Being the Church Then and Now: Issues from the Acts of the Apostles

William Loader

5. "In him we live and move and have our being,
even as some of your poets have said." (Acts 17:28)

The captivity of images and the creativity of imagination: on being open to the Spirit


In this study we shall look at two stories which illustrate one of the main themes of Acts: being open to the Spirit. According to Luke’s story, well meaning human beings inevitably turn in wrong directions, but God never abandons them. Time and time again, God breaks through their limited understanding, their wrong images, and opens before them new possibilities. The Spirit is, after all, the Spirit of new beginnings, the Spirit of resurrection, the Spirit of creation out of chaos. In every generation the Spirit renews, recreates, lifts the imagination to new hope, new vision. For the Spirit is also the Spirit of the kingdom, the Spirit of the kingdom now, that moves us along the agenda of the kingdom of justice and peace. The Spirit empowers us to be the Church, to be the kingdom for now, in the world.

1. Peter and Cornelius

The first episode is almost comic in the way Luke tells the story. Cornelius, a Gentile centurion and a Jewish sympathiser, sees a vision at the ninth hour. Counting from 6 am as the first hour, we see him having his afternoon snooze or a long siesta. God moves him to seek out Peter in neighbouring Joppa. The next day Peter, probably following the Jewish hours of prayer goes up onto the roof of his house to pray at noonday. He is moved to ecstasy and sees a vision. The reader with any Jewish background senses the impossible situation. Peter as a Jew may have contact with a Gentile, but how far will be willing to go? Contacts between Jews and non Jews were unavoidable, but the likely events to come would confront Peter with the challenge of going beyond these norms. This would offend the laws of piety.

At this point Luke tells us that Peter has a dream. The dream seems at first only indirectly related to the issue of going to Cornelius. It is about clean and unclean food. The Old Testament designates some foods clean and some unclean, some which may be eaten and others which may never be eaten. The Gentiles did not observe such a distinction and usually ate meat slaughtered in association with a pagan religious rite. Therefore to eat with them would inevitably lead to a breaking of these scriptural prohibitions. This was one of the reasons why close contact with Gentiles had to be forbidden. They and their food were unclean. The commandments about clean and unclean food are there for all to read in the scripture of the Old Testament and the Old Testament was the scripture both for Jews and for Christians. It was Peter’s Bible. So the issue in the dream is amongst other things about correct Bible interpretation.

In response to the invitation to eat unclean food Peter refuses point blank. He knew the scripture well and intends to keep it. But like the people Stephen was attacking, Peter’s reverence for scripture was too much of the fundamentalist mould and failed to read it from its centre. The theologian in the dream confronts Peter: don’t call what God has created unclean! Peter might have shown himself rather thick during the ministry of Jesus, but this time he twigs to the reality immediately. At the very centre of scripture is the faith that God is creator. Everything else should be seen in that light and when any commandment stands against this central thrust, it is to give way. What a scripture writing generation had to see as taboo might in another generation be seen in quite a different light. In this category come a number of biblical statements, including those about divorce, slavery, household order, monetary interest, and sexuality, including much that is written about homosexuality. Not to have the freedom at least to contemplate such issues in this light is not to know the freedom which is the essence of the gospel. It is to range oneself with those who stood against Jesus and the Spirit in the name of well meaning religion.

Of course, it was with this freedom of the Spirit that Jesus interpreted scripture. At the heart was love. Whenever anything stood in the way of love’s way, whether it be sabbath law, purity law, even the law of honouring father and mother, love should always win. Jesus did not abandon the commandments, but he interpreted them from the centre and so came to be in great conflict with the those inclined to a fundamentalist approach which saw scripture not only as witness but also as God’s infallible voice captured in human speech. In the scripture Jesus heard God’s word; he recognised its melody; those who opposed him mostly heard only the notes.

Peter’s vision is like the ministry of Jesus in another respect as well. It appeals to God as creator: do not call what God has made unclean. God loves what he has made. God loves the apparently unlovely and God loves even those who have turned their back on love and made a mess of their lives, because God is creator and they are God’s creation. Jesus uses the same kind of simple argument to appeal to people to understand what he was saying about love. The father of the prodigal son runs down the road to embrace his son, long before he has any idea of the son’s repentance and reform. He loves the son because he is his son. If that is what any decent parent would do, why isn’t it the same with God? Jesus’ parables were very homely and down to earth. This is the message of the gospel, this is the recurrent theme in the symphony of scripture, this is the word of the Lord.

So Peter was being led back to the heart of the gospel again as he faced this new situation. This gospel of love is the bread from heaven upon which the soul feeds; it is the water of life that quenches our thirst; it is the sap of the vine through which we are enabled to bear fruit. The discipline of prayer is the discipline of returning again and again to that love. It is to hear those words spoken over ourselves: call not that which God has made unclean. It is to know and believe that we are clean, every part of us, everyone of us. No part of us, no one of us, however unworthy, however fallen, however smeared, however shamed, has been abandoned by God the creator. This is our life. This is our hope. For this Jesus lived; for this he died; for this he rose again.

What Peter learned in the vision was that this was not only true of himself; it was true of all God’s creation and in the immediate setting: it was true of Gentiles, “the others” who stood outside of Judaism. The outrageous grace of God. It was outrageous for Jews. But it also outrageous for many Christians of the day. How could they assume that God simply accepts Gentile sinners by sheer grace without first insisting that they commit themselves to keeping the commands of scripture. It was the old scripture interpretation debate again which nearly split the Church.

Ranged on one side were those who followed the consistent position that Gentiles should be accepted into the community of faith on the same basis as Jews and that meant following the scriptural injunction that they first be circumcised and then commit themselves to live as Jews in total obedience to the commandments. This was the strict fundamentalist line and the most traditionally respectable. At the other end was Paul who had seen the light on the Damascus Road and knew that it was by sheer grace that God offered a relationship of love to all, both Jews and Gentiles alike, and that the essence of scripture was about living out that relationship of love. He argued that this in effect fulfilled the Law more than any pious and tedious obedience of individual prescriptions could ever do. To be scriptural for Paul, too, meant to read scripture from its heart, not to live by the letter. Paul’s position most consistently reflects the position of Jesus.

We may be disappointed to hear that Peter was not as consistent as Paul. Paul tells us that once when conservative Jewish Christians from James of Jerusalem arrived in Antioch, Peter wavered. Both Peter and Paul had been eating freely with Gentile Christians, but Peter withdrew under conservative pressure. Acts, itself, seems even a little confused about the outcome of the debates. Luke has been led to believe that the solution was a compromise which demanded Gentiles keep a certain selection of Old Testament laws, including those on meat and marriage among kin. It was a long time before Paul’s view prevailed. There is some indication that Paul and Peter had come to a common position by the time they spent their last years in Rome and we may assume the gospel of Jesus prevailed.

This is a piece of early church history. But it equally reflects our own. Fundamentalisms of the familiar still quench the Spirit. Within ourselves as individuals we still need to hear the declaration of cleanness. And within our world the Spirit declares God’s passion for all peoples without discrimination on the basis of race, gender or creed. For the Spirit holds before us the vision of the kingdom when all peoples shall come to love and praise God in justice and peace, when all peoples from east and west and north and south will sit at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The same Spirit feeds us with this agenda at the eucharist and nourishes our souls with limitless love. The same Spirit sends us out courageously to cross the boundaries which religion and unfaith erect and to live out daily the heart of the scripture in true obedience to its message.

2. Paul and Athens

Our second episode presents Paul in Athens. He wanders among the images of various deities, the gods in the market place. Quick fire gods who promise immediate relief, gods for the greedy, gods of ecstatic indulgence, gods of nationalism, gods with all the answers, gods of magic, gods of institutions, gods to bolster the Roman political system, gods to keep the poor happily poor, gods for the curious, all the gods we find in our own market places and sometimes in our churches and more. Paul confronts the savage pluriformity of a cosmopolitan world and stands up to its best philosophies. The ingredients are all there for a characteristic Jewish tirade for monotheism, much as Paul had written in the first chapter of the letter to the Romans.

But Luke’s story moves differently. Paul notes the pluriform religiosity arid somewhat playfully mentions that one image had been dedicated to an unknown God. Of this God he speaks, the creator God who cannot be captured in temples made with hands or poured into moulds of human images. This is the God of all peoples, the God not distant from any of us, the divine being present to all. There follows a quotation from Aratus, a pagan poet, from his poem Phaenomena, written about 270 BC in Athens. “In, or perhaps through, whom we live and move and have our being: for we are his family.” What an extraordinary thing for Luke to have Paul say! He quotes a pagan poet. We find the same quotation also used by very open minded Jews elsewhere. It is nonetheless very striking.

There, in your culture, 300 years ago, the truth about God was expressed. The Spirit of God was there before us. The sense of the divine which, distorted, produced this wild array of idols also came to expression in the poets. They told of the one who is not far from each of us; these pagan poets knew we belong to God and we belong to a family; we are God’s family. What an extraordinary pattern Luke lays down here.

And so in this land the Spirit was also speaking 200, 300, 30000, 40000 years ago. And we need to hear what the Spirit was saying to the Aboriginal people and what the Spirit is saying through them to us. The same Spirit brooded in the Indian subcontinent, in Arabia, and the same Spirit speaks in the language of the poets and the artists, the novelists and the playwrights of every age. The Spirit is free and our calling is to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit. We need to sit down and hold hands with all who listen for the voice of the one who is not far away, who is the ground of all life and being.

But Luke does not leave it there. Paul does add his broadside now about the futility of pagan fundamentalism, which thinks it captures deity not in parchment but in silver and gold and stone. He then announces that God will judge the world by a human being, Jesus Christ whom he raised from the dead. Is this consistent with what has gone before? Yes it is. Luke is not suggesting that mission degenerate into religious syncretism, where all religions are thrown together into an amalgam of soft tolerance and truth is traded for shallow unity. On the contrary, there is a criterion, a judge, and he is Jesus. It is by Jesus that we can recognise the footprints of the Spirit. It is the love he made known which helps us discover its past victories and its defeats in the cultures of the world. This is not a Jesus imperialism of the kind that declared the world abandoned by the Spirit and claimed a monopoly for the Church on the truth. Such Christianity repeats all the arrogance of religious colonialism.

The Spirit is none other than the Spirit who came upon Jesus of Galilee. The music of the Spirit is heard in the groaning of creation for renewal, for peace, for justice. For the Spirit breathes wherever the lungs are open, wherever the heart pounds for the gospel of love. The incognito God of mercy and justice still stands in the market place and in the Church. This God still hears the cries of the people in the Egypts of today. This God still raises up the Moses, the Elijah, the Peter, the Paul to join forces with the advance party, the Spirit. This God still stands in the market place and in the Church beside the well promoted competitors and their myriad followers.

Both episodes today are about removing barriers, barriers constructed by religion itself. Both are saying that the whole world is God’s creation, the playground of the Spirit. The whole world is the object of God’s love, the love incarnate in Jesus Christ. Every attempt by human beings to capture God in images, in a book, in a temple, in a people or culture, in a religious experience or in an institution, is a denial of the Spirit. It is a re-erection of Babel’s tower, another futile assault on God’s power in the name of human power, another desperate bid borne of fear, to define out the unknown, the unpredictable, the unmanageable future God promises us. The serpent’s vision still entices us: we want to be like God.

The vision of the kingdom is our agenda. The Spirit of the kingdom is our enabling. The grace which lived and died and rose for us in Jesus feeds our souls. We are the Church, God’s risk of love in history, as mature and immature as the average of its members, but God’s promise of the kingdom for now. Let us rejoice in the freedom of the Spirit that knows no bounds, that leads us beyond our fears and our barriers to the uttermost ends of the world, and that brings us back to the centre, to the Word of God borne witness to by Holy Scripture: God in whom we live and move and have our being and whose family we are.

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