First Thoughts on Year C First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 2

William Loader

Easter 2: 7 April Acts 5:27-32

As the author of Acts, whom we traditionally call Luke, writes his account of the early church, he faced a challenging task. In writing his first volume he had Mark and other sources which he could weave together and rewrite. We know nothing of his sources for the early days of the church. Fortunately we are able to compare some of his reports with what Paul wrote 30-40 years earlier. Making such comparisons we are assured that Luke must have had some good sources, but also many gaps and we are made rather cautious because there are points of detail and emphasis where Paul's version is to be preferred and Luke clearly had inadequate material.

This is likely to have been the case with speeches he attributes to Peter and the apostles. But he will have learned that the good historian of the times sought to recreate scenes, construct brief summary speeches, and colour the story in a way that helped future hearers see where it was going and why it was important. Part of the colouring used to underline God's presence in the events was to speak of dreams and visions, signs in the sky, and fantastic miracles. Luke is rather restrained, but the miraculous release of Peter and then, later, of Paul from prison belongs to such legendary material. Some exaggeration was also inevitable both for writers and their hearers, as it is for ourselves: we imagine the events taking hold of the whole city.

Whether the apostles were really hauled before the Sanhedrin or not, we can imagine that there were tensions with the Jerusalem authorities as the movement they had hope would go away remerged and began to win a greater following. The grand acclamation that they must obey God rather than the will of human beings would have a familiar ring for Luke's audiences, because it was a known contrast asserted by heroes of conscience. For all that, it remains an important principle, which deserves scrutiny. Unfortunately it has a bad and a good history. Some of the problems facing the world today arise from people's conviction that they need to obey God - and not listen to reason or see the effects of their actions. On the other hand, some of the world's problems also arise because people obey the dictates generated by the interests around them instead of by what before God they know is right. Getting people to see and do what is right remains extraordinarily difficult - both at a personal and at a political level. Pressures are enormous not to take a God- or bigger perspective on a range issues - from war to the environment.

The brief summary of the gospel in 5:30-32 (a mere 50 words in Greek! - a very short sermon indeed) which serves in the narrative as a speech, encapsulates what Luke apparently sees as the key features of the gospel. They are very like what we find in the other brief speeches he creates, and, as one might expect, also summarise his emphases in telling the story of Jesus in volume one of his work. The leaders were responsible with Pilate for crucifying Jesus. As elsewhere, Luke does not highlight Jesus' death as a vicarious sacrifice. He simply relates it as a killing and Jesus as enduring the suffering it entailed with bravery. The resurrection also has its distinctive profile. It is set in contrast to the killing. It is saying: you killed him, but God made him alive. Luke understands Easter as God's "yes" where they had said "no".

Luke takes it further. The issue is not just Jesus' being made alive again and vindicated. Rather, in Luke's faith, the resurrection meant that God had made Jesus the leader and liberator. This was a way of taking hold of Jewish hope for a messiah-liberator in a new kind of way. Luke often pictures this as like an enthronement. For this he uses Psalm 110:1 which celebrates the coronation of a king and depicts Jesus being asked to sit at God's right hand. These images belong to the early years of Christianity and left their mark already in Paul's writings. One of the earliest interpretations of the resurrection was that it was the act by which God appointed Jesus the Messiah or Christ and gave him the royal title, Son of God, a term used of Jesus also in other ways.

Luke then explains what this is really about. It is about a new beginning, a second chance to change direction (repentance) and to look to Jesus for leadership. It was also a chance therefore to find forgiveness for sins, not least the sin of crucifying Jesus. For Luke, the apostles are not filled with hate and recrimination. Rather, they tell it as it is - but then speak grace and hope - even for the killers. They are the people of a new way, offering that way to the authorities, as Jesus had done before. Their agenda remains the agenda of Jesus. Luke had portrayed how the Spirit inspired and empowered Jesus to bring goodness and hope to people, releasing them from the powers that oppress them, showing them the way of peace (see especially 10:34-43)..

When Peter speaks here in 5:32 of the Spirit, we may think first of the embroidered images of flaming fire, and the sound effects of rushing winds and ecstatic speech, but the closest parallels to Jesus are to be found in the healings, the gathered meals, and the shared life of worship and mutual caring. When Peter intimates finally that this is open to all who obey God, he thinks less of commands to be obeyed, than a voice to heed and a relationship to share. In all this Luke is not so much interested in telling it as it was, as he is in telling how it could be for him and his hearers in his own time - and so it speaks therefore also to us and ours in our time.

Gospel: Easter 2: 7 April John 20:19-31
Epistle: Easter 2: 7 April  Revelation 1:4-8