Acts and the Gospel of Hope

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Book of Acts records the earliest proclamations of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Peter, Paul and others preach to Jews, Greeks, philosophers, politicians, kings and foreigners all around the Middle East. Extraordinarily, Peter and John were “ordinary, uneducated men” (4:13), working in the face of intense opposition from political and religious leaders.

In his famous sermon on the Areopagus, Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the through-leaders in first century Athens (17:23-31). Paul tries to contextualize the gospel for intellectuals who “spend their time simply and solely in telling and hearing the latest novelty” (17:22). Academic discussions often veer into obscure topics, of interest to only a few people. How does the gospel enter into these spaces? The sermons in Acts affirm a multi-faceted gospel message, expressed in different ways for different people.

Contemporary Christians have often shortened gospel message to “Jesus died for your sins.” While calls for repentance are an important part of the gospel (3:13), this statement fails to capture the breadth of the message of Jesus found in the gospels, especially as it pertains to Old Testament history and prophecy (7:1-53). Gospel preaching in Acts reveals more details about The Way (18:24, 26) and the extent to which “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (10:34).

In Acts, the Gospel message is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the expectation of a messiah to rule over God’s people: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (3:13). For example, Peter discusses the hope of God’s personal presence in Psalm 16 (2:25-28) and the hope of God’s spirit in Joel 2 (2:17-21).  This means that the gospel is a continuation of the covenant made with the God who created of the universe (14:15, 18:24) and liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:35-36, 13:17). Along with forgiveness of sins (5:31, 13:38-39), the messianic reign brings God’s Spirit to all flesh (2:17, 2:33), healing for the oppressed (10:33) and the resurrection of the dead (17:18, 23:6, 24:15).  The expansive good news found in King Jesus establishes an entirely new way of being human: by living in the kingdom of God.

Several conflicts with authorities in Acts are a reaction to the proclamation that Jesus is king. The believers’ prayer for boldness (4:24-30) recognizes that “the kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have governed together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” When ordered by the chief priests not to preach in the name of Jesus, the believers proclaim “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Later earthly authorities fall Herod Agrippa dies suddenly he flaunts his charisma in front of a crowd (12:20-23). While earthly authorities see the Jesus movement as a threat to their power, Christians recognize that Jesus used his royal power to be a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

The Book of Acts also demonstrates that there is room for everyone in the kingdom: disabled people (3:2), the sick (5:16) and sexual minorities (8:26-40). As Peter exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (10:34). As much as we like to believe that “Christian values” inform our policy making and interactions with other people, our modern societies sill fail to support the same groups of people that early followers of Jesus embraced.

My hope is that church will return to the vision of the blessed community that shares their possessions (2:44), breaks bread (2:46), confronts unjust authorities (3:14-15, 5:29-30) and appoints servant leaders (6:3-5). The “acts of the apostles” demonstrate that a sense of solidarity and community rooted is at the heart of the Gospel. We live in the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ and await the “restoration of all things announced long ago” (3:21).

– Mitchell Eithun, campus pastor intern.

Hope for all Creation: Ezekiel 47

As part of our chapel series on Hope for all creation, I gave the following short reflection on Ezekiel 47:1-12.

While I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel, I often find it strange. And this passage, despite the beautiful image of life-giving water that it presents, is no exception. It is filled with odd repetitions and details. Why does it matter to us, the readers, which directions the water is coming from? Why are we given measurements?

Going back a few chapters in Ezekiel, there are more measurements. Measurements of doors and walls and rooms and instructions for priests. These chapters look like building instructions for a temple, and many people over the centuries have interpreted it that way. If we build the temple, then Christ will return – and the vision presented here of the water that gives life – will finally come true. It’s one interpretation of Ezekiel 43, which says that these words are written so that people might be ashamed and turn to God, and then they must follow these instructions. And God will dwell among them. And who of us doesn’t want God to dwell among us?

I find something deeply appealing in the idea that maybe – if we just follow this formula or these instructions – then everything will be the way it should be. The water of life, as depicted in this passage, will overflow: “the fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Except experience and history have taught us that God cannot be contained or controlled. I – we – cannot do enough to make and ensure God will come to dwell among us. Any effort we might make to build the temple pictured here actually can’t work: the text doesn’t give building materials, the dimensions are too large to fit on the temple mound, and probably most noticeable, it’s lacking a roof. The temple isn’t meant to be built. It isn’t meant to be one more thing to do; instead it’s a vision of what already is. It’s a vision that is calling us to turn to God, to turn away from our own efforts to control God – or even try to control and run the world around us. The temple is a vision of God’s presence and another reiteration of God’s repeated refrain throughout Ezekiel – I will be your God and you will be my people. I will dwell among you.

God will dwell among us because that’s what God does. God dwells among us. Genesis 1 tells the story of creation but many scholars recognize that the language is more than just a description of the world coming into being. It is a description of a world that has been formed as a temple: God’s temple where God dwells. Since creation, God has dwelt among us, inviting us to see God through the beauty and power and wonder that creation instills in us.

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s presence was shown to the Israelites through the temple in their midst, but God’s presence was hardly contained to the temple. And this vision of a new temple here in Ezekiel makes that even more clear: no roof, after all, could hold God’s presence when God’s presence is throughout all of creation.

Because God’s presence is not always obvious, despite the beauty of creation, God came among us in the form of Jesus, and today God is present with us in the Holy Spirit. And we can take great comfort that it is not on the basis of our own efforts that God dwells among us, but simply because that is who God is. It is part of how God formed creation. And since then we have been given many gracious reminders of God’s presence: a vision of life to its fullness, full of the water of life.

Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.

Difficult conversations in Academia

Academia is not immune to difficult conversations, as a recent article in Inside Higher Ed illustrates. In the article, Stephen J. Aguilar notes that:

“Misunderstandings in academe are common and often innocuous, yet they can create conflict. Perhaps someone misheard something you said, and now they are angry with you. Perhaps they heard your words correctly but comprehended them in a manner that did not align with your intent. Or perhaps they interpreted your silence in a way that was inconsistent with the message you wanted to send.

The rest of the article provides wisdom on navigating misunderstandings and conflict. Not surprisingly, it is similar to much of the advice given by the authors of Difficult Conversations.

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.

Millennial Burnout

A recent article on millennial burnout points to the challenges that millennials face in growing up in a culture that has valued being busy over one’s well-being. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, notes the following:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

How do you talk about faith?

Despite Christians being called to share the gospel many of us feel inadequate to the task. It doesn’t help that most people have had strange and awkward experiences when it came to sharing faith.

This Saturday and Monday, as part of our study on having difficult conversations, we’ll be focusing on what it might look like to share one’s faith. The unhelpful reality is that “Christians have historically considered sharing one’s faith to be the exclusive practice of evangelism and have often bypassed normal conversational decorum to leap to the action of telling the gospel.” (Mary Schaller and John Crilly, The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations29). As with all difficult conversations, it rarely goes well when we enter the conversation convinced that we have all the answers and when we have limited desire to listen to the other person (and make space for their feelings or how any conversation related to faith might touch on their or our identity).

While it’s fairly easy to see how spiritual conversations can go wrong, it’s less easy to figure out how we might start good conversations about spirituality. How can be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove in this matter (cf. Matthew 10:6)? Perhaps the question is better framed as how one might live out one’s faith (and share it) in a way that is authentic (innocent) and creative (wise). Robert Kaita, in discussing how he has been able to share his faith with his colleagues, challenges us to think of how we might creatively share our faith:

The relevant question becomes not how good we are at striking up conversations at the water cooler. . . . If “generic” ideas on how to share your faith are not for you, God has given you the ability to figure out creative alternatives. As He does not make mistakes, He expects you to meet this challenge based on the kind of person He has created you to be. . . Are you serving the body of Christ in a lockstep fashion that you would never tolerate professionally, or are you exercising your God-given creativity?

Kaita ended up working with his church to provide a class for high school students as part of their Vacation Bible School program. He “started each day with a Bible study on Genesis on the theme that God has “created us to be creative.” [He] then took the students to a different place on campus each day. [They] went to the art gallery, the geology museum, and some engineering laboratories where some Christian friends were teaching.” Such a program led to good conversations with the students who participated, as well as with his local church and the university community.

I’m hopeful that we will be able to encourage and challenge each other to be creative about living out and sharing the good news with others.

Difficult conversations

Conversations that matter are often difficult. Stone, Patton, and Heen do a good job of explaining what makes a conversation difficult:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations, xv.

By God’s grace, however, we can learn to have those difficult conversations through learning from the wisdom of others (like the authors of this book).