The acts of the Apostles continues

Published 12:45 pm Friday, April 24, 2009

I am sure you have noticed by now that the first readings these Sundays are taken from the Acts of the Apostles.

That will continue to be the case right up through Pentecost Sunday (May 31). This provides a good opportunity then to preach at least once from Acts during these weeks.

I am sure it will be a rare treat for our hearers and certainly a stretch for us preachers if we were to focus on Acts, at least once. Let’s try it.

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In a way it is unfortunate during the Sundays after Easter that we have dropped our first readings from the Hebrew Scriptures and not made Acts the second selection. The possible consequence of singling out Acts is to detach it from its Old Testament roots. Just a cursory glance at today’s readings, for example, will show how reliant Acts is on the Hebrew texts for its historical, literary and religious background. Disconnected in this way Acts can give the impression that is merely an instruction manual on how the church should be organized and behave as a community.

Acts is also more than an idealized or romanticized view of first generation believers.

Instead, we see throughout Acts the early signs in the community of the presence of the kingdom of God—hoped for by the Jewish people, preached and fulfilled in Jesus. When Luke’s first volume, his gospel, was coming to a close, Jesus referred to the prophetic literature that pointed to himself.

“Beginning then, with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them every passage of Scripture which referred to him” (24:27).

Peter draws on similar biblical texts when he tells those who witnessed the cure of the cripple beggar at the temple’s Beautiful Gate, “God has brought to fulfillment what God had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets.”

Thus, there is a truth to what people say: for a fuller understanding of Acts we have to be readers of the Old Testament as well.

Peter is announcing what the whole Acts of the Apostles also proclaims: the time of fulfillment has arrived. So, Acts is through and through connected to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first generation Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus and that with him a new age had arrived. The old order of injustice and inequality was passing away. Through Jesus’ resurrection God was creating a whole new people, emboldened and fired up by the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus.

The opening chapters of Acts quickly demonstrates the abiding presence of the Spirit in the community (2:1).

Things “ain’t what they used to be.” No kidding! Jesus is risen from the dead and his followers are already showing signs of his life and powers—witness today’s reading!

Peter, accompanied by John, has just cured the crippled beggar. Lest the beggar and the awed bystanders think the man’s cure was by any other force, or by Peter’s own powers, Peter stops to speak a word. As Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP has shown, Peter is “naming grace”: he is calling attention to the very active presence of God who has reached out to heal. Peter is also doing what preachers are called to do: with the sight the scriptures provide, we look at human situations and point to God’s presence, showing how God is doing now what God has always done—coming to help us in our need.

Peter is quite clear about who this God, working through the “acts” of the disciples is: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors.”

This is the same God, Peter says, who also gave us Jesus, “the author of life.” In his preaching Peter connects the dots: from the “God of the Old Testament” to the “God of the New Testament,” revealed in Jesus. He reminds us that, in fact, God is not divided between “old” and “new;”—i.e., once angry, now benign; once punishing, now, thanks to Jesus, merciful.

No, instead, Peter explains that God, in Jesus, has now “brought to fulfillment” what God had “announced beforehand” through the prophets.

We preachers have a lot of work to do to obliterate those old divisions; that split personality we have given God. Honestly, it sometimes sounds as if God had a change in personality at the end of the last book in the Hebrew Scriptures and decided to act kindly toward us in the New Testament!

Charismatic leaders

There have been a lot of charismatic leaders in history who have drawn large followings. Some have been cult leaders whose devoted followers have done some extreme things in the name of their leader. But, most often, when the “inspired” leader dies, the followers soon disband.

Not so with Jesus’ followers.

In fact, after his death his disciples became emboldened, went out and proclaimed publicly that Jesus was the long-awaited one sent by God. They preached that he was God-made-flesh and was risen from the dead. Jesus’ spirit now animated his followers.

The once-weak and scattered band now coalesced into a very public and witnessing community to their Risen Lord. As we see in today’s reading from Acts, Jesus’ disciples were doing in his name the very things he did—reaching out to the needy and healing the sick.

Soon after healing the beggar and giving today’s address to the crowds, Peter was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for his preaching and healing in Jesus’ name. Disciples, who once denied Jesus, are now publicly proclaiming him as the Christ, the Anointed sent by God.

Peter refers to Jesus as “the author of life.”

We take Peter’s words to heart and call on the “author of life” to anoint us, his disciples, so that we can: raise up life when it is broken; work for peace when there is conflict; protect life when it is threatened; nurture it when it is frail or young; support it when it is faltering; gather it into a community when it is scattered or divided; encourage it when it is dispirited; accompany it when it is lonely and celebrate it whenever and wherever it rises from death to life.

Finally, Peter and the other disciples, will do something very paradoxical. They will accept martyrdom for their faith in the risen Christ. Those who abandoned him when he was captured in order to save themselves, will henceforth offer their lives in memory of the “author of life.” And more: followers of the Christ will not be afraid to engage the world in life issues concerning: the unborn, those on death row, the dying, permanently impaired and anyone cast out of the community for being “different.”

Who is this Easter God we celebrate and profess our faith in today?

Peter has told us: God is the God of our Jewish ancestors, who is also manifested in Jesus, the author of life who nevertheless died for us and was then raised from the dead.

Those early Christians did as we do today. They didn’t just celebrate the Lord’s Supper to recall the past when Christ had once walked among them. They celebrated the meal to experience Christ’s presence with them at table as they proclaimed scripture and shared the bread and wine. Which is what we are doing today with the Risen Christ in our midst and the Holy Spirit forming us as a community and sending us to do as Peter did—reach out to those in need and show them by our deeds and words that Christ is truly present among us. The time of fulfillment is at hand.