This week the annual Clergy Conference of the Diocese of Christchurch is being held. We have a range of speakers and I am honoured to be leading two Bible studies on the Acts of the Apostles. I have asked participants at the Conference to do some "pre-reading" which has been emailed out to them. For convenience of conferees I am also publishing the pre-reading material here so that it can be accessed via the internet by conferees if they wish. Hopefully regular readers of this blog find something of interest here. If not, there will be a post next week!
Two studies in the Acts of the Apostles Pre reading
the Acts of the Apostles would be useful
The Holy Spirit leads the church
The church adapts and changes
Introduction to the Studies: Luke’s contexts and our
contexts Pre-reading for the Conference
Likely we are familiar with the great debate about when Acts
early 60s AD, in keeping with the ending in
which Paul is alive and well in Rome, but by the end of that decade he is
or 80s AD, because Acts is clearly written after
Luke’s Gospel which is after Mark and probably after Matthew, and if Mark is
dated to 70AD or later, then …;
or even later, say 100 AD++, because it has a
kind of maturity about its retrospect on the early church, it has no interest
in the early return of Jesus (i.e. eschatology has given way to history) and it
is not attested in any way by later writings as known before the second century
But that debate introduces us to thinking about Luke’s contexts:
the church and its contemporary theology which he inhabits, the Roman empire
and its response to Christians and their disruptive message, the religious
world of the Mediterranean and its receptiveness, welcoming here and violently
reactive there, and, obviously importantly, the world through human history as
the sphere in which the “history of salvation” or God’s purposeful relationship
with the world unfolds, made visible through Israel, Israel’s Messiah Redeemer
and now the movement of Jesus’ disciples.
In relationship to these contexts, what is Luke saying
through Acts, what are his significant themes and idea? Here are five matters
which I think are important to Luke:
Soteriology 1: Life involves choices and
God will hold us accountable for our decisions. Judgement is coming and it
matters how we have lived and whether we are saved or not by Jesus the Messiah
Redeemer. Whether we (say) think of Lukan parables which consistently highlight
choices humans make, for good or ill, for justice and mercy or injustice and
unkindness; or of the crowd on the day of Pentecost or the Philippian jailer,
salvation matters and news of salvation spreads through apostolic mission.
Missiology: God’s relationship with the
world, the advance of salvation through history is worked out through human
agents: Moses, David, the prophets before the coming of Jesus; Jesus; then the
apostles, notably Paul, with a cast of other characters: deacons, evangelists,
mission partners such as Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila.
Pneumatology: Yet the human agents are
empowered through God who is actively present in the world, notably in Acts
through the Holy Spirit.
Soteriology 2: Salvation is for the whole
world, for Gentiles and for Jews, for Israel and now, as significant
developments in the early years of the church demonstrate, for all nations.
Ecclesiology: There is some complexity to
the telling of the history of salvation. When Luke writes his Gospel, he
declares at its beginning that he is improving on other gospels. When Luke
writes Acts (to the same recipient as his Gospel), he does not say anything
about his view of Paul, but his view of Paul is (arguably) closer to the Paul
of the (generally agreed) later Pauline writings (such as Ephesians, the Pastoral
Epistles) than the earliest writings (such as Romans and Galatians). It is
difficult to find any hint in the sermons of Paul in Acts of the theological
agonising over justification in Romans and Galatians. Despite magnificent
attempts to harmonise the Paul of Acts with the Paul of Pauline writings, there
are differences between Luke’s Paul and Paul’s self-understanding.
Dare we summarise Luke’s main thesis? This is what I see
driving Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles:
God’s plan to save the world from sin and its effects will
not be thwarted by any opposition, whether an imperial kingdom, a demonic power
or a human agency motivated by mistaken theology.
What are our contexts as we read and reflect on the Acts of
In what follows I try to match some of today’s contexts with
the five areas Luke addresses:
Soteriology 1: Our Western world is
ethically crazy. We can leave a spouse for another person and cry “privacy” to
protect ourselves from judgement. But post one “incorrect” sentence on social
media twenty years ago and we can be “cancelled” today when the sentence is
re-publ;ished to scorn and condemnation. We can freely and loudly accuse Israel
of genocide against Palestine but any criticism of China’s treatment of
Tibetans or Uighurs is to be muted.
Ethical imperatives in the West today are determined without reference
to God and also without awareness of their deeply Christian character. For
example, on the matter of racism and sexism, there is little or no awareness
that if Christianity had not disrupted and displaced Hellenism and Paganism, we
would be a very racist, very sexist society. Yet, this ethically crazy Western
world offers little by way of salvation (in a social sense): how does a
“cancelled” person, for example, find forgiveness and restoration?
Missiology: As ministers of the Gospel,
leaders of the church, we are very conscious of our human agency within God’s
purposes, but we struggle with questions of where the next generation of
ministers and leaders is coming from, of why our roles are so constrained by
compliance matters, and of how we will master multiple forms of communication.
Paul just stood up and spoke …!
Pneumatology: There have been seasons in
the history of the church when the Holy Spirit has been very visible in working
out growth in conversions and in deepening faith: in Acts, for example, and for
some of us, in the period known as the “charismatic era” (1970s/80s in
particular). Where is the Holy Spirit at work today? What is the Holy Spirit
saying to the church?
Soteriology 2: Questions of inclusion for
the church have not ended. Today we continue to engage with questions of
inclusion of men and women, Maori and Pakeha, of multiple cultures with Tangata
Tiriti. We are a Diocese where there is a critique of our leadership as “too
male”, our congregations as “absent of many men”. And it is observable that
most of our congregations do not reflect the multi-cultural make up of our
society. How do we as church enable all the different peoples of our society hear
the gospel of salvation?
Ecclesiology: Differences in
understanding of our faith have been with us forever (so Luke’s writings attest
to; as also, other writings within Scripture). Sometimes differences spill over
into division (note, e.g. Barnabas and Paul’s sharp difference of opinion over
John Mark and the subsequent schism in their mission, Acts 15:36-41). Always
our context two millennia later is that of a divided church: many
denominations, new churches (if not new denominations) continue to emerge to
reinforce the confusing nature of Christianity to those who are not Christians.
If I had a dollar for everyone who asks why we cannot have just one Cathedral
in the centre of Christchurch … Some of our divisions kind of work out fine –
most ecumenical relationships involve lots of good will and good humour (in my
experience); but others are painful (as this Diocese has experienced recently).
Finally for our pre-reading:
In terms of our Diocesan context for the Conference as a
whole, and for the Bible Studies in particular, we should also note the
following matters (in no particular order of importance):
F. - Attention to our relationship as Maori and
Pakeha in one society/nation (a special feature of our conference in 2021): we
have several motivations at work within our collegiality as we participate in
the Conference (e.g. to better understand Te Ao Maori, to improve our use of Te
Reo in our liturgies) but the larger questions at stake are questions of
healing (of bruised and broken relationships), of restoration (so that Maori
have similar health to Pakeha, ditto educational outcomes, employment
opportunities, and so forth) and of justice (especially concerning land).
Ultimately these become one spiritual question for our nation to engage with.
G. - Diocesan Mission Action Plan (DMAP): the group
working on the plan to be put to Synod in September 2021 have made excellent
progress. This plan will – if agreed – provide important guidance to bodies
such as Standing Committee and the Church Property Trustees in the remainder of
this decade. What is the Spirit saying to the church through this process and
our deliberations about it?
H. - Change is happening, even without a DMAP: the
recent decision by the St Luke’s Parish to be dissolved is both sad and an
opportunity to revise our mission to central Christchurch.
I. - The Cathedral in the Square: this is a huge
project, absorbing time of Bishop, Dean and others such as CPT trustees and
staff, and it requires a heap of funding. But it is critical to our mission for
decades if not centuries ahead, both in terms of our relationship with the city
and province, and in terms of what we can do from our historic privilege of
being in the centre of the centre of our Diocese’s major city.
J. - Within the church of God in NZ, and within the
religious landscape of NZ, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and
Polynesia remains both a bridge and a model. Bridge: we are a church which
assists the ecumenical connection between Protestant/Pentecostal and
Catholic/Orthodox churches, as well as playing a significant role in connection
between different world religions present in our islands. Model: our ability to
hold differing convictions together, as well as differing styles of being
church, means we remain an example to other churches in respect of being better
together than apart.
K. - Royal Commission: much to say here, but we must
not underestimate the negativity to our gospel message within society
engendered by the effects of abuse on individuals and their families, and by
the reputational damage caused by that abuse. Our mission is to bring salvation
(healing) to people. Abuse is anti-salvation. We have work to do to undo the
damage done when ministry has damaged people.
Regeneration of the Diocese of Christchurch: What does
Acts have potential to teach us?
The answer to the question is “many things” but we only have
two studies. So in the first study we are going to look at the Holy Spirit
Leads the Church and in the second study we are going to look at the Church
Adapts And Changes.
In another words, Acts teaches the church today the
importance of the Holy Spirit leading the church, and teaches the church today
that there is need to adapt and change in response to new challenges and to
Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as we
study God’s written Word together.