As you may know by now, the diocesan Big Read for 2018-2019 will be the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This is a fitting sequel to the Big Read we just concluded on Exodus, since Acts recapitulates Exodus in many ways. As Part 2 of Luke’s Gospel, Acts is the New Testament account of God’s continuing formation of a new people called to witness to God’s mercy.
In Exodus, this new people is formed out of the Hebrews who have escaped their slavery in Egypt. In their long wilderness journey, they learn how to trust God and to live out God’s insistence on care for family and stranger alike. In Acts, this people comes to include all humankind, without distinction.
This enlargement of the scope of God’s people is grounded in the teaching and ministry of Jesus, as these find vindication in his resurrection and ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Everyone is gathered in! This is how Acts is different from Exodus. Rather than the creation of a people set apart, there is an expansion into a people anyone can belong to.
Note an apparent contradiction here, however. 1 Peter is pretty clear that we are a people set apart (1 Peter 2:9). But what sets us apart (or should set us apart) is our very willingness to be turned inside out, to be totally open to the neighbors that surround us, and to welcome strangers – not by inviting them in, but by asking them to let us be their guests. In other words, we abandon our own turf in order to share a wider, common terrain with others. We are set apart to be totally not apart.
This may sound like a paradox, but it isn’t. Certainly, most human communities, from the smallest to the greatest, from families to nations, set themselves apart from others, defining themselves by those whom they exclude. But Acts tells the story of the early church as a community that is driven, cajoled and encouraged by the Holy Spirit to define itself by utter openness to anyone who embraces mercy as a way of life in imitation of Jesus. It’s not about being invited in but invited out.
This is what brings Acts back into the orbit of Exodus. Throughout Acts, the gathering of the whole world into the arms of Christ plays out as the scattering of the growing church. After the stoning of Stephen, the post-Pentecost converts move out in all directions, fleeing persecution but also welcoming opportunities to sweep new friends up into their scatteredness. This is a new exodus from in to out, from temple to street, from sanctuary to open ground.
This is what Acts is all about: the initial spread of the Gospel by ordinary people who gave up whatever they had to bring Christ to the world. Acts recounts this Christian exodus with robust humor, grandiloquent speeches, cloak-and-dagger plots and epic adventures. Paul preaches so long that a boy dozes and falls out of a high-story window, only to be healed by the long-winded preacher. Paul and his sidekick Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermès. Paul escapes from numerous attempts to kill him, only to end up as a prisoner of the emperor in Rome, and this only after sea storm and shipwreck.
This may be our link to the theme of this edition of Connections, which is about popular culture. Acts is best understood as a presentation of the church as a body embracing popular culture at every turn. The book persistently engages the popular themes and attitudes of the ancient Greco-Roman world, sometimes critiquing them, sometimes laughing at them, and sometimes identifying what is already holy in them. In so doing it not only opens us out as a church to what is all around us — turning us inside out, as it were — but challenges us to become good readers and hearers of the culture(s) which shape us.
After all, popular culture means the culture of the people. If we are to be the people of God, we must be a people first. That means being aware that we have a culture, for good or ill. We must look critically at the habits and tastes of all our communities through the lens of Christ’s teaching. At the same time, we must not seek to disconnect ourselves from what has shaped us. If each of us claims who we really are — race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, economic status, education, home — then we can move boldly into exodus, knowing who we are, and ready to be changed by who we meet.
This is what Martin Luther King meant when he talked about committing ourselves to the beloved community. By this he meant a community that is our “Yes!” to non-exclusive and (thus) expansive community worldwide. If that is popular culture, we should embrace it.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.