We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.

The violence of Pentecost and the peace of the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Its not everyday that I get to try a new hermenuetic on for size.  Hermenuetics is the study of interpretation.  Like scientists who can switch out microscope lenses to vary magnifications, we Bible geeks can swap out various interpretative lenses in order to read scripture differently.

I stumbled upon a review by Tony Jones of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana that offers a new lens.  Goldsworthy claims that we westerners have understood Roman culture and politics through the eyes of the New Testament for far too long.  The review recommends switching the lens, to read the New Testament through the larger worldview of citizens of ancient Rome instead.

Goldsworthy argues that Palestine was quite insignificant to the Roman Empire.  It was too small to call a “true province,” too poor to justify a Roman legion to police the area, and too unwieldy to pay too much attention to policies that affected the area.  Palestine was, in fact, too hostile and violent to create anything other than a modest military presence that quelled protests every now and then.  Jones notes,

“The internal strife in Judaea was among the worst in the empire: Jews hated Samari­tans, Samaritans hated Jews, and they both hated gentiles. Constant civil conflict in the territory vexed the governing Romans.”

In other words, Romans had prejudices against Palestine and its people.  This may be helpful in reading the Bible in general and the Book of Acts in particular.

According to tradition, Luke authored both the gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part work to a mysterious benefactor named Theophilus (although some scholars argue that Theophilus is a community rather than an individual; I beg to differ), who was likely a gentile–Roman, in fact!–who stood on the verge of making a decision about either hosting a Christian church or funding church starts in his community.

The fact that Luke’s Gospel includes more teachings on money, resources, and hospitality than any of the other three gospels combined points to this rhetorical thrust in Luke’s motivation.

Yet, if Theophilus was indeed the gentile that we all assume he was, then it is also safe to assume that his outlook on Palestine, and the Jews that made up this early Christ movement, included the very  same prejudices Rome espoused.  There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

The first two chapters of Acts affirms this reading of Palestine in several ways.  In the first chapter, for instance, the disciples are still set on having Jesus–now risen from the dead–to recruit an army and usher in the kingdom of God.  This is not unique to Jesus’ disciples.  Other Jewish movements sought to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which meant funding and recruiting an army, overthrowing the Roman Empire, and establishing a theocracy once and for all with Jerusalem at the center.

In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time that you will restore God’s kingdom?”  It is the “now” and the “restore” that tip us off to the violent intentions of the disciples.   John Polhill quoted R. Pesch when he wrote that Jesus did not reject restoration; rather, Jesus “depoliticizes it,” moving an agenda of restoration out of the purposes of the disciples and into the providence of God.

Let me put it another way: Even if the disciples didn’t have violent intentions, there is good reason for us to assume that Theophilus likely surmised as much.

In God’s economy, Jesus flipped the coin on its head.  Just as Jesus argued in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus here posited that the reign of God is neither bound by region nor vested in the violent protest of an army with sword and spear.  Judas’ failed attempt at trying to force Jesus’ hand was in the past–his replacement in Acts 1 points to the fact that Judas’ own motivations stood firmly on the forefront of the minds of the disciples.

In addition, Luke clearly utilizes the rhetoric of violence, hostility and discrimination to reinforce Jesus’ peaceful and non-violent gospel message in a way that further turns violence on its head in Acts 2.

Acts 2:1, for instance, describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as a “violent” or “mighty” wind.  This is not accidental or a mere poetic word choice; it is a purposeful rhetorical device that calls into question the type of violence that God’s reign enforces.

Second, the Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire.  Fire was a common weapon of war that would have certainly been used to raze villages and incite destruction and intimidation (see Joel 1:19-20; 2:3).  If the symbol was there merely to reflect the life-giving nature of the Spirit, why not use water  (Joel 2:23) or another natural element more fitting for the birth of the church?

Third, the Spirit empowered the disciples to cut across lines that Jewish discrimination would have perpetuated.  The disciples spoke in languages shared not by their families or villages, but by regions that Jews would have perceived as enemies, the Parthains, Medes, Cretans and the like.

Pentecost is an assault on nationalism, racism, sexism, classism–every way in which we separate one another…It is a surge of the Spirit that pushes the church out of the building and into the neighborhood.  –Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

Acts 2 recalls that a crowd gathered as a result of what appeared to be the formation of a violent uprising in an upper room in Jerusalem during a high holy day.  Certainly, Pentecost, like other Jewish holidays that attracted pilgrims, created a hot bed for violent protests.

Peter spoke with brilliance not common among illiterate fisherman in the first century, and he quoted Joel to articulate the kind of movement for which Christ’s church will become known.  It was neither violent or hostile; rather, it was an inclusive message in its embrace, and peaceful in its purpose.

The words of Joel’s poetry reinforces what Jesus preached all along: God’s reign would not be defined by the prejudices, conflicts, and violence for which Palestine was known.  Rather, it would be a reign that disrupted status quo, turned the world upside down (a blood moon!), and broke down gender, generational, and socio-economic, class boundaries.

From Joel’s point of view (see Joel 3:9-10), this is a call to war as a result of God gathering nations for the purpose of executing judgment.  Peter’s rhetoric, combined with Jesus’ vision of salvation and community, declared different terms for peace– a peace brought not by weapons of destruction, but by life-giving proclamation, visions, dreams, and “portents”.

Judgment was on its way, but not before the work of the church was fulfilled.  Pentecost was a “day of the Lord” in which the church was born to reach across all boundaries, to communicate with urgency the coming of another “day of the Lord” in which God and Jesus would administer justice upon the earth.

Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a Roman audience, an audience that held certain prejudices towards Palestine, the Jews, and, naturally, Christ-followers who made their way out of Jerusalem and Galilee.  It is no wonder that Luke utilized the rhetoric of conflict and violence, not to perpetuate a caricature of a violent Jewish community, but to redefine Christ’s Church and its mandate according to the peace, hope, love, and joy that resulted from being a follower of Christ, a Savior who knew–and knows–no bounds, who longs to save all who are both near and “far away” (Acts 2:39).

Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”