by Peter Levenstrong
“‘Till the world turns upside down.
I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.
This is where it gets me,
On my feet, the enemy ahead of me.
If this is the end of me,
At least I have a friend with me.
Weapon in my head,
In command of my men with me.”
The above lyrics, taken from Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton, are not Scripture. But they could be.
Not only are there strong parallels between Paul’s missionary work and the situation described by Alexander Hamilton, the lyrics are actually inspired, albeit indirectly (by way of the English ballad played at the English’s defeat) by today’s reading from Acts. In the story, Paul and Silas arrive in Thessalonica to preach the Good News. The similarities between the two are so clear that I can imagine Paul singing the words to himself.
There were numerous times when Paul imagined his own death. He wrote about it extensively in his second letter to the Corinthians. Yet, despite doubts and fears, Paul pressed on. He stood on his feet and faced the enemy, his friends by his side. His only weapon was the Word of God. He wrote powerfully to the Ephesians how Christians are to put on the whole armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
This song has become especially meaningful to me in the past couple of weeks for an entirely separate reason. Just after the lyrics I quoted above, the song continues:
Then I remember my Eliza’s expecting me,
Not only that, my Eliza’s expecting.
You gotta go,
Gotta get the job done,
Gotta start a new nation,
Gotta meet my son.
It just so happens that, for reasons unrelated to these lyrics, I found myself singing these lyrics to my pregnant wife the day before she gave birth to our first child, a boy. Since then, the words have stayed with me in my mind throughout the past two weeks.
In Hamilton’s life, the birth of the US as a nation, and the birth of his own son were two moments that changed his outlook on life, coloring everything he did in the time that led up to them, and changed his life forever after.
In my own life, the birth of my son, who sleeps on a pillow in my lap as I write this, will undoubtedly affect me similarly. And rest assured, though no swords were drawn, I witnessed my wife doing major battle while in labor.
In Paul’s life, he knew he was witnessing the birth of a new kind of nation, a race of people called Christians, so much so that he often referred to them as his children.
My question is this: why is it so easy to let ourselves be defined by nation and family, but so hard to let ourselves be defined by our faith in the risen Christ?
Nation and family are two powerful identities and motivators for us. They impact decisions we make, and how we negotiate the relationships in our lives. For more liberal Christians, who value inclusion & diversity over religious bigotry, the perennial challenge is how do we hold onto those values while nevertheless retaining a sense that our lives are defined by our faith?
I will refrain from offering examples of how to do such a thing, because it becomes all too easy to read and simply nod “yes!” in agreement and move on with our day. Truly, if our faith is going to become the defining characteristic of our lives, then we must each take the time in personal reflection and prayer, to come to a deeper understanding of what God’s call for each one of us is in this life.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/