on re-reading Acts

I’ve been re-reading the book of Acts, and my chief response this time is: It’s wonderfully encouraging to see how bluntly and unapologetically Luke records a chronicle of confusion, ineptitude, and misdirected enthusiasm. The apostles are often a collective mess, and Luke does nothing to hide that from us. I find this strangely consoling.

It’s also fascinating to note how little the apostles understand the message they been entrusted with. They know that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, and they know that the Christ’s own people rejected him and demanded his death – but beyond that they’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean. The idea that what Jesus offers them (and all of us) is God’s limitless grace is rarely mentioned. It’s there, but only in tentative and vaguely articulated form.

The Reformation’s idea of returning to the apostolic church is therefore, I think, only partly right. We want their spirit – their enthusiasm, their boldness in proclamation, their trust in God, their loving care for one another – but we don’t want their ignorance. How to develop theological depth and complexity without acquiring an accompanying institutional structure that tends toward sclerosis, that makes the communal life of the church stiff and inflexible and disconnected from its natural missional energies – that is the ongoing problem that Christ’s church faces, just as much as the structurally similar problem of navigating between legalism and antinomianism.

We don’t navigate those complexities very well, and never have, in large part because of pride. Every time a new Christian movement arises in a place where there is a dominant form of church, that dominant form should be grateful to the dissenters, because the dissenters – who are not necessarily correct to dissent – nevertheless reveal to the dominant church the ways it has fallen short, the needs and desires it has failed to meet or address. (The flip side of this point is Auden’s contention that Kierkegaard should have been grateful to the Danish Lutheran Church for teaching him the very Bible in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.) Every dissent contains a lesson for those with ears to hear, for those whose ears are not closed by pride.

One more noteworthy point about this narrative: Again and again, in their disputes with the new Jesus sect, the leading rabbis try to get management to take their side, to the ongoing puzzlement and frustration of the Romans, who repeatedly ask, “How is this our business?” A Roman official even has one of the rabbis beaten to discourage him from further approaches, yet still the rabbis return and demand Roman intervention. And of course this is what Paul, another rabbi, does as well: King Agrippa even comments to the Roman procurator Festus that Paul could have been freed and set on his way if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar (which seems to have set some unstoppable legal machinery into motion).

The Jews had a lot of practice dealing with hostile or at least semi-hostile occupying powers; they had been doing it for hundreds of years – though if N. T. Wright is correct they developed a particular hatred of the Romans when Pompey entered and desecrated the Temple in 63 BC. (This hatred apparently intensified when no equivalent of Judas Maccabeus appeared to resist the oppressor.) That said, Simon Schama, in his Story of the Jews, notes that before Pompey had even entered Jerusalem several rival claimants for Jewish leadership visited him, serially, to enlist his support against the others. So hatred there may have been, but hatred doesn’t preclude calculation, intrigue, and trying to get management to take your side.

June 27, 2021

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