The Struggle to Imagine



Acts 21:26

26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.


Paul is on a path not dissimilar to Jesus our Lord. He is entering Jerusalem. While some Jews of the first Jesus-community wave palm branches and praise the Lord for the Spirit’s work among the Jews and even the Gentiles, other Jews have absorbed rumors that Paul was forsaking the faith handed down by Moses and the prophets; and even more damning, that he was influencing others to join in his apostasy. This apostasy included forsaking the Jewish cultural traditions that accompanied faith. It seems, however, that these Jewish believers – sincere followers of Christ with significant pull – were not part of the leadership team under the wise James.


Today there seems to have occurred an unholy inversion. The Western Church is more akin to this zealous faction than the leadership team of James. A gentile version of the gospel has been elevated to position that of Moses and we are zealous to drive out any apostasy. Willie Jennings in his commentary on writes, “We who live on the other side of Christian colonialism have watched the emergence of a soul-killing, people-destroying expansionism that forced peoples into a Christian sameness, an orthodoxy of body and dress, comportment and character that has numbed the minds of many and presented the faith as exquisite subjugation.”*


We do have to go far in Canadian history to see soul-killing, people-destroying gospel at work. One only has to look at the Indian Residential School system. One survivor of the Residential School at Tk’emlúps First Nation, Dennis Saddleman, wrote this poem:


“I hate you residential school, I hate you… You didn’t care how you ate up my native Culture … You didn’t care as long as you ate up my Indianness… You’re a monster / You dumped me in the toilet then / You flushed out my good nature my personalities... Dumped me without parental skills without life skills / Dumped me without any form of character... without individual talents without a hope for success”.

My work in the inner-city of Edmonton has made me confront this soul-killing subjugation and my own soul is scorched by the sight of my friends in constant suffering.


This expansionism is not the gospel of Christ. God’s intention from the beginning was to create and call a diverse people from all the nations of the earth. Jennings writes: “The fundamental difference between the Jerusalem church and our churches is that they struggled to imagine an expansion of Torah filled life into Gentile space that would alter Jewish space without loss of identity.” *


Today we are invited back into this struggle of imagination, an imagination which magnifies diversity rather than erases it. Paul embraced the struggle with humility and love. When the church asked Paul to partake in purifications rites of the Nazirite vow, Paul could have easily said, “because of Christ I am free. I no longer need to take vows or sacrifice animals. Christ is sufficient. He is the Lamb of God and the final sacrifice.”


Instead Paul listens to the church and understands their concern. Out of respect for the church and for his own Jewish culture, he follows through with the request of the church. Instead of asserting his rights as a free follower of Jesus, he gave up his rights and sacrificed his preferences and possessions for the sake of Christ and in order to love his neighbours.


In turn the Jewish church listened to the Gentile believers and the Spirit of Christ at work. Through the Council found in Acts 15, the Jewish church sacrificed their desire to make every believer like them, to make others believe and worship like them – they embraced the struggle. Jennings writes, “Like James and the elders we must see the Spirit who enters lives without destroying lives and joins with us, becoming one with us, while remaining the Spirit of God. We must see a Spirit that joins Jew and Gentile and joins peoples without destroying peoples, and yet the Spirit expands into our lives and becomes new in us, new every morning. The Spirit would draw us into that newness where peoples do not lose themselves but find themselves through the addition of others.”*


In Acts 21 we see intense listening: Paul listening to the concerns of the church and the church listening to the Spirit of God who was and is expanding the borders of the people called by Spirit of Christ. This kind of expansion redeems souls and embraces a diversity of people. The more diverse we are, the richer our theology and ecclesiology will be.


Today we are invited to embrace the struggle. We are invited to join others who have carried the cross of this struggle into the world – those like the Edmonton Native Healing Centre who embrace Indigenous cultural elements into the worship of the Creator’s Son, Jesus; those like my own church community who sent letters to Tk’emlúps First Nation without explicitly Christian language and imagery. The Spirit of Christ is expanding the borders of his people and the limits of our imagination. I am excited to see what newness appears from these receding boundaries.


O Spirit of Christ, open our minds and hearts and will to you and your expanding Kingdom.


*Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017), 150.

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