Sunday, Apr 29, 2007: “Acts of the Apostles: Session 2”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
Lecture Series Led By Rev. Mike Kreutzer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Acts of the Apostles

Session 2: Chapters 6 – 9

6:1-7. conflict within the community — Schillebeeckx, Ministry, pp. 6-7: The conflict between the “Hebrews” (i.e. the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians) and the “Greeks” (i.e. the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians) was most probably deeper and more far-reaching than just the issue mentioned by Luke. Those belonging to the church led by Stephen seem to have held much broader views of the gospel’s import and of the Church’s mission, and much more liberal interpretations of the Law, than did the much more rigid, non-Hellenistic Jewish church. It may well be that the widows of the Hellenists were deliberately ignored.

Willimon, page 59, offers three observations about the church’s ministry and leadership: “(1) Leadership within the church arises from the church’s quite mundane but utterly necessary functional needs.” “(2) Leadership arises from ‘below’ not from ‘above.’” “(3) The ordained ministry in its present form is an adaptation of the church to its leadership needs.”

6:8-15 With the reference to the seven, Luke turns attention to two key figures, Stephen and Philip, who were not among the 12. It will be a key section, because “the crowd”, who up until now had been receptive to the apostles teaching, will now turn violently against it. The story of Stephen is a pivotal point in Acts, because it prepares the way for the mission to the nations.

Stephen is obviously doing much more than waiting on tables. He is in a sense a “second generation apostle” who is actively preaching the word and performing signs and wonders. Defeated in their attempts to stop him, Stephen’s opponents resort to making false accusations against him. Here is reflected, not an opposition between the church and the Jewish people, but an intra-family conflict within Judaism, just as there has been for generations.

7:1-53 Following the high priest’s question, “Are these things so?”, Stephen makes the longest speech in Acts: an indication of its importance. He raises the question of who are really the faithful people of Israel. He accuses them of rejecting Moses and, in a revision of the commonly accepted view, accuses Israel of rejecting God by building the temple.

Johannes Munck (The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible Series, p. 63) points out that, in apostolic times, one on trial would defend, not necessarily himself, but the cause that he represented and supported.

51-53 turn the attention directly to his hearers. He accuses them of rejecting God, just as their ancestors had done. Willimon, page 63, notes: “By the time this speech was composed by Luke, the conversion of the Israel was now only a wistful and increasingly unrealistic hope.”

This speech of Stephen brings the entire Jerusalem narrative to a close. It sums up God’s call to salvation and the peoples’ response: many accepted it, but their leaders rejected it.

Munck likewise notes (pp. 66-67) that, according to the speech of Stephen, almost all the actions of God have taken place outside Jerusalem. This is where God’s work in Acts will now take place as well.

7:54-60 the martyrdom of Stephen – Stephen’s speech contains nothing blasphemous. What “convicts” him is his vision of Jesus at the right hand of God. He asserts that Jesus is the exalted Lord, the Messiah. In rejecting Jesus, therefore, they have rejected God. The crowd doesn’t want to hear that, so they plug their ears and kill the one who dares to tell them what they don’t want to hear. The murder of Stephen is not an action of the leadership; it is the action of a lynch mob.

8:1-3 sets the stage for the conversion of Saul (chapter 9) and begins the account of a great persecution against the church. The apostles are left alone and remain in Jerusalem. The other leaders, those who are now turning to include non-Jews in the community of “the way”, are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Persecution is the force that impels the spread and growth of the church. Note that those who remained within a totally Jewish context (in Jerusalem) are not harmed; only those who seek in include others along with Jews are persecuted.

8:4-25 Philip is introduced rather abruptly into the story. Willimon suggests that Luke is incorporating some previously existing material here. Many people in Samaria are converted by his teaching and by the works that he was doing. Among them was Simon the magician. When Peter and John come to see what is happening, Simon offers to buy the ability of invoking the Holy Spirit on people. Luke uses this narrative to help focus attention on what is really central in the mission of the church.

16: baptism in the name of Jesus; the Holy Spirit imparted by the laying on of hands by Peter and John

8:26-40 The “angel of the Lord” seems to be the actual central figure in this narrative. The eunuch of the queen of the Ethiopians would have been a very important man. The term “Ethiopian” was used in the ancient world for all people with black skin. It carried a connotation of wonder and great respect. This man is open to the word of God in his life. He may have been a Jew. He allows Philip to explain and apply the words of the book of Isaiah to him.

Placed after the story of the baptism of Samaritans, this story illustrates the gospel and baptism reaching out to the far places of the earth. It is accomplished, not through human planning, but through divine inspiration and empowerment.

The question “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (37) appears to be wording taken from an early baptismal liturgy.

9:1-31, the conversion of Paul and the beginning of his ministry – Paul’s own account of his conversion is in Galatians 1:11-24. Luke gives three accounts of it in Acts: in chapters 9, 22 and 26. It is obviously a key moment to be given such a prominent, repeating place in Luke’s story.

The actual conversion account (1-19a) takes place in four scenes. Scene One (1-2): Saul takes the initiative in conducting a “search and destroy mission” against the church. Scene Two (3-9): On the way to Damascus, there is an abrupt interruption of his journey and an encounter with Jesus; the scene includes both the initial conversion and a hint of a commission. Scene Three (10-16): Saul, who was the persecutor of the church, is now helped by one of its members; Ananias, as is often the case in Acts, receives his instructions in a vision. Scene Four (17-19a): Ananias does as he is told; Saul received his sight, is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit.

At this point, Saul becomes no longer “this man” but “brother Saul.” And the church is left to marvel at the power of God to turn the enemy into the brother.

Willimon notes (p. 78) that the story is not a subjective approach, but an objective approach. It is not about Saul’s inner psychological struggles, his wrestling with his conscience, but about a man who has an encounter with God and is changed by it.

19b-31, the persecutor becomes the persecuted – Saul immediately begins to proclaim Jesus as “the Son of God.”

There are now two types of disciples and apostles: those like the 12 who were eyewitnesses to what Jesus said and did and who testify to and guard the tradition, and those like Saul whose faith and life are focused on a present encounter with the risen Christ. That present encounter with the risen Christ, with little concern for stories of Jesus’ earthly life, will dominate Saul’s life, faith and teaching for the rest of his life.

The disciples in Jerusalem are naturally very suspicious of Saul, and so it takes Barnabas to bring him to them, assuring them of the sincerity of his conversion. Luke combines here both types of discipleship, and the approaches both from tradition and from personal experience. Willimon (p. 82) comments: “Both sets of disciples suffer for the truth, both serve the same Lord; though they come to him by different routes, both need one another to ensure both power and fidelity in the contemporary community. Without the experience, the ‘facts’ can be cold and dead. Without the test of tradition, our spiritual experience can become radically subjective, severed from the community, and flights of mere fancy. Not every good news is the good news.”

He reflects G.K Chesterton’s warning about viewing our faith only from our limited, contemporary perspective without taking into account also the views of people of other times and cultures. Chesterton cautioned against “the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking about.”

31: The church is now spread throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria and temporarily lives in peace.

9:32-43, Peter’s healing of Aeneas and raising of Tabitha – These accounts further the story of God’s work of healing and teaching in the early church, and they bring the reader’s attention back to Peter to prepare the way for his encounter with Cornelius in chapter 10.