Thursday, September 17, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Five)

The first four parts of this essay can be accessed from the archive on the right side of the screen under September of 2009.

Up to the conversion of Saul, the ministry of the early church was, in many ways, an extension of Jesus’s own ministry as they continued to baptize, heal, and teach among the Jews to fill a populist vacuum created by the temple’s complicity with Roman authority. Taking the Gospels and the Acts at face value, the church had taken on essentially three innovations since Jesus’s ascension; performing their miracles and teaching in Jesus’s name, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with the spiritual gifts that came with it, and the creation of a community that lived, worked, and, perhaps, dwelt apart from the Jewish society as a whole. With Saul’s conversion and acceptance into the fold, the very nature of the ministry changed though Luke places the initiative for that alteration in the hands of the leader of the early church, Simon who is called Peter.

After raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter remained in Joppa, a city not far from Lydda where he performed the miracle and, from all indicators, began seeding a new church there. Meanwhile, in Caesarea, a man named Cornelius had a peculiar vision that the voice of God was commanding him to seek out Peter in Joppa. Luke includes some interesting details about Cornelius that makes the passage worth investigating.

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. [10:1,2].

Three important details about Cornelius jump out immediately. First, he is given a name, unlike the anonymous centurion who impressed Jesus with his faith from Matthew’s gospel. Second, he is not only a centurion from the Italian regiment, meaning that, in all likelihood, he was actually Roman and not just a member of the Roman army. Finally, he is described as being “god-fearing” (a term that shows up with increasing regularity as the New Testament proceeds along), meaning that though he was not Jewish, he exhibited great sensitivity to and even longing for the uniquely personal relationship that the Jewish God promised above and beyond the impersonal worship of the “pagan” gods. These facts are important not because they may or may not be factual, but because this is what Luke wants us to know about the man who would set a remarkable precedent within the early church. These qualities, in a sense, are also his qualifications.

After receiving his command from above, Cornelius sends to of his men to Joppa to fetch Peter. Peter, as it turned out was having a vision of his own. Praying on the roof of a believer’s house while he waited for a meal to be prepared, Peter had one of the most detailed visions contained within the Acts of the Apostles—a vision concerning the future of the church.

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. [10:11-16]

It is important to note that neither God nor Jesus are explicitly identified as the source of this vision. In fact, unlike Jesus’s words to Paul in the auditory vision that led to his conversion, these words are not given the red-ink treatment, indicating words of the divine. As the soldiers arrived at the house asking for him, Peter heard the voice again, this time identified by Luke as “The Spirit” [10:19], urging him to go with the men for they were sent, at least indirectly, by the source of his vision. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, he found not only an open-minded centurion but “his relatives and close-friends” [10:24] who were, no doubt, also mostly not Jewish. The Jewish faith, of which Peter was certainly once considered a lawful and observant member, did not allow for him to meet with, let alone eat with, non-Jews. Nonetheless, Peter said:

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” [10:28,34,35]

With this one rhetorical flourish, Luke would have us believe, Peter, as directed by the Holy Spirit, changed the course of not only the early church but of human history. Peter told those in the house that God had given to the people Israel a message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” [10:35]. He offered a short timeline of Jesus’s ministry on Earth, including specifically that his ministry began in Galilee, spread throughout Judea, and followed that of John the Baptist. He suggests that God had “anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus had used that power to “do good and healing…because God was with him” [10:38]. He asserted that “we are witnesses of everything he did” (meaning, the Twelve are the witnesses) but leaves the identity of Jesus’s murderers conspicuously vague, saying only that “they killed him by hanging him on a tree” [10:39].

As Peter delivered this first sermon to the Gentiles, a most surprising thing happened:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. [10:44-48]

Now, there is no disputing the idea that (before Saul) only the Twelve had the power to facilitate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there are two interpretations that might be taken away from this passage. Either Peter, through his somewhat privileged connection to God, was able to extend this blessing upon them by virtue of his own will or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within these Gentiles was a completely unexpected side-effect of their being exposed to the “good news,” the literal translation of the word, gospel. Again, as with the conversion of Saul, baptism occurs only after the spontaneous indwelling of the Holy Spirit and almost as an act of decorum rather than necessity. Of course, this innovation to the ministry was the cause of great concern to the “circumcised believers” and Peter was compelled to return to Jerusalem to recount the story of what had happened and, no doubt, defend his own involvement in something that was clearly not Jewish and clearly not in observance of the Law. What was remarkable and clearly new about what he had done was that he had not converted Gentiles to Judaism. He had converted them to something quite different and this may have been the moment (though Luke explicitly places it elsewhere) that the church stopped thinking of themselves as a sect of Judaism and started thinking of themselves as Christians.

This notion is reinforced in the following section which again shifts our attention away from Peter and the Judean church and outwards into areas occupied by a great many peoples from many different backgrounds and worldviews. Luke writes that those who had been forced out of Jerusalem by the backlash from Stephen’s ministry had spread into many different lands including Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch but is careful to note that they shared the good news “only with Jews” [11:19]. Some of those converted, however, began preaching the message to Greeks living in Antioch and from among these “god-fearing” pagans, a new church began to emerge. Note that Luke never suggests that, because of what Peter did, disciples were authorized to make this transition. Instead, it is presented as almost an inevitable outgrowth of the ministry as it spread among believers separated by great distances.

When news of the somewhat unorthodox church that had developed at Antioch got back to the Twelve in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to investigate the validity of their faith. Heartened, we may assume, by this strange outcropping of predominantly non-Jewish believers, Barnabas went looking for the one man with a similarly unconventional conversion who might help forge a bridge between these two cultures—none other than Saul of Tarsus.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. [11:25,26].

One wonders what exactly Saul was doing in Tarsus when Barnabas arrived to bring him into the ministry. No mention is made of a fledgling church at Tarsus so it is tempting to assume that Saul had merely spent the time wondering what the purpose of his conversion was if his fate, for the moment, was to sit hundreds of miles away from where his new-found faith might matter. Now, with Barnabas to mentor him in the orthodoxy of the Jerusalem sect, Saul was finally able to channel some of that unspent energy into teaching new believers. In the curious mixture of Jews and Gentiles converted to believers by the “good news,” guided in the tradition by Barnabus and steered into uncharted waters by Saul, something truly new emerged.

Chapter eleven closes with yet another curious addendum (Luke loves those), reporting that:

During this time prophets some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help to the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. [11:27-29]

While a community of believers spread all over the world could not live communally as Peter and the others had done immediately after Jesus’s ascension, an early precedent was set that enrollment in the church still carried certain monetary obligations. We may accept the gift of the Antioch church as the goodwill gesture described by Luke without dismissing the pragmatic subtext that this generous gift, delivered by Barnabas (Saul’s original sponsor) and Saul to the elders in Jerusalem probably went a long way towards legitimizing Saul’s usefulness if not authority within that body.

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