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The Contemporary Context
Over the past two decades there has been an explosion of interest in Jesus, a burst of fascination that has taken both scholarly and popular forms. There have been countless books and magazine articles on who Jesus was, what he really said, and what he actually did. There have been public seminars and on-line conferences about the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. Hollywood films and educational videos have brought Jesus to the big screen and small screens, while he has been celebrated in popular song and consulted via W.W.J.D. bracelets. Jesus has been big!
Such interest, study, and debate has been strong - even astonishing - when we consider that not too many years ago our era was confidently foreseen by experts and scholars as one that would be decidedly and thoroughly secular. According to the twentieth-century theorists of secularization, religious faith should by now be relegated to museums. But, on the contrary, spirituality is everywhere and Jesus is big. Inevitably, of course, this embrace of Jesus has been uneven; still, Christians cannot but rejoice in the focus of so much thought and interest, curiosity and debate, concerning Jesus of Nazareth.
This explosion of Jesus interest comes as part ofthe larger - also unanticipated - fascination with spirituality. Who would have imagined that, rather than being driven out of the public arena by business or psychology, spirituality would be emerging in the workplace and in the worlds of counseling and personal growth? Again, this flowering of spirituality in recent decades has also been uneven. Spirituality can be as shallow as comedian Dennis Miller's quip suggests: "Spirituality is whatever it is you're feeling when you're feeling good about yourself." Or it can mean something quite deep and powerful.
It is especially striking, then, that neither the scholarly and popular fascination with Jesus nor the widespread exploration of spirituality has spawned or been accompanied by a similar interest in the church, in congregations, or in the community of faith in general. In fact, the now common distinction that many people make, "I am spiritual, but not religious," probably has as its subtext and meaning, "I am spiritually interested and engaged, but I am not a part of a church or congregation or any organized religious community." If books about Jesus and spirituality flood the shelves, the section on "church" remains puny by comparison.
To be sure, a corollary of the new interest in Jesus has been a certain amount of interest in the formative era of the church, particularly the process by which some texts became canonical while others did not. The new or renewed attention to Jesus has also led both scholars and general readers to a new interest in noncanonical writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the so-called Gnostic Gospels, as well as other documents that did not get included in the canon of Scripture. Because documentaries and TV specials seem fascinated with Jesus' world, this particular and limited aspect of the church's story has received new attention.
There also has been in recent decades a rather abundant literature on church growth and decline; but even that is nothing approaching the combination of scholarly and popular interest in Jesus specifically or spirituality broadly conceived. In addition, many new expressions and forms of church have emerged today, including but not limited to "the new orthodox," "ancient-future," and "mega- and emerging" churches. Finally, there has been some investment - though limited - in "congregational studies" among scholars and researchers. Yet, while there have been these forms of interest in particular aspects of the church - the canonical process and noncanonical texts, church growth and decline, new forms of church, and congregational studies - the theology and life of the community of faith has been largely neglected. We should probably not be surprised that Jesus has proved rather more fascinating and compelling than the church; but the contrast does seem telling. One is reminded of the tart remark of the English romantic poet Percy Shelley: "I could believe in Christ if he did not drag along with him that leprous bride of his - the church."
Moreover, the contemporary focus on Jesus and the fascination with spirituality may be particularly congenial to a culture that often emphasizes the individual at the expense of the community. It seems to fit a society that encourages personal, even private, spirituality while spurning the difficult work of forming and sustaining communities and institutions. While Jesus' life and teachings do, in many ways, challenge such individualism, it remains true that the study of Jesus, whether as savior or sage, teacher or magician, storyteller or prophet, has often seemed to lend itself more to an individual, "spiritual" appropriation of him than to a consideration of the nature of the Christian community or the church. But this risks a distortion of the Christian faith and the biblical story - a distortion that accommodates it to a culture of individualism.
Such a privatized faith was memorably portrayed in one of the films in Woody Allen's corpus, Hannah and Her Sisters, where Allen himself portrays a man wracked by guilt and self-doubt, as he often does in his movies. The man decides to give Jesus a try, and we see him making a solo visit to a priest or pastor - and then staggering away with an armload of books. He will approach Jesus individually, through books. At no point in this character's attempt to become Christian or at least a religious person do we see anything that looks like a community, anything that looks like church. Both spirituality and Christianity are portrayed as individual, even solitary, interests. The contemporary fascination with spirituality and the interest in Jesus seem too often to fall short at just this point, because they remain individual and personal pursuits, private and solitary.
The consistent witness of Scripture, however, is that God's intention is to form a people, a community, a visible body. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis and continuing through to Paul's letters and to the book of Revelation, the nature and life of the community of faith is the focus. God means to have a people who will be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth (Gen. 12:1-4). Contrary to what many contemporary Westerners or Americans may imagine, the concern of Scripture is not the spiritual state of individuals, their holiness, or even their salvation. The focus is God's ekklesia, God's community taking form in the world, which even provides a new world and a new vision for those who share in it. From Genesis through Revelation, God is hard at the task of forming a people of God, Israel and a new Israel, and finally the body of Christ. John the Baptist begins his ministry by announcing, "God can raise up a people from these stones" (Luke 3). Jesus sends his disciples out to make more disciples, to baptize and teach in every nation (Matt. 28).
This move to community, to a people, and even to enduring institutions that carry and express our shared memories and hopes, is a central but neglected theme of the Christian faith. We often tend to focus on ourselves, to measure ourselves against one another, to plot our progress on some sort of spiritual growth chart. But a good case can be made that God is less concerned with how "I" am doing than with how "we" are doing. Indeed, a good part of the raison d'etre of any congregation is the challenge to call us out of ourselves into some larger community, to some greater venture, to learning about Jesus by learning to be part of his people in the world. And yet the church may be the most neglected aspect of contemporary Christian thought.
Jim Wallis, founder and editor of the Sojourners magazine and community, once put it this way: "The greatest need in our time is not simply for kerygma, the preaching of the gospel; nor for diakonia, service on behalf of justice; nor for charisma, the experience of the Spirit's gifts; nor even for propheteia, the challenging of the king. The greatest need for our time is koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. The creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level is the foundation of all other answers."
Moreover, the relative neglect of church, of the Christian community, and of religious institutions has come at a time of particular challenge for the church and for congregations. Huge shifts have been underway in the lifetimes of those of us who have lived during the second half of the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first century. We have lived through the end of an American Christendom to see the emergence of a society that is officially secular but at the same time religiously pluralistic. In this same period we have witnessed the waning of the modern era and of its most compelling values. We shall return to these themes and shifts, but for now we simply observe that these shifts constitute a sea change in our culture and for the church. It is a time of significant challenge and change for congregations, for denominations, and for lay and pastoral leaders.
In the face of this relative neglect of the church as a subject for theological study and spiritual reflection, the book of Acts is uniquely positioned to be helpful, provocative, evocative, and compelling. It shows us the Christian faith as a life lived in community, a community that is engaged in the world. It shows us the church that is both grounded in Scripture and alive to the Spirit. In Acts we see a church that transcends so many of the false polarities and dichotomies of our own time and experience. In Acts, for example, there is no dichotomy between spirituality and social-cultural engagement and witness; the two are one, inextricably woven together. Similarly, there is no choice to be made here between the "by grace through faith alone" direction of some aspects of the church and the "without works faith is dead" conviction of other parts of the historic church. In Acts we see a church that is not only the creation of God and the gift of the Spirit but also a community engaged in a full-orbed and demanding practice of holiness and a new way of life. Here we see the church advancing the ministry of Jesus, doing what he did, saying what he said, disturbing and delighting a world that is both sorely in need of the gospel and yet resistant to it. It is our conviction that this book of Scripture, the Acts of the Apostles, is uniquely relevant to a time when the church and congregations both need to be rediscovered and transformed. Acts is a book for the church and for congregations today.
Acts as Gift and Challenge to the Church
If part of the gift of the book of Acts is that it transcends false dichotomies to offer a fuller vision of the church, it also offers particular gifts and challenges to distinct expressions of the contemporary church in North America. Acts will problematize, or challenge, the specific ways that the various forms of the contemporary church - such as mainline Christians, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics - have understood faith and church. All of these embodiments of the contemporary church in North America will find their faith and life deepened and guided in well-defined ways by the richness of Acts.
For example, we see Acts as a powerfully theocentric antidote and therapy for some mainline churches that have become anthropocentric and too often moralistic in their preaching and teaching of the faith. The great strength of mainline congregations has been their emphasis on public faith and public morality - on active engagement in the world. But too often this has resulted in a kind of neo-Pelagianism that has turned a religion of grace into a religion of good works and achievement. In contrast to this overemphasis on what we are to do, to think, to feel, or to believe, Acts places a clear and significant emphasis on the divine initiative, on revelation, on God's grace, and God's unexpected intrusions. The God of Acts is an active God, a God who will direct the church. This is not a God who, having set the world and church in motion, has retired to Florida and left us in charge.
Thus, as the Gospel of Luke ends and as Acts begins, we do not find the church busy at its tasks. Rather, the apostles are told to return to Jerusalem and wait - wait for the Spirit from on high. This is a way of saying to the church, "You're not in charge here." It is God's Spirit who will make the first and decisive moves. What a strange, and yet strangely welcome, word this may prove to be for many mainline Protestants who have been depleted by years of relentless activism. Wait on the Spirit! The first question is not, suggests Acts, what should we do? Instead, it is: what is God doing? Where is the Spirit moving? This may prove to be not merely a helpful corrective but a transformative one for some congregations. Acts provokes a shift of focus in such churches - a focus toward God's will and the Spirit's way.
If Acts problematizes the activist faith of mainliners, it also challenges the historic strength - which sometimes becomes a weakness - of the more evangelical churches and Christians. The core theme of American evangelicalism is the change in the personal lives of people through the transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ, the living Lord. We rejoice in this gospel of transformation; and yet we regret that too often it can remain merely personal and does not also find expression in relationship, in community, and in the public practice of faith. We understand and affirm the power of God's saving grace, but we believe that Acts moves the church to complement grace with response, with new life in Christ that is embodied in the particular way of life and the practices of the community of faith.
In Acts we find those whose lives have been transformed participating in a visible, public community of faith, one that is characterized by "resurrection practices." The faith is not internal or personal alone; it is public, visible, and shared. Acts portrays the life of those who have experienced God's grace as one of the sharing of goods, of bold witness, of turning away from idols, and of sharing in the life of the community of resurrection - which is itself a visible witness to the world. Another way to put this, one that is relevant to both mainline and evangelical forms of Christianity in North America, is that in Acts the "gentilizing" of the gospel is just as much an issue as Paul makes of the "Judaizing" of the gospel in some of his letters. In this context, "Judaizing" means adding Hebrew legal requirements to the conversion process that might jeopardize the power and centrality of God's grace. This remains a constant concern. But we have been so focused on that danger of reinstituting "the law" ("Judaizing") that we have not seen another, equal danger: that the church would not embody its faith in a visible and public life of discipleship. The book of Acts recognizes the threat to Christian faith and life of "gentilizing," that is, of forgetting our Jewish inheritance and of its call to be a distinct and visible body that is a salt to the earth and a light to the world.
The biblical scholar James Sanders has observed that, as Christianity developed, Christians embraced the mythos, the story, while Jews took the ethos, the way of life. Christianity, at least in some quarters, was principally about beliefs, often at the expense of practices, of a way of life. Today, as American Christendom wanes, and as we wonder what it really does mean to live and lead a Christian life - and to do so in community - Acts provides guidance and direction.
Acts not only offers challenges and guidance to historic mainline and evangelical Christians; it can also broaden and deepen the faith of the one branch of the Christian church that has paid significant attention to this book of the Bible, namely, Pentecostals. Too often Pentecostals have turned to Acts in order to support and establish charismatic expressions of Christianity, but without allowing Acts to be heard in its own voice, breadth, and depth. Acts is much more than a kind of blueprint for receiving the Holy Spirit, or for organizing the church and establishing such offices as deacons. It represents a thoroughgoing vision of the church that will challenge Pentecostals to a more whole version of the faith. In Acts the Holy Spirit is not limited to particular gifts and expressions, such as glossolalia (the gift of speaking in tongues). Rather, the Holy Spirit directs the mission of the church, and the Holy Spirit is the power through whom Christians move from being spectators to participants, from objects to agency.
Excerpted from Called to Be Church by Anthony B. Robinson Robert W. Wall Copyright © 2006 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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