April 26, 2009
See also: [Year B Archive]
1 John 3:1-7
The selections from Luke and Acts reflect several aspects of a theology of history that pervades the two-volume work. In the gospel reading, the risen Jesus “opens the minds” of the disciples “to understand the scriptures,” indicating that both his death/ resurrection and the disciples’ mission of preaching forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations were prophesied in those writings (24:45-48). In the Acts passage, Peter’s speech in Solomon’s Portico, which follows the healing of a blind beggar, is one of a series of discourses in which Christian witnesses give voice to a specific understanding of God’s actions in history. When all the speeches are taken together, we get a detailed accounting of God’s plan (boule, sometimes translated as purpose or counsel; see Acts 2:23; 13:36; 20:27), which embraces all human history from the creation (Acts 17:24 ) to the day when Jesus returns to judge the world (Acts 10:42, 17:31). The turning point in this history of salvation is the resurrection, which inaugurates a new period in which the Christian proclamation extends from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8) to “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The period before the coming of the Messiah, in which God worked with Israel, is known as a time of “ignorance” (Acts 2:17, 17:30)—the time in which human beings, deprived of the fullness of truth, were not fully responsible for their actions. Now, however, following the life-death-resurrection of Jesus, that period is past; and human beings are expected to repent. As 3:17-19 indicates, there is a “second chance” for those who rejected Jesus, and the mission to the “ends of the earth” (by way of Rome) makes that opportunity for repentance available to all human beings.
The familiar biblical paradox of free will/determinism pervades Luke-Acts’ theology of history and is clearly evident in the lectionary readings. On the one hand, the course of history seems fully predetermined and the same may be said of Jesus’ fate (Luke 24:46-47; Acts 46:17). However, there is a subtle undercurrent of contingency in Peter’s indictment of his Israelite audience in Acts 3:13-15. He clearly considers those who put Jesus to death guilty of a crime, and the language in vv. 14-15 suggests that they acted in direct opposition to God’s will—even though, viewed with a wider lens, Jesus’ death and resurrection seem to have served God’s over-all plan for history.
Faced with this paradox, a process approach will value the undercurrent of contingency and find a less literal way of appreciating the theme of God’s predetermined plan for history. We need not think of Jesus’ death as in accordance with God’s eternal will, but we can, from a process perspective, make good sense of major aspects of Luke’s history-of-salvation. Although there is some sense in which all human beings stand before God and face basic decisions about life that are similar—whether to live for self or for the common good, how to treat one’s neighbors, whether to see life itself as blessing or curse, etc.—the contingencies of history make life in one time and place radically different from life in another time and place. This means that our possibilities are radically conditioned by our life-situations and that God therefore works differently as these situations vary. From some theological perspectives, the task of Christian mission is always to draw those who stand outside the biblical history of salvation into it by conversion. And, since the coming of Christ has signaled a basic turn in that history, it is also to seek the conversion of the Jewish people, who relate only to the earlier revelation. From broader perspectives, however—including process theology—we might conclude that because time and circumstance vary radically, God has ways of working in other historical streams that stand apart from our own. But this does not necessarily mean that the streams must forever remain separate. For in our own particular time in history we are witnessing as never before the mutual influence of different streams of tradition on one another. So we might imagine that just as God transformed an earlier revelation through the life-death-resurrection of Jesus, so we might expect in the future the creative transformation of all traditions in ways that we cannot imagine.
But what would such an understanding mean for Christian missions? We cannot know what it would mean in the distant future, but we can reflect on how it might affect our task in the present. Recognition that God is at work, in God’s own way, through traditions other than our own, in no way implies forfeiting the specific, distinctive aspects of the gospel message, other than those associated with a severe christological exclusivism. To be a Christian is in part to believe that God has been and is at work through the Hebrew-Jewish tradition, though the life and death of Jesus, and through the church. It is also to believe that the message of grace and demand that Jesus himself preached and that has become incarnate in the gospel proclamation does in fact bring human beings into right relationship with God—which is to say, fosters authentic human existence (salvation). None of this precludes cooperation with other traditions that foster values that make for the common good, learning from those traditions, or remaining open to however God might choose to use both our traditions and theirs in the future.
One of the threads that is deeply woven into the fabric of the Luke-Acts narrative is the preaching of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It is the message of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles in Acts. And this is a message that we can proclaim today, with twists peculiar to our own time. In the world of the New Testament, there was little chance of changing basic social structures. In our own time, however—although we certainly still face the destructive “principalities and power” in the form of soulless corporations and superficially democratic governments compromised by their dependence upon them—social activism has come of age. Thus, along with a message of repentance directed toward individuals, the church has the potential to issue a call to repentance for social sins on a broader scale. And one distinctive trait aspect of the theology of Luke-Acts can be useful in this task. Although the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is clearly connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection, this connection is not made in terms of a theology of atonement but rather in terms of God’s reversal of human injustice by raising from the dead the prophet-Messiah that human beings put to death. Thus in Acts 3:13-16, Peter declares that God has glorified Jesus even though those to whom he preaches rejected him. And the point is even clearer in Peter’s earlier speech at Pentecost: “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:23-24) When we de-literalize the language about God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge,” we can view the proclamation of the resurrection as a declaration of God’s action that overturns unjust human decisions. And we can thus affirm the unique power of the gospel message. A world in which the church proclaims the resurrection as God’s judgment against injustice, empowerment for a justice-oriented mission, and a sign of hope for the future is not the same world that existed before that proclamation. And if we believe this, then we may say that God’s plan is indeed still being worked out among us, that God is in fact opening up new possibilities for us as time and circumstance change. From a process perspective, God’s plan of salvation may be more open-ended than the author of Luke-Acts imagined; but to believe that God is at work in the world is to believe that there is indeed such a plan. And for this reason, we can preach the gospel not only in faith but also with hope. To believe in God as revealed in Christ is to believe that, no matter how hopeless our vision of a just and lasting peace might seem at any given historical moment, we are not alone in our struggle on behalf of the common good.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).