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.”

A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 2

cropped-coffee-and-bible.jpgBy Matt Sapp

This is the second post in a series designed to encourage more of us to read the Bible more often.

In part one, we talked about developing a basic understanding of what the Bible is and where the Bible comes from. When was it written? Who are the authors? Why were they writing and to whom? Most of these questions can be answered by reading the introductions and text notes in a good study Bible.

Today we’re going to try to understand how to engage the actual words of scripture on the page in front of us. We’re going to try to figure out how to read the Bible successfully and most profitably.

WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I BRING TO SCRIPTURE?

As you read scripture, you should start by asking three questions:

-What does the text say? (a comprehension question)
-What does the text mean? (an interpretation question)
-What questions does the text raise? (an engagement question)

1.What does the text say? The Bible is an old and varied collection of books.  Sometimes it takes work just to understand what’s going on in a Bible passage, but basic comprehension is the first step toward successful Bible reading.  One way to do this is to use “who, what, when, where, why” questions.  Each passage may not answer all five questions, but if you try to answer as many as you can, you’ll start to get a good sense of what’s happening in the passage.

2.What does the text mean?  What can I learn from the text?  What questions might the text be trying to answer? What is this text teaching about God, the human condition, or the world?  This is an interpretive question and is the most important question to answer as you seek to understand how to apply the Bible to your life today.

3.What questions does the text raise in my mind?  Where do I want to know more?  What should I look up when I’m finished reading?  This is an engagement question that encourages you to learn more about what you’ve read.  Over time, following up on this question will help you get better at answering question two—the interpretive question.

So, first try to understand what the text is saying.  Then try to understand what larger truths the text might be trying to communicate.  Finally, identify areas for further study.

WHERE SHOULD I START?

If you want to get a good overview of the Bible in an attempt to understand the whole story, what parts of the Bible should you read first?  Here are my suggestions.  Admittedly, these selections leave out large and important swaths of scripture, but it’s a place to start.

These are twelve relatively short selections that could easily be studied and absorbed over the next twelve weeks.

THE OLD TESTAMENT
Genesis 1-11—The opening narratives of the Bible represent the first efforts of our religious ancestors to answer the biggest, most fundamental questions about human existence. They explore questions about human purpose, human relationships and our relationship with our creator. These ancient myths answer age-old questions about how and why we got here with profound insight and intuitive knowledge. The depth of understanding and the enduring truths revealed in these stories leave no doubt about God’s presence in their formation and preservation.

Genesis 37-50—The Joseph saga presents one of the most well-developed characters in one of the most well-developed plot narratives in all of ancient literature. Joseph represents an indispensable link in the story of Israel. Without Joseph, we cannot get from Abraham to Moses. And, as a character, Joseph has much to teach us about faithfulness, humility, judiciousness, wisdom and forgiveness.

Exodus 1-3 – This records an introduction to Moses and the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt.  These chapters include Moses’ birth and call to leadership at the burning bush. This is a necessary text to understand what comes later.

Exodus 11-14—These chapters recount the Hebrew people’s escape from Egypt.  This is the story that birthed the nation of Israel. The people who marched with Moses through the Red Sea developed the laws, customs and worship traditions of the Jewish faith.  These are the people who received the 10 Commandments and developed the rituals of temple sacrifice and worship.

Job 1-3, 38-42—Job is the oldest book in the Bible, but its insight into the human condition and God’s relationship with humanity continues to amaze.  The first three chapters are Job’s complaint to God about the unusual trials he’s facing.  In the last four chapters, God responds. You’ll notice this selection skips over most of the book.  The middle of the book contains the responses of Job’s friends to Job’s plight. If you have the time, the whole book is worth studying.

Psalms 1, 8, 23, 46, 51, 103—  The Psalms include a blueprint to the worship and prayer practices of the nation of Israel.  There’s nothing particularly special about this selection of Psalms. They’re just my favorites.

Isaiah 1-9, 40, 60-61—How do we act in accordance with the will of God? The prophets challenge us to live in accordance with God’s will and teach us how to do so even in challenging circumstances. Isaiah is one the Old Testament’s most important prophets. The language and imagery in Isaiah are exquisite. These chapters should give you a good idea of Isaiah’s message, and they include some of Isaiah’s most familiar and soaring passages.

THE NEW TESTAMENT
Matthew 5-7
—The Sermon on the Mount—the most important body of teaching in the history of the world. Read it. Then read it again.

Luke 2, 12-18, 22-24—Luke is perhaps the most recognizable gospel. Even non-Christians will find Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ parables, and Jesus’ death and resurrection familiar.

John 1:1-18 and John 13-17— Johannine Christology and Farewell Discourses—The first chapter of John develops a philosophical underpinning for the identity of Jesus and the nature of God.  In chapters 13-17 Jesus takes a private moment with his disciples during Holy Week to deliver his final instructions to them. At the end of his teaching Jesus prays for his disciples, and not just for the ones in the room, but for all who will come after them. When you realize that you’re reading a prayer that Jesus personally prayed for you, it’ll give you goosebumps.

Romans 3-8—The letter to the Romans is the most complete presentation of the theology of the Apostle Paul. This selection is the meat of the argument.

1 John—one early Christian community’s beautiful understanding of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. All you need is love.

WHAT TRANSLATIONS WORK BEST?

The Bible exists in all kinds of translations for all kinds of reasons. It’s best to use a modern translation that is the result of the best scholars using all of the available textual resources and manuscripts to achieve a translation that is both readable and faithful to the meaning of the original languages.

Four translations to try:

New International Version (NIV),
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV),
The Message (Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase),
Common English Bible (CEB).

You can use a Bible app to read scripture, like YouVersion on your phone. You can read the Bible online with biblegateway.com–a wonderful tool for searching scripture.  But the BEST thing you can do as you start to re-engage scripture is to get a good, printed study Bible.  The introductions to each book, the summary tables and timelines, the in-text notes, and the cross references will be invaluable as you seek to better understand scripture. You’ll discover that the extra notes in your study Bible are often able to answer questions you have as you read the text, and the background and insight they provide will make your scriptural explorations more meaningful.

A NOTE ABOUT INTERPRETATION

If reading and understanding scripture continues to be hard for you—if you still don’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it—you’re not alone. That’s why so many people study the Bible together in groups. Join a Sunday School class or find a weekday home group.

In groups, we can lead each other to deeper biblical insights and steer each other back on course if we start to veer off track.

Also, scripture reading ALWAYS raises questions. If you’re part of a study group, you’ll start to discover that others in your group have the same questions you do—and some may even have answers to your questions.

If you’re hesitant to interpret the Bible for yourself, that’s natural. But you have everything you need to read and understand scripture for yourself. Remember these things, though.

The criterion by which we interpret scripture is Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we read all of scripture through the lens of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. If a particular passage of scripture seems to conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus, see if there’s a faithful way to reconcile the two. If there’s not, give priority to the teaching of Jesus.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If your interpretation of scripture leads you toward a more committed and complete love of God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40), you’re most likely on the right track. If it doesn’t, you may need to look at how you arrived at your understanding again.

A FINAL WORD

I hope you’ll take the challenge and join me in re-engaging scripture for yourself. Biblical literacy is a foundational requirement for a healthy church. Our neighborhoods and communities NEED healthy churches led by healthy, biblically informed Christians.

The future of the church in America—and its ability to impact our world—depends on individuals just like you making the commitment to read and understand the Bible for yourselves.