“A poem should not mean, but be.” So said one of the great poets of the twentieth century, Archibald MacLeish. Meaning is important – direction and description are crucially important to life, but few people are motivated by “meaning” alone. The cliché about actions speaking louder than words gets at the heart of it. Luke seemed to know that quite well and he applied that lesson in the Book of Acts. As we begin the Lenten season today, it seems an appropriate time to meditate on the growth of the Early Church.
Luke could have written a statistical analysis of the growth of the church – if he had lived today, we might expect him to do that on a few PowerPoint slides with a cool animation or two and a little laser pointer in his hand to note the ups and downs. He could have written an epistle-like book that summarized the key teachings of the apostles in a handy “talking points” fashion. He even could have written a narrative that focused primarily on long quotations from the apostles with just a small bit of context, something more like the continuing coverage of the Israelites after the Exodus. But, he didn’t.
Instead, Luke wrote a full fledged narrative that seems to adopt many of the same qualities that one might see in an epic. There is an invocation of sorts, not to the muses, but given by the muse behind all these events, the Holy Spirit. From there, the apostles went boldly forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit, giving speeches that demonstrate the immediate triumph of the Gospel in their own lives. Theses speeches often include recasting and expansion of the information given in the narrative, another quality of classical epics, and one that serves to give the written word a near vocal quality. While Luke has a serious and high-minded purpose, he recognized the importance of telling a good story too.
The Gospel is far too valuable to drown in a death of prosaic dryness! It is a story that deserves the fullness of a rich and visual report, carefully laid out so that the reader can see the amazing power of the triumph of the Gospel. Though the stories to us can be all too familiar and hard to get excited about, these are surprising events! Why ewould Gamaliel so comfortably assert that there was no need to actively snuff out the Christians in chapter 5 if not for the surprising nature of the continued expansion of the church later in Acts? Much as Goliath never thought he had to worry about that little shepherd boy who was walking up to him, so too the opponents of the Gospel had every reason to expect that this movement too would pass. Quickly.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t opposition. Luke continually supplies details of how the epic hero – the Gospel – is facing bitter enemies that ought to bring it down. External persecution follows everywhere, from the high priests in chapter 4, the determined Saul in chapters 7-9, pagans such as Demetrius in chapter 19, and so many more. The Gospel does not arrive by default; it does not spread as matter of convenience. Rather, it spreads only by the Holy Spirit, who overcomes showstopper after showstopper that should have made Acts in to a tragedy. It triumphs by being. It progresses by being alive and transformative.
Like every good storyteller, though, Luke is conscious of the fact that those he supports aren’t prefect. A good writer describes the flaws of the protagonist and not just the antagonist. And Luke does this brilliantly. If he had fancied himself a propagandist, he might have painted the apostles as perfectly clear minded fellows who were bold, determined and ready to do all of Jesus’s mission without any convincing. Instead, we meet a sad band of followers, who, while giving triumphant speeches at times, can’t get the message. As early as Acts 1, we find they still do not understand the nature of the Messiah. There is lying amongst the ranks of the young church (Acts 5) and even ethnic division (Acts 6). These flaws ought to be the tragic flaw that brings down the hero, but like Odysseus, the hero of this story – the Gospel prevails. It prevails against its external foes and its internal foibles.
Luke accomplishes two things by these means. First we can be encouraged that we are not all that different from the people in Acts. When we have disagreements, we can see that even two people as faithful as Paul and Barnabas had major disagreements (Acts 15.36-38). When we realize that we are not doing as good of job bringing all cultures into our midst, we can see that the early church struggled with this too. When some in the congregation seem to betray everyone’s’ trust, we realize that Ananias and Sapphira did that long before. None of these events are justified by Luke, but rather, like a good hero, the church in its triumphant declaration of the Gospel is “someone” that we can see ourselves in.
Aristotle suggested that a good drama needed a main character that was neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil, because a person of either extreme we cannot connect with, and, if they come to a fitting end of one kind or another, everything seems right without the events impacting us. Likewise, if Luke had white washed the history of the church, we might find that though it was perfect, and we could cheer for it, we could not really associate with it, given the less than perfect reality of the church today. The church today triumphs through both internal and external adversity – and so did the church in Acts.
Second, Luke’s inclusion of the flaws keeps us from seeing Acts as merely a feel good story. When we righteously condemn that certain widows got preferential treatment (Acts 6) or scorn the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), we soon realize, much as David did when being addressed by Nathan, that the story being told is a mirror to our own condition. I lie, I discriminate, I fail. Luke uses history to bring us to repentance, to catharsis – the book of Acts is a tool for the Holy Spirit to use to bring us to repentance. And, of course, once brought there, Luke reminds us again and again and again of what our goal should be: to work as part of the Holy Spirit’s triumphant spread of the Gospel.
The story not only starts in the midst of the action, but it ends in the midst of the action. The Gospel does not finish spreading. The lights fade and the camera pans with Paul still preaching unfettered (Acts 28.31). The vicious persecutor who was broken and turned into the Apostle to the Gentiles is still hard at work as we depart; he is still putting in the good word for the good news that is triumphant. Much as Homer did in the Odyssey, Luke leaves us here with an improved hero, a triumphant hero, but a hero with much still to accomplish. The triumphant Gospel does not end and sit statically meaning, it continues to be.
Acts is both exciting and intimidating to me because of this triumphant Gospel. Homer and Virgil never ask me to enter into their epic worlds and share in the triumph, but God does ask each one of us to be “fellow workers” in His triumphant Gospel. In sorting this out, I find comfort in both Peter and Paul. Both of them are reluctant participants in the triumph – Peter does not want to be involved with Gentile evangelism, but God makes him do so. Paul wants to destroy the church, but God makes him do a 180. Given that I am a Christian, obviously I have no desire to destroy the church – but I do sympathize with Paul’s position and doubly so Peter’s. At times I resent and resist that which violates my comfort zone, my traditions. And, indeed, sometimes it is good to stand up for “cleanliness” – though not for salvation, the Jerusalem counsel did note that some behaviors were worth strongly encouraging (Acts 15); but all too often, it has more to do with me. I can be like the Pharisees who tithed their garden herbs (Luke 11.42), or Peter who sat under Jesus and heard the command to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1) and yet needed a vision just to go down the road to a Gentile’s house!
How many times am I like Peter, or worse, Ananias? I give my time to benefit others, but really just want to hear praise (and make sure the praise that goes to me is greater than that which goes to others around me). How many times am I like King Agrippa – well aware of what the Spirit is urging, and yet content to sit back and say, “So fast? No way” (Acts 26.32). Even in this essay, and this very confession, am I really doing this to bring glory to God and serve the triumph of the Gospel or in hopes that I will receive praise for the “land money” I am donating?
The convicting element is strong in Acts, but the triumph of the Gospel is stronger. Those who are willing to let God correct them are still used! What wonderful news! And news that impacts me directly – without the unfettered Gospel preaching that Paul was allowed to do, would I be here today in seminary saved by the Gospel of grace?
This triumphant Gospel promises curves in the road. We can see that God often works through what appear to be inconveniences, problems and setbacks. This is reassuring, as I have sought to understand my calling and serve in my church. Over the last year, I have been given the blessing to teach the youth group Sunday School class. It is not an opportunity I sought and not one I really had wanted. I was reluctant to say the least – I have always felt called to teaching college age and older, not high schoolers. And when I started, the project seemed anything but triumphant. The students did not seem interested (to understate the situation) and they didn’t remember anything afterwards. I felt hopeless. And yet God has worked in this to the continuing triumph of his Gospel. I have learned a great deal of humility that I lacked (I need more!) and have become better at dealing with the ins and outs of this sort of ministry. Like Peter, God put me out of my comfort zone – but not for an arbitrary purpose, but as part of the continuing epic triumph of the Gospel, however small my part may be.
And that is the message of Acts, the message I continue to struggle to internalize and continue to draw hope from where God has presently placed me to serve. The message of Acts is not simply meaning – even splendid meaning filled with great doctrines – it is being. It is not a proclamation of triumph – it is the active, living triumph of the Gospel. It is a triumph, an epic, a grand story filled with imperfect people – like you and like I – who are called, indeed, drafted to serve that story to push it forward. Forward it is pushed with purpose and direction to spread the Gospel unhindered to the ends of the earth. Active triumph.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.