Thursday, May 12, 2005

Moving off-center

Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home. -- Sigmund Freud
I found Nate Adams' motivating article, "Acts 1:8: What One Church Can Do", which is a reprint of an article in Baptist Press, and an encouragement to take an Acts 1:8 challenge. Adams makes an interesting interpretive move, and it is one that innumerable others -- including myself -- have made in interpreting the reference to "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth" metaphorically. So he talks about having plans for "my church's ends of the earth," for "my church's Samaria," for "my church's Judea," and for "my church's Jerusalem." He assigns analogical meanings to each of these places and regions; Samaria is “a close-by place that we rarely visit,” "Judea can be seen as the surrounding state, region or province," and "the Jerusalem mission field is the community where we live, work, shop, play and go to school."

The interpretation works from a model in which "I" and "my church" (as if "I" can actually own a church) are at the center of a number of concentric rings. It feels nice to be at the center. I am already at the center of all of my perceptions and observations, and without moving an inch all seems right with the world. I might make temporary excursions to nearby or far-away places to do some good, knowing that I can keep coming back to the familiar center. It is a comfortable and comforting perspective on the text.

On the other hand, as Freud said, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." When Jesus told his followers to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, he might have actually meant the city of Jerusalem. Judea and Samaria might actually mean simply the territories of Judea and Samaria. The original apostles were Galileans who already had traveled with Jesus through Judea and Samaria to be in Jerusalem. They had not gone home to Galilee, but had stayed in Jerusalem in obedience to a command from the risen Christ (Acts 1:4). The Jerusalem mission field for the first apostles was not the community where they lived, worked, shopped, played and went to school; it was a big city from which some of them would have gone home a whole lot sooner if Christ had not commanded them to stay. If Acts 1:8 describes a sequence for mission, it might be a markedly different one from the popular sequence of concentric rings around "me" and my familiar places.

Acts 1:8 shows the program for the historical narrative Luke is about to tell, describing the apostolic witness in specific geographic locations, beginning in Jerusalem and ending with Paul living in Rome preaching boldly and freely. Even Rome was not "the ends of the earth," but merely a stopping point along the way toward the conclusion of an as-yet unfinished story. Paul's ultimate ministry in Rome is offered as a fulfillment of prophecy and as evidence of the divine guidance and protection of the early Church.

A literal and narrative reading of Acts 1:8 would require me to recognize that the place that I consider my home and center is actually already far from the starting point of the post-Easter mission of the church. When the first apostles were sent to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth, they did not even know about the existence of North America, or that there would be a region called western Pennsylvania. The mere suggestion that such places existed at such distance from Jerusalem might qualify as a reference to "the ends of the earth." If there is today a faithful worshiping community of Jesus's friends here in the center of Tarentum, it is because over the centuries faithful witnesses have travelled carrying a treasure of good news far and wide. The followers of Jesus are still in motion today. And more personally, I the reader, where I am, far from the starting point, am already in motion, already travelling through a mission field toward the ends of the earth where Christ intends to use me. Its good to be off-center, to be reminded that "I" am part of a story for which I/me/mine are not the last words, or even the first.

Make no mistake, Adams' described goal of a universal and genuinely worldwide mission is correct, and Adams is absolutely right in encouraging Christians to recognize the place where they live as one of the mission fields in which they are sent to bear witness. But the conventional metaphor he uses is one which obscures the larger scope of the salvation history that has gone before. A literal and narrative reading of Acts 1:8 would require the reader to recognize a different center, a different starting point, and might even be the source of a clearer vision of the mission into which one is sent. It might be helpful for North American Christians to read the Bible from a perspective that tells us we are already off-center.

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