Those of us in what we like to think of as ‘mainstream’ denominations – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, and some others – are, by and large, respectable. Alright, we are not as socially acceptable, in many places, as we once were. But there are two things you won’t find much of in our ordinary day-by-day life. You won’t find much in the way of persecution. Nobody is stirring up and poisoning people’s minds against us (well, they do sometimes, but not as sharply as they might). And you won’t find much in the way of signs and wonders. Nobody is running and jumping about the streets showing that God has healed them (well, they do sometimes, but we are normally so afraid of’extremism’, and of charlatans claiming to be healers when all they’re interested in is money, that we tend to fight shy of even the possibility of healing).
And I can’t help reflecting that we have become like my young friend on medication. The lows have gone, but so have the highs. What is the medication that we have taken which has made us the ecclesiastical equivalent of a herd of cows, mooing and mooching to and fro, doing nobody any harm, but never getting excited either? Nobody much gets healed, and nobody much gets stoned.
Let’s ask the question this way. We have already looked at the impact Paul’s message had on the synagogue in Antioch. It is not unlike the impact Peter’s similar message had on his hearers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost itself: some were thrilled, others very angry. We have seen that the main message that emerges for us out of all that is that the ancient promises of God were being fulfil ed in and through Jesus, as Messiah, for Israel and thence for the whole world. Israel – Jews both in Judaea and Palestine and all around the world – had to hear about it as soon as possible; these were their promises that had been fulfilled! But part of the message was precisely that the fulfilment was a complete fulfilment in the sense that the underlying purpose of the promises, that through Israel God would bless the whole world, was now being accomplished. The synagogue communities were being invited to embrace a fulfilment of their own long-cherished hopes, which necessarily meant a relativization of their own ‘special’ sense. When the postman has delivered all the letters, he is no longer the special person he once was as he walks down the street, not because there was anything wrong with being the postman, but precisely because it was his job, and he’s finished it.
Now, once we’ve got our minds round that, and watched in passages like the present one as the same pattern unwinds once again, we can address the question: how might we, in today’s mainstream churches, go about a more apostolic witness to our wider community? Is there, shall we say, a less depressing way of living and speaking the gospel than the one in which many find themselves caught?
For a start, it’s important to make sure we really are announcing, and living by, the gospel itself – the full message about Jesus as the risen son of God, fulfilling God’s ancient promises for the benefit of the whole world, offering forgiveness of sins (not just a comforting, cosseting spirituality) and the hope of God’s new world (not just pie in the sky when you die). If we really sort that out, that’s one step in the right direction. For another thing, we need to pray more seriously, perhaps with fasting. As we have seen, the genuine gospel is bound to confront other power-structures, other thought-systems. We will need all the spiritual resources we can muster.
But, when those are in place, what is the equivalent, for us, of what Paul and Barnabas were doing when they went into the local synagogues? (I am assuming that most of my readers are not themselves Jewish; there is a very specific question to be addressed in that context, and it isn’t what I’m talking about here.)
The synagogue wasn’t just a place of worship. It was the main community centre for Jews in each locality, the place where they came together to address and settle all kinds of issues. The equivalent in many towns and cities wouldn’t necessarily be a ‘religious’ building, but what we often call ‘the public square’ – which might literally be just that, a public square, but might well be a network of council chambers, government offices, town halls, health services, police stations and all the other paraphernalia of contemporary civic life.
And the message wouldn’t be simply a ‘religious’ one about God, heard in terms of private spirituality and an escapist ‘heaven’ to hope for hereafter, with some odd moral codes thrown in for the present. It would be, for our world and our day, what Paul’s message to the synagogue always was: that for which you have longed is here, but it doesn’t look like you thought it would.
But what is our society longing for? Peace; justice; freedom; a voice and a vote which will count; health. Around and above all of those, love. Inside and through all of those: to satisfy the hunger of the heart, a hunger which no amount of money,fine houses, fast cars, luxury vacations and love affairs will ever begin to reach. And the task of the church, though it certainly goes much wider and deeper than this, at least includes the following: that we should, in prayer and with wisdom, be able to tell the story of our world, our increasingly neo-pagan society, in terms of the long history of promises we have clung onto and pledges we have made and broken. We should be prepared to think it all through so we can tell the story that people know is their story, the one they always knew they wanted to hear. And we have to tell it so that, like Paul telling the story of Israel, it ends with Jesus, not artificially or like a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but so that he appears as what and who he is: the truly human one, the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the living bread through whom all our hungers are satisfied.
And of course it’s no good at all simply trying to say it. We have to live it. We have to create, and sustain, communities where this life is being lived in such a way that when we speak of it we are obviously telling the truth. That is the hard part. As long as our churches are places where we struggle to sustain an hour or two’s public worship per week, with ‘real life’ only minimally affected by it, we will indeed end up like a bunch of vaguely religious cows in a field, mooing on Sunday mornings and chewing the cud the rest of the time. No highs and no lows. But if we really worked at trying to be for our world what the apostles were for their Jewish world, things might change. The gospel might come alive. Vested interests would be challenged, and they would bite back. But we would be on the map once more: the map which Luke is offering us, even as the apostles hurry on once more to the next cities and districts, ready for more highs and more lows in the cause of God’s kingdom.
from Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part 2).