Apollos in Ephesus knew only of John’s baptism. It was only until Aquila and Priscilla studied the scriptures with him that he understood Christ’s role in providing salvation. Paul encountered another group of pious believers at Ephesus who did not understand the significance of spiritual regeneration. They had only been baptized unto repentance according to John the Baptizer’s proclamations. It was Paul who elucidated the object of John’s message, Jesus Christ, and thereafter they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Following this experience Paul laid his hands on them and they received the Holy Ghost, speaking with tongues and prophesying. The Holy Spirit, whom they previously had little or no knowledge of, became utterly real to them through these ecstatic manifestations that occurred. The disciples at Ephesus through these spiritual experiences became spiritually vibrant and alive, and the basic knowledge of salvation that they previously adhered to took on a fuller and more complete meaning. Their epistemological certainty regarding the Spirit’s power, now imprinted on their whole being, was shared by all those who in later years resisted Caesar’s demands for total allegiance. Realizing that the laws of the polis had been superceded by an even greater reality, the baptism of the Holy Spirit burned away the pretenses of divinity demonstrated by the ruling authorities, thus paving the way for the Christian martyrs who resisted the Roman emperors’ claims to lordship.
Today, speaking in tongues and prophecy are more apt to be equated with personal piety than political resistance. This too represents an incomplete understanding of Christ’s ministry and mission. Like the disciples at Ephesus who exhibited partial knowledge of salvation, many churches have not politically resisted evil and injustice because they have a partial understanding of the Christian faith, believing that these subversive activities lie beyond the ken and duties of the church and do not concern the saving of one’s soul. Like the disciples needed to be filled with the Spirit of God, the church needs to be filled with God’s spirit to develop a deeper concern for the plight of those in society who have been trampled upon by sinful systems and institutions.
It is not by accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of extensive prayer and scripture study. His insights regarding of the cost of discipleship were informed by an epistemological confidence that eluded him during his early academic career and it only reached this level because of his time spent in worship with God. His active ecumenical role in enlisting the help of other churches to resist Hitler’s oppressive policies continued on the basis of his realization that Christ’s salvation is greater than the forces of evil, and that even death could not conquer the Spirit of God that dwelled within him.
Edith Stein, the Catholic Jew who was sent to her death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz was one of Husserl’s most trusted assistants, and her knowledge of phenomenology was attested to by many of her contemporaries. However, she realized that this academic knowledge was insufficient to fulfill the longing of her heart. It was her encounter with the writings of Teresa of Avila that led her to exclaim, “This is the truth.” Thereafter, she spent hours in the chapel praying, and she entered a convent and devoted her life to seeking God. Her resistance to Hitler’s vituperation against the Jews by requesting a papal encyclical regarding the matter and her willingness to die as a fellow sufferer with the people of God could only have arisen from her hours spent being filled with the Spirit of God. She was certain that the resistance that could lead to her death was inspired by a power greater than death.
The question for the church now becomes, have we resisted since we’ve believed? If we have not heard of any resistance being necessary, we need only revisit the lives of Bonhoeffer, Stein, and many others who could not remain silent while injustice and repression stifled the freedom of so many. Wherever injustice exists, the church exists to take a stand against it. The church need look no further than environmental issues, racism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled, or any other number of issues to begin.
Political resistance begins with the faithful practice of truth-telling. It is always non-violent and it is always sacrificial. The particular shape that it takes is given to the seeking community by the Holy Spirit. For the Dutch Catholic church, the reading of a condemnation of Hitler’s destructive practices against the Jews from their pulpits was the act of political resistance that led to Stein’s death and the demise of many other Catholic Jews. From this we observe that even truth-telling threatens the very viability of sinful institutions.
By allowing the hands of Christ to be laid upon it once again, the church can begin to speak with a new tongue regarding its vocation to manifest the love of Christ in the world. The church does not have to be confused regarding its role within a pluralistic, rapidly changing, and increasingly complex society. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the Ephesus believers exists to guide and lead each congregation into fulfilling its divine role. The partial knowledge of their vocation that so many clergy and laypeople demonstrate must be filled and perfected by an epistemological certainty that sees the reign of Christ as the only true and lasting political reality. And if the church is called to suffer for its allegiance to righteousness, then it will show the world that its knowledge of salvation has become complete.
Aaron Howard is a second year PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University and a Fund for Theological Education Doctoral Fellow. He is also an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ.
This post is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.