Thursday 1 September 2022

Surprised by the Spirit

And God, who knows the human heart,
testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit,
just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith
he has made no distinction between them and us.
—Acts 15:8-9 (NRSV)

Discerning the new ways that God’s redemptive Spirit is moving in our world today can be a messy, risky business. Our hearts and guts—the wellsprings of our desire for compassion, restoration, and justice—may pull us one way, and everything we have been taught to believe about what scripture says may pull us in another.

In Acts 15 we see our Messiah’s early followers in a similar quandary. The traditional interpretation of their scriptures convinces many of them that, to be counted among Jesus’s followers, it is necessary for everyone, including Gentiles, “to be circumcised and ordered to keep the laws of Moses” (vs. 5). Other leaders disagree, believing they have discerned a new way that the Spirit is moving outside of the people God originally chose to bear witness to the shalom way.

What to do? One way they could have gone was to apply, simply and directly, what centuries of religious tradition had told them their scriptures demanded. It is tempting to treat scripture this way, as a kind of algorithm through which one might run any controversial situation or disagreement, counting on it to produce a clear-cut answer that will not require us to engage in the difficult yet necessary task of discerning whether God’s Spirit might be doing something new in our midst. Thankfully, that is not the way the apostles eventually choose, opting instead for the latter, more challenging path.

When the apostles and elders gather to work through their disagreement, Peter stands up before them and testifies to his experience of bringing the good news to the Gentiles. Through this experience, Peter has become convinced that, outside of strictly keeping the law, the gift of God’s Spirit has still somehow cleansed these people’s hearts and enabled them to become a blessing to their communities. After Peter speaks, “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened” as Paul and Barnabas proceed to tell of “all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (vs. 12).

In his speech, Peter describes God with an intriguing adjective: “heart-knowing” (kardiognostes). Because we trust and follow such a “heart-knowing” God, we are called to become heart-knowers ourselves. What does that require? Perhaps the first step, to which the story itself alludes, is to keep silence and listen. Heart-knowing, it seems, requires sitting down and tarrying with people long enough to hear and feel the stories of their hearts. It takes intimacy, trust, and a vulnerability that must not be abused. Only when we sit and break bread with these ‘outsiders’ will we be able to perceive the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, and to trust it when we see it.

Did Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, then, simply ignore scripture when they found it to be inconvenient for their purposes? Hardly. To the contrary, I would suggest that their ability to see the Spirit working in a new way is born out of their spiritual practice of allowing scripture to read them. This deep immersion in scripture, as opened to them through the life and teaching of Jesus Messiah, shapes in them an imagination capable of recognizing God’s new thing when they come across it. Their utmost concern during this assembly, then, is to discern how this new spiritual movement might best remain faithful to the heart-knowing God revealed in scripture, the God whose Spirit allows them to perceive new signs of God’s coming Kingdom in the lives of once strange, unfamiliar, and even despised or dreaded others.

Let us strive to be as faithful as these early leaders of our Messiah’s church, friends! May God give us the strength and wisdom to keep silence and listen when we don’t have all the answers, or perhaps especially when we think we do have all the answers. In this way, let us allow our heart-knowing Maker to cultivate in us an imagination sensitive enough to notice and celebrate all the new things and people that, perhaps to our surprise, serve God’s ancient way of shalom!

Ron Kuipers