Adventurous Theology #10: A Never Ending Story (Bruce Epperly)
The journey through Acts is nearing its end -- that is, the exploration of the adventurous spirit that pervades Luke's description of the early church's journey comes to an end in this posting. Bruce Epperly has taken us from Ascension to Paul's prison cell, noting here in the end that "God is still speaking." There is one last post to consider -- next week -- that reflects on Acts 29, our continued writing of the story of this faith journey. I invite you to consider with Bruce what the Spirit is doing in the world and in the church as, to quote (as Bruce does) Doug Pagitt, we live out a "Christianity Worth Believing."
Adventurous Theology #10:
A Never Ending Story
Acts, Chapters 21-28
Bruce G. Epperly
Acts of the Apostles comes to an end with a travelogue descriptive of Paul’s journey to Rome. But, the final words, describing Paul’s preaching from prison in terms of “boldness and without hindrance,” suggest that Acts is but the beginning of a spiritual adventure that shapes us today. What’s to hinder us from embracing God’s world of wonders, unity with strangers, mystical experiences, and unexpected power and energy in our time? Open to God’s spirit, we have everything we need to be God’s ambassadors and healers in our time.
Paul’s future, even in prison, and our own is open and undecided. We are making it up as we go along, beneficiaries of Paul’s innovative ministry to the non-Jewish world. Signs and wonders abound when we commit ourselves to going deeper in our experience of God and God’s mission in the world. God is alive, doing a new thing, and inviting us to be creative as well.
The final chapters of Acts could be described as “ponderings on a faith journey.” Paul travels from place to place, sharing the good news of the new beginnings, inspired and energized by the living presence of the Risen One. Christ’s resurrection is not only a past event to Paul, but the source of confidence and spiritual power in the present moment. Christ has brought a new energy and new possibilities into the world, spiritually, metaphysically, and physically. While we cannot fully assess the power of the resurrection, its impact on Jesus’ first followers was holistic; it created a new vision of reality that encompassed every aspect of life. Just as the enlightenment of Buddha injected new spiritual possibilities, the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus changed the course of history and God’s relationship to the world. God’s attitude toward the world did not change – as John 3:16 notes, the coming of Christ is the manifestation of God’s love, not its cause or inspiration. Rather, Jesus’ life opens the door for new divine possibilities in our world.
The final chapters of Acts join action and testimony. Paul’s theology is holistic: the author of Acts records Paul’s narrative of his encounter with the living Christ in these final eight chapters. Paul’s theology encompasses his whole being: it creatively synthesizes the Jewish tradition, his mystical encounter with the living Christ, and the emerging Christian understanding of the meaning of Jesus in light of God’s revelation in Judaism and in the wider world. Paul’s own synthetic faith encompasses body, mind, spirit, and relationships. It is far from being purely cerebral or intellectual, but integrates his Damascus Road experience with the ongoing movements of the Spirit in his life. This is the way good theology should be – the isolated academic discipline of theology would have been an anomaly to Paul and the Parents of Christian theology. For them, theology was rooted in and connected to vital Christian experience. Theology, indeed, gave meaning and context to experience, shaped experience, and was shaped by experience – personal and communal.
Today’s emerging Christianity is seeking to replicate this same theological-experiential dynamic in its quest to join “ancient” and “future” in an evolving “now.” Like the first Christians, many emergents are seeking to create a theology that gives meaning and provides an evolving context for their current faith experiences. Such a theology must include reflections on “a Christianity worth believing” (Pagitt) in light of the end of the American empire, the internet and beyond, and global spiritualities. This is theology in the making – highly experiential, yet in need of enough tradition and enough imagination to provide an evolving spiritual home for seekers within and beyond the church.
At times, Paul must have been astounded by his own journey – inspired at every step by a living Spirit, pushing the boundaries of past belief systems, and learning to adapt to the Gentile world. Paul brilliantly joined order and novelty in the creation a good enough theology for the Gentile world. Belief in the living Christ along with a handful of foundational Jewish behaviors was “good enough” to insure the well-being of new Christians and their communities. While he may not have intended it, Paul laid the groundwork for theological, liturgical, ecclesiastical, and experiential diversity by his innovative synthesis of tradition and novelty. Christianity no longer could be identified with a few sacred spaces and holy lands, now all lands could be holy and all spaces sacred. Accordingly, indigenous faiths of all kinds could emerge and have emerged throughout Christian history. Hardly a fundamentalist, Paul laid the foundations for the evolution of Christianity, emerging in time and place and embracing the Living Christ, the God of Christ, and the victory over death in dialogue with culture and community.
The final words of this “unhindered” gospel remind us that we are part of this story. As the United Church of Christ proclaims, “God is still speaking.” When we understand the word “speaking” holistically, we see God’s voice as more than a matter of word and doctrine, but an energy and vibration, creatively and intentionally moving through all things, personal and global, touching each thing in light of its responsibility to the whole. Many voices compose the chorus of revelation. But, the many are inspired by a personal voice that honors uniqueness yet pushes us toward community.
As we conclude our journey through the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that God’s call is global as well as intimate. Paul goes out into the world; and faithfulness challenges us to be world-oriented as well. Just as Paul did not fully know where he was going, we must look in a mirror dimly as we consider the future of Christianity. We know that the future of our faith must be global, for the earth and humankind are in jeopardy. Salvation must heed the cries of creation (Romans 8) as well as our own inner urgings. Honoring one another, we must find our pathways into the world – pathways that join personal experience, encounters with the holy, agile theological reflection, and commitment to strangers, neighbors, and the good earth – as we seek to share life-transforming words of God in our time and place. We are God’s partners in a never-ending journey.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.