The Spirit Speaking Through Experience
In some conservative circles the function of experience outside of Scripture in leading us to new insights is viewed with suspicion, and we are right to be cautious. After all, all of our experiences are subjective and individual, and we’ve seen some conclusions from experience turn out very poorly. However, the more I study Scripture, the more I see it as a collection of stories about how experiential encounters with God change both individuals and whole societies.
I’d like to walk through a few examples of this as seen in the story of the early church as described in the book of Acts.
The Spirit leading in Acts
As I have continued reading the Bible, I have become convinced that the story of our faith is one of constant tension between the God who calls us to love and inclusion, and our human desire to exclude and demonize.
From the beginning, we have always sought to claim God for “us” against “them”, only to be confronted by God breaking those boundaries. If we look carefully, we can see this happening throughout the story of Israel in the Tanakh and it becomes even clearer in the life and teachings of Jesus and his apostles. We then see this repeated over and over again in the centuries since Christ. It’s not something we should feel guilty about, after all we’re just part of the same story, but it is something to repent of—not to “feel sorry” about our actions, but to change our minds and move in a new direction.
In the book of Acts, as the community of Christ-followers begins to grow and develop their post-resurrection faith, we can see several examples of the Spirit leading people to include others against all prior understanding of their God and culture.
- Samaritans, and a practitioner of witchcraft (ch 8)
- The sexual minority, a eunuch, an Ethiopian (ch 8)
- The greatest persecutor and enemy of the church (ch 9)
- A paralytic Jew, traditionally seen as cursed by God (ch 9)
- A Roman centurion, both a foreigner and a member of the oppressing and occupying empire, one who had not converted to Judaism (ch 10)
Our stories here all start with a massive upheaval in the early faith community. Up until chapter 8 the young movement had been allowed to use the temple as an accepted sect of Judaism (it was a long time before they were seen as a separate religion). But the religious officials who had expected the teachings of Jesus to cease with his death became more and more opposed to the apostles’ teachings. This cumulated in the arrest and execution of Stephen, and the following persecution and scattering of the apostles which was led by a fanatical Pharisee named Saul.
Samaritans welcome the Gospel
As the church was forced out of Jerusalem, the Gospel began spreading to new areas. The first location described was Samaria, and the preacher was the Apostle Phillip.
Now, the Samaritans were more than just a neighboring tribe. To the Jews at the time they were sworn enemies and rival religionists, tracing their heritage back to the northern nation of Israel (sister nation to Judah). When the Assyrians conquered the northern nation of Israel in 740 BCE, they deported many of the residents and brought in outsiders to mix with the original Israelites. The northern tribes also had their own unique Mosaic traditions and places of worship, and there was conflict over which group was most faithful to Yahweh. Samaritans, who are still around today, insist that they alone have the correct pre-captivity understanding of God. They also were the ones threatening the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. Around the first century there were multipleNeedless to say, the two groups did not get along well.
If Phillip went out from Israel to preach to Samaritans today, he would be entering the West Bank as governed by the Palastinian Authority.
Here where a pious Jew would be most unlikely to expect to find converts, we read:
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
— Acts 8:5-8
The first foreign-field missionary converts are the detested Samaritans, who are apparently more eager for the Gospel than the Jews in Jerusalem. What a surprise!
A practitioner of witchcraft switches allegiance
One of these new converts was a magician named Simon. Over time he had developed a following as “Simon the Great”, and amazed many people with his skills. But under Philip’s preaching, this man and his followers became believers. It took him a while to begin understanding that the Gospel power was not something for commercial purposes, but his devotion appeared to be sincere and he likely had to find new employment, a dramatic commitment to this new faith.
Here was a practitioner of witchcraft, condemned to death in the Tanakh (and consistently interpreted this way through much of church history—officially until 1951 in England), being named as one of the first foreign followers of Christ!
Inclusion of a sexual minority in the family of God
In Acts 8 we see the early church beginning to face persecution from a man named Saul, and the apostles are forced to move outward from Jerusalem. The apostle Phillip is directed by a message from an angel to set out on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters a man who is outside of the parameters of acceptance into God’s people, according to Phillip’s Judaic upbringing.
This man is a sexual minority, a eunuch, who is also an Ethiopian. Males were commonly made into eunuchs for particular government roles to keep their loyalty undivided with a family. It’s likely that this royal treasurer shared this story. He had come on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though according to the Law he was prevented from being a part of worship due to his physical body as described in the Tanakh:
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
— Deuteronomy 23:1
The blessings promised to a faithful Israel were described as the possession of land and the promise of descendants, consistent with ancient Near East cultural values. Yet being a eunuch meant that you had no descendants, and therefore no one to pass on your land to. You were quite literally cut off from the blessing of God.
This very powerful individual, treasurer to the queen, made a pilgrimage in an upper class chariot all the way to Jerusalem, only to be excluded from worship. If we were to map out an on-foot route today using online tools, we’d be looking at 1,582 miles as the bird flies but 2,733 miles by land! That’s likely a two-month long journey, riding in a dusty, noisy, bone-jarring chariot.
Note that we don’t know exactly how this person is a eunuch, since Jesus referred to those who are born, made, and choose to be eunuchs as all under that label. But it’s likely given the man’s position that he has been made a eunuch surgically.
Phillip is compelled by the Spirit to approach the eunuch’s chariot, and as he does so he hears him reading:
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
— Isaiah 53:7-8 (NRSV)
Phillip asks him if he understands the passage, and the reply is “How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?” The eunuch urges Phillip to join him and explain what he is reading. He asks: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34)
Why might this eunuch be so interested in this particular passage from the Prophets?
Maybe the language of shearing and being cut off would resonate with him. The passage speaks of one who has his future taken away. The ESV translates it as one with no generation to carry on his legacy as was so important at that time (and largely still today), in a perversion of justice. Maybe he would identify and relate to this imagery in a deep way, and wonder who the prophet could possibly be referring to in such validating language: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;” (Isaiah 53:12)
Phillip takes this cue to relay the gospel of Jesus. Here we see a man who was rejected by his people, stripped and humiliated, cut and wounded with scars that do not fade, one without physical descendants.
As they go along, the eunuch spots some water and asks:
“Look, here is water!
What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
— Acts 8:36
Can you imagine that question being asked in a high, trembling, insecure voice? As from one who is desperate to be included, yet knows that tradition and Scripture are against him as both a foreigner and a eunuch? He had just returned from Jerusalem where he would have been denied entrance into worship. As an Ethiopian he would have been limited to the Courts of the Gentiles, yet as a eunuch even that would have been denied to him. After a two-month journey of devotion, he would have been forced to stare into the temple in longing, but feeling rejected by the God he was pursuing.
Author and pastor Brian McLaren, from whom I first heard this application, paraphrases the man’s question:
“I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no physical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in his kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish Scriptures?”
— Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity” p 183
Phillip’s reaction in the text is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity. As the horses are pulled to a stop in swirling dust and creaking of wood and leather, he answers not a word, but immediately leads the eunuch into the water to be baptized in equality before God.
They emerge dripping into a Spirit-filled new reality. Phillip is whisked away to the seashore by the Spirit of the Lord while the eunuch boards his chariot for home, rejoicing in this amazing and unexpected inclusion into the family of God.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”
— Isaiah 56:3-5
A mystic vision for an analytical scholar
Remember, we’re discussing the role of experience in our faith. Many conservatives are suspicious of any experiential elements in Christianity, preferring to focus only on the Bible. Yet that Bible is full of descriptions of how experiences with the Spirit change everything. In fact, you could say that our entire religion is founded on the idea that encounters with God should send us back to relearn what we always thought we knew. This story is one of the biggest examples.
I imagine most people reading this are roughly familiar with the Saul/Paul story. If you’re not, read up—it’s amazing! Let’s take a quick look at the relevent bits here:
- The first we hear of Saul, he’s holding coats at Stephen’s illegal, mob-driven, and brutal execution. The text says he approved of the killing.
- He immediately becomes the biggest persecutor of the early church, leading the charge to arrest and jail the followers of this crazy new Judaic sect following what he saw as a dead and disgraced Jewish messiah-figure.
- As the Apostles flee Jerusalem for what they hope will be safety elsewhere, Saul requests authority from the high priest to arrest followers of the Way in Syria.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Saul is approaching the end of his journey after two weeks on foot, with the city in sight.
Suddenly, “a light from heaven flashed around him!” He fell to the ground while a voice began speaking: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He immediately recognizes this as a vision from God, but is confused because here he has been thinking that his mission has been one approved by God. He inquires as to the identity of this one he is persecuting, and is told that it is Jesus.
Can you imagine how world-shifting this would be for Saul? Here all of his scholarship and reliance on Scripture has led him to be certain of the rightness of his cause against the false teacher Jesus. Everything he has been taught since birth is about the One True God. Now he is faced with the revelation of Jesus co-existing with God. This, a man who he will later acknowledge is supposed to be especially cursed by God because of the form of his death (Galatians 3:13), was the very representation of God on earth!
Saul of course goes on to be renamed Paul and become the church’s most prominent missionary and the source of much of our New Testament. All through an encounter with the Spirit which forced him into a fourteen-year-long (Galatians 2:1) re-evaluation of his religious tradition and Scripture, re-reading everything in light of this new revelation.
Peter’s dream changes the whole religion
During this time Peter has become the lead apostle in the church which is still distributed around the country after Saul’s campaign had spread them out. He is living in Joppa on the coast.
Just a two-day journey up the coast lives a devout God-worshipping Roman Centurion. As a “God-fearer”, he is not fully part of God’s people as defined in Judaism, but he is held in high honor by the Jewish community. Once day this man, Cornelius, receives his own vision from an angel telling him to send for Peter to come and visit.
While Cornelius’s men are still on the way, Peter goes up on the roof to pray. He is very hungry, and while waiting for his food he falls into a trance. He dreams of a large sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of food which he is forbidden as a Jew to eat. He hears a voice which he recognizes as the Lord’s, urging him to eat this food, and he refuses because he has “never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” He cannot get over his cultural and traditional upbringing to obey a direct command from God! The voice declares that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
When Peter wakes up, he is instructed by the Spirit to go with Cornelius’s men when they arrive. Off he goes, to find that Cornelius has not only gathered his entire household around, but invited his relatives and close friends.
Now, to enter the house of even a righteous Gentile like this was to be made unclean as a Jew. However, Peter’s new confidence from his dream makes him declare:
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?”
— Acts 10:28-29
When he hears about Cornelius’s vision, he begins to preach the gospel, starting with an amazing sentence for a follower of Judaism to utter:
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
— Acts 10:34-35
What happens next is shocking even to Peter: as he is still speaking, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word!” He insists on immediate baptism, declaring:
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
— Acts 10:47
It’s hard for us Christians, two millennia removed from Peter’s context, to fully grasp how big of a change this was. Gentiles, accepted by the Spirit and by an apostle without circumcision or other Jewish rites! This changed everything—as we see in Peter’s fellow apostles initial reaction when they heard the news.
Peter called to account
This is all concluded in a meeting of the apostles where Peter is called to justify his non-Judaic behavior in baptizing non-Jews into the church. This may be the first heresy trial recorded in church history! It is certainly not a minor event. For his contemporaries, it seemed like Peter had just abandoned his faith and encouraged very ungodly behavior.
Peter did not go into theological arguments, nor did he pull up Scriptures to support his point. Instead, he told a personal story. By the description of his vision and then his experience of the Spirit coming upon the Gentiles before their baptism, they not only accept this account but begin rejoicing, saying “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance [turning/change] that leads to life.”
In fact, it was only in Antioch, where Gentiles were first included, that this little group of believers began to be called Christians (an insult originally, calling them “little Christs”). Now the story wasn’t over at this point, as we see in Paul’s letters his continual struggle to get the church to keep expanding their idea of who is in and out, and just how few rules they’re expected to enforce. But the trajectory is clear: God is moving his people toward greater inclusion.
As we’ve seen, the Spirit led the members of the early church, those called themselves the Followers of the Way, far beyond their traditional understandings and interpretations of their Scriptures.
Professor and psychologist Richard Beck describes this section of Acts on his “Experimental Theology” blog as such:
“It is almost as though the writer is answering a repeated question that might be framed as, “What about the So-and-So’s? Do they get in?” And each time the answer is Yes. Samaritans? Yes. What about practitioners of Witchcraft? Yep. Those whose bodies are sexually non-normative? Yes, them too.
And also, former Persecutors of the church. And finally, the crescendo to full inclusion of Gentiles, sealed by Peter’s statements in 11:15-17 (“who was I to oppose God”?).”
This level of inclusion was very uncomfortable for the church. They struggled at various points with how to implement the Law and practices they still saw as valued in their Bibles, yet saw the Spirit leading in a new way.
In Paul’s reflection on one of the pivotal meetings of a council, he insisted in very strong language (“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”) that God would have no extra restrictions placed on these believers. In the same epistle, the Letter to the Galatians, he went on to write:
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:1-2, 28
Here we have Paul confronting all of his societies divisions: race/religion, economic status and freedom, and gender distinctions. He declares that these boxes which were so important to culture at the time, and in our time as well, have no value before God because in Christ we are all one.
It is through experience that the Spirit can lead us today to see God in places that our tradition and our Scripture would have never led us to expect it. As Jesus said to his followers near the end of his time with them,
“When the Spirit of truth comes,
he will guide you into all the truth;
for he will not speak on his own,
but will speak whatever he hears,
and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
— John 16:13
The question is, will we be willing to listen and prayerfully discern if the Spirit has something new to say to the church?