April 09, 2010

Speaking Out

by Mark Ryan
Our readings for this week show both the irrepressible quality of the good news about what God has done for Israel in Jesus Christ (Acts 5) and why that is so—that is the divine origin of the irrepressibility (John 20:19-31).

To begin with the scene in Acts 5:27, the text asks us to imagine a dramatic conflict where the revelation of God comes crashing up against the conventions—ideologies, really—that hold societies in place. “Did you not hear our orders?” asks the High Priest, with the implied further query, “don’t you know it is we who are responsible for common sense and good order around Jerusalem?”  That those representing ideology and good sense are the leaders of the Israel ought to trouble all of us who claim that our Christianity is central to our identity. Religious ideology here is more pointedly opposing itself to God’s plan than any mere secular kind. Perhaps we can imagine another form of conversation more common today with equally satanic results: “C’mon, you guys are good Christians who love the Church. Do you really think it’s appropriate to cause such a stir?” If Peter was somehow the vehicle of Satan in earlier text (Mark 8), here his reply is as frank as piercing in its truth: “We must obey God rather than men.” Perhaps unlike his rebuke of Jesus in Mark for failing to conform to his expectations for a messiah king, when he talks here it is clear that his speech has the character of witness. In fact, he seems to recognize that it is not his talk merely but that very spirit God breathed onto them.

This act of speaking out of witness, and the revolutionary political implications it carries reminds me of how the politics of liberalism has made a more restrained, even coerced speech, its end.  However noble intentions, philosophers like Jurgen Habermas have sought to find the “transcendental conditions” of our practices of arguing in order to show us the rules that govern our talk. On the one hand, this is better than some accounts of the grounds of human ethics and politics for it avoids the solipsistic self of some earlier accounts. However, one notes in these traditions a great desire to place limits on speech, and especially what can be said “reasonably.” In the end, they fall in love with, well, conventionalisms. It should have been no surprise that such an account of speaking should have led a leading philosopher like John Rawls, at least in his early work, to suggest that religious persons had to domesticate their speech by translating it according to strict standards before entering the political conversation.

How different is the Logos of God in the New Testament and the speech of those chosen to continue its work by speaking! One recalls earlier attempts to silence God’s Word, such as the occasion of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If you put a cork in one outlet it pops up in another, perhaps the political version of wac-a-mole.

Now, as our Trinitarian theology hopes to make clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s speech foremost and not our own. But the crazy thing is that we are called somehow to take part in speaking God’s Word. “We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him.” What could it mean to be called, as members of the Church, to take part in God’s speaking of the Gospel of Christ? To answer this, it is a great resource that Peter’s refusal to stop speaking out comes in the same chapter of Acts that gives us an extraordinarily vivid depiction of what Gerhard Lohfink calls the vita apostolica, the living-and-being together of the disciples. As Lohfink notes, the newness of this community represented in the way they newly become completely dependent on and responsible for one another is an integral part of Easter’s reality. The complete dependence of this community on the Holy Spirit for its identity, its life, is what the text seeks to highlight for us when it tells us of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. “Why,” Peter asks Sapphira, “did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (Acts 5:9)

If it is only in the light of God’s own Spirit in us that we can explain the honesty and courage that accompany the speech of the disciples, we must also acknowledge that their revolutionary speech had a home in a revolutionary polity, the community whose source is Jesus’ breathing out of his Spirit. Perhaps when our own speech as Christians becomes halting and hesitant, we should remind ourselves that we need a speech therapist. Our texts suggest that only the life of the ekklesia can play speech therapist when we want to re-learn how to utter God’s logos after him. 

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