Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects in understanding the message of the Bible is the chronology of when it was written. It may seem such a simple thing to recognize the earliest writings of the New Testament were written not by the 12 disciples of Jesus, nor by one or more of his followers, but by someone who had never meet Jesus in the flesh. I am referring of course to the apostle Paul.
That may not seem important to some but what it means is that the first person to pen what has now become Holy Scripture based is authority on an experience of Jesus after his death. It is true that he had contact with those who had been with Jesus during his ministry, but Paul only every claims that it was this encounter that drew him into being a Jesus follower not the arguments of the 12 with 11, disciples.
This was for Paul an inner experience, an encounter in what can only be described as a mystical experience. The great revelation here is that this kind of inner experience is available to us today and it is the foundation of Christian faith as a movement that will impact the world in which we live.
Experience and Institution:
When I was about 13 years of age I fell in love with the church. A brief encounter with the church I was born into and then the draw of young people and particularly through those of the opposite sex God lead me into the Baptist church but I have made that public confession before. Perhaps one advantage the Baptist Church had over the Anglican was that it was expected that you would have an experience and encounter with God in the form of Jesus. Not please dont miss understand me, I am sure if I had dug deeper that would have been true of the Anglicans as well. But there was an overt encouragement to internalize what one was experiencing through the hymns, sermons prayers and discussions. It was I suppose the elevation of experience over institution. Some which I suspect makes most institutions fearful. But in the present era and in the first century of Christian faith that was what it was all about. It is the triumph of the personal over power:
They brought the disciples in had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us."
These are not the Roman authorities but the religious leaders of the day. Remember these followers of Jesus, John, Peter and James are not Christians they have not started a new religion, they are Jews and under the authority of the Jews leaders. Nevertheless something had unshackled them from the institutional religion into which they were born. I recall reading many years ago and I have searched for the quote and have yet to find it. Malcolm Muggeridge once said, I think in a sermon:
I found myself in the bottom of a dark well, shacked by the desires of the will; manacled by the yearnings of the flesh; I looked up and for the first time in my life I saw what St Paul had described as the glorious liberty of the children of God.
That experience moved Muggeridge from atheism to Christian faith and ironically into the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. I dont know what one does with that. There is often a move in later life from the dynamic energy of experience and movement into the arms of institution.
But not yet for this fledging community, they were still hot with the desire to propagate what had changed their lives and propelled them into this new and unexpected world.
But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Changing the Language we use Today
Of course the disciples were laying do the strongest challenge they could to the religious authorities We must obey God rather than any human authority. What does that mean to obey God and not human authority? Well first it means that there is an inner voice of truth and authenticity that can be heard and listened to. It has to do in a contemporary world with discernment. But it also recognizes that there is an "inner teacher" in each of us that seeks to be heard and can be at odds with the outer voice of authority. My mentor the American Quaker says it like this:
The teacher within is not the voice of conscience but of identity and integrity. It speaks not of what ought to be, but of what is real for us, of what is true. It says things like, "This is what fits you and this is what doesn't." This is who you are and this is who you are not." "This is what gives you life and this is what kills your spirit" The teacher within stands guard at the gate of selfhood, warding off whatever insults our integrity and welcoming whatever affirms it. The voice of the inward teacher reminds me of my potentials and limits as I negotiate the force field of my life.
That is the voice of God that gives us courage to stand against the authorities outside ourselves that would turn us and twist us in direction we know are not life giving. I think thats what the living presence of Jesus gave these disciples. Not so much something outside of themselves, but it unshackled their access to God who was deep within them.
We do use different language today and thats Ok, but the experience is similar. Peter ends with the words to those who have religious power over him:
And we have been changed by these things, and by the Spirit of the life and message of Jesus whom God has given to those who listen and follow him.
The Inner Life:
I have been reading two books simultaneously. Do others do that? I know that there the rule is never start another book until you have finished the one you began . Who made up that rule anyway? Ive enjoyed reading as difficult as it is Thomas Mertons last book (a book that he never finished) titled The Inner Experience, and in between those chapters, the biography of Carl Jung titled, The Wounded Healer. As one could image there are remarkable similarities between the two books. Merton belonged to a ridged religious order and Jung a psychiatrist often shunned by his colleagues for his need to explore the depths of the human experience and psyche. Both say in their own voice that the "secret" of the full life is to obey the inner voice of God and not the constructed authority of humanity.
Friends that is a very dangerous and radical thing to do. I had several very worthwhile conversations with those who left the service last Sunday. Easter Day should be a highlight in the Christian year. After my talk about Elsa Brändström I had one conversation where I recalled the story of a village, I think in Austria that hid 15 or 20 Jews during the Second World War. Through fear of the Nazi authorities no other village in the region did the same thing; but this village did. After the war they became somewhat of a curiously. "Why did you put yourself at such danger?" The journalists who came after the war would ask. The answer was always the same, "Our pastor said for many years that we were to love everyone and so when these people came we showed them love and cared for them." Thats probably heart over head.
The cultivated inner life has a power that outer authority can never access. And thank God for that because it is what keeps our life and world progressing forward and not collapsing in to external obedientism.