by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary
Today, we continue thinking out loud about the exciting privilege we have to discern and follow the Holy Spirit. We began by reflecting on the idea that, as the people of God, we are invited to rest in the fact that the Spirit is at work – to submit to the authority of the Spirit as we join with God in that work.
That led us to consider Scripture and tradition as instruments of the Spirit. We ended our comments last week by writing:
The Spirit is actively working in, through, and for the Body of Christ as we discern what it means to be people of the Way. In this work, we must routinely submit to the leading of the Spirit. This reality doesn’t mean we cast aside Scripture or the tradition of the Church. Rather, it invites us to be continually shaped by Scripture as we read it together; to be students of the story, the tradition, of the Church as we act out this chapter of that story. In doing so, the Spirit is opening our eyes, forming the Body of Christ, and inviting us to participate in the Gospel.
Fortunately, we see this happening in the early church. The Spirit is actively working in, through, and for the earliest disciples as they discern what it means to follow Jesus in their context. They submit themselves to the leading of the Spirit, even when it means going against something they previously agreed upon. To put a finer point on that, they end up going down a path that they previously forbade others to trod…or did they?
Let’s take a look at Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8. In Acts 15, we see the Jerusalem council say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” In 1 Corinthians 8, however, Paul issues what seems to be a direct contradiction saying, “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” Later, in Romans 14, Paul even goes so far as to tell the gentile Christians to stop looking down on the Jews who don’t eat such meat. The early church’s discernment as it related to eating food sacrificed to idols went from, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit that you should abstain from it,” to “It’s okay to eat food sacrificed to idols so long as you are thoughtful about it.” That’s quite the journey of discernment. The church was working out what it meant to follow the Way and the Spirit was helping them do so. And that means things can change.
On the surface, this example can seem to suggest the early followers of Jesus simply didn’t understand. One might think, “Of course, they were still working out the faith. Jesus only spent a few years with them. They still had much to learn! We have the benefit of 2,000+ years of followership, scholarship, discipleship, etc. We know better. It has been settled.” But, if we take a closer look, there seems to be a consistent theme that suggests the early church wasn’t being “wishy-washy” on its convictions and decisions at all. Rather, they had a clear direction – they knew where the “flying v” of the wild goose was headed (i.e., the direction). They were simply learning more about the obstacles they were flying past along the way.
In Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, and Romans 14 (and other passages in the Old and New Testament, as well, obviously) what remains constant is concern for “the other.” In his book, Resurrecting Justice, Douglas Harink says one way to reconcile the dining issues being addressed in Romans 14 would have been for the Jews or Gentiles to impose their convictions on the others, particularly the socially dominant Romans. He writes,
That would be one way to resolve the dining-table tensions; it would also be another colonizing victory for Romans, even in the messianic assembly. But it would be a contradiction of the good news, which is not about assimilation in either direction but about respect and reconciliation in the midst of real differences. The point of the good news is not that the “conservative” Judeans should make a “progressive” journey toward the “liberal” convictions and practices of the Roman messianics. Rather, the good news is that both groups are at the table only because it is God’s table, and because God welcomes both Judeans and Gentiles to the table through the Messiah’s reconciling death.
While at first glance Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 seem to contradict each other in their ethical demands, a closer examination suggests they are glimpses into what it looked like for the earliest disciples to discern the movement of the Spirit. They knew they needed to head in the direction of loving the other. By staying attentive to the Spirit, however, they continued to learn what God had in store for them.
We started this foray into the idea of following a wild goose with a quote from F.F. Bruce. In his commentary on Acts, he remarked “…in all the book there is nothing which is unrelated to the Holy Spirit.” We are saying that continues to be true. Mission, ministry, transformed lives, the power of the Gospel – all of it is related to the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is still moving.
That begs the question, then, if we are joining with God as the Author of the Story and the Spirit is still moving, what role are we to play? Is there a script to follow? Lines to recite? I think that is where our comment about improv theatre comes into view. Let’s save that for next week.