Acts 8 has proven a fertile launching pad for blessed dreamings of where God may be leading the church. If we look at the beginning of Acts 8, as much of the church is scattering, the Apostles stay in Jerusalem. Stephen has just been stoned and more stonings are threatened. Apparently, the Apostles are ready to be die for their faith in Jesus and, if we can trust tradition, all but one eventually did (and John seemed spared to write Revelation while in exile).
In thinking about church restructure and the role of bishops (and other church leaders), Acts 8 might be a very important text to consider. Perhaps our bishops need to have the expectation that they will be martyred for their faith.
If Tertullian was correct, and “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” perhaps our harvest is so meager because we have planted so few seeds. In some area of the world, Christianity is growing by huge numbers, and many of those churches are being led into eternal life by the witness of their martyred leaders.
Imagine what walk-abouts would be like for episcopal elections if people really expected that their next bishop might not survive the term, and not merely because of a sugar-induced coma after too many visitation receptions. Instead of trying to figure out whether deanery-wide confirmations will be required or exactly how “inclusive” a new administration will be toward left-handed acolytes, a whole different set of questions might be asked of both sides. Imagine a candidate asking a diocese, “Who are the people you are ministering to that you love so much that we would give our lives so that they might hear the good news of Jesus Christ?” Or, “Who have you been praying and fasting for, and how much, that they would have their lives transformed by the Holy Spirit in preparation for the mission we will begin together?” Imagine a diocese that would rather answer those questions than prepare a chamber-of-commerce-esque profile listing the area’s golf clubs and major league sports franchises. Such a diocese would most certainly be growing, whoever they elected.
Our own difficulty in even conceiving of how a 21st century leader in the Episcopal Church could die for the faith is one of the most significant issues we face in re-imagining our church. The fact that so few of our current leaders would seem particularly prepared for the few ways we might think someone could be martyred is even more troubling. (By dying, I mean dying, not feeling badly that recalcitrant parishioners in a failing congregation where insufferably rude when told they had no one under 60 because they refused to welcome in, minister to, or pray and fast for visitors, new members, or their surrounding community.) If the convention wisdom is right that says that churches get the preaching they deserve, then we need to look squarely in the mirror and think about where we are and where we want our leaders to take us.
I think many people want the kind of church where we really learn how to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel so we can find them. But we are scared out of our minds and don’t know how to do it. However, the more we demand those kind of leaders in our prayers to God and our church councils with each other, the more we will begin to find them. In such a Church, we will be less concerned with how things were for people way back when, and more concerned with how they need to be for those we are about to welcome to the household of God. We will be less concerned with details of health care and pension funds (what do martyrs need with a pension fund?), and more concerned with the discernment of exactly where the lost are in our community. And we will be less concerned with what we can build for our churches and more concerned with what we can give away for the sake of Jesus and the good news, including our very lives.