Sunday, Apr 22, 2007: “Acts of the Apostles: Session 1”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
Lecture Series Led By Rev. Mike Kreutzer
Sunday, April 22, 2007


The Acts of the Apostles

Session 1: Chapters 1 – 5


William Willimon (Acts in the “Interpretation” series, pp. 2-4) describes three characteristics of stories that have relevance for Acts:

(1) “A story not only means something but does something… God is not just a character in the story, rather God is the author who makes the story possible and whose nature and purposes are revealed in the telling of the story.”

(2) “This world of Acts is not a sober description of what is but an evocative portrayal of what, by God’s work, shall be, a poetic presentation of an alternative world to the given world, where Caesar rules and there is enmity and selfishness between men and women and there is death. This is a world where God is busy making good of his promises.”

(3) “Acts, like the rest of Scriptures, has as its purpose the formation and equipment of disciples. Jesus did not come bringing an interesting philosophy of life. He came calling people to a new way of living and dying.”

While much of Acts, like Luke, is set within the context of a journey, Willimon points out (p. 9) that, “The real barriers to the gospel were national, theological, doctrinal and economic; not geographical.”


1:1-5, introduction – Luke gives a reference back to Lk. While Lk ends with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension on Easter day, Acts portrays a stretch of forty days between the two events. Later, it will spell out ten more before the coming of the Spirit. Acts alone does this. Perhaps Luke’s intent it to accord to each of the three events its own emphasis and character. This passage includes the familiar Lukan pattern of promise/fulfillment.


1:6-26, a prologue


1:6-14, waiting and praying for the restoration – The disciples are in a “time in-between”: not only between Jesus’ ascension and the Spirit’s coming, but also between Jesus’ ascension and his return. God’s kingdom is a gift, and so the disciples, like Jesus before them, pray.


1:15-26, a question of leadership, the election of Matthias – “about 120 persons”: According to Jewish law, 120 males were required to form a synagogue with its own council. Just as Jesus did in Lk, so do the disciples in Acts remain faithful to the Jewish law. They now have a sufficient number of people to form a new community. Leadership in the new community is to be based both on qualifications and on divine choice.


2:1-47, the Day of Pentecost – Willimon (p. 28) notes: “It is popular to refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and there is much truth in that. But it is more accurate to speak of Easter as the birthday event of Pentecost.” It is, e.g. in Lk 24 that the risen Jesus is made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread and that he opens their minds to the scriptures.


Originally, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost were closely linked in the practice of the church. Later, they came to be observed almost as separate events. Today, liturgical churches are returning to that focus on the fifty days of Easter. One collect for Pentecost that Willimon cites (from the Catholic Mass) begins, “Almighty and ever-living God, you fulfilled the Easter promise by sending us your Holy Spirit.”


The story of Pentecost is not essentially about “what happened” that day. It is about what is asserted in the story about the nature of the community. “The community is at the center of Acts, with the God of the community being the chief actor in the drama” (p. 29).


Far from being a merely personal, interior, exotic event, the coming of the Spirit is inherently public and empowers the church for its mission. See Willimon, page 33, second paragraph.


Just as Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4) served as a summary of the entire gospel to come, so does Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14-36) serve as a précis of all that is to come. Like other ancient historians, Lk uses speeches to explore the meaning of events. In this particular speech, Peter uses the scriptures to enable Israel to understand itself and to understand what God has done for it in Jesus. 


Willimon, p. 36: “Nowhere does Luke speak of the ‘founding’ of the church or of the formation of some ‘new Israel.’ There is only one Israel – the faithful people who respond faithfully to the promises of God.”


2:42-47, the gospel lived in community – Luke includes both the apostles preaching to the crowds, plus other teaching for the benefit and growth of those who are members of the church. Willimon, p. 40: “Certainly, Luke makes a distinction between what is said to outsiders and what is proclaimed within the ongoing life of the church. Far from any modern mushy ‘inclusiveness,’ Luke is quite careful to separate those on the inside, who know, from those on the outside, who do not know. Yet teaching the ones who know about what is known continues to include the gospel.” He adds (p. 42): “This summary of the activity of the church focuses our attention away from preoccupation with individual action toward the true concern of the story – the community.”


3:1 – 4:31, the gospel in action


3:1-26, healing and witness at the temple – Frequently in the history of the church, small groups have gone off to try to create a community that exists for itself, cut off from the rest of the world. Perhaps this is why Luke follows his description of the primitive community with this story of their leaders going out in their mission to the world. Peter and John go up to the temple at the hour of prayer; yet their prayer is not an escape from human suffering, but a way of entering into it and a way of responding to it. Just as in Lk, Jesus’ mission is one of proclaiming the good news and healing in God’s name, and the mission that he gives both to the 12 and to the 70 is one of proclaiming the good news and healing in God’s name, so is the mission of all the disciples in Acts one of proclaiming the good news and healing in God’s name


As he often does, Luke uses the occasion of a miracle to introduce a speech. That speech explicates the miracle itself and goes on to proclaim the gospel. 


Note that in Acts, the explanation for Jesus’ death is not one of substitutional atonement. There is no divine requirement that Jesus die to serve some sort of divine justice. The sole explanation for Jesus’ death in Acts is sheer human perversity.


4:1-22, testimony before the authorities – Luke portrays a dramatic setting: all the powerful people and leaders on one side, and two uneducated men on the other. The authorities can do nothing, but the tension is growing; it provides a close parallel with the situation described in Lk between Jesus and the authorities.


4:23-31, a prayer for boldness in proclaiming the gospel


4:32 – 6:7, challenges both within and without – The challenges and concerns in this section seem rather mundane; yet they reflect the community’s attempt to live the gospel, to live as a resurrected people. 


4:32 – 5:11, the challenge of possessions

4:32-37, positive examples

5:1-11, negatives examples


5:12-42, more healings and more official opposition – The community was still centered in Solomon’s Portico (as in 3:11), the temple remaining as a focal point of the gospel. The high priest and the Sadducees arrested the apostles, but “an angel of the Lord” set them free and told them to go back to preaching in the temple, which they did. Verse 26: the same situation occurred as had happened with Jesus in Lk: the leaders wanted to take action against them, but were afraid of the people who supported them. 29: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 32: “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”


33-39, the advice of Gamaliel – Luke shows, both in Lk and in Acts, some of the leadership of the people supporting Jesus and his disciples. The words of the rabbi may be directed by Luke to a wider audience: to all those who hear it and who have seen the church’s growth throughout the world.


40-42, “worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name”