Monday, October 30, 2006

acts and the courage to follow in unexpected ways

I'm taking a class on the book of Acts, and it's been interesting and fun so far. Last week we were looking at Acts 8-10, which is where the book begins to shift from talking about the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem to showing them moving out into other areas, and being called to preach to people who are not Jews.

We compared and contrasted three stories: Philipp and the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul/Paul and Ananias, and Peter and Cornelius. Each of these is a story where a person who's already a disciple of Jesus goes to someone who is devout in their own faith and speaks to them about the new revelation of Jesus as the Christ.

It's really interesting to see the connections between these stories, and to think about how they might call us to share our faith now.

First of all, the disciples are called by God/Spirit/angel to go to someone. Philipp is asked to go to a certain spot outside of Jerusalem and wait for instructions, and speaks to someone who was presumable a Jewish proselyte or at least very interested in Judaism. Ananias is asked to go visit Saul, a Jew known to be a persecutor of Christians. Peter is called to go to a Roman centurion and go in his house, which was unheard of for a Jew worried about purity laws. Each of these stories gets progressively more difficult, and more different from what the followers of Christ have previously thought of as the way God will work in their community.

Second, each of the ones who are "converted" are of fairly high standing in their community, while the disciples called to them are not well known outside of their tiny new Christian community. The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of the treasury of the queen; Saul is a trusted, educated and known member of the Jewish community in Jerusalem; and Cornelius is a centurion in charge of a bunch of soldiers. Philipp and Peter fisherman, and we don't know anything about Ananais' social status but that seems to indicate he didn't have anything to comment on. So it seems like these disciples were in a position of speaking truth to power--speaking out about their faith from a position of authority that came only from God.

Third, all of the disciples taking the message of Christ became converted to something themselves. This isn't as obvious in the Philipp story, but he does baptize this guy who's a eunuch, and from what I've read people had a pretty low opinion of eunuchs in that culture, no matter how powerful they were. He was perhaps a Gentile as well, and some call him the first Gentile convert. Philipp had to make the choice to allow a non-Jew into the fellowship of believers in Jesus. Ananias was incredibly afraid to go to Saul, and rightfully so--he'd heard about the persecutions that Saul had been in charge of in Jerusalem. But God "converted" him to a space of obedience and courage, and to the fact that God could change a mind and heart drastically for good. Peter was "converted" to be able to include full Gentiles in the Christian fellowship. He didn't get it for a while, even after he thought he had gotten it. But eventually, when the Holy Spirit comes on the Gentiles in Cornelius' house, he realizes, "Oh, these people have received the same gift of the Spirit as we have! It's not about what they eat or the laws they follow, it's about the Spirit in them," and he's able to say this to Jewish Christians who question him.

The most important thing about these passages is that the Spirit directs, the disciples follow, and those they are speaking to are open to new revelation. The disciples don't make a 5-year plan and decide how the Spirit is going to lead them--they just respond as the Spirit calls, even when it doesn't make sense to them or seems against their traditional beliefs. They know the Spirit and recognize when they're being called somewhere, and they obey.

I think early Friends were like this. They didn't yet have meetinghouses, so if they were preaching, they were in a public place or going where there were people who needed to hear truth. They went where they were called--sometimes very strange places (like Stephen Grellet, was it, who was called to preach in an empty wood, or Mary Fisher who was called to the sultan of Turkey, etc.), sometimes very normal places that were dangerous, and the movement grew organically, not because of a plan that George Fox or another Quaker had.

I wonder how we can keep this same sene of courageous openness to unexpected leadings today, even though we have established meetinghouses?


kwattles said...

Yes, Stephen Grellet. The Sermon in the Wilderness, from a children's storybook put together by Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, is on the web.

Tmothy Travis said...

So often it is the opennes to the leadings of others wich which we have problems.

I wonder whether, if we could, we might not all be one body, still.

The wise counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5 38:39) has been too oft forgotten among us.

Tmothy Travis said...

What I get for hurrying...bad typing, poor spellling and fractured syntax...if I could say it again, I'd write:

So often it is our openness, or lack thereof, to the leadings of others with which we have problems.

I wonder whether, if we could be open to them, or at least forebearing of them, we might still be one body.

The wise counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5 38:39) has too often been forgotten among us and as the result we have reaped the whirl wind of division and schism.