The Book of Acts

If the assigned lections do not serve to advance the mission of this congregation at this time, then the lections need to be changed.  During a New Testament Narrative course with Dr. Matthew Skinner in June of 2008, immersion in the extended narrative of the birth and growth of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles (Acts) opened my eyes to a specific limitation of the lectionary: in the three year lectionary cycle, we hear of the Ascension, Pentecost, Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ household, and a few scattered stories from Acts.  The church never hears a sequential narrative of Acts over a period of time.  Many of the Acts passages one is likely to hear in worship fall on the Baptism of Jesus Sunday or during the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost each year, though not in any apparent order.  For example: in Year B, the lectionary reads passages from Acts chapters 19, 10, 4, 3, 4, 8, 10, 1, and 2 (in this odd order), and then, aside from a few festival days, Acts is dropped again until the next year.[1] There are only a few stories in Acts which are well known by our church members, and even then, many could not tell you where, for example, the story of Pentecost is in the Bible, or how it fits into a wider story of the early church.  A regular worshipper will likely hear Acts passages about ten times each year, or on about one out of every five Sundays—concentrated during the Easter season and focusing on a few key passages, often out of chronological order.  Acts deserves more sustained, chronological attention in our preaching than it receives in the RCL.

Acts is a unique book in the library of the Bible.[2] While there are four Gospels which tell the story of Jesus, only one of the Gospel writers, Luke,[3] wrote a sequel to his Gospel which tells the story of the early followers of Jesus: Acts.  In fact, Luke-Acts provides biblical justification for casting one’s sermonic net wider than the RCL allows.  The first chapter of Luke, for example, grounds the story of Jesus firmly in the Old Testament witness.  Luke’s literary style and description of the story of John the Baptist’s Nativity, the Annunciation to Mary, and Mary and Zechariah’s songs echo the style and themes of Old Testament history, poetry, and prophecy.  Luke 1 portrays the awaited birth of Jesus as a decisive act of mercy by God for God’s people Israel, remembering the “holy covenant” God made with Abraham (Luke 1:72).  The Old Testament narrative—the Holy Scriptures for Luke the author—is essential to understanding the significance of Jesus.  It is necessary to read the Old Testament, not merely to complement or illuminate individual Gospel stories, but to know the full story that the good news of Jesus Christ completes.

In its canonical position, Luke’s sequel Acts bridges the gap between the Gospels and the letters and writings of Paul and the rest of the New Testament by providing those writings a narrative context.  Acts tells an open-ended story of the church of Jesus Christ, beginning at the end of the Gospel story with Jesus’ Ascension and promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-11) and ending with Paul under house arrest in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).  Like Luke, the book of Acts is grounded firmly in the Old Testament story.  This is seen clearly in the preaching of the apostles.  In Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14ff), Peter explains both the Pentecost event and the significance of Jesus through quotations from Scripture.   In his speech in Acts 7, Stephen recounts the Old Testament story from Abraham, through the Exodus and conquest of Canaan, until the time of Kings David and Solomon, and Stephen connects that history with Jesus’ story.   In Acts 13, Paul also connects the Old Testament narrative with Jesus: “we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus” (13:32-33).  These sermons in Acts ground the good news of Jesus Christ in the history of the Old Testament: not just in individual pericopes, but in the whole biblical story.  This is not the only form of preaching in Acts: when Paul is preaching to the Athenians, who do not know the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, Paul preaches on a more philosophical basis.  And yet, even there, Paul preaches a biblical vision of God as the Creator of everything, “who is Lord of heaven and earth, [who] does not live in shrines made by human hands,” and who demands “all people everywhere to repent” (17:24, 30).  Luke and Acts together make a strong biblical case for respecting the integrity of the Old Testament witness in preaching.

Like its partner the Gospel of Luke, Acts is a coherent, complex story.  Acts is the story of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy at his Ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Acts tells the story of the Spirit-driven witness of the apostles, beginning among the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and moving outward geographically to Rome and socially to the Gentiles.  Theologically, Acts is an unfinished work, since the mission of the church does not end in Acts, and the return of Jesus “in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11) is yet to occur.  We live somewhere in time between Acts 28 and Revelation 21,[4] between the apostolic church and the new heaven and the new earth.

Acts is an important book of the Bible, connecting the story of God’s people Israel in the Old Testament and Jesus’ story in the Gospels with the continuing story of Christ’s Church, providing a narrative bridge between the Gospels and the other New Testament writings.  Acts also helps to bridge the gap between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and our lives as disciples of Jesus, through the continuing presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.  During the course on Acts, I decided to do a twelve week sermon series preaching through the book of Acts during the fall of 2008.  My goal in the sermon series on Acts was to help us see our lives as Christians and our life together as a church as part of the continuing story of Acts, and as such, as part of the metanarrative of the Bible.  While the agenda of this series was to experience the book of Acts as the story of the early church, following Dr. Skinner’s suggestion I avoided labeling the series with a catchy theme title that predetermined the focus of the series.  Rather, with the simple title “The Book of Acts for Today,” I let the biblical story unfold week by week.  For this project, I continued my weekly men’s Bible study breakfast on Monday mornings, which focused on the Bible passage for the following Sunday.  This was well received.  They got a preview of the upcoming text, and our conversation helped to focus the sermon.[5]

I wanted to see what difference it made to our congregation to hear the basic story of Acts over 12 weeks of preaching and Bible study.  We did not read every single passage of Acts, but enough of the key stories in sequence so that we developed a sense of the whole narrative, and began to see ourselves and our story within that larger story.  I consciously connected the sermons from week to week, summarizing what went before, connecting the current text to the wider narrative of Acts, and looking ahead to the next week’s story.  The whole process of stepping back from the lectionary, as well as from my own preaching practice, helped me to reflect on my sermon planning and preparation process.  I now approach sermon writing with an intentional eye on what I am preaching, not just one Sunday at a time, but over time.  Sermons are always episodic and self-contained, in that they are focused on a single pericope and preached alone in the midst of a weekly worship service.  And yet, if one does not make narrative or thematic connections between the texts one preaches from week to week or fit them into a wider Biblical context, then over time one is misrepresenting the Bible as a disjointed collection of unrelated pericopes.  Preaching on Acts with an eye to its context in Scripture over a twelve week period gave me a deeper knowledge of one part of the Biblical story, allowed me to make connections from week to week, and draw the congregation into the story of Acts more effectively than occasional, episodic preaching on Acts texts.  As one member of the Preaching Response Group noted, we do not consciously remember much from all of the sermons we hear.  With the practice of returning to a continuing narrative week after week, however, the members of my congregation got a sense of the story of the early church as the story of our church and all churches together.

[1] See appendix D for a chart of Acts texts in the RCL.

[2] I am deeply indebted to the commentaries and books on Acts listed in the Bibliography, as well as the course with Dr. Skinner, for my understanding of Acts.

[3] Using the customary name for the essentially anonymous author of Luke and Acts.

[4] This point was made in a slightly different way in group discussion at the H.B. Hanson Preaching Seminar led by David Lose at the Mount Carmel Retreat Center in Alexandria, MN, on January 6, 2009 (Epiphany).

[5] To see how the series was organized, see appendix E.