We are an Easter people: the Acts of the Apostles

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Triptych of Pentecost by the Florentine artist Orcagna (Andrea di Cione)
Via Wikimedia Commons. As in most early representations, the Mother of the Lord is central.

As I turn to a book that is unique in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, I note that the lectionary uses it in a unique way. The church reads the stories of the earliest churches during the Sundays of Easter in place of a reading from the Old Testament. My title reflects that: it comes from a saying frequently attributed to St Augustine “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song.”1

The Acts of the Apostles stands in a genre of its own among canonical literature, though writing legendary “Acts of …” various apostles became something of a literary pastime among the early Christians. It clearly shares a great many of the themes of Luke’s Gospel, to which it forms the sequel. If Luke’s gospel was largely the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how Jesus’s word makes the journey from Jerusalem to Rome.

When the church reads the stories of the earliest churches during the Sundays of Easter as the first reading in place of one from the Old Testament, it makes two affirmations. The first is about the nature of Acts. Luke relates that in his first volume he wrote about “all that Jesus began to do and to teach, until the day he was taken up into heaven” (Acts 1:1-2 NIV). The clear implication is that this second volume is about the things Jesus continues to do and to teach. The life of the church is the work of the risen Jesus. Acts in that sense is all about the resurrection, which makes it a very appropriate book for the fifty days of Easter.

The second affirmation comes from the way it replaces the normal use of the Old Testament. Easter is interpreted as the new covenant season, beginning with the celebration of a Christian Passover deliverance, culminating in a Christian Pentecost when the Spirit is given.2 No-one knows for sure whether the tradition associating the giving of the Law with the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot3 goes back to the time of Jesus. If it does, then Luke may be writing a rather polemical narrative contrasting the Spirit and the Law in his Pentecost story.

After Pentecost, the story moves outward. Up to chapter 12 it is primarily Peter’s story; sometimes he is accompanied by John. From chapter 13 it is primarily Paul’s story. However, Luke begins Paul’s story in the first section, and finishes Peter’s in the second, weaving them into a coherent whole. The focus of the story, and the reason the narrative passes to Paul, is that it fits better with the picture Luke wishes to convey, of the gospel going out further and further from Jerusalem until it reaches Rome. Whatever claims Paul makes for his agreement4 that the Gentile mission was his particular responsibility, Luke portrays it as God’s calling through Peter as well.

This outward move by the word of God into all the world5 is emphasised in the twin stories of Peter and Paul. Each has a defining vision; each vision is recounted three times. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is narrated as it happens (9:1-19), and then again in speeches by Paul to the mob in Jerusalem who’ve been trying to beat him up (22:1-21), and to King Agrippa II in Caesarea (Acts 26:1-23).

Peter’s vision is a more of a nightmare, a command to kill and eat a diverse range of species, clean and unclean alike. With the help of the Spirit, Peter interprets this as a parable: the good news of Jesus is for all races, starting with the people who have just arrived at his door. This is told in narrative sequence as it happened (Acts 10:1-48). Peter then has to repeat it almost immediately afterwards – to justify it to the indignant Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. They think it is such an apparently reckless and unprecedented decision to baptise Gentiles and eat with them that they want to hold Peter to account. (Acts 11:18). Then Peter repeats it a third time, in the discussion over whether Gentile believers should be circumcised, a matter Paul’s mission has made more acute. Peter retells his experience as an argument for coming down on Paul’s side (Acts 15:7-11).

In telling this story, of how the good news travelled from Jerusalem to Rome, Luke frequently highlights the miraculous. He wants to indicate God is constantly approving the activity of the church, and (as we saw with his emphasis on parables) he likes a good story. It means that speeches and stories are intertwined throughout the narrative. Speeches create something of a problem for the ancient historian: there was often no-one round to record them, and no easy technology for doing so.7 The responsibility of the historian was to try to include the sort of thing that would have been said, at least when they didn’t actually have access to the speech itself.

However, almost certainly there would have been a fairly standard sermon template or two shared around the early Christians, and it may be Luke has a source which includes such a template or two. Certainly he offers an interesting picture of the earliest Christian preaching, which includes remarkably little theology about the cross, and yet says a great deal about the resurrection, in ways which feel less developed than much of the New Testament.

One thing many readers feel gives an extra sense of being involved in the story is where Luke includes himself in it, beginning with chapter 16, as a travel companion of Paul. For some readers this is simply a stylistic device, but for most there is a sense that Luke has pulled out his old travel diary. They certainly contain some vivid details, and information that comes almost as an aside which does very little for the main story line. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the travel diary begins, the lectionary’s use of Acts stops, so readers will have to discover the delights of the story for themselves elsewhere.


Notes

  1. St Augustine was bishop of Hippo in North Africa at the end of the fourth and through the first third of the fifth century. He left a great deal of writing behind, and as far as I can tell this particular saying isn’t included, although the sentiment is. However, this saying is widely quoted and attributed to him.
  2. According to Luke, that is. In yesterday’s post I pointed out that John locates the gift of the Spirit on that first Easter day.
  3. The Feast of Weeks, marking the wheat harvest (called Pentecost in the Greek-speaking Mediterranean as it falls 50 days after Passover).
  4. See Galatians 2:9. Reconciling the rather different accounts of Paul’s first-hand impassioned argument with Luke’s more harmonious story – especially the story in Galatians 2 with the Council in Acts 15 – keeps historically-minded scholars busy. Paul may exaggerate his authority and independence; Luke may have heard a different version, and while Luke shows how Paul continues to stir up controversy, he wants to emphasise that when it comes to taking the gospel to the Gentiles, Peter and Paul share the same commitment to it; Peter, indeed, initiates it under God’s leading. Apart from this one stroppy reference in Galatians, the New Testament portrays Peter as Gentile-friendly.
  5. Luke sometimes speaks of it as an active agent: “The word of God continued to spread …” (Acts 6:7; see also 12:24)
  6. Sermons to Jewish audiences are included at Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, 10:34-43 (all by Peter) and Acts 13:17-41 (Paul, using similar themes). Paul’s speech on the Areopagus is narrated in Acts 17:23-31. All form the basis of lectionary readings.
  7. Shorthand had been invented in the previous century, by Cicero’s slave secretary, Tiro. However, we have no real idea how quickly or widely the idea was taken up.

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