Thursday, June 29, 2006

Acts 11:1–18

This wonderful passage is appointed for Morning Prayer today, the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It gives a very nice description of how the church successfully comes to recognize an innovation in practice. We have not here just “oh, an innovation happened,” but a nice step-by-step description of the process.

First, the backstory is that Peter has not been keeping the kosher laws. In chapter 10 we hear of this, that Peter has been called by Cornelius, a Roman military officer and a devout godfearing man—but not a Jew. Cornelius has been told by an angel to send for Peter. Meanwhile, Peter has the vision which he relates again in Acts 11:4–10, and he accepts Cornelius’ invitation, he preaches to his household, the Holy Spirit falls on them all, and Peter baptizes them. He then stays with them “for several days.”

The innovation starts with the initiative of God, speaking through an angel to the pagan Cornelius and the apostle Peter. But God’s initiative is expressed mystically, individually. There is no corporate revelation of anything; there is nothing visible in either vision to anyone but Cornelius and Peter. There is merely their private revelation, a vision, which told each of them to do something quite unprecedented. Peter does not test this revelation against the scriptures, he does not consult with the other apostles.

We must not conclude from this that anyone who receives a bolt from the blue is always right. That is not the message. But we should conclude that there is no necessity in the order of things to consult any of scripture, tradition, or reason—for all of these would have counseled against Peter’s innovation—and certainly there is no necessity to consult with the rest of the church. Both Peter and Paul, the subject of today’s feast, insisted that they pursued the Gospel as they believed they had been commanded, without consulting anyone, and without needing the agreement of other leaders in the church, who, in each case, constituted the majority party and were insisting on a clearly articulated position, based unquestionably on the most solid foundations of both scripture and tradition.

Thus far chapter ten. But today’s reading is chapter eleven. Today’s reading is not about whether one should innovate or on what terms, but about what the proper course is to investigate an innovation; this is about how the rest of the church should go about evaluating what has happened.

First off, verses one through three. Notice that there was a recrimination from the traditionalists. They criticized Peter, and ask him point blank, why have you done what the whole church agrees must not be done? Why have you violated both scripture and tradition? Do you not know that your actions will bring disrepute upon the church? However, the recrimination is expressed as a question. It is a good question and a fair question. But it is not a declaration that the other apostles are now out of communion with Peter. There is no deputation to Peter’s friends to tell them not to listen to him anymore. But there is a question.

Next, verses four through ten. Peter explains the special revelation he has received. He does not expect this alone to carry the weight, but it is extremely important. He stresses that what has happened was not his own initiative, but was from God. They presumably do not believe him. They will, later, but they do not insist that Peter must first have proved his case to them before taking this unprecedented step.

Then comes verses eleven through fifteen. Peter accepts the invitation from Cornelius. He does something entirely unprecedented. He finds that God has already been at work with Cornelius. But again, this is a private revelation. He does not insist upon or need proof; there is no statement here that Cornelius somehow convinced Peter that his own vision was genuine. It is just that Cornelius says, “God has told me to ask for you.”

Now we have the crucial moment, verses sixteen through seventeen. Peter offers a theological conclusion. The conclusion is not based upon the visions that either he or Cornelius had, but instead upon the effect of his preaching upon Cornelius and his household. Cornelius believes, and God pours out the Holy Spirit upon them. We are not told what this was, but it is clearly public. It is not just a private revelation, as were the two visions that started the ball rolling. Acts 10:45 reports that “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded.” They went along for the ride, relucant, nervous, not sure. Unlike Peter, they had had no vision. Peter was not astounded that the Holy Spirit was poured out, but these others were.

Now the new innovation is accepted in the church. Verse eighteen reports first that the questioners were silenced. And they praised God, they were genuinely happy that the old rule had been overthrown, that people were being included in the church who had previously been excluded.

Finally, after this, the remainder of the chapter, verses nineteen through thirty, describes the foundation of the church in Antioch. There had already been some christian activity in Antioch, but exclusively among Jews. The new innovation is put in place, however, missionaries are sent to the gentiles in Antioch, and the church in Antioch is founded. This is, it should be noted, the first gentile church.

From this, we can distill the following procedure for innovations and their possible eventual reception in the church:

  1. Individuals, both within and without the church, based on their own private experiences of God, are led to violate existing norms. They may be doing so without any consultation or approval from established authorities.

  2. The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the new effort. The sign of the Holy Spirit is not some sort of conformity to existing practice, but is instead some sort of publicly visible grace. We might think of communities of joy and growth, of feeding the poor, of fruitful prayer.

  3. The rest of the church, nervous and upset by the innovation, asks for an explanation. They do not insist that approval had to be granted in advance. If the innovation is right, then it does not matter that they were not consulted; if the innovation is wrong, it would not matter if they had been.

  4. The private experiences of God which led to the innovation are explained.

  5. The experiences of violating existing practice are related, signs are described of God’s activity preceding the innovation, activity which occured outside the church.

  6. The gifts poured out by the Holy Spirit are described.

  7. Now, for the very first time a public theological rationale for the innovation is given. Crucial reliance is placed not on scripture, tradition, or reason. No explanation is given about how to interpret the scriptures which prohibited the innovation. Reliance is instead placed upon the visible gift of the Spirit.

  8. The church responds in joy and thankgsiving, genuinely pleased that the innovation has overthrown what had been previously understood to be the bounds of God’s grace.

  9. The church’s missionary apparatus swings into action, not to block the innovation or argue against it, but to spread it as soon as possible, as widely as possible.

Comparison of these steps with the process outlined in the Windsor Report as normative is left as an exercise to the reader.

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