We have a welcome exposure to the Acts of the Apostles in the weeks after Easter and then they disappear from the lectionary for another year, like an aged uncle invited for Christmas dinner and then given a lift back home. But it deserves to be more frequently read at main services. It contains the history of the early church, the Apostolic Age, and carries telling messages for the church today.
Although Acts and Luke’s gospel are anonymous, ancient church tradition attributed them to the man who appears in the letter to Philemon as Paul’s ‘fellow worker’ and is called ‘the beloved physician’ in the letter to the Colossians. I have problems with both these relationships – the Paul that Luke describes is a completely different character from the Paul who reveals himself in his letters and it seems unlikely Luke could have known Paul at close quarters and then created such an inconsistent view of him. And given the number of miraculous cures in both the gospel and the Acts, Luke appears to be the most diffident doctor in the history of medicine. The only men and women who are ever cured achieve their recovery by divine intervention. Even the most self-effacing doctor takes occasional credit for making someone better.
Whoever the author was, he had a sense of structure that is a unifying feature of the two books. Luke begins the gospel with a global perspective, dating the birth of Jesus to the reign of the Roman emperor. Jesus’s ministry moves from Galilee through Samaria and Judea to Jerusalem where he’s crucified. Acts moves in the opposite direction, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria then travelling through Asia Minor, coming to an end in Rome. The author could tell a good story, balancing the emphasis between two very unlike characters, Peter and Paul, each in his own way full of the strong leadership qualities that complement each other and establish the Jesus movement, appealing to Gentile and Jew. Acts is mainly the story of their success in achieving this. Paul preached that the Jesus message was rooted in the Jewish heritage. Peter, particularly after his vision of the huge blanket full of meat, was a missionary to the Gentiles. He heard the voice of Jesus telling his followers to bear witness to him………….even in the farthest corners of the earth.
Besides ths strong narrative featuring the two towering, heroic figures of Peter and Paul, there are other, stylistic devices that show the writer to be a conscious chronicler of events rather than an eye witness jotting things down. For example, at intervals he makes summaries, or progress reports to indicate that before the action moves to a new place he’ll spell out what was achieved in the place Peter or Paul is leaving. Chapter 6 – in Jerusalem: The word of God spread more and more widely. The number of believers in Jerusalem was increasing rapidly and very many of the priests adhered to the faith. Or chapter 9: The church in Judea, Galilee and Samaria was left in peace to build up its strength and live in fear of the Lord . Encouraged by the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers. It ends in Rome: Chapter 28. Paul stayed for 2 full years at his own expense with a welcome for all who came to him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught the facts about the lord Jesus Christ openly and without hindrance. These summaries are always upbeat. The news is good.
The picture of the early church we get from Acts is of groups of men and women committed to each other and to their mission. [In each other’s houses,] they met constantly to hear the apostles teach, to share the common life, to break bread and to pray. They formed communes: they began to sell their property and their possessions and distribute to everyone according to his need. They worshipped together regularly in the temple: they praised God and enjoyed the favour of all the people. Day by day the lord added new converts to their number. They were outward-looking. When they heard of a famine in Judea, they immediately collected money and sent it for distribution to the famine victims, people they didn’t know.
Several individuals are briefly mentionned and make an impression. Some were influential members of their societies; others led sheltered but spirit filled lives. Many were women. There was Dorcas, a needlewoman who made clothes for the disciples. Mary the mother of Mark kept open house where believers met for prayer. Lydia was a trader in purple fabric, clearly a wealthy woman. She was converted to the Jesus way by Paul with her household and she insisted that his whole group should stay in her home. Sergius Paulus, the governor of Cyprus, a highly educated man, sent for Paul and Barnabas and when he had heard them proclaim the gospel he was converted. Aquila and Priscilla lived in Corinth and worked as tent makers. They invited Paul to stay with them and share their workshop so that he could earn some money at his craft.
Not all the minor characters in the story were models of the kingdom values. Ananias and his wife Sapphira sold land to contribute to the common fund but decided to hang on to some of the proceeds of the sale, obviously believing that charity begins at home. Simon, known as Simon Magus because he was a magician, observed that those who had received the holy spirit through the laying on of hands were able to prophesy and speak in tongues. He tried to buy the right to the gift of the spirit because he was captivated by the signs and miracles that were taking place.
One or two of them were liabilities. Rhoda for example answered the door to Peter the night he escaped from prison but was so excited by the sight of him that she left him on the doorstep and went upstairs to tell the disciples all about it. Peter, who, remember, was in flight for his life, carried on knocking until he was admitted to the house where he told the gathering to keep the noise down, left the house and went elsewhere. A little bit of Rhoda clearly went a long way.
One of the things I remember from my study of theology is that it’s important to think of the early church as an organism, not an organisation. It was alive and growing. Doctrine was being formalised. If you read any of the speeches that punctuate the book, like the one we’ve just heard, you’ll realise that these were sermons inserted into the narrative rather than spontaneous deliveries by men under pressure and in a state of excitement. They’re too well constructed to be spur of the moment. They contain logical arguments relating Christianity to Judaism or reassuring Roman converts that their new faith would not compromise their allegiance to their empire or directing believers to attend to their spiritual well being. There was a hierarchy but it worked by consensus. There were serious disagreements, for example the terrible rift between Paul and Barnabas on the subject of the reliability and loyalty of Mark.
But this great book is a record of an inspired group of men and women full of fire for the gospel of Jesus Christ. They gave themselves for the gospel, their time, their money, their talents, their energy, their health, their family life, sometimes their liberty and their lives.