After Easter: The Agitators

Heritage Presbyterian Church

7th Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2022

Scriptures – Acts 16: 16-34 and 2nd Kings 2: 1-15

Late in his life, the great abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, was asked by some young black activists what they should do in order to continue his legacy.  He replied, “Agitate!  Agitate!  Agitate!”  I often feel that Mr. Douglass’ forceful and honest words would suit many people in many situations….

Especially Christians…in almost every age.

What exactly is an “agitator?”  

  • This is someone who pushes relentlessly for necessary change.
  • This is someone who won’t take “no” for an answer.  In fact, an agitator will only double-down on pushing if a “no” is even hinted at.
  • This is someone who looks around at whatever is going on, recognizes the way that things could be improved or changed or eliminated, and then begins discussing, cajoling, dealing, pushing, and often screaming for something better.
  • I also think that an agitator is often – if not always – someone that God calls to be His voice and hands and feet for change.

That’s my definition of an agitator.

In American history, let me list some agitators who were pretty well known:

  • Every single woman who fought for women to have the right to vote;
  • Every single freedom rider who traveled throughout the Deep South in the 50’s and 60’s registering black Americans to vote;
  • Every single signer of the Declaration of Independence who automatically put a price on their own heads by signing that document;
  • Every single farmworker who gave up their own meager wages to organize and strike for better pay and safer working conditions;
  • Every single Native American who refuses to “let go of the past” when dealing with the accuracy of how American history is taught today.

That’s just a short list; I’ll bet you can name a few too.

The Bible and all the stories of church history are just full of agitators too, those women and men who refused to stay silent, who obeyed the voice of God that resonated in their hearts and souls, who spoke fearlessly and often died because of what they said.  

People like: the Apostles, each and every martyr, the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha – the sisters of Lazarus, the missionaries, and of course – the greatest agitator of them all: Jesus Christ.

We are given multiple clear examples of agitators in our two Bible readings for today: in the Old Testament reading, we have both Elijah and Elisha, and in the New Testament reading, we have Paul and Silas.

Elijah and Elisha were part of a long list of extremely strong agitators that the Lord sent to call out his people for their poor behavior.  Each time, these brave prophets called out the various kings of Israel and Judah directly.  (I mean, if you’re going call out an entire nation, you might as well go to the top.)  In very few instances, their message of repentance was accepted, and the people changed their ways – led by the king who was called out first.  In a couple of cases, things changed at first, only to slide back into nation-wide sinfulness led by the king; once or twice, God sent a second agitator to remind them of the original call to repentance and their original response to that call.

Elijah was especially good at this.  He served as an agitating prophet for the Lord for more than 30 years.  In that time, he was a constant and consistent thorn in the side of at least two kings, was threatened with death by the wife of one of them, and when his time was done on earth, he even transferred his ministry (and his agitation) to his well-groomed protégé, Elisha.  Small wonder that when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, he appeared with both Moses and Elijah – two of the greatest agitators in Biblical history.

Probably better known to most of us is the Apostle Paul and his traveling partner, Silas.  As I have said countless times in this church, Paul was…intense in his ministry for the Lord.  Paul not only agitated with the Jews for their acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah, he even took on fellow Christians who were often busy building walls against “the wrong sort of people” who also wanted to become Christians.

Each time Paul entered a new town, he immediately made a beeline to the nearest synagogue or gathering of Jews so he could debate them and try to win them over to Christ.  Only after that work did Paul also bring the Good News to that larger group of future believers known as “everybody else” – or as we know it today, “Gentiles.”  

Paul did work as an agitator better than just about everybody else that was called to bring the Good News to all the people of God.  And because of him, we can count ourselves as part of those people today.

Speaking of today, what about agitators today, especially in our divided, dangerous, and deadly society in which we find ourselves?  To agitate today is to truly take your life in your hands in many cases.  We may think it’s a brave and righteous thing to do, but I don’t see too many doing it freely and openly.  We also have another problem that was the same problem in the days of Elijah, Elisha, Paul, and even Jesus: often agitators are merely considered “troublemakers” or “outsiders” or even “giant pains in the neck.”  

If we agree with an agitator, then we cheer and sign up and march and call our elected officials and post strongly-worded essays on social media and sometimes (dare I say it?) get involved.

If we DISagree with an agitator, then we dismiss their message with a quick sneer and change the channel and call our elected officials and cancel our subscriptions and post strongly-worded essays on social media and sometimes (dare I say it?) get involved to keep things from changing.

The line between those two camps is one that is getting farther and farther and FARTHER apart as events unfold.

Some of our enemies have publicly stated that there is no need to attack the United States; the US is in the process of destroying itself and needs no help in doing it.

This is terrifying!  This is heart-breaking!  This is almost needlessly unpleasant to even contemplate with an open mind and an honest heart.

So, what do we do, Christians?  What in God’s name do we do?

I am uncertain as to specifically what you and your house should do.  But I return to today’s reading from the Book of Acts.  What happened?

Paul and Silas were both agitating for change in Philippi.  They were preaching the Word and bringing it directly to the people in the streets. When Paul became annoyed by the possessed slave-girl who would not stop screaming at them, he cast her demon out.  That caused a riot that I am pretty sure surprised Paul, Silas, and everybody else involved.  Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten within an inch of their lives, and thrown into prison.

Then what?  What did the agitators do?  Did they call on God to send killing lightning bolts to hit everyone in Philippi?  Did they curse God for getting them into that situation?  Did they threaten their guard with eternal agony in the pits of Hell if he didn’t let them go?  Did them go to social media and protest their treatment?

In fact…did they even complain?  No.

Instead, they waited for God to act.  And God sent an earthquake that opened all the cell doors and released their chains.  (Pretty specific earthquake if you ask me…).  Then they stayed right where they were.  When the guard realized that all the prisoners could easily escape, he took out his sword to kill himself – because death was the penalty for prisoners escaping.

Paul stopped him, came to him, accepted him, was taken to the guard’s house and fed and clothed and treated with kindness.  He and Silas were both actively doing what God had sent them to do: namely, bring others to His name.

Agitators work for change wherever they see injustice, pain, misery, and loss.

Agitators for the Lord do the same – while never losing sight of their primary mission: telling the world about the Good News of the greatest of all agitators: Jesus Christ.

So, my friends, as Frederick Douglass advised over a hundred years ago, I repeat today: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”

And bring the Good News to the people.