DiscipleChurch Brothers and Sisters:
This Sunday in DiscipleChurch, I will begin a preaching series from the Acts of the Apostles. Fittingly, since this is the beginning, the first scripture in the series will be from the first chapter:
ACTS OF THE APOSTLES 1
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions to the apostles whom he had chosen through the Holy Spirit. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Some years back, I just did not appreciate the Psalms. But because so many through the Christian centuries had found so much of value in them as spiritual resource, I undertook to study them. And now I love the Psalms more personally and immediately than any other book in the Bible. Likewise I confess that, until recently, I just did not value Acts. When I attended seminary decades ago, the common approach of biblical academicians was to belittle Acts because it was bad and biased history, refuted by the letters of Paul and particularly by Galatians. Since my seminary education ended sometime in the 17th century, the academicians are generally seeing more of value in Acts as history. But, still, the book can seem to be no more than one account after another of super-natural events far from any of our contemporary experiences. The theme seems, superficially, to be that the word and the church spread and flourished by the power of jaw-dropping miracles. Somebody was healed by the Spirit of a terrible disease or affliction, convincing people that Jesus was indeed risen and they ought to be with his team. Somebody was struck dead by the Spirit, also convincing people that Jesus was indeed risen and they ought to be with his team. Somebody was freed from prison by the Spirit, also convincing people that Jesus was indeed risen and they ought to be with his team. Or some apostle—Peter or Barnabas or Phillip or Paul– gave a speech (and these speeches in Acts always seemed to me to be terribly dry and unmoving), and, by the power of the Spirit, people were moved en mass to believe…that Jesus was risen and they ought to be with his team. So, witnesses Acts, the spread of the good news was inevitable, inexorable and irresistible. I can’t speak for you, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen in my neighborhood. Certainly doesn’t happen when I preach. If this is good explanation, where is did the Spirit go? Why are so many people in our time and place taking ways different from “the Way,” as our Christian faith and life is called in Acts? What value does this writing have for us?
After some study and contemplation, I am finding that the Acts of the Apostles is as well and beautifully crafted as is Luke, which is generally credited to have been written by the same author and is commonly seen as the most beautiful book in the New Testament. And I am finding that it is much more subtle and valuable than I had previously appreciated.
So in starting this consideration, I suggest we ask ourselves some of the questions which the Acts of the Apostles attempts to answer.
Just why and how did the story of a Galilean peasant and rabbi, who never wrote a word on paper and who was just one of thousands executed as a political threat to the Roman kingdom, come to capture (I mean this word literally) the kingdom of Rome within 300 years of his death?
What motivated and empowered cowards and weaklings to give their lives to spread his story and truth?
What “converted” people, not just to add Jesus and his Father to their pantheon of gods (which is what usually happened with new deities from the East), but to throw away all other gods to worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit ONLY, often at great cost to them and their families?
What about this Jesus and his story was so very attractive (I mean this word literally) to so many so quickly–so many who were not even Jews? The words? The eloquence? The promise of resurrection? The miracles? The way of life? The community? The marketing?!!?
Where is God in this cruel world? Which is to ask: how does God’s will win in a world dominated and closed by force and greed and fear?
What are we called to be and do by this story?
I am going to bring to bear some modern works about archaeology and literature contemporary to the time period of Acts to try to help us to answer these questions.
Hope you join us.