Isn’t Acts just about the founding of the church? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Willie James Jennings joins Pete and Jared to discuss how the Book of Acts reconstitutes what it means to be the people of God. Together they explore the following questions:
- What are three dynamics that set up what is happening in the Book of Acts?
- How does the story of the Ethiopian eunuch illustrate God’s desire for people to join together?
- What is the meaning of the phrase “ends of the earth” as it is found in Acts?
- What examples of conflict are found in the book of Acts?
- Why was it vital for the writer of Acts to employ the Old Testament?
- In what way does Acts speak of revolution?
- Why would the destruction of a nation be easier to tolerate than assimilation?
- How do we stay true to the context of scripture while also being true to our own context?
- According to Jennings, what does it mean for Christians in the West to be caught between empire and diaspora?
- What led to the joining of the Christian faith with an allure for political power?
- How can we read Acts in a new way?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Willie James Jennings you can share:
- “In Acts 2, we see the possibility of life together that’s not homogeneous, that’s not a one-way assimilation. The disciples are speaking multiple languages of peoples, and so that’s the difference that God has created. It’s the difference that God wants celebrated.” -Willie James Jennings
- “Throughout the Book of Acts, the one thing you know about the coming of the Spirit is somebody has been asked to do what they don’t want to do. And what is it that the Spirit wants you to do? It wants you to be with those who you prefer not to be with.” – Willie James Jennings
- “The Gentiles learn of David, Ruth, and Naomi; they learn of the stories and the stories become a part of them. And in turn, the people of Israel expand to see God’s world through the eyes of those very Gentiles that they imagined were nothing more than unclean.” – Willie James Jennings
- “Those of us who are Christian in this country, we’ve always been taught harmless history. We don’t know the story we’re inside of, and I think at heart, for Christians, this is where so many of our problems begin.” – Willie James Jennings
- “We have become very poor storytellers and very poor listeners to story. We’re inside of a Gospel story first, and that Gospel story has to do with us joining the story of another people. There are so many Christians who never got that memo, that they are inside Israel’s story.” – Willie James Jennings
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)
- Book: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging
- Book: The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Welcome, everybody to this episode of the podcast. Our topic today is “The Book of Acts and the Acts of the Spirit,” and our guest is-
Jared: Willie James Jennings, who is currently Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, but was at Duke for a long time-
Pete: A long time.
Jared: And has this book that we are going to be talking about, which is a commentary on the Book of Acts. So, who better to talk about a book than someone who’s written an entire-
Jared: Commentary on it? But also, has books called After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging and The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. So, I like, whenever we can talk to people- one of the things that drew me to Willie was this one foot in writing a commentary on a book of the Bible, clearly steeped in Biblical Studies and understanding the context and the history and yet one foot clearly in theology, a professor of systematic theology, and that’s a hard bridge to cross sometimes.
Pete: Yeah. I mean, sometimes people, they put up walls, so you’d never cross that. But I’ve always thought biblical scholars have to understand theological kinds of questions and theologians will do their work differently if they understand some of the issues with the biblical text. But Willie does both of those things and it’s fun to watch somebody put pieces together in a certain way and to draw an ancient book into a context in which- that’s just different than that ancient context, which is basically the history of Christianity. We’re always taking the ancient stuff and putting it into another time and place and he does that in his commentary on the Book of Acts.
Jared: So, if you are on your way to a family gathering and you’re nervous and tense, listen to this episode, where we talk about a possibility of a life together, and how it might be full of conflict.
Jared: And yet, it can also be full of belonging and love. So, you know, there’s your sermon-
Pete: That’s the plan, at least. Right?
Pete: That’s the plan.
Jared: If nothing else, maybe it’ll just distract you for an hour. All right, enjoy.
Willie: Throughout the Book of Acts, as I like to say, the one thing you know about the coming of the Spirit is somebody has been asked to do what they don’t want to do. Read each chapter of the Book of Acts and ask, “What is the Spirit of God doing in this chapter? What is God asking people to do in this chapter?” If we start with those two questions, I think you’ll start to read the Book of Acts in a new way.
Willie: I was raised in a very Christian community. I always say I was born and raised in the most theological town in America. I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, surrounded by churches, denominations, and Christian bookstores: Zondervan’s, Baker, Eerdmans and Kregels. And all these bookstores and all these Christians and all these churches and all this talk about God permeated the air and permeated my life. And so, it was natural for me to have questions that were already deep inside theological questions. And I did have questions that would- that’s what brought me to the study of theology in the Bible and Christianity, because I had so many questions based on the profound contradictions I was seeing all around me, people who were very committed to Christianity, very committed to the faith, through thinking their faith, but also very committed to really very problematic ways of being in the world, in terms of race, in terms of money, in terms of the community. I couldn’t reconcile that deep commitment to the faith and also deep commitment to ways that were clearly contradictory to the faith.
Pete: Yeah. Okay.
Jared: Well, there were so many things that we could talk to you about, because you’ve just written about so much, but we wanted to talk to you today about Acts. Can you give us some groundwork for the context of Acts before we maybe jump into a few specific scenarios and concepts?
Willie: Absolutely. Acts is an exciting book. For so many people throughout the history of the church, the Book of Acts has been that grounding book that says to us, “This is what God intends for us to be as church.” That is to say, the Book of Acts shows us the trajectory, the direction that God wants us to go in becoming and being and forming church. And so, it’s exciting in that regard, but it’s also exciting for the dynamic that it puts us in the middle of, it puts us in the middle of some incredibly important dynamics.
Dynamic number one – a people inside of empire. The Jewish people inside the realities and vicissitudes of the Roman Empire, and trying to survive, make sense and negotiate the overwhelming power of Rome, as it has reached around their world and deeply into their world. Then there’s the other dynamic – the dynamic of being diaspora, being of people who are in exile and spread out everywhere, people who have homes here and there, but no one place that they control as their own. And so, diaspora life where they are in a minority reality in so many places, in enclaves and enclosures that they are a people trying to survive, trying to hold on to who they are, and trying to continue to state who they are to themselves into the world. And then there’s the other dynamic – the dynamic of a God made known through Jesus, but now a God restless in the world through the Spirit, speaking through the followers of Jesus, guiding them, directing them into the new in ways that they were not prepared for. And so, it’s those three dynamics that set up what’s happening in the Book of Acts and continues to speak to us to this very moment.
Pete: Can we follow up on that last one, Willie, about God is now restless, I think, through the Spirit, you put that. That sounds, that really rings a bell to me and hits a good nerve. Could you flesh it out a little bit, what you mean by that?
Willie: Yes, absolutely. So in the Book of Acts, we see God making clear to God’s people, and making clear to those followers of Jesus, the followers of God’s Son, that now is a new moment, now is a new day, when Israel will expand what it understands to be the people of God, deeply toward and into the Gentiles and the Gentiles will come to see Israel, not just as another people, but a people calling to them to become a people. And it’s that work of the Spirit to join people together, who would not have imagined that they should be together that we find in the Book of Acts, the Spirit, doing this new thing of pushing and prodding, pulling, and cajoling people to life together.
Pete: So, the newness is, at least in part, the result that you’ve got peoples who might not necessarily have identified with each other as being like on the same team, so to speak. But now that’s exactly the purpose of this Gospel is to call, I mean to be specific, Jew and Gentile.
Pete: Together, right? Okay.
Willie: And the new team is a new humanity, we’ll find out later. But what’s new, is the possibility of them being together in ways they had not imagined. And coming deep into each other’s lives, not just coming next to each other shoulder to shoulder saying, “Hi, how are you?” “How are you?” and then parting as soon as possible, but the possibility of a life together, we see that from the very beginning of the Book of Acts, Acts 2 right? Where the followers of Jesus, when they ask for power in Acts 1, in Acts 2, God gives them the answer to that request for power. But it’s not power over people as they had imagined, that is imagining Israel finally able to get the boot of Rome off its neck and being able to rise up as a reinvigorated kingdom-
Pete: Which they say in chapter 1-
Willie: Right, was what they want.
Pete: You know, is the as the kingdom gonna be handed over to us now and get the Romans out of here pretty much.
Willie: Right, right. That’s what they want in chapter 1. And Jesus says, yes, you’re gonna get power. Yep, you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it. And then Act 2 comes, and it’s not power over people, it’s power for people. They wind up speaking. Now remember, none of them asked for this. None of them ask for this. They wind up speaking in the mother tongues of other peoples.
Now in Acts 2, those other peoples are already people who are looking to Israel, already a part of the diaspora, but they are different peoples and as different peoples they do represent not just Israel, but they represent the Gentile peoples out of which they’ve come. And here in Israel, here inside this new promise realized, they are speaking the mother tongues of those peoples.
And what’s so great about the word mother tongue was that it’s not just that they kind of learned formally or entered formally into the language of others, the Spirit brings them into the inner reality of the language, the way you speak when you’re at home with your family, with your mother, the intimate language that speaks connection, that speaks belonging. That’s what the disciples are speaking, they’re speaking the language that astounds those listening, “Where did they learn my language?” And then Peter says those famous words, “What you’re looking at is not what we have accomplished, it’s what God has done through Jesus.”
Jared: There seems to be, it’s striking me now as you’re talking about, maybe I hadn’t thought about it in just this way. But the context of Acts, the power of that seems to be this idea of difference. The idea not only of difference culturally, but then sort of this division between Jew and Gentile. And so, when we’re talking about the possibility of life together, there’s really this overcoming of maybe natural divisions or historical divisions. Can you say a little more about that as a context? Because I say this, because growing up, you know, we would have in my church of mostly homogeneous people who all looked alike and thought alike and talked to like, used Acts 2 as sort of the blueprint, but I think in some ways, it’s missing the gravitas of understanding the cultural reality.
Pete: It’s missing the whole blueprint.
Jared: Right. Yeah.
Willie: Yeah, I think you put your finger right on it, because in Acts 2, we see the possibility of life together that’s not homogeneous, that’s not a one-way assimilation. It’s the disciples are speaking the multiple languages of peoples, and so that it’s the difference that God has created. It’s the difference that God wants, accepted, it’s the difference that God wants celebrated. They are speaking these languages. And so, the possibility of a life together that not only accepts difference, but celebrates it, that loves it as much as God loves it because, again, it’s given to them from heaven, as it were. The language comes with the Spirit, the creating Spirit gives them the languages of others.
Pete: You know, just, while we’re on that, what popped in my mind was the Ethiopian eunuch.
Willie: Oh, yeah.
Pete: Can you can you touch on that a little bit and explain what’s happening there? And I think that’s really relevant to what you just said.
Willie: Absolutely. That story, in Acts 8 if I remember correctly, that story is so powerful, because here we have Philip being drawn, and is in fact, being pushed by the Spirit, to a place and to a person that Philip would not have, in the normal course of events, encounter. And what’s so great about that story, is that here on the wilderness road, as the text says, he’s told to go there by the Spirit on the wilderness road, or shall I say, told by an angel to go to the wilderness road. But then, when the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot goes by, it’s not an angel who says this to him, the Spirit says, “Run and join yourself to the chariot.” So, he runs to join themselves to the chariot, and he’s joining himself to someone who is at the very outer possibility of Jewish life and Jewish faithfulness to God – an Ethiopian, from what’s at that time would be known as the very ends of the earth; a eunuch, someone who was at the very boundaries of identity; and someone who, in that regard, is not imagined, as in any way, shape, or form central to the story of Israel. And here, God organizes aggressively, a moment of joining together. So, he climbs into the chariot, the conversation begins, and here, as I like to say, here is a beautiful moment in which we see the paradigm, the model if you will, for not only theological education, but what biblical study is about.
That is to join together at the site of difference to discuss the text of Scripture and to discern who is being talked about in this passage and then the connections are made. The passage he picks is a passage that already leans toward another crucial passage about the eunuch, where God says, the eunuch who is in God’s home is one who will be seen as essential to that home and no longer at the margins. And so, it’s a very powerful story of joining at the very edge of what’s imagined possible, that is a joining that brings difference right into the center of it.
Pete: You know, something that struck me as you were retelling that story is how the Ethiopian eunuch is from, you know, functionally speaking, the ends of the earth. And again, that’s how Acts begins, you know, you go from Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth, and it’s already happening. At that early point in the Book of Acts. It’s like, in other words, it’s not so much the ends of the earth haven’t been reached until missionaries go to the Antarctic or something like that, in the Book of Acts, the ends of the earth, is basically Rome and what Rome represents, but here also, it’s going far south, basically, it’s going outside of where you would normally expect a Jewish religion to have an impact.
Willie: Yeah. And think of the ends of the earth, not only as that which they’re going out to, but that which is coming into them. The ends of the earth is entering them. And in some ways, ends of the earth is, that’s a powerful phrase, because something is, something is starting to emerge that was unanticipated. The end of one vision and then the opening of another vision, the end of the vision of what Israel’s restoration would be and the opening of another vision of what that restoration would be. Not the end of Israel, but the end of a smaller vision of restoration.
Jared: With that I think maybe we should talk about the conflicts as well, because it sometimes, I think you know, we read Acts 2 and it seems like it’s all good and perfect, sort of. Let’s get back to sort of an Acts 2 vision of the church, but then as we keep going, this idea of overcoming and possibility of a life together is also- a life together is also a life of conflict because we can’t be in relationship with one another without that disagreements on the way things should go and how it should be run and who gets included and who doesn’t. And can you talk about conflict in Acts as well? Just as well, as you know, it’s running parallel alongside this vision, where things are being fulfilled in a quite beautiful way but also having this conflict going on at the same time?
Willie: Absolutely. It’s struggle from the beginning, it’s struggle right from the beginning, because Acts 2 means that what the disciples hoped in Acts 1 didn’t happen in the way they wanted. And in fact, throughout the Book of Acts, as I like to say, the one thing you know about the coming of the Spirit, is somebody has been asked to do what they don’t want to do.
Willie: That is the sign of the Spirits presence, you are going to be asked to do what you don’t want to do. And what is it that the Spirit wants you to do? Well, it wants you to be with those who you prefer not to be. And here we have to remember, diaspora has every reason not to be with those who are outside of Israel because they have done them harm and they often mean to do them harm. And if they’re not careful, they can simply wipe them away in terms of their story, their identity, their hopes and dreams by overwhelming them by the sheer numbers. So, throughout the Book of Acts, there is a right tension. And what is that right tension? The tension is Israel being afraid of losing itself in a sea of Gentiles and losing its identity and its calling and its responsibility to be faithful to the God of Israel. So, their pushback against the disciples, I mean, we often read the Pharisees and the Scribes and the religious rulers of Israel as, you know, always just being the bad guys. That is a very poor reading especially the Book of Acts because here they are trying to sustain faithfulness, surrounded by enemies, faithfulness surrounded by those who would utterly assimilate them away. And-
Pete: Which has been a threat for a long time.
Willie: Right. And so here comes-
Pete: That’s not new. This is hundreds of years-
Willie: Right. Here comes these disciples of this Prophet Jesus, who they all saw die.
And they’re saying, “No, He’s risen.” And and they’re thinking, “Oh my God, this?” And now, Gentiles are starting to become a part of this and then there comes one of their own, who, at the beginning, they thought that he was going to wipe out this threat. And all of a sudden, he becomes one who speaks in favor of this new way and he is welcoming Gentiles. And so, the threat now is even more real because one who has been among us, been a champion of us, is now a champion of this new way and undermining constantly, what we understand God to be about with us. And so, the tension is over a new that they cannot imagine would not mean, death, theological death, cultural death.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Willie: This is not- this is always the struggle of diaspora. To be in fear of a death-dealing assimilation that would destroy who you are. And so, whenever the disciples get beat up, whenever they get jailed, we can be upset about that. But we have to understand why that is happening. It’s not because they’re surrounded by people who simply want to be gangster, simply want to hurt them. It’s people who believe that they that they are a threat to the very survival of Israel, a threat-
Pete: And I wonder how many of us would be right there with, let’s call it mainstream Judaism, that’s probably not the best way to put it, but you know, like, ‘No, wait a minute. What about the traditions?’
Pete: What about our past? What about the land? What about, you know, making Israel great again, so to speak?
Willie: Right, right, right.
Pete: And getting your independence back? That is a very important point I think, you know, because you know, not to go down this side trail too far, but for my interest in hermeneutics and Second Temple Jewish interpretation, this is what makes so much sense of the way in which the writer of the Book of Acts employs the Old Testament because they have to tie, it’s imperative that they tie the newness, as a newness, but still very much tied to something old.
Willie: Absolutely. They have to show that this is a continuation of the faithfulness to the God of Israel, and even more importantly, that this is God’s doing.
Willie: This is not an insurgency that is imminent of human making. This is God doing this. And so, to argue in that way is a matter of life and death. But what’s also the case is that they are yet in Empire. And so, they also feel the pressure of being in Empire. This is why, at the very end of the Book of Acts, we have to understand why the Jews who came to Paul, when Paul was there under house arrest and why they, you know, after hearing what he had to say, they left because not only did they hear this talk, this fantastic talk about the Messiah found in this Jesus of Nazareth, but they are in Rome. And they’re like, do you understand what this language can- what can happen to us in Rome if you start talking about the ruler of the world is now with us? Do you understand that we are in Rome and Rome will hurt you for talking this way here in Rome!
Jared: That’s a great segue here, because you actually open your commentary on Acts with these sentences, which I thought was really helpful. “The Book of Acts speaks of revolution, we must never forget this.” But can you expound on- it sounds like you’re maybe going in that that trajectory with what you were just saying about this contrast with Empire? In what way does Acts speak of revolution? Because that’s a word I wouldn’t normally associate with Acts.
Willie: Yeah, it is the- I like to say it’s the revolution of the intimate. It’s the revolution of creating a life together that breaks boundary and border.
So, when we say Jew and Gentile, people tend to think a little too narrowly and monolithically, to say Jew and Gentile is to say multiple peoples being joined together across alliance and allegiance to create the new, that is the revolution, and that is what’s so frightening to so many people that my people’s story is taken up into the story of this God and other people’s story is taken up and our stories are woven together toward a new future. Those stories are not destroyed, they are redirected. Redirected toward life together. For some people, to have my people’s story redirected is even more offensive than having it destroyed –
Willie: Because what you’re trying to say is that the future of my people is now tied to the future of these folk and these folk and these folk over here, and together we’re forming a new future, and that I cannot tolerate. That is the revolution that I will fight to the death because you are suggesting a new determination. A new determination for me, a new determination for all who follow this Jesus, a new determination that brings us together, that means forever, that the will of my people, the will of any nation, has to now be made penultimate next to the ultimate calling of life together with the God of Israel. That is a problem.
Pete: Yeah. And isn’t it true that all nations think they’re ultimate?
Pete: I mean, I think that’s universal. I don’t think there’s a nation out there that says, you know, let’s say, the democratic form of government, we don’t say, “Let’s try this out for a few hundred years and see how it works.” It’s like, “This is better than anything else out there and we want to spread this gospel wherever we go,” so to speak.
Pete: So, it’s asking an awful lot to- what you said before really struck me about the destruction of a nation is easier to take than, let’s say, it’s assimilation. It’s having that story subsumed under another story because you can always think back of the days gone by and sing praises and odes to this past and hope one day for it to come back again, but when you’re assimilated, it’s, that just starts to go away, you know? Because you’re fine where you are and people, you know, people in Jesus’s day were quite happy assimilating with the Romans. Not all Jews were against it. Some were, like the Sadducees loved it, you know? They had control of the temples, so they were fine. But it is true, isn’t it? That assimilation is more threatening? Because then it’s a dilution of the tradition and it’s better to kill it entirely than to have it diluted. And to have your own story that was so unique now found to be redirected in a way that is utterly unexpected and surprising, and for that reason, unsettling.
Pete: Who wants that? Who wants that as their story? I can’t wait to get assimilated. You know? Nobody wants to think that way, but there you have it.
Willie: Well, and if we mean by assimilation the opening up of a story and it being redirected toward a new life together, then we’re talking about something different than what most people understood assimilation by.
Pete: Mmm, good point.
Willie: We don’t mean assimilation by eradication; we mean assimilation by sharing. And so, what does that mean? As I like to say, it means that the point is no longer that I know my story, that I know my people’s struggle, that I know my people’s hopes and dreams. The point is that you know my people’s story. You know my people’s hopes and dreams. You know my people’s joys and sadness and that you carry forward that memory, that truth in you, and I know yours. And then together, we weave them together so that the question is not eradication, the question is redirection.
The difficulty, of course, is that we stand in a long history in which assimilation has meant eradication. And so, for the very possibilities of a people who can thrive inside a new story of a people is beyond, for us, beyond what many of us can imagine. The difficulties that Christianity, and we’ve seen in the Book of Acts, that’s the direction we were intended to go. What do I mean by that?
That the Gentiles learn of the God of Israel, the Gentiles learn the story of Israel, the Gentiles learn to see themselves and understand themselves through the story of Israel without destroying Israel. And without, in a sense, losing themselves.
So, the Gentiles learn of David and they learn of Ruth and Naomi, they learn of the stories, that the stories become a part of them. And in turn, Israel expands, the people of Israel expand, to see now God’s world through the eyes of those very Gentiles that they imagined were nothing more than unclean. That’s what Acts 10 is about, right? Acts 10 is the disciples of Jesus, and in this case Peter, being asked to eat food that he, as a pious believing Jew would never touch, both by his religious discipline, but also by his aesthetic, his taste, that he would not want this. And God is saying, “No, this is now a part of you.”
And in those days, as I say in my commentary, in those days, you know, to understand an animal is to also understand a people. People identify with their animals. So, to eat the animal identified with a people is fundamentally what anyone reading this text or hearing this story would have understood, that this is the joining you’re talking about, to eat of the buffalo is to join the people of the buffalo, to eat of the salmon is to join the people of the salmon. And this is what God is saying, and to join them at the deepest reality of who they are. And your now invitation, you’re now claimed to say, I wish to be a part of you, and that is what’s being offered to Israel, a God that expands what it means to be faithful, right at the site of eating.
Jared: I think a lot of what you’re saying is really powerful, but before I can kind of go there in my mind, I think maybe taking a turn to ask what is the relationship? Because you straddle this tension well, between the Bible and theology, what’s in the text, where we read it carefully, we understand its context, and how we bring that to us today as Christians. So, how do we stay true to the context of Scripture, while also being true to our own context? How do we slip in and out of these contexts in a way that’s faithful, but also relevant? And I think it’s a question a lot of people wrestle with when the conclusions that they drew in their tradition no longer hold water. So, they go back to the context and they start to understand the history and all the richness of what you’re talking about, but then maybe they struggle with, okay, but how does that relate to us now, in a way that’s honoring that context?
Willie: Well, what we have always done is that we have these beautiful bridges between context and context. And the first bridge is our relationships with others and the ways in which those relationships open us, open our eyes to seeing the texts in more of its dimensions. And then there is the bridge of the the challenges we’re facing together and how we turn to the text to see if we can discern the ways the texts will help us see more deeply into those challenges. But then there is the bridge upon which those bridges exist and that is the Spirit of God, the Spirit guiding and directing us from context to context to see the ways in which God was working and discerning in that scene what God is wanting to do at this moment. That is, that’s the way we, in many ways, we’re able to work from context to context.
Pete: Yeah, so I mean, let’s sort of turn this a little bit here to the left or right, whichever way we want to go. But how does all this that we’re discussing here about the Book of Acts, in your opinion, how does this translate to today? How do we- what does it mean to bring this book from its context into our context?
Willie: We are yet, those of us who are Christian in the Western world, we are yet caught between Empire and diaspora and we can see it’s so powerfully today.
We are, those of us in the West, especially in this country, we are inside incredible Empire. I mean, you mentioned it earlier when you talked about democracy and our belief that democracy should be the way in the entire world understands itself. And I have no argument against democracy, but what we’ve always failed to see is what often comes along with it. What comes along with it, in our day and time, is a world full of weapons. And we are in the place that produces, disseminates, sells, and purchases more weapons than any other place on the planet. And to be in a place awash in weapons and distributing weapons means that we’re in a place that helps to make possible empire and empires.
But we are also in the midst of diaspora, as we think of Christians not only here but around the world, Christians who are caught in the ebb and flow of capital and violence and war. We are constantly on the move, and by we, I mean we Christians. And so, Christians who are caught in the vicissitudes of migration and immigration right now, Christians who are trying to make sense of their lives in exile and a Christianity that too often tries very hard to fit in Empire. So, these are the dynamics that are still with us.
But what’s also still with this is the dynamic of the Spirit trying to join us. And for us in the West, this joining is crucial, because it touches not only on how we act, but where we live. We’re in the midst of the most segregated world that we have ever seen. A world in which people are segregated geographically, segregated economically, increasingly segregated politically and socially. And so, the Spirit is always trying to break down those walls, break down those borders, and trying to create a people who think not in terms of their national allegiance, or even their allegiance to their peoples, but in the crucial work of creating a new people joined together, joined by the Spirit in an inseparable way, where our stories are being woven into a new story.
So, all the dynamics in the Book of Acts are yet with us. And the challenge, I think, for us at this moment, as with the Book of Acts, is to yield to the Spirit. This is the most difficult thing for Christians in the Western world, and I think everywhere. You know, I have always said that it isn’t- the issue for us is never trying to discern what God wants. That’s never been the issue. It’s not the issue in the Book of Acts! The issue is to stop resisting what God wants. Now, now we’re talking.
We start talking about resistance, and that resistance begins right at the spot of breaking down walls, right at the spot of overcoming our segregationist mentalities that teach us that separate but equal actually does make sense.
Pete: Hmm. Boy, this is a semi-loaded question. But I don’t mean it to be all that loaded, maybe a little loaded, maybe one bullet in the chamber, not six. But why? I mean, what has happened, that has led to this joining together of the Christian faith, such as we see in the Book of Acts, with this allure for political power? And I want to say, I think that goes for both sides. That’s not just one party does that, I think that’s part of the history of American politics. But I guess what I’m trying to say, I just- I don’t get it. You know? I don’t understand, really, why we can’t just read the same Bible and at least to come to some general conclusions that ruling power in empire is not really what we’re supposed to be doing. And yet, I keep seeing it and the older I get, the more alert I am to it. And I don’t know if you have any insights about that. Maybe we can fix this by next week or something –
Pete: At least, at least by the midterm elections. I don’t know.
Willie: Well, our political reality, in some ways is both complex and pretty straightforward. This country and those of us who are Christian in this country, we’ve always been taught harmless history, which means that we are not in the deepest history of this country and of the Western world. We don’t know the story we’re inside of, and I think at heart, for Christians, this is where so many of our problems begin. We have become very poor storytellers and very poor listeners to story.
So, we’re inside of a Gospel story first, and that Gospel story has to do with us joining the story of another people. And there are so many Christians who never got that memo, that they are inside Israel’s story, and to be inside, not by takeover, but we are inside by grace with the calling to join. And that joining means not just Jew and Gentile, but as a way of life to open ourselves to the lives of others. And that story, has to be then understood in relationship to the story of the Western world, in the story that grows out of the takeover of this land from its indigenous peoples, and a way of seeing life that ignores that takeover. And then imagines Gospel gift, providential work, inside the work of conquest. And so many Christians imagine from the beginning of conquest, God’s will.
And a lot of our political problems grow out of the inability to know and think through those two fundamental stories. And then there’s a third story, the racial story of a world shaped inside the racial condition, the creation of a world in whiteness and a world seen through racial category, racial consciousness, these stories have to be understood. And if they are, then we can turn to our particular moment of political strife with a better sense of what’s really being spoken when people speak across the liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic divides. And unfortunately, there’s still way too much shallow analysis about what we’re looking at, as though the whole world can be understood with just two sides.
Jared: That paints just a fascinating picture of how to engage with Acts for today and some of these dynamics that are at play in Acts and at play in our world. As we as we wrap up our time here, is there any maybe tips or strategies for people who want to read Acts in a new way? Maybe in this way of seeing these dynamics at play? Do you have any thoughts on how they can maybe pick up their Bibles again and read it in a different way?
Willie: The first thing I tell people to do, is to read each chapter of the Book of Acts and ask two basic questions. Question number one: what is the Spirit doing in this chapter? That’s the first question. And question number two: who is God asking to do something? And what is God asking them to do? Who was- what is God asking people to do in this chapter? Who is God asking them to join, as a word, to go be with? If we start with those two questions, I think you’ll start to read the Book of Acts in a new way.
Pete: They can also read your commentary.
Pete: You weren’t going to say that, but I’ll say it.
Willie: Yeah, that too. That too.
Jared: I love that. I love that it’s right there in the name, right? You said it, basically, what’s the Spirit of God doing? Who is God asking someone to do something? And what? It’s the Acts? Right? Look at the Acts.
Jared: And that’s just- yeah, it’s right there. And we- I think we sometimes skip over that, but I think that’s really valuable.
Willie: That’s it.
Jared: Well, thank you so much, Willie, for jumping on and again, with just all your insight and thoughts about the Book of Acts. It’s really, really great to have you.
Willie: Glad to be a part of this conversation.
Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
Pete: You say, like, short E’s like a short I?
Pete: I’m trying to think of a good example.
Jared: Oh, I – yeah. There’s a lot. There’s all kinds of things like, I had someone in school once. Her name was Lauren. Apparently, I would say “Lauren,” and she’d be like, “No, it’s Lauren.” I’m like, “That’s what I said, Lauren.” She’s like, “No, you’re not saying it right.” I’m like, “I do not hear that. Like I don’t even know the difference at all.”
Pete: I know.
Jared: It’s all right, I’m from Texas. I have a handicap.
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