Its taken me a few days to digest the fullness of the first part of Acts. What I feel currently presented with is something different than I expected to find. When starting out on this journey through Acts, I had thought to highlight the experiences of the early church, thinking of ways we are still partners. I had used Acts more as instructions for how the church can be structured, almost as a kind of reference manual. Yet, having spent so much time with the text this summer, I am struck by three things in particular:
- God’s clear presence in the early days of the Church through many miraculous actions.
- How the early church’s greatest moments of sufferings became its greatest moments of growth and transformation
- The ever expanding scope of the Kingdom of God
Speaking to each of these a little more specifically-
Reading through the first part of Acts, it is impossible to not be struck by the number of visions, divine pronouncements and clear miracles that occur. Whether it is the Day of Pentecost or the scales falling from Saul/Paul’s eyes. According to Acts, God intervened on behalf of the early church in extreme ways. So extreme in fact, we may be left wondered: what about us? We are not witness to the kind of miracles that seem commonplace in the life of the early church. We do not get a chance to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in the robust ways the apostles did. What then do we do with all these miracles. To me there seems to be two ways forward.
Firstly, we could chalk up the scope of the miracles to the narrative style of Luke. In other words, he could be exaggerating for effect. One perfect example is Saul/Paul’s blinding on the road to damascus. Paul does mention his moment of repentance, but offers a simpler tale, with only the briefest allusions to his encounter with Christ. It could be Paul being humble, but it could also imply Luke beefed up the narrative. The question then becomes, does Luke’s exaggerations take away from the power of God, does admitting Acts may not be wholly accurate weaken my faith? In the end everyone has to answer that question on their own, but for me, the accuracy of the accounts does nothing to effect my faith. Even if they are exaggerated accounts, they are done so to highlight God’s supremacy. All comes from God, and for me I see any possible exaggeration as an effort to strengthen this understanding. In my own personally experience, the Holy Spirit is far more subtle than anything that appears in Acts, but it is still present. Maybe a more accurate accounting of the early church would acknowledge the subtleness of the Holy Spirit, but it would still certainly include the Holy Spirit as a powerful influencer of how Christianity developed.
Secondly, the robustness of the Holy Spirit could be a result of the importance of the moment. The first century of the early church determined more about the future of the church than any other time period. Surely we can affirm a God who would have appreciated that, and who could have been more active as a result. In this scenario, the Holy Spirit has moved into a more subtle stance, because it can be.
Regardless, the first part of Acts of the Apostles clearly indicates a God who was (and is still) active in this world. This is important for us to remember as a church, God is still working, God is still active, God is still inspiring. I believe the central creed of reformed theology “reformed and always being reformed” captures this reality well.
The persecution of the early church, which came to its frenzied climax with the stoning of Stephen, was clearly the exact thing that caused the church to grow and become what it is today. It was through the dispersal of the disciples that Christianity spread and grew and became its own religion. In the first moments of Acts, the early church would have understood its self a subset of Judaism. The apostles would have primarily spoken in aramaic and would have been strong adherents of their faith. As disciples took the message to places like Damascus, Alexandria and maybe most importantly Antioch, it was put in conversation with different viewpoints and philosophies and as a result became richer and more diverse. These challenges created no small amount of conflict within the church, but the church would not be what it is today without those growing pains and struggles. Maybe even more amazing than the dispersal of the early disciples was the calling of Saul/Paul into the movement. At the time of Stephen’s stoning, he was enemy number one to the early church, a title he would most likely have cherished, but he goes on to become the church’s single most important theologian. Paul ended up setting the tone for the church we have today. True, he is far from perfect, but of all the little sects of Christianity that sprouted up in dispersal of the church’s persecution (one of the reasons we have multiple gospels), Paul became a unifying voice. The life of the early church resembles Christ in a very real way. At its clear moment of death (the stoning of Stephen) it became the church it is today.
I have to wonder if the expansion of the kingdom of God was intended to be included by Luke, or if Luke’s account of the events of that period just reveals the expansion of the Kingdom of God. Think of it this way. At the very beginning of Acts, the only people that are apart of this movement are a rag-tag group of Jewish outsiders from Jerusalem and the surrounding country side. It is comprised mostly of fisherman, laborers, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor people, handicapped people and other folks that would have been seen as less than desirable company. Led of course by a carpenter with no formal education. Yet as we read acts, Pentecost includes Jews of the diaspora, people with money, priests, an Ethiopian Eunuch (who was a triple threat: foreign, a high ranking court official and someone of uncertain gender), Hellenists, Saul/Paul (a former enemy), a roman solider (Cornelius) who was also a Gentile! And on top of all this, women clearly had important roles from the very beginning. At each turn more and more folks are accepted into the Way, the kingdom of God keeps expanding and expanding. In Part II, Saul expands it further and further. This reality has continued on through to today, and keeps on continuing, as the church is constantly expanding. In current american memory, the inclusion of African Americans, the ordination of women and the ongoing conversations about the role of the Queer (LGBT) community highlights the churches ability to expand ever further.
Yes, Acts still offers insight into the structure of the early church, it identifies the things that were central to the early church, but it offers so much more than that, it offers a vision of the way God works in the world. A God that is active and transformative and expanding.
These last six weeks have certainly transformed my understanding of this book, and I hope it has transformed yours as well. Please take time to share you reflections in the comments section.
Questions for Reflection:
- What was your favorite moment or scene in the first part of Acts? What moment or scene impacted you the deepest? What moment deepened your understanding of the way God works in the world.
- What did you see as the major themes of Acts? What did the narrative as a whole mean to you? In what ways did the Holy Spirit present itself most clearly to you?
- How would you tell these stories to people that might ask: What happens in the Acts of the Apostles?