This morning we continue our exploration of Christian beginnings as conceived by the author of the Acts of the Apostles who is thought to be the same person as wrote the Gospel of Luke. To be sure, he will have expected these two books to be read consecutively with the life of Jesus giving rise to Christian community.
Last week, Anne was encouraging us to appreciate how at the heart of this transition from the ministry of Jesus to the birth of the church was transformation as Jesus’ first followers found renewed confidence and fresh impetus to live out the faith that Jesus had embodied so fully and entrusted to them before his death.
And through this process of transformation, those disciples discovered a quality of life that evidently was intoxicating joyous and appealing. Luke tells us that they were accused of being drunk (Acts 2.13-15) and to interpret this aright we need to recall that in biblical times wine was a symbol of abundant life – an association that was not lost on Jesus and goes someway to accounting for the importance of shared meals and feasting within his own mission.
We also need to step back for a moment and remember that Luke was writing two generations removed from the period he purports to relate. What is more, he writes as a gentile Christian for a gentile Christian audience, almost certainly based outside of Palestine. And although, as explained in the opening verses of his Gospel (Luke 1.1-4), Luke evidently carried out a good deal of research to inform his narrative, he nonetheless relates the past to inform the present and, inevitably, draws on the present to interpret the past.
In truth, we have little access to the past except through its continuing impact on future generations who recognise the enduring significance of former events as a source of meaning and as a means of interpreting contemporary experience.
So Luke writes, at least in part, to give meaning and significance to the gentile Christian community to which he belonged as well as to commend Christian faith to those outside it.
With this is mind, it is striking how Luke traces Christian beginnings back to Jerusalem. Why? Why is it so important that Christianity’s epicentre is the holiest of places within Jewish faith? Part of the reason, I think, is because Luke understands Christian community not so much as the beginning of something new as the fulfilment of something ancient, worthy and enduring.
We need a little background to makes sense of this. It is commonplace, especially in churches like St Mark’s, to describe Jesus as a Jew. In certainly respects, however, this is anachronistic and misleading. You may be surprised to learn that the word ‘Jew’ is almost entirely missing from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) and, in the New Testament, the Greek word usually translated as ‘Jew’, Ioudaios, is primarily a regional descriptor, denoting a resident of Judea. ‘Judean’ is perhaps a more satisfactory translation and, in this sense, Jesus wasn’t a Jew; he hailed from Galilee, an ethnically diverse country with a very different history.
Jesus may not have been a Judean, but he was an Israelite – a term first used to describe a confederation of tribes, including the ancestors of Hebrews once enslaved in Egypt and the indigenous peoples of Palestine, who wove a common history from their tribal heritages, gathering together rituals and practices from their traditions to shape a pattern of living and give expression to a shared hope.
In Jesus’ time, an Israelite was someone whose sense of self was formed by the great stories of that history, of a creator God who wills blessing upon all people and entrusts that vocation to a particular group, a group God rescued from captivity and called into covenant and promised a homeland. It’s a history that bears witness to the struggles both within and beyond that community as it sought to be faithful to God’s vocation and to find somewhere to live freely and in peace.
To be an Israelite in Jesus’ time was to find in the Ten Commandments a rule of life and to discover in the cycles of daily prayer, Sabbath observance and annual Festivals a source of sustenance. It was to look to the Jerusalem Temple for assurance and inspiration that God had not abandoned them and would yet fulfil all that had been promised.
Israelite was indeed an identity marker, but not so much in racial terms of blood and lineage as one that engendered a sense of belonging, supplied a pattern of living and inculcated particular convictions and aspirations.
Now Luke was writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the cornerstone of Israelite identity. But he writes as if it is still standing because we wants to underline not only the continuity between the Israelite way and the Christian way, but also to emphasize that the latter should be seen as a fulfilment of the former – not in the sense of replacing it, but of being the means by which its vocation to bless all people would be realized. As such, for him, Christianity is not something new, but a fresh embodiment of something ancient, worthy and enduring – credentials that in his time bestowed great authority, gravitas and plausibility.
And it is for this reason that Luke also stresses how the first people who were attracted to or at least intrigued by this community of blessing that found in Jesus a source of renewal and fulfilment of Israelite aspiration are themselves Israelites (Acts 2.22, 29), as we read in this morning’s passage. And, according to Luke, they are attracted or intrigued by something they had observed.
This is important and is a pattern repeated throughout Acts, reflecting I suspect the experience of Luke’s own community as well, namely that Christian mission is first and foremost about being and doing; and it is the being and doing that engenders response, causing others to ask why and creating opportunity for evangelism – for sharing the good news of Jesus.
Notice how Peter’s speech begins, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.’ (Acts 2.15) He begins by accounting for their extraordinarily joyous and ecstatic behaviour which had evidently caught the attention of fellow Israelites.
And as that account unfolds it draws on a common inheritance, citing the Hebrew Scriptures both to explain their own state of being and to commend Jesus as Messiah and Lord – titles they would have readily recognised and, to some measure, understood. He doesn’t seek to force his message upon them, nor does he seek to explain the inexplicable by means of the unintelligible or unfamiliar. He interprets Jesus in their own terms, not claiming too much for him so that they would be caused to stumble or forced to reject Jesus outright:
You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. (Acts 2.22-23).
Here Jesus isn’t divine, but inspired. Inspired by the same Spirit of life the prophet Joel anticipated and the first disciples experienced certainly after, if not before, the crucifixion. And one that, it is claimed, is available to all who open their hearts and minds to the way of Jesus.
Surely there is much for us to reflect on here. For one thing, recognition of Israelite tradition as a formative part of our own identity and acknowledgement that the Jesus-movement began life within this matrix and may well have remained there if later generations of Christians hadn’t felt constrained to divinize its saviour.
Luke also brings into focus the relationship between mission and evangelism; for him, they are both essential with priority falling upon the being and doing, on the witness of the community’s common life and its commitment to embracing Jesus’ practice of faith. But, equally, he stresses the need to be ready to make explicit what would otherwise remain implicit, by giving an account of our faith and doing so confidently and with conviction – using language that is accessible and intelligible whilst recognising that Jesus is not diminished by presenting him as one of us.
In a recent edition of the Church Times, there is a photo of a three storey high mural of a breakdancing Jesus in down-town Bristol. There is no cross or empty tomb; he is muscled, well-toned and bearing nothing but a loin cloth, hand-standing on a single limb, exuding vitality, manliness and control, inviting questions, requiring explanation. One embodiment of the street messiah of our time.
I wonder what messianic contours shape Christ’s appeal and define his meaning for us? I wonder how we can make Christ visible in our lives and within the community we are called to serve in his name?