In this scene in the Council of Jerusalem, I notice that when listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, it is not just one person who is heard but many voices reflecting a variety of perspectives. Paul and Barnabas, who are seen by the early Christians as pushing the boundaries of how the faith ought to be shared; Simon Peter, one of the first of Jesus’ disciples; and James, the leader of the most conservative wing of the early church. Each listen to each other and share their perspective.
In many ways this account is probably an idealized description of what actually occurred, as other writings in the New Testament and the early church suggest even after this important council debate continued to rage among how churches should react to these Gentiles coming to faith in Christ and the God of Israel without benefit of the law of Moses. As an ideal, though, Luke’s account in Acts shows us a helpful, mature model of discernment of God’s will in our churches and communities which we can strive for even if we know, just as in the earliest church, we will often fall short.
mend world 2The model is the model of allowing the many voices impacted by decisions in the life of the community to be heard. Too often in the church it is a few voices – the voice of the pastor or leader, or of a few prominent members or deacons – which dominate. Too often in our communities it is only the officials, the wealthy business owners, or the primarily white straight male voices that are heard. When this happens we miss the full picture on what is happening.
I remember some years ago hearing someone tell a Jewish parable about where truth was. Truth they said was like a many sided gem that has been shattered, its shining pieces spread throughout the whole world. Each person carries a piece of that gem which they can be tempted based on its shimmering beauty to think is the big-t “truth” that all must follow. In reality though the full picture comes only in bringing all the shards together, because only then do we get the full picture. And although we cannot this side of the veil get every piece together, especially when many jealously guard their shimmering sliver of truth, as much as we can bring each piece together, the clearer a picture we will get.
I think that the voice of God in our world is like this. It is only as we begin to really listen to and hear as many voices at the table as possible, not with an ear to judge or argue against another, but a true heart to understand and receive that of God which each persons’ experience and perspective brings to light that we can really begin to hear God rightly.
This reminder is I believe what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he critiqued narrow-minded approaches to religion and politics, advocating seeing and living out of a recognition of “the many-sidedness of truth”. Truth is not only one-sided but both beautiful and true because it is as multi-faceted as a diamond, drawing on the experience of all touched by the truth which we seek.
I am challenged by this to make sure instead of simply pushing for my beliefs about what is right to truly hear another’s experience and perspective, accepting them for where they are and it for what they see to be true. I do not think this means I need to abandon my experience and perspective, but instead learn to see God in theirs and my own listening for the way God is speaking to and with us both.
I often wonder how Christianity would have been different if instead of burning the so-called heretics on the stake as early Christians had been burned on the stake, we had listened for that of truth they carried without abandoning our black sacred heart of jesusown. I’ve wondered what if instead of silencing women, medieval Christianity had continued to listen to their voices as the earliest church and as Jesus had. I’ve wondered too when Christian missionaries came to the Americas and elsewhere if instead of teaching people to abandon their cultures they had also listened to what of God was in those cultures and already existing faiths while still telling their story as Christians how different our faith and world would be. I think there would have been less of a long dark age in the middle ages, there would have been fewer times of oppression, we would have been more careful with the earth, and quicker to abandon heterosexist and racist interpretations of our faith.
Now to me it seems like people are beginning to hear the Spirit’s long whispered cry, which has echoed through every land and time in which faith has blossomed, calling us to see each person as a bearer of Spirit, each life as sacred, and each story as worth hearing. I feel the people of God are slowly opening up to this perspective we’ve always needed which would have saved us so much trouble long ago.
I am challenged to not just do lip service to this perspective but to truly hear the stories, perspectives of people very different than me. To let their experience of life shape my own perspective, while being true to who I am.
How have you heard this call? What have you learned from it?
Let us continue on this journey together,
Your progressive redneck preacher,