Adventurous Theology #8: Making It Up as You Go Along (Bruce Epperly)

The Book of Acts tells the amazing story of how a small group of Jesus' followers are empowered to take the message of God's grace to the world.  There is something about this story that leads onlookers to conclude that they're in the process of "turning the world upside down."  As we move through this story, with increasing rapidity, we come to Paul's missions to the Gentile world.  There we see God working in powerful ways through him and his companions.  I invite you to share in this meditation provided by Bruce Epperly. 


Adventurous Theology #8:
Making It Up as You Go Along
Acts 13:1-17:15

Bruce G. Epperly

These chapters and the whole of the Acts of the Apostles could be summarized by the words, “these people who have been turning the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6) Mysticism and mission turn our lives around and set us on unexpected adventures that change us and the communities of which we are a part. When the Spirit touches us, we begin to embody Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This “world” can be described in terms of whatever limits we, or others, have placed on ourselves, our communities, or God’s movements in our lives.

Creative transformation becomes a day to day experience, once we open to the movements of the Spirit. Small steps of spiritual growth lead to larger steps as a whole new world of possibility opens up for us. When we pause and open to God’s Spirit, God is able to present us with larger possibilities for ourselves and our world. Acts moves at a dizzying pace as the once local Christian movement becomes global. Our lives expand in new directions, with new energies and new insights, when we open the door to divine possibility.

Paul and his colleagues are “chosen” for an adventure in good news sharing. As the 1 Corinthians 12 image of the body of Christ proclaims, all followers of Jesus – and I believe all persons - are chosen and have many vocations. But, Divine Creative Wisdom can work in unique and powerful ways in certain persons’ lives. The God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) is not a homogeneous force, but more active in some places than others. This is a result, I believe, of both divine call and human response, of divine and human choice and creativity. Our responses over a lifetime enable God to be more active in our lives. In Paul’s case, his Jewish legal background, intellectual acumen, and fidelity to the faith of his parents, made him a unique vehicle of divine grace. The power that energized his persecution was transformed to give energy to his proclamation and inclusion of the Gentile world.

Still, it is important to note that although Paul’s primary mission was to Gentile world, he still affirmed his Jewish roots. God moved through his life as a Jewish person, not a person in general. His message to the Gentiles finds its gravitas in the faith of his parents. Revelation is always universal, but it is also situational and personal. Paul’s words in Romans, chapters 9-11, reflect his belief that God’s covenantal love for the Jewish people still stands, despite the failure of some to accept Jesus as Messiah. Paul’s warmth toward, and affirmation of, his Jewish roots is an antidote to anti-Judaism in scripture and Christian practice. Words like “the Jews” as used throughout the gospels and even in Acts are misleading and inaccurate when used to describe certain Jewish persons’ disbelief: Jesus’ first followers were Jewish and throughout Acts, Jewish men and women proclaim the good news and accept God’s revelation in Christ. One of most important obligations we have as Christians is to challenge anti-Judaism as a “theological hate crime” whenever it is invoked.

Throughout Acts, chapters 13 to 17, God’s Spirit moves quietly, yet persistently, coming to Jesus’ followers through intuitions (Acts 16:7) and visions (Acts 16:9) that both caution and inspire. These “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) emerge from the world of dreams, hunches, synchronicities, visions, and paranormal experiences. While persons today may – and should often – be inclined to be skeptical or at least questioning of such experiences, the experience of countless people indicates that there is a web of revelation, democratic in nature, that touches each person. If God, moment by moment, seeks to inspire us with possibilities congruent with our particular situation, then divine inspiration may include both intuitive glimpses of the interdependent web of life as well as guidance and energy. These are not supernatural but part of deeper naturalism in which God is moving through all things, and all things dynamically connected with one another. Paranormal experiences may emerge from our attentiveness to or the graceful breaking through of the dynamic interconnectedness of life, always shaping our experience in its depths.

The presence of the Spirit gives us confidence in times of stress. The Spirit reminds us that the world is larger than our particular situation or health condition. Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns to God as witness to a larger vision of life that cannot be encompassed or limited by prison walls. (Acts 16:25) Their experience reminds me of the gentle courage revealed in the hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” – Tyrants may try to silence protest, disease may weaken the body, but the Spirit shows us a far horizon whose pathway and destination is Love. Surely, this quiet and persistent Spirit sustained and inspired Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Martin Luther King in the Birmingham Jail, Mahatma Gandhi in his fasts and imprisonment. When we sing, we “pray twice” and give witness to God’s grace in the midst of strife and illness. With the Spirit as our companion, there is always something more to us and to the world than meets the eye. Open to God’s Spirit, we discover resources for healing, courage, and confidence in every moment of life.

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.


John said…

I was surprised that in your commentary on this section of Acts you were content to let the section on the Jerusalem council in Acts, especially the declarations of 15:13-21, pass without comment.

In my interpretation of this section, not only does the mere existence of the council and the authority it presumes suggest volumes to the church today about structure and hierarchy, but it carries a strong message about the expectation of Christian unity as a whole. Beyond that it carries messages about Christianity's explicitly Jewish roots as well as the relative freedom Christians are granted in pursuing their faith - in essence allowing them a high degree of freedom to "make it up as they go."

As for the suggested role and authority of councils, the occurrence of the Jerusalem Council suggests to me that councils are empowered to make new 'catholic' rules for circumstances not previously anticipated in Scripture in any meaningful way. While Scripture anticipates the day when all nations will worship at the Temple of God, and calls for and praises all people who follow the commandments of God, what that actually translates into, in terms of the beliefs and faith practices of the converted nations, is never meaningfully addressed. That is, until the Jerusalem Council pronounces those rules.

As for Christian unity, what I see happening is that the leadership of the church meeting in council at that time and place to locate commonalities which will allow the various heterogeneous congregations around the world, with their divergent beliefs and practices to move forward as a united whole. Notice, a common creed is not included among the requirements! While it might be suggested that this was because there was unanimity of teaching at that time Paul's letter suggest the opposite.


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