Collision course

March 11th, 2020

Lent is the season in the Christian year when we take a prolonged look at ourselves in relation to Christ. It is a time for remembering the radical nature of the gospel, and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to it.

We don’t read far into the Book of Acts before we see that the church was on a collision course with “the principalities and powers”–the religious/political collusion between Israel and Rome. It continues the story of Jesus’ own collision course which led him to crucifixion.. Acts confirms Jesus’ words that if he was persecuted, his disciples would be too. (John 15:20) [1]

The stage in Acts was set almost immediately after Pentecost, when the authorities hauled the apostles into court and told them to cease and desist from “stirring up trouble” by preaching and teaching about Jesus, and recruiting others to follow him. In the opening round of controversy, Peter and John set the norm which played out until the end of the book (indeed, until the end of the New Testament) — “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard …. we must obey God rather than any human authority.” [2]

This conviction has wound its way through history to the present day, expressed clearly in these words of Martin Luther King Jr in his letter from the Birmingham jail, “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” [3]

From Jesus, the early Christians in Acts, the ensuing Gospel tradition, and contemporary witnesses we have our marching orders. [4] It is a pattern that emerges from two foundational principles: resistance and reconstruction. Within the context of the Christian church both of these things, which occurred in Acts, must be lived today.

With respect to resistance, we face the same twofold task the first Christians did: calling out falsehood in the Body of Christ and calling out imperialization in the culture. In Acts the former action was highlighted by the church’s dealings with Ananias and Saphira. In the second task we see repeated manifestations of subversion as the early Christians incarnated values and virtues of the Kingdom of God (in contrast to “the kingdoms of this world”) and personified the courageous declaration, “Jesus is Lord!” not the emperor.

Today, we must call out the “high priests” who are propping up the fallen-world empire by erroneously alleging it has the blessing of God on it. These leaders, like the 850 false prophets of Baal and Asherah, who ate at Jezebel’s table (1Kings 18:19) are being wined and dined by corrupt political leaders. We must call them out, and expose the pseudo-gospel they espouse. [5] As we do this, we must also continue to declare “Jesus is Lord,” not the current President–or any other President in our past or our future. These acts constitute the necessary core of ancient and modern Christian resistance.

The reconstructive task runs alongside the resistance. The revelation of God moves from darkness to light, from death to life. Criticism is not enough, construction is required. In fact, resistance is not genuine if it is not accompanied by reconstruction. This example was set for us by the ancient prophets who began with judgment but ended with hope. [6]. Reconstruction begins inside the church itself (1Peter 4:17). It then moves outward into the culture. Reconstruction is defined by the phrase “new creation” where the old passes away (through life in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation) and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17-18 ).

Using the Book of Acts as our focal point, we learn the basics of reconstruction from the church in Antioch. It is the task of renewal that was/is characterized by caring, inclusion, diversity, transformation, godly leadership and bearing with opposition–all centered in worship and prayer. [7] When the church incarnated these qualities, the Holy Spirit moved on the believers to commission Paul and Barnabas to spread the gospel. They could go because they had lived the Message in Antioch and knew what authentic congregations anywhere should look like.

At the heart of the resistance/reconstruction combo is nonviolence, another contrast between the Gospel which commends restorative justice and the fallen-world ideologies (as illustrated in the Book of Acts) which rely on and survive by retributive justice. The calling out (resistance) and calling forth (reconstruction) must be accompanied by nonviolence. [8] Nonviolence is the living out of Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)

The collision course revealed in the Book of Acts has been repeated in every century since Christianity began. The resistance/reconstruction dynamic is the pattern of Gospel renewal. And it all comes to us, as it did for the first disciples and Christians since, as the call to “obey God rather than any human authority.” God has created the path, we must get on it and walk. Lent affords us a fresh opportunity to do so.

[1] Jesus’ main message — the Kingdom of God — put him and his disciples on this collision course. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it in sobering detail in their book, The Last Week (HarperCollins, 2006). Walter Brueggemann expands the picture in nearly all of his his books. I note especially, God, Neighbor, Empire (Baylor University Press, 2016).

[2] Acts 4:20, 5:29. Dr. Bonnie Thurston writes of these responses, “Peter and John articulate the principle of supremacy of conscience over even religious institutions.” (The Life With God Bible, HarperOne, 2005, 206nt).

[3] Unjust laws are those that do harm to others, those that promote the gain of the few at the expense of the many, and produce a retributive environment and result. Unjust laws arise from a supremacist/arrogant mindset which then legislates policies that enhance and preserve its power.

[4] I use the phrase “Gospel tradition” to differentiate between the pre-Constantinian era of Christianity, (pre 313 a.d.) and the “institutional tradition” (i.e. imperialization of Christianity) which followed. Just as the first apostles resisted in Acts, the desert mothers and fathers (and the 4th and 5th century rise of monasticism) shunned “churchianity” and preserved the Message which became compromised in the empire.

[5] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (IVP Books, 2018) is an excellent study of this longstanding tendency to adopt a gospel that is actually no Gospel. His more-recent book Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good (IVP Boojs, 2019) continues the exposure of Christian nationalism, with an eye toward overcoming it.

[6] This is what Richard Rohr has called “the practice of the better” — the phrase which was my 2018 theme each Wednesday on Oboedire.

[7] E. Stanley Jones used the church at Antioch as the case study for his book, The Reconstruction of the Church — On What Pattern? (Abingdon Press, 1970). This book did not receive the attention that others of his books did, but it is a “live wire” for the reconstructive task today.

[8] The theme of nonviolence is itself a needed emphasis running as a thread within resistance and reconstruction. I wrote a series about it on Oboedire from September through December of 2016. The posts are archived on the Oboedire home page. For today, I remind you to read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, John Dear, and William Barber III, to be guided well into the mind and methods of nonviolence. The Pace e Bene ministry is an excellent resource as well.


About the Author

Steve Harper

Steve Harper continues to teach spiritual formation and Wesley studies to Christian divinity students for more than 35 read more…
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