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!
Clergy Conference 2021: Refresh
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 was written:
- 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 martyred;
- 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 AD.
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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Pneumatology: Yet the human agents are empowered through God who is actively present in the world, notably in Acts through the Holy Spirit.
4. 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.
5. 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 the Apostles?
In what follows I try to match some of today’s contexts with the five areas Luke addresses:
A. 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?
B. 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 …!
C. 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?
D. 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?
E. 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 changing contexts.
Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to the church as we study God’s written Word together.