“A can of worms”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Acts 13:44-52
Revelation 21:1-5
John 13:31-35

There is an old illustration about “opening a can of worms.” Some of the applications I have heard indicate that some people do not understand its meaning. Picture a young boy who has just invaded his parents’ freshly plowed garden patch, gathering up several dozen worms and placing them into a container. Now picture him sitting on the bank of a pond, opening the container, extracting a worm and trying to attach the wiggly critter to the business end of his fishing line. While he is attempting this sometimes-formidable task, worms begin streaming out of their confinement. Suddenly, the great escape catches his eye and he quickly scurries about picking up one escapee after another and returning them to their container. Not only are they spreading out in an ever-widening circle, but each time one is recaptured, two more have found freedom. Unless the cover is reapplied, his efforts will be futile. Even after the lid is on, some of the former inmates will never be found. The can cannot be closed with the same result as if it had never been opened. It is a deed that cannot fully be undone.

In last Sunday’s lesson from Acts, the leaders of the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch invited Paul to share his message with the people who had gathered there. They had no idea at the time, but they were most certainly opening a can of worms.

St. Paul briefly and skillfully reviewed the history of Israel, highlighting God’s mighty, saving acts and culminating in the resurrection of Jesus. Many people followed Paul and Barnabas from the synagogue and continued to listen to their teachings. They also invited the Apostle to return on the next Sabbath. When Paul returned, he found nearly everyone in town gathered to hear the Word of the Lord. It is at this point that this week’s lesson from Acts resumes the story. It is also at this point that the Jewish leaders regretted ever having invited Paul to speak (opening the can).

Luke wrote that they were “filled with jealousy.” The current understanding of those words would accurately describe the situation. The leaders of the synagogue envied Paul’s popularity. In simple terms, that would mean that they wished they had what he had, but jealousy is never that simple. As is always the case with envy, they felt threatened.

The message of Paul was the very Gospel of Jesus Christ–it was not simply words, sentences and paragraphs, but the very power of God. The Jewish leaders felt that their social/religious/political standing was in jeopardy. Their leadership–the control they exercised over others through the Mosaic regulations–was being threatened. Sadly enough, as long as they refused the joy of salvation that God wanted to freely give them, they were right. They felt inadequate, but what they failed to recognize is that without God’s grace we are all inadequate. Paul and Barnabas pulled no punches as they told the leaders: “You reject it (the Word) and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life.”

They continued, “We now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.'” The Gentiles were delighted!

Up until this point, the Jewish leaders had only been argumentative, trying to contradict whatever Paul said. After he openly turned to the Gentiles, they turned to outright persecution and had him run out of town. The Apostles shook the dust from their feet in protest and moved on to the next town. Luke concluded Sunday’s lesson with a marvelous observation. We might assume that Paul and Barnabas would be hacked off by this maltreatment, but Luke wrote: “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

I have quoted several lines from Acts. Two of Luke’s observations bear repeating. First, “They were filled with jealousy.” Second, “They were filled with joy.” These are not simply an author’s attempt to “fill in,” or “flesh out” details of his characters. Luke has summarized an essential difference between those who are only confronted by the faith, and those who are captured by it.

The Jewish leaders heard the Gospel and rejected it. Paul and Barnabas had also heard the Good News, but they were consumed by it. I am convinced that the tongues of fire symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s presence at Pentecost were more than just symbolic–these men were on fire with the Good News. Unlike the leaders of the synagogue, these men who were also of Jewish descent no longer relied on their ancestry, their obedience to the Law or anything within themselves. They relinquished everything to the grace of God in Christ.

Paul wasn’t there at that big Pentecost, but then neither were we. You and I, Paul and Barnabas are all second-hand recipients of the Good News. Nonetheless, Paul was afire–what has happened to you and me?

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is not another post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. It is a sort-of throwback to the night He was betrayed. I can’t help but believe that at least Paul and I would have preferred to be there when Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment.”

At the same time, Paul seems to have captured the essence of what Jesus meant. The “old” commandment, in addition to loving God above everything, was “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If sin has us feeling inadequate and threatened (jealous), our love for ourselves is not a healthy motivator or guide for loving someone else. Jesus took the disciples way beyond that when He said, “As I have loved you, so you are to love one another.” We are to love like the One who became A Man of Sorrows so that we might be people of joy. We are to love with the same selflessness as the Savior who gave up everything that we might receive and receive and receive–forgiveness, eternal life and a joy-filled present that others cannot dampen, diminish, or “put the lid on!”

Paul would eventually discover, as we all have, that petty jealousies still occur within and among people of faith. They come when we are more concerned with getting our way than going God’s, when we want recognition for our service rather than to serve, and especially when we try to put a lid on the Gospel lest it spill over and fill our little corner of the Kingdom with “Gentiles and foreigners.” Jealousy is a feeling of being inadequate or threatened. It comes because we have created our own false ideas of adequacy and invulnerability.

A Protestant pastor once shared his woes with a wise nun from a neighboring Roman Catholic parish. He said that he felt “raped” by both God and the church. He felt used–to the point of being used up– always giving and never getting anything back. She suggested that he change the image of his feelings from rape to that of an old farm pump. She suggested that his real problem was that his pipe wasn’t deep enough–he was only pumping surface water, and by 10:30 each morning he was already pumped dry.

The grace of God is deep enough for all our needs and then some. Jesus once said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” The Good News is indeed a “can of worms” or, to use this second image, an ever-flowing stream of cool, fresh water. It is a constant source of the Holy Spirit’s power for our lives. At the same time, we must be tapped in to it. We also need to be a conduit for the Gospel so that it flows through us to others.

From Feddersen’s Fables: A man once purchased a piece of property that had a natural, artesian well. Fresh, cold water flowed up from the ground in great abundance. After he had lived there for a few months, he followed the stream of water until he came to a neighbor’s place. There he discovered that his neighbor’s family also benefited from the constant supply of cool, clean water that came from his place. Being a greedy and selfish sort, he devised a plan to seal off the opening so that he could keep all the water for himself. He completed the project late one evening, capping off his water source just before going to bed.

The next morning, he got up early so that he could sneak down to his neighbors’ place and catch the looks on their faces when they discovered their water supply was gone. First, however, he stopped at his newly capped well to draw a little water to wash the sleep from his eyes and get a cool drink. When he opened the tap, nothing–absolutely nothing came out. He tore apart the entire apparatus until the original hole was exposed–still nothing!

He was sitting on the ground with his head in his hands when he heard his neighbor’s voice: “Mornin’ friend! Say, ain’t that the darndest thing? When I got up this morning I saw how for some reason the water pressure built up during the night and pushed through a new well down by my place. I followed the old trail back up cause I thought you might be worried that we didn’t have no more water. Well, it ain’t so–we still got all we need! You just bring your bucket down any time you feel like it and you can carry back all you could ever want. I just thought I’d stop by to bring you the good news.”

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