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Saturday, 20 April 2013

Conversions of thousands and nukings of the naughty


Readings:       Acts 9.36-43
                       Psalm 23
                       Revelation 7.9-17
                       John 10.22-30

Can I confess that I have spent many years dreading readings from the Book of Acts? I was probably honest enough to admit that this was likely to be a reflection far more on my lack of some dimension or other of faith than of a failure on Luke’s part, but I just could not get my head around Luke’s triumphalism. It seemed even a little unfair: every time some character in the Book of Acts opened their (normally his) mouth in the service of the gospel hundreds or even thousands were converted. People leapt, like our Dorcas, back to life from death, others were nuked unceremoniously for doing the wrong thing, and the Paul of Acts seemed (and dare I say it is) a very different character to the more earthy, feisty Paul that I encounter in his letters. No: I’m afraid Luke’s second volume didn’t cut it with me, and I tended to dread the Easter season with its long slabs of Luke-Acts triumphalism.

The Book of Acts depressed me. I have been a reasonably devout and faithful Christian, but when I preach no thousands fall to their knees, and if I am to be honest, I doubt if my words have converted anyone. Certainly I have not raised anyone from the dead, and by and large if a snake in a fire bites me I stay bitten. I haven’t actually tried nuking anyone but I fear it would meet a similar lack of dynamic spectacle. I am by the standards of the Book of Acts, an abject failure.

At least one strand of Christianity, best represented by the Brethren Chapel tradition, has overcome this problem by a special doctrine that came to be known as “dispensationalism”. The laws of nature were effectively suspended by special dispensation granted to the evangelists during the apostolic period, but following the closure of that time the work of the Holy Spirit ceased to be so dramatic, and all reverted pretty much to the normality of your experience and mine once more. Pentecostalism, of course, and the wonderful signs and wonders theology of John Wimber and his followers scorned this approach, and maintained that signs and wonders continued to follow their proclamation of the gospel. All I can say is that it has not been my experience (and I have no quantifiable methods by which to measure theirs).

Actually I’ve always held to a pretty much symbolic reading of Acts, and I kind of stick with that still. But the fact is I simply can’t ever know what happened in the experience of the first Christians: all I can know is that the power of their experience of the Spirit in the early church was so great that Luke’s words had a deep veracity for them, and that nothing about the rising of Dorcas from the dead was inconsistent with their own powerful experience of the risen Christ in worship, fellowship and prayer.

I wish I had such faith, but I suspect at that point it is the even more lurid imagery of the Book of Revelation that has something important to tell us. Some of you will have heard me on this before, but as the churches for whom John was writing experienced increasing persecution he over and over again comforted them with the powerful experiential knowledge of the presence of God, drawing them forward into a future beyond even the deepest suffering, a future that was safe because it was and is the pace of the victorious and all-conquering God. It is my deeply held belief that Christians in the western world will be increasingly called upon to hold tenaciously to this hope as a world that has long been benevolent or at worst complacent turns to custard around them.

And yet there is a disconnect for us as we read the John or Revelation,* too – and not only in the disconnect between his apocalyptic symbolism and our staid Anglo-Saxon private piety. For John it is precisely the experience of suffering that assures him of the presence of divine victory reaching into his life and the lives of those around him. Suffering, to John and to other New Testament writers, is the corollary of believing; if I believe but cruise nonchalantly through life, they almost suggest, then it is questionable whether I have believed in the first place (see, e.g., Acts 5.41, 9.16, 14.22). This hard equation has not been the experience of western Christians in recent centuries, but the question is raised whether it is precisely into that kind of New Testament world that we are slowly being drawn by the unsettling energies of God.

And, indeed, as the events of Boston or Texas or indeed almost any community can tell us if we look and listen hard enough, suffering is never far beneath the surface of human existence. Boston or Texas reminds us how vulnerable human existence is, but so too does every notification of cancer, every knock on the door from the police in the night, every infarction of our own or loved ones’ overstrained arteries, not to mention the all but daily bomb blasts of Afghanistan, pakistan, or Syria. I spent much of the early part of this week trying to bring hope into a devastating context of sudden bereavement: our lives hang always by a slender thread, and if the Church is increasingly marginalised our threads may become more frayed and slender still. It is through this vulnerability that the voice of God calls us, or in the language of today's gospel-reading , the voice of the Shepherd calls us. Hold tenaciously to faith – or let faith hold tenaciously to us – and we will come through, though what that means is far beyond our understanding.

And it is precisely that hope that dwells at the heart of Easter faith: grasp God, and he will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. So-called faith that dismantles that death-transcending hope is a parody: to resurrection faith we must cling and by resurrection-faith we must be clung to as we too journey through the valleys and into the fullness of Easter hope.


*My thoughts on Revelation will be published in my book, Babylon's Cap, to be published by Wipf and Stock later this year.
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