By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School classes, youth groups, Wesley Foundation groups, or local networks. Begin by reading the correct chapter in Acts and then the post below altogether. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens at Bill@figtreerevolution.com and any new insights you gain so that we can share with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
hen I read the first chapter in Acts I am reminded how often we reach the wrong conclusions simply because we ask the wrong questions. Shortly before Jesus ascends back into heaven he spends time with the disciples and reminds them of his teachings about the Kingdom of God. Jesus had repeatedly taught them throughout his ministry that God's Kingdom was not bound by the rigid barriers we insist on; barriers the disciples had been taught were keeping them safe and righteous. Jesus exemplified the barrier-breaking power of God's Kingdom as he spent much of his time with people accused of sexual sins, he made non-Jews examples of faithfulness, he healed the servants of his oppressors, and he regularly rebuked religious leaders who had the fancy titles, but had no genuine authority.
Then, in what has to be the worst last-question-before-a-dramatic-exit ever; after the disciples get a 40 day tutorial from the risen Christ, the Messiah of the World, they ask Jesus if this was the time when God would restore the "Kingdom to Israel." Jesus had just reminded them of the universality of his Kingdom and their thoughts remained fixated on international prestige. Further, knowing that once the kingdom is restored to Israel - once Jesus "makes Israel great again" - they would likely be in line to claim senior positions in the new government. The actions of the disciples show us that nationalism is just a collective form of selfishness and self-indulgence. For those who follow Christ, nationalism is idolatry.
But Jesus does not castigate the disciples, nor does he refute the political nature of the disciples' claim for citizenship in a new Kingdom rivaling Roman rule. Jesus' Kingdom is indeed political in nature. Instead, he lovingly redirects them back to the promise of the movement of the Holy Spirit: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
I think it is appropriate here to say briefly that although I have read Acts as a book about the work of the Apostles, I think we should look at the central character of the book as the Holy Spirit. Thus, this is not centrally about the actions of the disciples, but about the movement of the Spirit in building up the Body of Christ to engage in the mission of God. This shift in our focus locates the primary player in this story not with the mixed-intentions and often bungling and awkward attempts at faithfulness by the disciples (though there is much to learn from them as well!), but rather, we fix our gaze upon the vitality and power of the movement of the Holy Spirit who raised up new leaders and news ways for the disciples to connect with one another for the purpose of transforming the world.
The disciples' question shows us how asking the wrong questions can bring us to an entirely different end result from what God desires. The disciples want to know about their national greatness and their individual advancement. Jesus wants to recruit them to join the mission of transforming the world as witness of the coming of the Kingdom.
So, many things depend on what kinds of questions we ask.
I keep wondering what would the United Methodist Church do if we quit asking the questions we are asking. Instead of asking, "How do we stay together?" or "How can we ensure all people are given the honor and right to serve openly as God created them to be?" (or from the conservative side, "How can we ensure people believe all of the correct doctrines and interpret the Bible in the same way?"), perhaps we should ask, "What is God doing?" and "Where is God moving?" The first questions place ourselves and the institutional structures we have built at the center of our focus and the latter questions place the work of the Spirit at the center.
When we ask these latter questions we join in the transformation of the world (something United Methodists should resonate with), but the central player is the movement of the Holy Spirit and not ourselves, or our pension plans, or our healthcare, or our structural fiefdoms, or our big, shiny status positions in an institution that has long stopped caring about transformation and exists now for the sole purpose of existing.
Now, I know some people like to talk about how we should focus more on God and the mission of the church as a way to avoid the heated debates of being an inclusive church. The mission becomes an excuse to get away from dealing with hard questions and real disagreements. I used to promote this. But no longer.
If we are to ask where God is moving and what God is doing and if we truly remember the barrier-breaking nature of the Kingdom that Jesus reminded his disciples of during their 40 day tutorial, then any church responding faithfully to the movement of God's Spirit will not waste another minute fighting to keep people yearning to serve faithfully from actually serving faithfully. Let us remember that the birth of the church in Acts is, in part, a judgment on the lack of leadership by the religious leaders in Jesus' time. The religious leaders during Jesus' time were so focused on maintaining their positions in the institutions and structures they had built through a legalistic obsession with the law that they missed the very intent of the law - to love God and to love their neighbor. This was at the very center of Jesus' frequent and passionate rebukes of the current leadership.
Acts is the powerful narrative of how the Holy Spirit raises up new leaders and new networks for them to connect in how they will transform the world.
Acts 1 holds that same powerful lesson for us today.
What is God doing? Where is God moving? These questions don't just take us away from the fighting, these questions place us where God desires us to be: pursuing the Kingdom of God relentlessly, leaving behind the old institutional structures that bind our imaginations, repress new leaders, stifle creative energy, and exclude so many gifted people from leading. God is moving.
Asking these questions is dangerous because once we get even the slightest discernment of what God is doing and where God is moving then we will want to follow that movement - be a part of it in some way - and we will care absolutely nothing about institutional loyalty. That will be in sharp contrast to those, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time, whose very existence relies on institutional loyalty. Make no mistake, there is no one in the institution who really wants to us to genuinely ask these questions (no matter the rhetoric). Because when we do, when we make the movement of the Holy Spirit the central force of our lives individually and especially collectively, the old wineskins of old, tired, worn out institutions will never be able to withhold the powerful new wine of the Holy Spirit poured into them.
It is indeed time for new wineskins. And our purpose for transforming the world for Christ will be more vital and powerful than we ever dreamed.
1) What is God doing in the world today? Where is God moving?
2) Is your local asking these questions? Why or why not? What can you do to make these questions more central to what you are doing as a local church?
3) Is your conference or denomination as a whole asking these questions? Are they central to who you are? Why or why not?