As we work through the book of Acts, we should pay attention to the speeches. We should pay attention to the speeches because there are a lot of them. And we should pay attention to the speeches because they matter. My professor David Balch who is now at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary had a lot to say about the speeches in Acts. He also had a lot to say about boundary crossing. Balch sees Luke 1:3 as a key to understanding the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the book of Acts, “I propose that Luke 1:3 be translated: ‘I too, having mentally followed all things from the beginning with respect to cause and effect, decided to write you in a full and orderly manner, most excellent Theophilus,’ meaning that unlike his predecessors (perhaps, unlike Mark) who wrote briefly, Luke would include rhetorical speeches that indicate the causes and consequences of the events of salvation history.” He wrote this in an essay for the International Society of Biblical Literature. I don’t know where you’d find the published copy, I’ve got a paper manuscript in my files.
I’ll cut to the chase, if we accept Acts as a meeting ground for our understanding of the church, then we need to take seriously Acts claim about the messages that get delivered. It is the spoken message that initiates the action in Acts. Let me say that again, it is the spoken message that initiates actions in Acts. I think we may have gotten side-tracked by three issues: (1) our near-dogmatic belief that actions of service speak for themselves and that our good works inherently point to the good news; (2) arguments about style and channels we use to convey the message and inattention to the message itself, (3) our tendency to replace Christ himself with the church. Perhaps it is time that we focus in a new way about what it is we are actually trying to say before we try to think about how we say it.
Our scripture readings for this 40 Days from Dreams to Decisions involve the opening of Acts (Acts 1:1-11and then the opening scene from the day of Pentecost (2:1-4). It introduces three themes that will recur throughout the book of Acts. (1) The Holy Spirit guides the church; (2) The Gospel crosses over boundaries (from Jerusalem throughout Judea into Samaria and to the ends of the Earth); (3) the role of the Christians in being witnesses for Christ. Actually, it’s all one theme: the Holy Spirit enables the Disciples to cross boundaries with the Gospel.
The boundaries at the time were the boundaries that had been defined by ritual laws (compare Deuteronomy 23:1 and Acts 8:25-40), gender boundaries (Acts 16:11-15), and most importantly ethno-religious boundaries–the boundary between Jew and Gentile (Acts 10-11). It is difficult to express just how rigid these boundaries were at the time. But the Gospel was and is for everyone. It had to push past these boundaries.
I wonder what boundaries we experience today. I think one is the boundary between people comfortable in the church culture and people who are not. Decades ago, churches could assume that most people were Christian. People were going to go to church on Sunday morning. the only question was “where?” Churches competed for members the way businesses competed for customers. Churches could rely on people’s embedded knowledge of church culture to yield members. As a result, Churches focused more on gaining more members and less on actually sharing the gospel and making Disciples.
Fewer and fewer people are looking for a church home for all of the cultural reasons they did in previous generations. People still need Jesus as much as they ever have. The church needs to relearn what we have forgotten. The church needs to learn in new ways how to take the gospel past the boundaries. Think about all of the skills it takes to come to worship on a Sunday morning–hymn reading skills, Bible passage finding skills, sermon listening skills. Perhaps we take this for granted since we’ve grown up in church culture but, this an many other conventions that govern our shared life can’t be taken for granted as we answer Christ’s call to be his witnesses.
Here are two brief videos to help people engage FaithLife web and iPhone tools as we move toward our Dreams to Decisions discussion and discernment. They are meant mainly for FCC Arlington people but, if you find them helpful, great. Most importantly, spend time in scripture and find people to discuss it with.
I receive no compensation from FaithLife or Logos Bible Software. I have been using Logos for over a dozen years and I like it . . . . most days. Check out the video and see if it’s something you’d find helpful.
Myiesha Cherry’s “10 Thoughts on Tyler Perry and Bishop Jakes, Evangelicals, Money.” discusses sensational response to the $1 million donation Tyler Perry publicly made to TD Jakes’s ministry, his praying in the Spirit, and praying over TD Jakes who becomes slain in the Spirit. This whole milieu is easily misunderstood and subsequently judged by people like me who are only tangentially familiar with the charismatic, evangelical and black church traditions represented here. Consequently, I could only listen in on Dr. Cherry’s thoughts as one eavesdropping on a conversation. But her final comment caught my attention. She wrote:
I predict the “culture of church” will be the death of the church. Until the church gets more focused on the teachings of Jesus and less focused on a manipulative concept of success, emotionalism, and dogmatism; it will always look like foolishness to outsiders and feel “only” like church to insiders.
This is a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly over the past few weeks. It was expressed by the presenters at this year’s Adult Faith Focus–three of whom were millenials. It was the sentiment expressed in recent CNN Belief Blog post recent by Rachael Held Evens. It was the summation of the Reveal at Willow Creek Church which brought to light years of research the church had done on its approach to church. And, in truth, its the sentiment that gets expressed in nearly every generation of Christianity.
I do not disagree with the sentiment. As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be more concerned to be faithful to Jesus’s teachings. What has been missing in all the varied calls to eschew gimmicks and pursue more faithful and authentic forms of ministry is evidence that such an approach actually works at attracting anyone.
Two things happen when a church is labeled “unfaithful” because its approaches to ministry are accused of betraying Jesus’s core convictions. First, people line up examples of churches that are more faithful and claim that a church can actually be . . . thoughtful . . . . liturgical . . . progressive . . whatever and still grow or be successful. Second, people defend the practices in the attractional churches arguing that they have reached more people for Jesus than the others. They are doing a better job of doing the very last thing Jesus said we were to do–go into the world and reach people with the gospel. Their growth is evidence that they are indeed being faithful.
What few people are willing to say is that Jesus may not actually be all that concerned with the survival at least of the institutional forms of the congregations formed in his name. Jesus said that those who make their own survival their overriding concern will not survive (Matthew 16:24-28, Mark 8:34-9:1, Luke 9:23-27).
I join with other Christians today in praying for peace both within Syria and also between Syria and other nations.
Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, Reconciler of humanity, in your life, death and resurrection you have proclaimed peace to those who are near and those who are far away. You have destroyed the dividing wall of enmity. You have formed one new humanity and you have reconciled that one new humanity to God. Hear my prayer, merciful savior.
I confess that I harbor a hostile attitude within my own mind and attitude toward others. I confess that too quickly I enjoy the stories of violence and hostility with what I watch and what I imagine. I am a man of unclean lips, heart and mind. I humbly ask you to forgive me and cleanse me from the hostility to which I cling.
When violence is done, we want to respond with violence. When people injure other people, we want to punish them. It is our impulse to treat others unlike the way you have treated us. Today, I pray that you will intervene in our world. “Cure thy children’s warring madness.” Cleanse the world today, dear Lord. Both within Syria and between Syria and the nations of the world, bring peace.Help us to see that in your cross you absorbed the world’s hostility, took it to the grave with you so that there it might die. Help us to be cleansed in the baptismal waters of your death so that we might rise to live in newness of life.
We pray as you taught us that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in heaven. There are neither chemical weapons nor attack drones in heaven and so we pray that it would be the same on Earth. Reshape our swords into plowshares. Make us more passionate about feeding one another than we are to destroy one another.
Form us now into a new people, fellow citizens with those whom we now label enemies. Bring us together as members within God’s household built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets with you, Lord Jesus Christ, our chief cornerstone. Amen