Please allow me to say first that I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been given this opportunity to share with you some important insights from the Scriptures at this 2007 WordAlone Fall Conference. This conference is devoted to “discerning the spirits.” Paul considered that ability a spiritual gift important enough to include in his list in 1 Corinthians 12. I think more needs to be said about this gift of discerning the spirits in the early church. I don’t believe this gift was in Paul’s day only an ability to recognize which church leaders were to be trusted over others, though it certainly included that in its broader sense. I believe we have tamed that gift called discernment of spirits. In the supernatural-rich environment of our first brothers and sisters in Christ “spirit” meant much more than simply “attitude” or “character” as it often does today. To the earliest Christians spirits that might influence the church or plague those the church was trying to rescue included the diabolical kind, which were discarnate, malevolent entities, determined to deceive and harm God’s people in numerous ways. Discerners knew them for what they really were, and knew what they were up to. Lest we think the world we are called to witness to has altogether moved past that sort of worldview, we might simply note some extremely popular television programs: Medium (NBC), Ghost Hunters (SciFi Network), Most Haunted (Travel Channel). There are still many people who would like to explore a spiritual dimension of life without concern for biblical truth, in some ways like that unknown exorcist who used Jesus’ name successfully in exorcisms, but did not follow Jesus.
The gift of discerning spirits takes for granted a very important fact: the church can be wrong. Mistakes are indeed possible for the little flock. There’s a reason we are compared to sheep. We have no automatic, fail-safe protection against error. No, not even episcopal succession…just think of Bishop Spong. That’s why we need our spirit-discerners. The reformers were spirit discerners in their day. Whole denominations can become misguided today, and whenever they are it seems that other denominations can see it, but they can’t. Movements like the WordAlone Network offer constructive criticism, yet are too often ignored and characterized as mean-spirited troublemakers. No one said spirit-discerning would be easy, but it is necessary. We can say this: if the spirit discerner had a toolbox, the Bible would be the most valuable tool in it. But then there’s the matter of using the Bible rightly. What’s a faith community to do?!
In this session we will be focusing specifically on discerning the Holy Spirit. We must discern the Holy Spirit’s will above all if we are to do what we have been called to do as the church. Discerning whether something is the will of the Spirit of God or some other spirit is really the issue underlying contemporary questions as they come before the church, the most recent being whether to ordain homosexual persons who do not abstain from homosexual conduct, and whether to bless their unions. What is the Holy Spirit’s will in this? How can we know? Where can we start? What do we need to know above all? What questions should we be asking first?
As we begin to look for answers let’s turn now to The Acts of the Apostles. James D. G. Dunn has said: “The Acts of the Apostles is the most exciting book in the New Testament, probably in the whole Christian Bible.” I think he is right. Think of what happens in this book: more than one appearance of the risen Jesus, the birth of the church, the miraculous conversion-call of Saul of Tarsus, supernatural prison escapes, a harrowing ship-wreck, the sick and infirm cured, the dead raised, visions, violence, martyrdoms and more…and it’s all real! We will look at Acts because it presents vital lessons for the church. That is why Luke wrote it, after all. And Luke has lots to say about the Spirit-led church.
But in a spirit of intellectual honesty worthy of a WordAlone fall conference, we must at least recognize that not everyone shares the confidence an audience such as yourselves will place in the Acts of the Apostles. Ours is a time when revisionist historians and theologians tell us of other Christianities that disappeared, but have at least as much rightful claim to being followers of Jesus as the Apostolic Church, that supposedly male-led, repressive organization in which Paul invented Christianity from the teachings of Jesus which were only meant to be at home within existing Judaism, or maybe Gnosticism, with nothing ever said about his being Son of God or Savior, and nothing ever imagined about a church to follow.
Luke Timothy Johnson said it well. Whoever would rewrite the history of this time must first deconstruct the Book of Acts. The effort to do that goes on. There isn’t time to review that battle here now. You need to know that it has been fought and is being fought by competent biblical scholars who have already exposed the work of the revisionists as without foundation. It’s a no-contest, really, for those who are paying attention. Despite all the revisionists’ well-financed hype and the full-color book covers, despite how seemingly erudite the spokespersons are who embody the “hermeneutic of suspicion” in their TV interviews, this fact remains: no written evidence exists from the time of the Apostles for these alleged other Christianities. All those other Christianities claimed to be represented in documents from the Gospel of Thomas to the Gospel of Judas simply do not leave a paper trail before the early Third Century. And in fact, the mutation-rich evolution of the concepts within them is traceable backwards, showing that they were in fact developed from earlier tradition, and therefore showing that they are not from the time they purport to be. Suppose someone claimed to have found a personal letter written by George Washington, a letter never before known or seen. Now suppose the letter made reference to a coming civil war that would be fought over state’s rights and slavery. Suppose the letter even referred to Republicans and Democrats. It wouldn’t take a genius to know the letter was not from Washington or even from his time. If you want to know what was happening in Washington’s time, you have to go to the right sources. The other Christianities also betray signs of a later time. We must go to the right source.
The Acts of the Apostles is the right source for us. It is what we have, and it’s all we have. We can extrapolate some of the story of the earliest church from the New Testament letters, but Acts is the only writing of its kind. Thank God for this second volume of Luke’s inspired writing.
The history of the investigation of Acts includes broadsides fired at the factual integrity of the author and sources. But again, competent biblical scholars have responded to these assaults. Time permits no examples here, but recent attention to Luke as ancient historiographer, and to the chronology of Paul’s life measured against the current events of his day, bear out that this continues to be a book we can trust. While it would be good if we could talk more about issues in the study of Acts, we are here to consider some of the paradigms presented in the book, paradigms for the church that is Spirit-led.
We will consider three of them. I want to tell you that there are four. I have chosen these three, because I believe they are the most important for us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the present time. It isn’t that the other paradigm is not important—it is extremely important also. But these three address issues that need to be discussed right now.
What is a paradigm? It is a right pattern, a blueprint, a standard form. You pastors will remember your days of learning Greek. Paradigms occupied your time, because those patterns that nouns and pronouns took were essential to learning the language. Finding and recognizing the paradigms in Acts is of vital importance for us, because they describe and define the activity of the church when it is obedient to the leading of the Spirit. Does the church wish to follow the Holy Spirit rather than some other spirit? Then it will pay attention to the paradigms. If it departs from the paradigms it has departed from the Spirit’s leading.
The first of three paradigms to come before us now is Acts 2:38, 39. Before I read it, let us all simply recognize that this is the paradigm that appears first:
Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
Another paradigm follows immediately. This is a paradigm I will discuss in an afternoon workshop tomorrow. It is the description of the life of the earliest congregation found in verses 40-47, and again later. But as already noted, we must concentrate for now on verses 38 and 39.
How do we know that this is a paradigm?
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:28-32).
After hearing Peter the listeners are “cut to the heart” (v. 37). They cry out: “Brothers, what shall we do?” This desperate question from the hearers of the first-ever Christian sermon must have its answer. Because these listeners represent all future listeners to the Gospel, the answer to their question will surely apply to all others as well. We must expect a paradigm.
The paradigm has three parts—two directives and a result. Repent, be baptized, and receive the Spirit.
Repentance is the first directive. Repentance, turning around on the road, means in the context of Acts 2 all the moral and ethical changes we would normally associate with the word. However, here it means something more. To repent as a hearer of Peter, who has just interpreted the death of Jesus as a sin committed by the people’s leaders, surely includes a rejection of their verdict passed against Jesus, and sorrow over the great miscarriage of justice, which was his crucifixion. Repentance here includes agreement with Peter that “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law (2:23).” The leaders of the people represent the people; the people must seek forgiveness for the guilt that extends to them for Jesus’ death.
Repentance includes affirmation of the rest of what Peter declares: that “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you see and hear (2:33).”
To repent is to renounce the world that put Jesus to death, and to say yes to the faith of the apostolic community. To repent in the context of Acts 2 is first to believe. This is the first directive in the paradigm of salvation.
Baptism is inseparable from the salvation paradigm. We may need reminding of the important place this sacrament holds. Some reject the baptism of infants, as we know. Others, who do not as a rule baptize infants, act not from a complete rejection of the idea on biblical and theological grounds, but list the baptism of infants among what they call “the secondary doctrines.” They mean that other doctrines are primary, because they are about salvation. Baptism, they say, is not. To make baptism a secondary doctrine is to say: “It isn’t important enough to fight about.” Their argument is with Peter. Baptism belongs to the salvation paradigm.
But should we take Peter’s statement to include children, or does he refer only to the adults then and there? It’s one thing for us to understand Peter as saying in effect: You adults must all be baptized as part of being saved. But do Peter’s words mean: You adults who can understand this message, who can repent and believe in Jesus, you need to be baptized, and so do your children? Peter says, “Be baptized every one of you.” Our tradition is absolutely right in calling baptism a means of grace. Like the blood on the doorposts of the houses in Egypt, you do it or you don’t, with real consequences either way for whoever accepts or rejects the clear call to “save yourself from this crooked generation.”
In 1960 an English translation of Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias was published by the SCM Press. Professor Jeremias made the case in that book that infants were indeed baptized from the time of the Apostles. This went against the view held by most historians and New Testament scholars who believed the baptism of infants began in the Second Century. Kurt Aland answered Jeremias with a book of his own, quite critical of Jeremias: Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? (SCM Press, 1962.) It looked to many as though Jeremias, still considered the most important New Testament scholar of the 20th Century, had been overthrown by Aland. But before 1962 had passed, Jeremias came back with The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland. These books, read in the order of their composition, make fascinating and important reading. The content of the books is not outdated, despite when they were first published.
Let’s drop in on the debate now as we consider Peter’s words about the Spirit in 2:39: “…for the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Jeremias took this as a statement that children were to receive the Spirit through baptism just as the adults. To this Aland objected that the children spoken of here are the generation to come, not those who were children at the moment. “Those who are far away,” were believers in generations to come. Who was right? Jeremias. He went on to show that the interpretive key for this passage was that same Joel 2 oracle which Peter quoted in part and claimed was being fulfilled. The context supplied by that oracle indicates that people from other nations will come to Zion for God’s salvation. Jeremias calls this familiar Old Testament idea the “eschatological pilgrimage.” These pilgrims are the people Peter speaks of when he says: “those who are far away.” So, what emerges is not a word picture of the Spirit coming to successive generations…you, those who come after you (your adult children someday), and even those in future generations. No, it means the Spirit is for you now, for your children now, and for any hearers from other lands and other cultures who have come to Zion now, ready to comply with the salvation paradigm.
Baptism is linked in the paradigm to receiving the Holy Spirit. This is the reason why, if Martin Luther had his way, no one would be getting confirmed in your church this year. Confirmation had come to be a sacrament in the medieval church through which the Spirit was thought to be given to the baptized with the laying on of the bishop’s hands. Thus baptism no longer had the purpose of bringing the Spirit into the life of the baptized as we see in Acts. The Spirit’s entry was disconnected from baptism and reconnected to the office of the bishop. The separation between baptism and the confirmation of the baptism could be days, weeks, months, or years. Baptism was left behind as the forgiveness of original sin, and not much else. Against this Luther protested. He wanted to do away with confirmation altogether. He got a lot of what he wanted in the Reformation, but not that.
The paradigm indicates that baptism and the Holy Spirit belong together. One sees in other stories in Acts that there are exceptions. But one also sees that the exceptions prove the rule. Briefly…when the Samaritans are baptized and the Spirit does not fall on them, the Apostles realize that something is wrong. Therefore they send Peter and John to go and lay hands on the Samaritans. Is this a way for God to force Jews and Samaritans into a face-to-face relationship? Is it because Simon the Magician is a problem waiting to happen among them? Whatever the reason, the exception proves the rule.
The other example is the experience of Cornelius the centurion. He and those with him receive the Spirit before they are baptized. But that’s because Peter would not have baptized this Gentile otherwise. God is pushing the Gentile mission forward. Peter realizes that baptism and the Holy Spirit belong together. That’s why he finally says: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?”
The Spirit-led church exists as the community of salvation in Jesus Christ. Baptism and repentance extend salvation to the lost of the world, and once these directives are followed the Holy Spirit becomes the gift for the baptized.
The second paradigm we will consider occurs at chapter 6:2. It is really completed by verse 4:
And the Twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the Word of God in order to wait tables…we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the Word.
Already at this point in Acts the community of believers has grown significantly. With the increased number of believers came a problem. The Hellenists, Jewish Christians who came out of Greek culture as opposed to the native Jews of the Holy Land, said their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution for the poor. This is all related in the sentences that precede our paradigm. Now I invite you to pause and take a deep breath. Get out your magnifying glass, your calabash pipe, and your fore-and-aft deerstalker cap, because the time has come for some real detective work.
Even Ernst Haenschen, pupil of the notoriously skeptical New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, lends his assent to an insight, which originated with Paul Billerbeck.
If we turn to what is known of Judaism’s safety net for the poor in the First Century, we learn this. The distribution of support for the poor took two forms: one happened on Fridays when three relief officers would provide to a needy person enough money from a collection “box” (חפּוּק) to buy fourteen meals. The money was collected in the חפּוּק by two relief officers from local residents.
The other means of providing for the poor was for strangers who did not reside locally. We might call it today a transient fund. Three officers going from house to house provided food and drink for such people on a “tray” ( יוּתמח.)
The daily distribution to widows (διακονία καθημερινή ) we find in Acts 6 corresponds to neither of these. The community of believers in Jesus the Messiah was no longer supported by either of these two means of caring for the poor. Call it economic persecution if you like. The daily distribution in Acts does not correspond to either the box or the tray. This means that from the earliest days the church of Jesus Christ took care of its own. Christian social ministry is indeed as old as the days of the Apostles. We must recognize this as a fact—a fact to be remembered and celebrated. To position social ministry against other ministries would be a serious, harmful mistake. However, there is nevertheless a priority set in this paradigm. To that we must also pay close attention.
The Twelve speak this time. This is the only place in Acts where they are called the Twelve. It is clear that they are really speaking with the approval of the entire community. Not only do the Apostles give their judgment, but also it is the consensus of all the saved. Remember, these are the Twelve. Not only have they completed their three-plus-year apprenticeship with Jesus. They have now seen the risen Christ and received their commission to witness to the ends of the earth. And they have even received the Holy Spirit themselves. These are no longer the error-prone followers of the Gospels, whom Ben Witherington III refers to as the duh-sciples. These are the Apostles who can and do pronounce paradigms for us:
It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word (vs. 2 and 4).
The Apostles’ work is the essential work of the church led by the Spirit. The Apostles have been sent as Jesus’ witnesses. They cannot permit any activity within the community of believers, no matter how important or how necessary or how good, to impede the work they have been called to do.
With respect to this second paradigm much needs to be said about our ELCA. Our denomination has effectively reversed this paradigm, as have other mainline churches. Social ministries, broadly construed, abound in the ELCA. No longer are our social ministries thought of as meeting basic needs of feeding the poor, caring for the orphan, ministering to the widow, as was once the case. Social ministry is an umbrella term now that covers a wide range of activity and consumes vast amounts of interest, time, money, and energy. Social ministry, broadly construed, has become the primary concern of this denomination. Serving tables has overtaken and surpassed the ministry of the Word for a variety of reasons. Not least among the reasons is what the Seven Fundamentals of the WordAlone Network address in Fundamentals #1 and #2. As the intellectual history of the West developed, belief in an independently real God who is causal in the universe was rejected as a proper concern for Christians. From Immanuel Kant through Adolf von Harnack this unbelief system became entrenched in centers of higher learning. Von Harnack even supported a group of his students who demanded that the Apostles Creed be removed from worship, because no one could know that these things were true. The replacement for faith in the God of the past was supposed to be concern for duty and ethical living. Jesus was no longer considered a savior, but he was held up as the ultimate example of righteous living. Bultmann, mentioned earlier, thought Harnack had gone too far, but he left us not much more—a way of discovering “authentic existence” in the present moment through an encounter with the kerygma with the help of the secular philosopher, Martin Heidegger… (Did that do anything for you? It didn’t do much for anyone else, either.)
With the heavy emphasis on social ministries, broadly construed to include every conceivable justice issue right down to the banishing of masculine pronouns in worship and in other denominational communication, the politics of church leaders has become inextricable from the social ministries/issues themselves. So, now we have people paid to do advocacy in state capitals and in Washington, D.C. Speaking of discernment, the people who give social ministry/social issues priority over the ministry of the Word clearly believe they can discern the spirits of the political and economic realm. They simply know on behalf of the rest of us which political party is right on a number of particular issues—whether there should be a wall between the United States and Mexico, and all the other rights and wrongs having to do with illegal immigration, which bill to call your representative about, when the rich have too many tax breaks at the expense of the poor, and of course the truth about the war in Iraq. Bishops testify before state legislatures on issues such as capital punishment. They meet with elected officials to tell them the moral way to vote, presumably to represent us, though we never asked them to.
ELCA leadership has always encouraged evangelism to an extent. In what I call “the evangelism resistant church” there has always been some attention paid to this slice of the pie, but unfortunately that’s what it is: a slice of the pie, a small slice.
If you have any doubts about that, consider what we see in these snapshots of everyday life in the ELCA:
The long-term effect of this paradigm reversal has been decline, a decline 20 years of the ELCA experience has not overcome. It’s getting worse fast.
Let me illustrate with something I have shared with the WA Board how far we have to go in changing our consciousness. In Acts the city of Antioch is a marvelous place. It is where the disciples were for the first time called Christians. It is where the converted Saul came to live and work. There were prophets there, and when Saul-now Paul-left on his missionary journeys he left from the church in Antioch. Antioch is synonymous with soul-saving, Gospel, evangelical outreach. The Southern Baptists know that. If you go to their website you will find page after page of churches that have taken the name Antioch. Now it’s not that there is something wrong with the strong names our congregations go by. But how many of the ELCA’s 11,000 congregations do you think have taken the name of the mission center, Antioch? The answer is: three. That says something about the way we think.
Our third and final paradigm is different from the others. It is not found in only one place, but in twenty-one. It is also descriptive, rather than prescriptive. This paradigm says that the Spirit-led church will grow. There are exceptions to rules, to be sure. There may be pastors and others here tonight who have worked and prayed that their church would grow, who have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel only to be still waiting for the day when God adds to their number.
But generally we should expect the Spirit-led church to grow. God gives that growth, not us. We are led to believe that in a post-modern, post-Christian era there isn’t much anyone can do. Those thoughts come from people who react rather than act, analyzing society and culture, but failing to help change it.
In truth the church should never have grown. From the beginning it had huge obstacles. To mention but one: saying “Jesus is Lord” also meant “Caesar is not.” Yet the church grew. It grows today in other parts of the world, places where there is great hostility toward it…places including North Korea and China. So excuses like having a lower birthrate because of birth control have to be rejected.
Meanwhile, one hundred and one years ago a movement began at a small church in Los Angeles, a church with a dirt floor on Azusa Street. The worldwide Pentecostal movement is traced to that place. Today 600,000,000 people are numbered among them. That’s one in every ten people on this planet. We have a four century head start, and our numbers are something like 80,000. That includes new Lutherans in places like Africa and Indonesia where we are growing at a fast rate, but it also includes northern Europe. Counting the membership in northern Europe, where people pay their taxes simply to stay on the church rolls, is like taking an attendance count in your church and telling the ushers to include all the large plants. The Pentecostals have become the second largest family of Christians. Their theology is in need of correction, but their primary goal is to save souls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They respect the salvation paradigm, they place salvation before social ministries though they certainly are involved in those, and God has given them growth.
The experience of these churches, the Southern Baptist churches, and biblical churches within the mainline denominations continues to prove that churches can grow here, too. Now the evidence is coming in that WordAlone churches and churches with WordAlone pastors are growing, and also sharing their possessions more generously, and enjoying greater involvement of their members.
Stanley Hauerwas, distinguished theologian of the Methodist tradition, has said: God is killing the mainline churches, and we goddamn well deserve it. Can we expect God to bless denominations or congregations that depart from the biblical paradigm for the Spirit-led? The faithful ministry of the Word still reaches people’s hearts and changes their lives. If we can do nothing else for a denomination whose leaders are not ready to listen, let us demonstrate the blessings that flow from following the biblical paradigms we find in the Acts of the Apostles.