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Posts Tagged ‘acts’

We have tendencies to compartmentalize, tendencies to keep things in places where they are easy to control or keep track of. We do this with the things of heaven and the things of earth. We are practiced at keeping heavenly things out of the details of earth.

Acts chapter two disagrees with this theory as heaven spills out over the earth. It comes down like fire.  Fire is dangerous, still we are willing to use it. We are quite ok with fire as long as we can use it to our advantage. It’s not much different talking about God. God is dangerous, still we are willing to use God. We are quite ok with God as long as we can use Him to our advantage. 

If we are able to keep fire where it belongs, like in a fireplace, we can safely deal with it. If we can keep God inside some religious theory, we can convince ourselves He is safe to deal with. But on Pentecost Sunday, the fire got loose and did not stay where it could be controlled. It’s as if the fire left the fireplace and starts to light up the rest of the house. 

We keep trying to turn God into something safe to work with. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk much about Pentecost. We keep trying to put the fire back into the fireplace. We keep trying to put God someplace we can control Him. We keep trying to act as if heaven didn’t spill out on the earth. 

We sometimes try to tell ourselves that Pentecost is a wake-up call, a mini-revival where sluggish believers become full of the Spirit. The thing is, that doesn’t really fit the story the New Testament seems to be telling. In that story, Pentecost is more like the evidence that the kingdom of God is in play and it is in play “on earth as it is in heaven.”

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Late in the New Testament book of Acts we find ourselves in a shipwreck, another potential barrier to stop the spread of the gospel. Shipwreck looks to be a real barrier. For nearly an entire chapter we are on our way down. The storm is severe. The temperatures are cold. Acts says they were literally trying to hold the boat together by tying ropes around it. They toss nearly everything overboard. They lose the lifeboat. Eventually the boat is destroyed by the pounding surf. Threats are made to kill some of the passengers. They are forced to either swim or float to shore.

Luke, the author of this account wants us to know that shipwreck presents a real chance of not surviving. He wants us to be aware of the stormy conditions and cold winter water. He wants us to think about the dangers of hypothermia and drowning. Luke is an adventure junkie. And he also wants us to know that surviving shipwreck does not remove them from danger.

The crew, all of them, survives only to find themselves on unknown shores. What dangers might lurk here? In Odyssey, Homer asks the question in a similar situation, “Alas, to the land of what mortals have I now come? Are they insolent, wild and unjust? Or are they hospitable to strangers and fear the gods in their thoughts?” (Does anyone else think Luke carried a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in his travel bag)?

Shore is a very real danger. When we meet the residents there, they are called “islanders” or “natives” or “barbarous people.” How will these barbarians treat the ship wrecked strangers? Has the gospel survived shipwreck only to be stopped by barbarians on shore? We know that Paul survived shipwreck only to be bitten by a poisonous viper. But Luke wants us to know he simply shook it off into the fire.

Luke wants us to know the barbarians not only spared them but provided a fire to warm them. They then offered generous hospitality and when they were ready to sail again, they furnished the shipwrecked strangers with all the supplies they needed. The kindness of the barbarian islanders is the highest kind. Shipwrecked strangers have no way to repay.

Luke wants us to know this is an adventure. But this is no mere exploratory voyage. What looked to be business of the state was instead the possibility of God. Even shipwreck, snakebite, and unknown strangers that at first look like barriers become opportunities for the gospel to spread. There is no doubt that when Luke thought gospel he thought about adventure.

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Lydia. From the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, and a worshiper of God. We meet her in the New Testament book of Acts. We meet her in Philippi, but from the brief introduction, we know she is not a native of that city. We also know she is sympathetic to Jewish religion. In fact, we find her first on the Sabbath where the Jews were going to pray.

Acts tells us about a little about pagans who practiced a Jewish like lifestyle. Though they were not proper converts, they were “worshipers of God.” They cleansed their houses of pagan idolatry and ate kosher. They prayed to God, gave alms, donated to Jewish communities, and on the Sabbath, like Lydia, they could be found at a place of prayer. This lifestyle allowed them to socialize and perhaps do business with fully practicing Jews.

Douglas A. Campbell tells us that a “seller of purple fabrics” implies Lydia was in the toga business. So, here is a toga lesson. Togas were code and everyone understood what your toga said about you. We already know the way this works. We ourselves wear clothes that say something about us. We see others walking around in certain clothes and we begin to make certain inferences about them. This is not a twenty first century phenomenon. It has been this way for a long time, at least since first century people wore their togas around in Roman cities like Philippi.

Purple was the color of choice. The emperor’s toga may have been totally purple. To have purple in your toga meant something respectable. However, purple was expensive. True purple was made by crushing purpura rock snails. Campbell estimates 12,000 snails would produce about 1.4 grams of dye. This is enough purple to perhaps stain the hem of one Roman toga. It would have been less expensive to sprinkle your toga with gold dust. So, even a toga with purple stripes would suggest some wealth.

What if the poor had a flair for fashion? What could they do? They certainly could not afford snail purple. But they could purchase a cheaper substitute. In the regions of Phrygia and Lydia, a plant could be found that produced a lesser purple. Though not the quality of snail purple, it was much more affordable. This was likely the business Lydia was involved in. Campbell tells us her name actually suggests she was once a slave named by her owners after her place of origin, the Lydian region.

We do not want to overlook Lydia. She becomes instrumental in the beginnings of the church in Philippi. Once a slave girl, now free, she relocated to Philippi and continued the business of selling purple fabrics. Interested in religion, she hears the gospel and receives its message. The text says she and her household were baptized. And then Lydia, first convert in Europe, offered her home as a place for the church to gather.

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I have often heard well-meaning persons say something like this, “Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. This is a safe place for you.” I think I know what the speaker intends when using such language. I think that the one saying these words actually desires the presence of the Spirit. Still, these words sound strange to me.

Anyone who has read the New Testament, the source where we learn most about the Spirit, may wonder where anyone gets the idea that the Spirit is waiting for us to extend an invitation. However, we do find that Jesus tells his followers to wait on the Spirit. And there is no suggestion that the Spirit requests a safe place, though we might find that the Spirit can be somewhat dangerous. (Check with Ananias and Saphira about this). As Jesus told Nicodemus, you “do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” Predictability is not something we find with the Holy Spirit.

While we cannot define the Spirit in ways that sound like we have figured out all the Spirit is up to and where the Spirit will show up next, we can read the book of Acts and observe the Spirit showing up unexpectedly and recklessly and on its own terms. We will not be able to make the Spirit into something it is not, but when praying for the Spirit we can agree with the wise words of Todd Hunter who said “Whatever God meant by sending the Spirit – give us that.”

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“I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times when we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.”

from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 103

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I am convinced that Luke is eyewitness to some of the events he reports in Acts.  Having said that, he seems to disappear in the middle of chapter twenty-one and is gone until chapter twenty-seven.  While we cannot know exactly what is going on for Luke during that time, I think he was exploring the neighboring communities for people who could share some stories about the Jesus movement and the spread of the news about Jesus.

On account of where he is when we lose him, it is possible that he could have made personal contact with James (the brother of Jesus), Mary (the mother of John Mark), Mary Magdalene, Joanna (whose husband was the manager of Herod’s household and who could have shared stories about the Herods), and maybe even Mary the mother of Jesus.  Even if Luke was not able to talk directly with these people he may have talked to others who knew their stories.

I have to think that this is quite possible since just prior to his disappearance Luke tells us about people he is meeting and places he is staying.  He meets disciples in Tyre and in Ptolemais.  He stays in Caesarea with Philip and his four daughters (what a convenient place to hear stories about what later becomes chapter eight).  On his way to Jerusalem he stays with Mnason.  And he arrives in Jerusalem to be greeted by James and all the elders.

It is likely that he asked for and received directions in some instances.  It would have been rather easy to find Judas, Straight Street, Damascus and Simon the tanner, House by the Sea, Joppa.  These addresses are clear enough that a mail carrier could have delivered mail there. While we do not get such explicit addresses for Jerusalem and Caesarea, it does not mean that Luke did not ask for and receive this kind of information.

What are we to make of this?  Does hospitality play a larger role in the spread of the good news than we might first imagine?  It is possible that lodging and meals and hosting are extremely important contexts for meeting, eating, praying, and storytelling.  Is this one way that early traditions were passed on and where various events are collected and retold?  Did Luke find these people and places and interview them for his Gospel and for the Acts?  I can’t help but think that Luke wants us to know that these people and their hospitality played a significant role in spreading the good news.

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The conclusion to Acts includes a lively voyage to Rome.  It is interesting that this prompts discussion on whether Luke was influenced by Homer’s Odyssey.  I find this discussion fascinating and am not surprised that Luke may have enjoyed stories of the adventure genre.  If Luke loved reading adventures like these, how excited would he have been to participate in such a story?  This seems to be the case as here we find him writing about this voyage as the “first person peripheral narrator.”

In the Gospel and early in Acts, Luke the historian tells us that he relied on investigation and eyewitnesses.  But later in Acts, most fully in chapters 27-28, he implies that he is a participant in the spread of the good news.  Many episodes in Acts may be summaries of information received from others, but here with Luke on deck we get details that he may have witnessed with his own eyes.

Perhaps his own experience told him that an audience would enjoy such a story.  I think Ben Witherington is right when he suggests that we should not ignore Luke’s desire that the reader gain information but also experience enjoyment while hearing this story.  Perhaps this section of Acts is intended “to keep his listener on the edge of his seat.”  Again, with Witherington, I admire Luke’s ability to integrate an interesting voyage into his story while staying on course with his purpose of “chronicling the spread of the unstoppable good news.”

It is important to remember that the same Spirit that saturated us early in Acts may be less visible on this voyage, but is no less present.  The Spirit evident by wind and fire is present during shipwreck and snakebite.  The same Spirit who added three thousand to their number in chapter two is there in chapter twenty-eight when some were persuaded but others would not believe.  The same story that overcame a language barrier during a Galilean sermon is still being told openly and unhindered by a prisoner of the empire while under house arrest.

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