Acts 19:29a “Soon the whole city was in an uproar.”
I was walking through the section of Boston called “Downtown Crossing” last week when I noticed four Boston police officers with riot gear standing in a semi-circle in front of a man yelling on the street corner. I stopped for a moment and discovered that it wasn’t some random rant. The man’s Bible was open in his hand and he was reading at the top of his lungs.
Maybe it was the John-the-Baptist look about the man that made the officers nervous. If anyone had whispered that the man on the corner was used to a diet of locusts and wild honey, I probably would have believed them. He looked the part. Or maybe it was the words themselves. He wasn’t shouting the “Let not your hearts be troubled” parts.
I wondered what the police were thinking. Were they there to protect the man on the corner from irate passers-by, or were they there to protect others from him should he start trying to bring about the apocalypse that he so loudly proclaimed? I couldn’t stay and figure it out since I was on my way to the train, but the image stuck with me.
As the train chugged home, I wondered if the riot at Ephesus described in Acts 19 started like that. One agitator, in that case a devotee of the goddess Artemis who made his living selling her carved likeness, stood in a public place and stirred up the crowd. A troublemaker named Paul was in the city telling people that idols weren’t real--that there was another true God. People got so stirred up at the thought of Artemis being blasphemed and at the thought of economic disaster should tourists stop coming to Ephesus to see her temple (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) that soon the whole city was about to riot, packing the open amphitheater and chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” If you’ve ever heard the deafening roar of an excited stadium crowd, you know what it was like.
The whole thing made me a bit wistful. American Christianity today is better known for putting people in the pews to sleep (if they get in the doors at all) than for causing riots. Not that I’m a fan of riots, but the Gospel message as I read it is a counter-cultural message. It shouldn’t go down like candy with the public at large. Once Catholic nuns and Protestant clergy marched together in Selma, putting their lives on the line for the Gospel. In some countries they still face down oppressive regimes, human cruelty, and systemic injustice. Such boldness is too infrequent here, and I am as guilty as the next person in wanting to hide away where it is comfortable rather than calling out the idols of our age.
I suspect that the wild-eyed man shouting Scripture on a Boston street corner doesn’t see the biblical text in the same way I do. But the Boston police rightly recognized that if people truly heard the Word of God in its pages, they would need their riot gear.
Remind us, God, that you came to shine light in places that some would fight to keep dark. Amen.
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