I recently revisited one of my favorite theological writers quite by accident: my daughter was taking a nap, and my son was playing with some neighborhood kids, so I had a chance to sit down and read around a little, but the books I was reading at the moment were in the car, and Mary had the car. So I reached for the bookshelf in our living room and pulled off a collection of essays by Walter Brueggemann about Elijah and Elisha. My parents and in-laws, when they buy presents for my birthdays and for other gift-giving occasions, more often than not go to my Amazon wish list to get me books, and being the busy bloke that I am, many books, several of them by Brueggemann, remain in my “I need to read that some day” collection. I dusted off the first fifteen pages or so before my daughter woke up, and I was reminded of what I like so much about Brueggemann, namely that he pays attention to the forms of Biblical texts, drawing theological insights from those forms’ relationships and critiquing theological and political systems from that standpoint. Elijah in particular he sees as having powers to criticize not only the monarchical dynasty that he opposes but to stand as critical-by-analogy of a range of kingdoms stretching from the Neo-Babylonians to the Hasmoneans to the Romans, when the New Testament picks up on some of the moves of the old prophets.
Today’s Acts reading reminds me of that sort of theology: every student in a New Testament Introduction class could tell you that the early Christians were no friends of the violent nationalist movements of the day, and my own contention in the face of those who would read Roman soldiers as simply “soldiers” (thus gainsaying the critiques of those who would see the nonviolent character of New Testament teachings) is that Jesus would rather praise and even serve those who are his natural political enemies, those who desecrate the most holy city by their very presence, than join in “supporting the troops” and perpetuating a war that many in his day saw as the very calling of Israel.
As the apostles continue Jesus’ work, that strange attitude towards Jerusalem continues in today’s reading. The Sanhedrin’s accusation couldn’t be clearer: the apostles of Jesus are filling Jerusalem with a teaching that would blame the holy for the grandest offense against holiness, destroying the Son of God, the figure for whom the city waited so that it could return to its glory. And Peter’s response will characterize generations of martyrs’ tales: we cannot let you pursue this partial good, a continuation of the power structures that currently hold primacy in the city. Instead, like Elijah in days of old and like Jesus in their own adventures, these prophets of God name sin and guilt openly and loudly, calling those who would turn loose of the way things are to grab hold of what God really is after. In other words, no historical moment is without its contradictions, and with the power of the God who was faithful to Abraham and remains faithful to those who are faithful to God, people can seize the moment, this moment, as one in which real political option is possible. Faced with a choice that seems to be faithfulness or survival but not both, the faithful can always choose God’s way, confident that the eschaton will bear out for those who stayed loyal.
Although Providence is easy to see in hindsight, I still indulge myself on occasion, wondering what might have happened had Jerusalem, in the wake of the crucifixion and in the days when those sent by Jesus were still in the streets, had exhibited as penitent a heart as did the wicked city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. And even though I know that such things did not come to pass, still I wonder whether the folks to whom I preach will become, in the eyes of those generations who come after us, another instance of the city of sackcloth or another iteration of the city that silences prophets.
May God help us all.