Adventurous Theology: A World of Wonders (Bruce Epperly)
Adventurous Theology: A World of Wonders (Acts 5:1-8:40)
Acts of the Apostles invites us into a world of signs and wonders in which nothing is fully predictable or settled. God is the source of surprise, adventure, and creativity in the life of the earliest Christians. Opening to God awakens life-changing energies; closing to divine possibility may lead to blocking the abundance God envisions for us.
Chapter 5 begins with the curious story of Ananias and Sapphira, falling down dead as a result of their duplicity. Power can create and destroy, cure and kill; but divine power, as I understand it, does not seek death but abundant life. Still, we are responsible, to some extent, for our health and well-being. Medical research as well as lived experience tells us that health and illness are associated with our attitudes; that hope and depression alike can have an impact on our immune, cardiovascular, and digestive systems. While I don’t believe that God desired the death of Ananias or Sapphira, could it be that being caught in their duplicity led to their deaths? Could it be that their death was psychosomatic, reflecting the impact of their emotional lives on their physical well-being? At the very least, this strange passage challenges us to consider the impact of our thoughts, attitudes, emotional life, and behavior on our health. While there is no linear one-to-one correspondence between our attitudes and our health and prosperity as some new agers (for example, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret) or prosperity gospel (“name it and claim it”) Christians suggest, our thoughts and attitudes can be a tipping point between life and death and health and illness.
Awe came upon everyone in the wake of these unexpected deaths. Many people sought healing and expected that Peter’s shadow had a curative power. Once again, the role of faith in health and well-being is lifted up. While our faith is not omnipotent and works through natural causes in the interplay of divine and human call and response, surely our faith makes a difference in our overall health and may open the door to dramatic naturalistic releases of divine healing energy.
The death of Stephen also points to a world of wonders: as he was about to be martyred for the faith, Stephen has a vision of the glory of God. Mysticism led to compassion, as Stephen like Jesus forgave his tormentors in his final hour. Mystical experiences involve a widening of consciousness in which our self expands in its sense of identity and interest. Alfred North Whitehead once described religion, at its best, as world loyalty; this world loyalty is connected with the experience of Peace in which the self is not lost – identity does not disappear –but grows in stature to embrace the contrasting elements of life and welcome friend and enemy, human and non-human alike. Such experiences reflect the interdependence of life – there is no “other,” rather we are all deeply connected, shaping and being shaped by one another and the divine energy and wisdom flowing through all things.
The strange passage about Simon the Magician reflects the contrast between the self-centeredness that contracts and the self-centeredness that expands the flow of divine healing energy. If God is omnipresent, then everyplace is a center of divine care; but no one center has exclusive right to God’s care. As one mystic noted, God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Simon attempts to claim an energy that cannot be fettered. God’s energy pushes us beyond self-aggrandizement to care for all creation. Mysticism leads to mission, not individual self-interest. Our encounters with God challenge us to world loyalty and to following the spirit to unexpected places.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is an amazing tale of mysticism and surprise. You can imagine Philip’s amazement when he discovers the faith of an outsider, one who would be considered unclean and outcast according to Jewish law. More than that, the Ethiopian eunuch is inspired, and thus evangelizes Philip when he asks Philip to baptize him. The words “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” capture the spirit of Acts of the Apostles – God’s Spirit is unfettered; it freely blows where it wills and calls us beyond our comfort zones. When we open to it, surprises happen and adventures lure us forward. Just as soon as Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, he is whisked away by the Spirit. While such an event stretches the imagination, it points to the fact that the moment we consciously commit ourselves to God’s holy adventure, our lives are transformed – we live in a world of wonders, with surprises around every corner. With C.S. Lewis, we discover that Aslan is not a “tame” lion and that those who follow God must be prepared for adventure. Strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, be prepared for an adventure of the spirit.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.