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The good side of opportunism
I don’t think the apostles really knew how successful the faith movement they were starting would be, but they really pulled no punches to get it going. Paul, in particular, had a laserbeam focus and a one-track mind, taking advantage of every opportunity that was afforded him. He wanted to convert the entire region. He left no stone unturned. Ultimately, I think he’s “opportunistic” in a good way.
But why do I need to qualify that point? Why does taking advantage of opportunities sometimes feel negative? Here's my take on a few reasons.
There is something about intentionality that feels fake. Part of this is because we think that our own experiences and ideas need to govern how we perceive theworld. If we didn’t experience it, if it comes from something beyond us, it must not be valuable.
On the other hand though, it can be selfish. Sometimes our "opportunism" only comes from our own selfish desires because the results, the success, and the notoriety is what gives us value. Sometimes people taking advantage of opportunities are simply trying to "get all they can" out of an individual for themselves. They aren’t interested in a mutual relationship, they just want personal gain. They have their eyes on the prize and they have set up every opportunity for their personal agenda.
It can be dishonest. Sometimes the relationship can seem mutual, can seem genuine, but then there is another motivation revealed. “Oh, you were just nice to me, so you could get something.” “You pretended to like me, just so we could have sex. I was your rebound.” Christians, in my experience, are sometimes perpetrators of that kind of thing. They “bait and switch.” They lure you in with niceness and once it gets serious, you realize how problematic the relationship is.
We are so used to the powers doing it to us. Maybe it was our parents, who were supposed to love us, but then organized how they raised us around making themselves feel good. They became the center of the family and we all served them. But the powers do it to us too. They advertise to us and they make promises they can’t keep. We are often aware of it, and some of us protest it, but generally, it seems like they are still getting their way. When we feel powerless to stop them, maybe we exert our power on others when they begin doing the same thing.
One solution to resisting stereotyping someone like Paul, or anyone, is to try to relate to him. Many times, it seems like leaders are collection plates for our projection, and so we often dismiss them as opportunistic, inorganic, or tough even to take a criticism. But relating to them may not only help us know them, it might make us better leaders too.
In Acts, the big problem in the Jewish Roman world is how Paul is changing it. He is reaching out to foreigners, including them in the faith movement, and undoing barriers to entry that are unnecessary in order to come to terms with who we are ultimately related to. But such cultural changes, as we see around us in the United States, can cause quite an uproar and indeed, that’s what Paul’s experiencing.
In Acts 25, Paul manages to appeal his case to Governor Felix and subsequently the Emperor. His goal is to end up in Rome; God wants the church to be at the center of the Empire. In Acts 26, he ends up being brought to a Herodian King named Agrippa. Agrippa is a Jew given local power to govern a province. Paul simply tells of his own transformation. He doesn’t have much else.
One of the reasons that Paul gets away with such opportunism is because he’s been so obvious about it. He is clear from the get go about what his intentions are. He is making an argument to convince Agrippa to follow Jesus. He appeals to his Jewishness when he asks him if he believes in the prophets. He almost converts him to become a “Christian” (a derogatory word back then).
Paul saves himself (again)—Agrippa concludes he does nothing deserving death or imprisonment, but Paul’s imprisonment seems to be beyond Agrippa’s power and he is sent to Rome. The movement is working. From Jerusalem to Rome. God has moved his Spirit, through his servants Peter and Paul, in every circumstance across the Empire.
Paul takes advantage of every opportunity and still holds himself to be a real and genuine person. He shares his story. Not just to save himself, but to proclaim Jesus again. He doesn’t have anything else of value.
I think we really need to believe that the work of Jesus in us and in the world is the most important thing we have. When we have that knowledge, there really is no reason not to share it. Paul isn’t successful, necessarily. He doesn’t “convert” many people during his trials at the end of Acts, but God’s Spirit is still moving throughout the region. That’s the point of the story. If you keep reading, it doesn’t end with Paul’s death, but it does end in Rome. Acts is a story of God moving through his servants.
Life is full of opportunities, and I think as Christians, it’s our job to simply receive them. We can always wish for a better life, a better house, better children, better marriages, better jobs, all sorts of stuff. But rather than complaining that we don’t have ideal circumstances, why not receive what we have been given? We are in a variety of situations and we can use them. Why wouldn’t we act on them?
The one thing I want to leave you with is simple: take advantage of opportunities to tell your story, to let people into the Kingdom of God. Sharing our story and the message of Jesus with others may feel intimidating or unusual, but I really believe we can’t make an environment safer than Jesus can. Sure, Paul has to use some of his privilege to save his neck a few times, but his story is powerful and meaningful and inclusive. I think you have opportunities just the same.