Religion, culture, and Paul in Acts

I think there are plenty of insights in C Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Chapter 2 of the book is entitled “Collision: Explicating Divine Identity”. It looks at the following chapters in the Book of Acts.

Acts 14: Paul and Barnabas – Hermes and Zeus
Acts 16: Power at Philippi
Acts 17: Athens
Acts 19: Ephesus

The chapter talks about the collision between Christianity and Paul’s audience in different cities. Here are some excerpts from the conclusion of the chapter (on pages 50–51).

This collision, however, is not due to the missionaries’ lack of tact (though they were doubtless bold) or to a pagan propensity for rash violence…; rather, its deeper basis rests ultimately in the theological affirmation of the break between God and the cosmos. For to affirm that God has ‘created heaven and earth’ is, in Luke’s narrative, simultaneously to name the entire complex of pagan religiousness as idolatry and, thus, to assign to such religiousness the character of ignorance.

Ancient religion, that is to say, is a pattern of practices and beliefs inextricably interwoven with the fabric of ancient culture. Religion is not, however, just part of this fabric, ultimately passive and controlled by other more basic influences such as politics and economics, for economics. Rather, religion is also constitutive of culture; it helps to construct the cultural fabric itself.

In short, religion and culture are inseparable, and the difference in the perception of divine identity amounts to nothing less than a different way of life.

This last sentence is profound. To be followers of Jesus is about a different way of life. We can’t speak of “believing in Jesus” without following his way of life – a new culture and a new way of living that centres around Christ and the cross. I think the above has several other implications to the church today.

  • Do we engage in mission as if culture and religion are inseparable? If we do, then we can’t be effective. Indeed we can make a lot of mistakes.
  • What is the relationship between our faith and our own culture? Does our faith transform the culture in which we live? Or is our faith actually influenced by the culture of the world so much so that the world cannot see any difference between us and them? (For example, are we just as materialistic and the world in affluent West?)
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The gosepl message in Acts 26

I read the Book of Acts recently. The following passage caught my attention. Here Paul made his defence in front of Agrippa. He recalled his experience on the road to Damascus where he met Jesus. The passage is a good summary of the gospel message that the earliest church understood. I think it would help if we take a look and see whether the message we proclaim today is the same as that.

“[Jesus said to Paul] ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made holy] by faith in me.’

19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. 21 That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22 But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” (Act:26:15b–23; NIV; emphasis added)

This message obviously centres around the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah (ie. the Christ). It speaks of the fact that the gospel stems from the Old Testament. The gospel message includes the call to repentance and faith in Jesus, so that believers may receive the forgiveness of sins. Importantly, the gospel is about the defeat of evil through Jesus, and that those who belong to him have been set free from the power of Satan.

What a blessing it is to be recipients of this message, and what a privilege it is to participate in proclaiming and embodying this message in our daily life!

Can we say “silver and gold have I none”?

I’ve been reading the Book of Acts recently. I keep thinking about what the late F. F. Bruce said regarding the healing of a cripple by Peter and John in Acts 3:4–6.

According to Cornelius a Lapide, Thomas Aquinas once called on Pope Innocent II when the latter was counting out a large sum of money. “You see, Thomas,” said the Pope, “the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True, holy father,” was the reply; “neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”

Cited by F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 77–78.

F. F. Bruce did not write this with an anti-Catholic sentiment, for he goes on to say that the “moral of this tale may be pondered by any Christian body that enjoys a fair degree of temporal prosperity.” (page 78)

We should be able to detect the difference between the disciples of Jesus and the religious authority of their day. Acts 4:1–2 says,

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.

Instead of seeing the healing of the lame person as an act of kindness and praise God for his goodness (4:9), the priests and the leaders saw it as a threat—apparently because it served as a demonstration of the validity of the apostles’ message that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

There is no doubt that the healing of the lame and the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection are at the centre of the narrative in Acts 3–4. It is also clear that the crippled person had lived in poverty and belonged to the lower end of the social spectrum (3:2). This means that God’s deliverance included the inclusion of the man into his eschatological people—that is, a Christ-community consisting of people from all walks of life, not least the poor and needy. In addition, it is quite clear that the resistance of the message of salvation and deliverance came from those in positions of power and influence.

The question for us today, then, is whether our mission and message centre around the same ministry and message of the earliest church found in Acts. For many of us (not all of us) in the West, we can no longer say “silver and gold have I none,” given the material possessions we hold individually and collectively in our churches. I wonder how we can truly embody the narrative of Acts 3–4 in our lives? How can we minister God’s grace and kindness from a position of limited economic resource and low social status, just like Peter and John? And, do we unwittingly act like the religious leaders in their day? Do we rejoice with those who walk with the poor and see their life and work as a demonstration of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Or do we see their work as some kind of second-rate ministry that are relatively unimportant? Do we see the proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the formation of a Christ-community as our mission? Or do we focus too much on ensuring that our systems and programs run smoothly, and have lost sight of what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus?

A lot to ponder, I suppose…

The Spirit’s work to comfort and break down all socioeconomic and cultural barriers

Pentecost Sunday Homily

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17

An audio-visual event

Our Bible reading of Acts 2 is a dramatic account of what happened on the Day of Pentecost in the earliest church.

Thanks to a gift voucher given by a friend, we were able to watch Star Trek as a family. As you know, a sci-fi action movie like Star Trek can give us a very entertaining cinema experience, because of the audio and visual effects they provide.

The wonder of Acts 2 is that it describes an event that has strong audio-visual elements. It speaks of a sound like the rush of violent wind. It talks about tongues of fire resting on people. When reading things like that, I think it helps to pause and imagine what happened on the Day of Pentecost.

Imagine what it is like if you witness the visible work of the Spirit on this day!

If we are familiar with the Old Testament, the imagery of the outpouring of the Spirit here in Acts may well remind us of a number of stories in the Hebrew Bible. As is often noted, the narrative in Acts 2 reverses the confusing of language in the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Instead of people being scattered, the people of God are now united by the Spirit. Each person hears their own language being spoken as those gathered are filled with the Spirit and speak in the languages of the others.

But Acts 2 may also remind us of the work of the Old Testament prophets, the spokespersons of God who were filled with the Spirit to declare God’s holiness and justice for the oppressed. In addition, we may recall the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire in the Exodus story, where God delivered his people from the yoke of slavery to freedom. I think the “visual people” in our midst (that is, those who are good at observing things visually) can quite easily visualise the Exodus story and its similarities with the narrative in Acts 2.

A cosmic event that breaks all barriers

But what’s really happening on the Day of Pentecost was a cosmic event in which God graciously intervened in the affairs of humankind. Peter cited the prophet Joel’s prophecy, which says that

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

It is important to note the inclusive nature of the Spirit’s outpouring. In the ancient world—and in many cultures today—the society is intensely hierarchical. Women were thought to be inferior to men. Children were not as important as adults. Slaves were subordinate to their masters. But the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost saw no such social divisions.

The life-giving Spirit is poured out to all people—daughters and sons, young and old, and slaves are not excluded.

What we see in the narrative—in this audio-visual display of cosmic event—is not only a picture of the coming-together of peoples and nations under heaven. It also portrays God’s intention to break down all socioeconomic barriers among his people. It is about God’s purpose to bless people from all walks of life, bringing peace to all who seek to worship him and love him.

I am proud of our multicultural community. You see, I always longed for the type of community I found in the New Testament. I wanted to see an inclusive multicultural community that is not merely theoretical but a lived reality. And I am glad that I’ve found it here, where every person is as important as everyone else, without social, economic or ethnic distinctions.

God’s empowering presence

Our second New Testament reading today is from John 14, in which Jesus says that he will ask the Father to give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever—the Spirit of truth. It is worth looking at the context of the passage. In verse 1 Jesus says,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.

In verse 15 Jesus says,

I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.

Later in the chapter (in verses 26–27) Jesus says,

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I like these words of comfort. Jesus knew that he’s going to die, and after his resurrection he would ascend to heaven. So, he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come, and the Spirit would be their advocate and comforter. He will not leave them as orphans.

The Spirit is God’s “empowering Presence.” In our fear the Spirit speaks peace. In our powerlessness the Spirit gives us strength. When we feel hopeless the Spirit gives us hope. In our loneliness the Spirit speaks comfort.

As I hear the stories of people in our community—not least the testimonies of those who got baptised—I realise how much the Spirit has been working in our midst. People in our community have gone through many dangers and turmoils. Loneliness, physical pain, danger at sea, persecution, uncertainties about life and the future. But in all these life’s challenges, God’s abiding presence does not leave us.

Power differentials

Many years ago, following a crisis in the family, I prayed to the Christian God and asked whether he’s real or not. In the following months I became a Christian. I bought a Bible to read, and found a church to attend. It took me about a year to work through some major questions about Christianity. But over time the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the Scripture and the God it speaks of.

But it was through another crisis that I had an unforgettable experience of the Spirit.

Since I grew up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in Asia, very few of us were able to go to university. In fact, among all my relatives in my generation, I am probably the only one who managed to go to university.

I went to a university in the UK because I was able to get a scholarship, as well as a special government grant. But even with that there was still a lot of out-of-pocket expenses. We had very little money, and so it was no small miracle that we managed to find money to buy air ticket and pay three months’ worth university fees and living expenses. I flew to England quite literally by faith, hoping that extra money would come after three months.

The university was in Yorkshire. As you know, as someone whose first language is not English, people in Yorkshire sounded like speaking in tongues to me. I struggled greatly as a student, and for the first time in my life I almost failed a subject.

I felt extremely lonely, and I feared greatly that I might fail my parents, who worked tirelessly day and night to support me.

At the same time, it was in the UK that I experienced the power differentials that were embedded in the social structures and systems. For the first time I experienced racial slurs. I began to realise that the dominant culture in a society has power over the minority cultures.

I also began to realise that among my Asian friends there were many wealthy people. In the area I grew up, rarely could we afford to buy brand-name sports shoes or equipment. In fact, none of us would have thought that we could ever afford to play tennis, which was thought to be a very expensive game to play.

Well, I found that I had lived in a somewhat different world, for some of my friends in the UK could afford to play tennis and buy brand-name sports equipment. You see, back home I worked very hard in a factory, and I had to study very hard to go to university. But a fellow overseas student said to me one day,

Okay, you are very smart. You worked hard and certainly did well in high school. But here we are. We both end up coming to the same university and doing the same course.

In other words, some people have to work hard to seek a better life. Others don’t have to work hard and still have a good future.

Fortunately, not all my wealthy friends were like that. I did make some good life-long friends in England, who would never say that type of things.

Work of the Spirit

So, as you can see, life was not easy in a foreign country, especially when you are lonely and your family doesn’t have a lot of money. You have no idea how much I prayed to God and asked him to help me.

Then, something happened. One day I was alone in my bedroom. Suddenly I felt that God entered the room. It was an experience that cannot be described through words, except to say that God’s presence was real. I could not see his face, but I could definitely feel that he was there. Then I went out and walked on the streets, and God’s presence was there. It was the most amazing experience of all. And I can only say that it’s the work of the Spirit.

I hasten to say that this rather unique experience is not really very extraordinary, for I have seen many wonderful works of the Spirit here in our community. I have heard amazing stories of transformation. I have heard stories of those who have seen visions of Jesus or heard the audible voice of God.

I have seen the tenacity of those living with a disability and those who struggle with sickness, including terminal illness. Their resilience is inspiring and is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.

I have met those who have been hurt by religious people who do not care about people’s emotions. But the Spirit is slowly and gently bringing healing and deliverance. I have seen the courage of refugees and asylum seekers. Despite their adversities they hang in there. And there are those around them who seek to stand by these friends from overseas in their suffering and walk with them in their darkest hours. This, again, is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.

It seems to me, then, the Spirit is moving powerfully in our midst, and so we can truly celebrate on this Pentecost Sunday. God’s empowering presence is at work in our community. The Spirit brings life and peace, and through the Spirit we live in love and unity.

And may the Spirit empower us to bear witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. Amen.

Christian mission, the Book of Acts and Jesus’ resurrection

There is a great study on the Book of Acts by C Kavin Rowe, called World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. I managed to find a few quotes from Daniel Kirk’s blog post. (Click here for the post.) Here they are.

To see the potential of the Christian mission for cultural demise is to read it rightly. Indeed, this is but the flip side of the reality that God’s identity receives new cultural explication in the formation of a community whose moral or metaphysical order requires and alternative way of life. (p. 146)

In Luke’s telling of the story, the formation of alternative communities, with alternative cultures, is inseparable from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead to be lord over all. Moreover, the existence of such communities, with their alternative forms of life, become the context within which the truth can be spoken and known. Thus, the Christian claims are “madness”–but only to those without eyes to see. (pp. 161–162)

Acts narrates the life of the Christian mission as the embodied pattern of Jesus’s own life… Put succinctly, according to Acts, the missio Dei has a christological norm. (p.173)

New Books on Politics from IVP

Sounds like great books (suggested by Tim Gombis). Although they’re probably written with North American politics in mind, they would be relevant to the Australian context as well.

Faith Improvised

In the wake of the Wheaton Theology Conference, I’ve been giving some thought to the church’s relation to politics.  IVP has several very interesting new books out along this line.

I just received my copy of Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica.  I wish I had it a few weeks back as I wrote my conference paper that touched on anti-imperial rhetoric in Paul, but I was pleased to see that my conclusions largely resonated with theirs.

The volume helpfully describes and evaluates the method whereby interpreters discern a critique of Rome or of the worship of the emperor in various NT documents.  It’s got a wonderful lineup of authors and I’m eager to get into it.

Kenneth J. Collins, in Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism, narrates how evangelicals have lost sight of the richness of their identity and…

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Discipleship, mutuality, solidarity, witness and allegiance to Jesus in Acts

I am doing some work on Acts at the moment. I like what Joel Green says below about discipleship.

“The interdependence of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Lukan perspective on discipleship.” (p 22)

Economic Koinonia… giving is a function not of obligations and debt but of mutuality, generosity, solidarity and need. Economic koinonia would thus grow out of, as well as symbolize, kinship.” (p 22)

“What Jesus had called for in his Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:27-38, esp. Lk 6:35)—dispositions of kinship giving rise to practices of material generosity—the early church is reported to practice (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32—5:11; see also Acts 6:1-6; 11:27-30)… [Luke] outlines a disposition of kingship and generosity, an orientation toward the needs of others and toward the generosity of God that characterizes the Christian community outside the normal constraints of reciprocity and the gift-obligation cycle. Accordingly Barnabas is introduced as an exemplary figure who embodied the ideal of kinship that was to characterize the whole community (Acts 4:32, 36-37).” (p 22)

Witness and Allegiance. One of the hallmarks of Luke’s narrative is the consistency with which faithful witnesses attract opposition and with which opposition leads to the spread of the gospel.” (p 22)

“Faithfulness calls for a fundamental allegiance to Jesus as Lord, which for a basic social and political stance within the [Roman] empire (Cassidy), and this may well generate opposition. Peter, John, Stephen and Paul may thus serve as models for Christians who in the course of the church’s mission face similar struggles.” (pp 22-23)

Source: Joel B Green, “Acts of the Apostles” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Development, edited by Ralph Martin and Peter Davids (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997).