new chapter will send a message to all ambitious and trusting enough in their own and their fellow humans’ power to build communities reflecting the best that is in them.
It’s that Chapter 29 that you and your friends write, in good times and bad, that will be the ones that stand the test of time.