Thursday, April 21, 2016

Getting Our Act Together: A Review of The Acts of the Apostles

           Having just finished reading The Acts of the Apostles last week, I thought I'd have a little fun and write about it somewhat in the style of a book review.

            Luke does it again! Following his break-out success with arguably the most eloquent Gospel to have been written, Luke delights and edifies his readers with an adventurous sequel: The Acts of the Apostles. Admittedly, I was a little surprised by how much I actually enjoyed reading it, but, believe it or not, it's kind of a page-turner in some ways. As when reading an exciting novel, I found myself asking with anticipation, "What happens next?"

            Unlike the rest of the New Testament, which is pretty much made up of the four Gospels and letters to various Christian communities, Acts is kind of a unique book. Most of the NT is naturally centered on the person of Jesus Christ and what the Church believes about him. At other times, especially in the Epistles, the NT speaks more prescriptively about how the members of the Church should behave and function in the world. Acts is different, though. Like the Gospels, Acts is a narrative, but unlike the Gospels the central character is not Jesus of Nazareth. Like some Epistles, it is concerned with the actions of the Church, but it is not written as a letter or exhortation. It's a story, a narrative, about the Holy Spirit and the early Church.

            Here we have the sequel to Luke's Gospel, and, like many sequels, it doesn't match the fame and excellence as the original. But let's face it, what sequel is going to compare to a story about Jesus? Nevertheless, Luke packs in the action: miracles, visions, angelic rescues, shipwrecks, riots, life-or-death soliloquies, and murder! Oddly enough, I'm reminded of The Hunger Games in a way. For me, the sequels could never compare to the first book, where we're introduced to Katniss and the twisted dystopian reality the people of Panem find themselves in. It's mesmerizing, thought-provoking , and chilling. The sequel, Catching Fire, picks up where the former left off but never captivates in quite the same way as its predecessor. But, like Acts, it is full of even more action than the first and explodes the story onto a grander stage. No longer is Katniss' plight a personal matter of survival and protecting her family. It becomes much bigger than just her; it's about the whole nation of Panem and the liberation of all of its districts. Similarly, Luke's Gospel focuses on the character of Jesus. It's gripping, dramatic, and stirs the soul to see life with new eyes. And there is no shortage of astounding events either – not least of all the passion, death, and resurrection narratives. But what began in the Gospel as a local movement focused on an enigmatic figure now launches onto the world stage in Acts, as the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit and risking life and limb, take the Good News of Jesus Christ to ends of the world.

            It's a flimsy comparison, I know – the Hunger Games series and Luke/Acts – but in short, all I'm saying is that Acts has all the page-turning action of sequels, like Catching Fire, which take a compelling narrative and widen its scope to encompass an even greater mission. But The Acts of the Apostles is more than just Volume II of Luke's masterful work. It's a great story in its own right. What I like most about it is that it's both a narrative and a self-examination of what the Church is supposed to be. I wouldn't call it history, but rather Luke's idealized version of who the Church is and how it should live out its mission.

            Today, "church" is all too often confused for a place of worship and/or something one "does" once a week. Others think the "church" is really just made up of the priests and bishops who provide the necessary things for believers to worship and who act as guardians of some moral code. But Acts tells us a different story, a truer story. The Church (in Greek, ekklesía, which means assembly) is that community of believers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit through baptism and who profess that Jesus is the Messiah (a.k.a. Christ) who has died and been raised from the dead and has opened salvation to all. The Church, as the Greek term clearly indicates, is first of all a community. There was nothing individualistic about it. The phrase "I'm spiritual, just not religious" did not exist back then, because it would have denied that essential community component. Am I getting on a soapbox? Yes. Yes, I am. But my point is that Luke paints an idealized picture of what the Church was and is meant to be: a mutually supportive community of faith in Jesus Christ.

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need (Acts 4:32-35).
            But this community also has a mission: to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that salvation through Jesus is open to all. That mission naturally begins with the People of Israel, but, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it soon opens up to the Gentiles. Much of Acts grapples with the tension that is brought about by the inclusion of the Gentiles and whether or not the entirety of the Mosaic law should be an obligation upon them. Let's be real, folks; one of the more critical issues back then was circumcision. But Jesus didn't say anything about circumcision, so what was the community to do? Thus, a council in Jerusalem (often referred to as the first council of the Church) convened in order to discern with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit how the Church should proceed in this matter. Yes, that's right. The first Church council was about circumcision. This is what happens when most, if not all, of the leaders in a community are men.

            I won't spoil the outcome of that council – you can read it for yourself in Acts 15 – but the so-called Council of Jerusalem has more to say to us than whether one needs to follow Mosaic law to be a Christian. It is an illustration of how the Church makes decisions, especially about things not clearly dictated by Jesus... which is a lot. 1.) Decisions of the Church are always made with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities..." (Acts 15:28). 2.) The Church comes together as a community with open discussion. And 3.) the decision is promulgated, or made known, through a written document to the wider Church everywhere. This is just one example of how The Acts of the Apostles is an excellent reflection of what the Church is and how it should act.

            Even if you're not too interested in trying to figure out the Church's self-understanding in Luke's narrative, Acts is a fun read just as it is. There were moments when I nearly laughed out loud. Like when Rhoda is so excited to see Peter at the door she leaves him standing outside to run and tell the others who it is (12:12-16). Or when Eutychus falls asleep, "as Paul talked on and on," and so falls out of a third story window (20:9-12). Even the time when the Lycaonians mistake Paul and Barnabas for gods is pretty laughable (14:8-18). As far as NT books goes, Acts is probably the most entertaining.

            So hit the road and sail the seas as you journey with old favorites, like Simon Peter, that impetuous fisherman from the Gospels, now an impressive – though still impetuous – leader of the disciples, who preaches fearlessly and heals great numbers of people in the name of Jesus Christ. Revisit other characters that are easily forgotten in the Gospels, like Philip, who draws an Ethiopian eunuch to belief in Jesus Christ by interpreting the Scriptures. Or James, who apparently holds a lot of sway in the Jerusalem Christian community at this point (15:13-21).

            Get to know new characters, like Stephen, the first man to give up his life for proclaiming Christ. Or Saul/Paul, an extrovert and insufferable know-it-all whom God uses to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ even to the Gentiles. Follow his adventures from when we're first introduced to him as a vehement persecutor of the Way, to his blindingly radiant encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Then journey with him across the Mediterranean up to his mildly anti-climactic testimony before the Jews in Rome. Watch as Christianity's most spiteful adversary develops into one of its most prolific advocates – despite breaking up with his mission partners and boring a young man out of a third story window. Let's just say, it takes all kinds of people in the Church to build up the Kingdom of God, and that should be rather comforting to us all.

            For this week, I recommend reading just about any part of Acts – or even the whole thing if you have the time. But I would especially suggest reading either chapter 7 (Stephen's discourses and martyrdom, which gives a good summary of Old Testament essentials and salvation history) or chapter 15 (the council in Jerusalem). Whatever you read from Acts, just keep in mind that this is your story too. It's a story about us, the Church, so ask yourself how the apostles' experience of living as active, Spirit-led members of that community affects your own experience of being a member of Christ's Body. Do you see your role as a member of the Church differently? How might the Spirit be leading you now in your life?

            To close, I just want to say thank you for all your support in reading and participating with this blog! Last week I turned in my final report for this project, and, barring any unforeseen issues, I will graduate in May. My final project and M.A. degree would not have been possible without your readership. I greatly appreciate all of your help! As always, feel free to post questions or comments via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or the comment box below. Until next time...

Peace and all good![1]

[1] This post would not have been possible without

Harrington, Daniel J. The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and the Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

            By the way, I just want to add one more thing. I kind of like to stress The Acts of the Apostles, especially chapter 15, because it helps to answer a question a family member once posed to me: How can the books of the Bible be called the "word of God" if human beings were the ones who decided which books went in? My response would be yes, human beings made those decisions, but it was as a community – as the Body of Christ – and it was through much discernment of the Holy Spirit. The early Christians recognized with earnest that through their baptism they were filled with the Holy Spirit and that the Church was led by the Spirit. The Church is still human, of course, and makes mistakes – boy, does it make mistakes – but we cannot deny the power of the Holy Spirit in any of the good that the Church does. And I would affirm that the books within the Bible were canonized through the guidance of that same Spirit.

No comments:

Post a Comment