Sunday, October 17, 2010

A More Authentic Experience? -- Allowing Experience to Change Your Worldview

In the book of Acts, the Apostle Peter finds himself presented with a vision while on the roof of one Simon the Tanner in Joppa. Though presumably a kosher Jew, Peter is shown a vision of unkosher animals and asked three times, "Rise, Peter; kill, and eat," to which he replies thrice, "Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." On the heels of this vision a group of pious gentiles arrive asking Peter to go with him to home of Cornelius, a gentile god-fearer and a Roman centurion.

The Apostle Peter states, "Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation…" and so expresses that Torah holiness creates an ethnic segregation intended to prevent the domestic and table intermingling of Jew and non-Jew. The Apostle, despite his biblical scruples, enters the home of Cornelius and lays out the early Christian kerygma of Jesus's death and resurrection. To the Apostle's surprise, the text states, "…the Holy Spirit fell on them which heard the word." Relaying the surprise of Peter and the Jewish Christian men who had joined him, the text states, "And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost."

Why were they astonished? The text seeks to establish the Jewish pedigree of the Apostle and the Jewish Christians who joined them. Knowing that covenantal participation and fellowship with God was contingent on circumcision and Torah observance, they did not expect God to bestow a seal of approval on a group of gentiles. Note the Apostle Paul's description of the Torah perspective on non-Jews:

Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Yet, despite the Torah preclusion of the non-Jew, the book of Acts presents God reaching out and expressing acceptance of non-Jews. Peter and his Jewish companions witness the sealing of gentiles through the "gift of the Holy Spirit." Peter's experience hence becomes the basis for his theology. From this singular experience, Peter discards his acceptance of biblical (the Hebrew Bible) boundary lines. He allows his experience to be an authority over the Bible and so reformulates his theology such that he forgoes with biblical boundary lines which before had defined the boundaries of who was in and who was out of the community and the covenants of God.

Paradigmatic?

Christian fundamentalists today, including Evangelicals, are quick to assert boundary lines so boldly defined christocentrically around one's dogmatic affirmations of Jesus. If one believes in Jesus as the Son of God, second Person of the Triune godhead, one's Personal Savior, etc., then one is saved. Gays, Muslims, Jews, and a myriad of others are not included in the Christian fundamentalist circle. "The Bible tells me so…" the fundamentalist will parrot ad naseum, "We must maintain biblical orthodoxy."

But, what if the Acts 10 is meant to be paradigmatic? What if it is meant to teach the Christian that experience is to hold sway? The Apostle Peter allowed his experience, an experience that crashed through biblical lines of exclusion, to change his theology and worldview? What if the Christian experience with those outside her circle is meant to change, yes change and alter, her worldview? What if, by excluding and demonizing the outsider, the fundamentalist Christian is failing to understand the limits of human potential and violating the biblical paradigm expressed with the Apostle Peter? If so, then the Christian should come to know and understand that the experience of the those outside her boundary lines: the Muslim, the Jew, the gay, the atheist, etc. are meant to change how she thinks, to extend her boundary lines.

The Christian who denies her experience the opportunity to trump the Bible is not following the example of the Apostle Peter. She is being unbiblical.

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