Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Book of Acts - A Reflection

N.T. Wright wrote, “For too long we have read scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with 1st-century eyes and 21st-century questions.” (Wright, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, page 37)

We tend to be creatures of habit in so many ways. Individually, within a lifespan we see this as one generation’s tastes and values don’t seem to all make it to the next generation, yet in some things we are the exact opposite, we hold on to that which came before us without ever questioning it, without ever inspecting it for its validity or invalidity. Music tends to fall into the first category. We like different music than our parents did, and the music they listened to was disliked by their parents. When we have children of our own, their music tastes will often rub us the wrong way. But when it comes to “doing church” we get stuck in ruts that last centuries, with very little change over long periods of time. And then when changes in thought or interpretation are considered they are shot down, challenged, torn apart, considered heretical so fast that we as often fear considering something our parents, or grandparents didn’t teach us.

Many in the church today believe and practice our faith much like those who lived 200 or even 300 years ago did. We have in many ways been looking at life through perspectives that have been handed down for generations. What N.T. Wright is saying is that it is time we start challenging some of those interpretations, not to declare them invalid, but to look at them differently than our forefathers did. To look at them as they were written, and understand them as they were written, not so that we can emulate them in practice, but so that we can apply the concepts taught in a truly modern way without violating those concepts.

One of my favorite music groups when I was young was “2nd Chapter of Acts”. They were a group whose songs were modern, they had a beat that one could move to and tap a foot to, and their message was different than the message I was hearing at church. Their idea of the way church was supposed to “be done”, was that it should be done the same way it was in the 1st Century, and “doing church” the same way my Grandparents did was, well, frankly, boring. But going back to doing things the way they were done in the 1st Century wasn’t the right answer either. We need to study the scriptures through the eyes, the mindset, the understanding of the 1st Century believers, not to learn how to emulate them, but to grasp an understanding of the meaning behind what they were doing so that we can apply those principles to our lives today.

The book of Acts gives us a very good historical record of the birth of Christianity. We see many stories that bring many lessons, but only if we look for the lessons, and then look for ways to apply those lessons in today’s reality. To try to recreate the stories of what happened during the birth of the church isn’t a very realistic goal, nor a very useful way of applying the lessons God was teaching.

The bible is full of stories of reconciliation of God to mankind. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to the early church, stories of God reaching out to establish a relationship with mankind and to reconcile that which was broken, true unfettered communion with Him. One of the themes we see in the book of Acts is God’s desire to do this very thing, reconcile, not only with the Jews, but also with the Gentiles. God being a God not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles was radical new ideology that stirred great controversy in the early church.

But this was God’s plan from the beginning, to reconcile Himself to all mankind, just as He covenanted with Abraham. Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin outlined this perfectly, and we can read that sermon in Chapter 7 of Acts and we should see it not through our eyes, not with the knowledge we have today, but we should read this as if we were there. We should read this passage and learn from it, not learn it, but learn from it. There is certainly an historical story there, we can learn the history, but we would be so much better served to learn the lesson that Stephen was sharing, not as it applied to the Sanhedrin to whom he was speaking but as to how it applies to us today. We should read this passage and understand not that Stephen knew his Torah well, which he did, but we should see that the connections he was drawing from Abraham to Moses to King David to Jesus to himself also apply to us today. We should read that speech, that sermon, and see much more than Stephen the Martyr delivering his last sermon. We should see God’s provision for reconciliation to all of those and even to ourselves.

Far too often we study the bible and we read the bible not to find God speaking to us, but to learn about how God spoke to and through other people. For example, in the story of Stephen’s death we see that immediately after that persecution broke out and the Christians scattered. Why? Jesus told them to “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Stephen was martyred in approximately 34 AD. So, in 34 years the church had still not done as Jesus had commanded them. Did God condemn Stephen to death so He would have an excuse to force His people to do as He wanted? I don’t think so, but He used Stephen’s death to accomplish what He had commanded years before.

How can we apply that lesson today? That is a question we should be seeking to answer. That is a question we as Pastors should be asking of our congregations. We should be bringing the scriptures to our congregations not as a lesson in Christianity, but rather we should be encouraging them to ask themselves, “What is God saying to me about this passage today?” How can we look at the book of Acts from the perspective of those living in the First Century and find ways to apply those lessons, those perspectives to our lives today?

Sharing one’s faith in Jesus wasn’t easy in the first century. Why were the majority of the Christians still in the area when Stephen was stoned 34 years after being told to “Go”? Because it was dangerous to “Go”. There is safety in numbers. It is much easier to believe something that is “controversial” when there are others nearby who believe the same thing. Most of us today socialize with people who are likeminded. It’s simply much easier to sit down and eat dinner with someone who believes the same things, holds the same opinions, and generally won’t tease us, or worse, for our differences. But is that what Jesus called us to do?

Jesus didn’t say, “Go find people, share my Good news with them and then bring them here to be with you, and all of you stay right here in a nice comfortable community where you will all get along all the time and share each other’s belongings, etc. while you worship me in one big community.” Jesus said, “GO! Go unto the entire world.” That’s uncomfortable. That means going and talking to people who don’t agree with me. That’s hard to hear, let alone execute.

In a country where an advertisement for a refreshment, played during a football game, that celebrates our differences in a unique way can cause visceral attacks from people who disagreed with the advertisement toward anyone and everyone else, I’d say the message of Jesus to “Go and Share” can be just as challenging today as it was in the first century church.

Jesus’ desire for us, was not that we suffer, but it wasn’t that we not suffer. It was that we love Him, as He first loved us. It has been since the day Adam was created. It is the message of the entire Bible, and when we step back and look at the stories of the Bible in context this becomes ever so clear. Sometimes we need to stop analyzing and interpreting, and start listening to the message.

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