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God interrupts

Disruption and innovation “go hand in hand,” Yamada tells colloquium

December 16, 2013

PRINCETON, N.J.

The Rev. Frank Yamada is no fan of “polarizing binaries.” They simply do not match his experience as a Japanese-American, raised in a nominally Buddhist home and converted to Christianity at age 19. And he doesn’t believe he’s alone.

“The differences between conservative/liberal, mainline/evangelical, Christian/Buddhist, Christian/non-Christian become more difficult to navigate cleanly when one thinks of the many intersecting complexities of 21st century North American religious experience,” Yamada ― president and professor of Hebrew Bible at McCormick Theological Seminary ― told the second Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology here Dec. 10.

Yamada argued for an eccelesiology (the doctrine of the nature and purpose of the church) focused on God’s interruptions ― “more precisely,” he said, “on the interplay between continuity and discontinuity in the narrative and life of the church ― on the recovering of tradition, which is held together at the same time with disruptions from the Holy Spirit.”

This tension between continuity and discontinuity Yamada called “hybridity.”  Hybridity, he said, “refuses oversimplified dichotomies of God/human, colonizer/colonized, black/white, male/female, or Asian/American, preferring to speak of the complicated and often conflicted space “in-between,” what theorists such as Homi Bhaba have called “the Third Space, where identity and meaning are constructed and negotiated in often messy ways.”

Yamada illustrated his argument for this hybridity by comparing Acts 2 and 10.

The Book of Acts purportedly recounts the continuation of the work of the risen Jesus as it is carried out through the apostles. This account, however, Yamada asserted, “is punctuated by two contradicting theses:

  1. “The author of the book makes a compelling case that the early church is, indeed, a continuation of God’s promises made to Israel, and, in this way, demonstrates God’s covenantal faithfulness to a new generation.”
  2. Contrary to that covenantal tradition ― in which “interactions with the nations or Gentiles were forbidden and represented a threat of impurity” ― “the Book of Acts … makes the incongruous case that the mission of God extends to the Gentiles, to the nations.”

Put another way, Yamada continued, “the gospel cannot be stopped…. Acts 2 recounts the Holy Spirit falling on the disciples in Jerusalem.” It culminates with the Holy Spirit “blowing through the house and filling all the disciples with the Holy Spirit” ― a scene reminiscent of the Tower of Babel story in Gen. 11.

In these connected stories, Yamada said, “God prefers diversity to unity, many cultures to ‘one language and the same words (Gen. 11:1).’” So, in Acts 10, the same spirit that fell on the disciples (continuity with the tradition) falls on the Gentiles (discontinuity), he said.

This point is reinforced in Acts 10, Yamada said, as it “recounts two visions, one given to Cornelius the Gentile centurion and the other to Peter, the apostle.” And just as Acts 2 and Gen. 11 are connected, so is Acts 10 and the Book of Jonah ― both Jonah and Peter receive a “discontinuous” word from God and both initially resist that word.

“The genius of the Book of Acts is, therefore, not simply in the way that the author draws a congruent narrative of salvation from Israel and the prophets to the early church and the apostles,” Yamada said, “but also found in the reorientation, I would argue a hybridization, of this Heilgeschicthte through the recovery of the discontinuous theme of God’s work among the nations ― a theme that disrupts the stream of tradition, especially as it relates to the composition and identity of the people of God.”

Of course the church prefers continuity to disruption, Yamada conceded. But “reclaiming the disruptive work of the Holy Spirit as found in Acts 10 as a way to claim the ongoing repentance of the church from idolatry, especially an overly rigid understanding of who is inside and outside among the faithful,” is essential to for the church, he said, “stressing instead ways in which the church is converted anew to the surprising mission of God.”

In an era where the church is striving to renew itself in new and more relevant ways, Yamada said, “It would be wise to recover both in scripture and understanding of the history of the church those moments where the movement of the spirit overturned the apple cart of our ecclesiological status quo in ways that, ironically, give life and vitality to those very traditions.”

Disruption and innovation, Yamada said, “go hand in hand.”

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