Living as an Exile

As our seminary cohort prepares for our week-long trip to Italy in May, we are required to read and respond to several books. One of them is Exiles: living missionally in a post-Christian culture by Michael Frost.  I have only just begun reading this book. So far, it is inspiring. Frost asks us to imagine ourselves living in exile, since Christendom no longer reigns supreme in our American society. We must come to terms with the fact that we have lost our place of privilege, and we must consider how we will respond– retreat? assimilate to the dominant culture? or, Frost would say, live dangerously… Here are some interesting and thought-provoking quotes that I am chewing on:

“Exiles are driven back to their most dangerous memories, their recollections of the promises made by Jesus and his daring agenda for human society. Exiles are prepared to practice a set of dangerous promises, promises that point to the kingdom and are not caught up with the prevailing values of the empire. Exiles will mock the folly of that empire by offering a dangerous critique of a society wracked by greed, lust, selfishness, and inequality. And finally, exiles will sing a repertoire of dangerous songs that speak of an unexpected newness of life. What makes these things dangerous is that they are practiced under the noses of those who don’t care to hear them. When no one in the empire wants to be cast back to the radical story of Jesus or to see the biblical promises being enacted, the reaction can be brutal at worst, disdainful at best. How much more dangerous, then, it is to criticize the empire when everyone seems so satisfied with it as is” (p. 10).

“Jesus was the ultimate exile. Thinking equality with God a thing not to be grasped after, he humbled himself and allowed himself to be ‘exiled’ on earth.  And like all good and faithful exiles, he enters fully into life in this host empire without giving himself over to it completely” (p. 29).

Frost makes these comments about the way we read the Gospel stories (our dangerous memories) and respond to them: “We still want to assist Jesus by making him grander, more ‘saviorlike’ than he really appeared, and in doing so we domesticate him. We want to wrench him from the pages of the New Testament, where he is presented as a real man who suffered and died and rose again. And yet, the incarnation remains an offense of monumental proportions. Theologically, the idea of God presented in human flesh is absurd enough, but as if to emphasize that the incarnation calls for action, not just reflection, God’s human manifestation ocurs in an exceedingly ordinary way… the one thing we can’t bear for Jesus to be is ordinary, for his ordinariness invites us to follow him by providing us with a template of how to be Godlike even as an ordinary human being… the appropriate response is personal allegiance to this Messiah, not merely a reliance on the benefits of his work” (p. 37).

I am challenged by Frost’s thoughts here. Do I live like an exile in my world, fully-engaged in it yet not given over to it? Do I live like Jesus lived, or have I so removed him from ordinary human life that I let myself off the hook from following in His steps? What are my dangerous memories and dangerous songs? How do I offer a dangerous critique of this empire that I live in? I wonder…

Reflections on Acts

I wanted to post some of my reflections on what the book of Acts has to teach us as American Christians living in the 21st century.  This is actually an answer to one of our take-home quiz questions. To my cohort brothers from seminary– I’m trusting you to not read this until AFTER you’ve finished your quiz (if any of you are reading this post right now).

——————————————————————————————————————————————-


In a paragraph or two, and in contrast to other NT books, what do you think Acts has to teach or challenge our contemporary American context? What are some practical ways in which you could use the book to do so?

There are (at least) three themes that stand out in reading the book of Acts. The first is the church in conflict. This theme is clearly important to Luke, as he puts the Jerusalem Council in the center of the narrative. As the Gospel spreads and the diversity of the growing group of believers multiplies, conflict increases over issues of praxis. What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Does it look different for different ethnic groups? Are there things all Christians everywhere do or don’t do? While conflict is addressed elsewhere in the NT (such as in some of the Pauline letters), the issue of ethnicity and the conflicts that arise due to ethnic differences is unique to Acts. Certainly it is an issue churches continue to struggle with today. Acts has much to teach us about how to grapple with issues that threaten to divide Christian groups.

Another theme that could speak powerfully to American evangelicals is citizenship. A careful study of the various interactions between the apostles and those in authority reveals an interesting balance between submission/respect/participation in society and claims of loyalty to Jesus and His Kingdom alone. Peter and John are bold and steadfast, but not disrespectful to the Jewish council (chapter 4). Paul preaches about one true Lord, Jesus Christ, and His Kingdom; yet he also takes advantage of the privilege of being a Roman citizen (see chapters 22-25). It should be noted that he is clever in playing his enemies against one another, too (also in those chapters). In a nation such as ours, with uneasy claims to a Christian heritage, a study of Acts could challenge us to rethink what it means to place our full allegiance with Jesus Christ, yet live peacefully and charitably in this society. Are there times and places to stand against American authority and what the government may ask of us, gladly bearing the consequences for the sake of Christ? Are there appropriate times to appeal to the advantages of American citizenship, for the sake of the Gospel? Paul addresses similar issues in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13, but the issue is played out in the Acts narrative in a unique way and in more depth.

One last theme that is unique to Acts is contextualization of the Gospel. In this NT narrative alone do we see the movement of the Gospel from culture to culture, the expression of church evolving as the message spreads. We have examples of sermons preached to different groups of people, to Jews in the early chapters and to Greeks later (chapter 17). As our culture changes, as postmodernism takes hold more fully in our communities, how can we contextualize the Gospel as the apostles did? What about our language and symbols need to change, so that people can hear and receive the Good News? Acts speaks to these issues very well.

Journal Entry

Today, I offer this journal entry from my current seminary class on the book of Acts. We are reading a theological commentary by Jaroslav Pelikan, published by Brazos Press. I am reflecting here on his entry entitled “Mary the Theotokos,” a theme he picks up from Luke’s first chapter of Acts. Luke makes a special note of the women who are gathered with the disciples, and especially he notes the presence of Mary. Pelikan offers, in his commentary, reflection on the Tradition of Mary, based upon the theological writings of the early Church Fathers. Below is my response.

——————————————————————————————————————————–

After reading this entry, I am shocked that this is the first I have heard of the comparison between Mary the Mother of Jesus and Eve (Pelikan 2005, p. 45). This strikes me as a very foundational piece of theology; one that could actually do much to correct the male domination of American evangelicalism. I may be overstating that a bit, but it clearly raises the role of the female in the Great Story to a new level. She is the God-bearer. There is no Messiah without her humble obedience. She is the vehicle of salvation, certainly not in the same way Jesus was and is. Nonetheless, her faithfulness to her call is essential in the salvation story. She gives birth to new life, thus she is the new mother of all who live; just as Eve was the first mother of humanity. Contrasting the choices and lives of these two women, examining the way God acts through them both to bring redemption—there is so much theological meat there—and it saddens me that most of our churches have been missing out on the treasure.

How do I see this as a corrective against male domination in American evangelicalism? I don’t know that I could go so far as to revere Mary with statues in front of church, or pray to her. I do, however, wonder what it would be like to hear her name in church as much as King David’s or Solomon’s or Paul’s or Peter’s. Granted, there is not nearly as much biblical material written about her. On the other hand, if we based a character’s air time in church on their significance to the Story, Mary would have to be right up there with David and Jesus.

In addition, there is another angle to Mary’s title of God-bearer, and that is the way the Church continues to carry on Mary’s role even now. We bear God in the world as we live in it, as we are Christ’s Body on earth. We often speak of the Church as Christ’s bride, and certainly that analogy is present in scripture. However, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to also draw this parallel from scripture as well—that the Church is now God-bearer. Our task is different than Mary’s, but no less a privilege and no less a responsibility. We are invited to answer the call with her words: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV). If she is not a model disciple, who is?

Going even further, the imagery of birth could be used so richly in our churches. The paradox of agony and joy, pain and relief, is a wonderful way to describe the life of a Christian. There is blood, sweat and tears, along with the beauty of being reborn. One needs great patience and perseverance in order to bring forth the life of Christ—what a perfect analogy for spiritual formation! While I am certain this would push the edges of orthodoxy for most evangelicals, I also believe that the image of God giving birth brings fullness to theology, if we truly believe that our God is beyond gender, and both male and female were created in His image. He gets His Hands dirty with us. He labors right along with us to redeem creation. He deals with sin, not by remaining apart from the damage, but by entering into it and absorbing the pain and agony.

—————————————————————————————————————–

What are you responses to this?  Have I opened a can of worms, once again? 🙂