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the Book of Acts
by Bishop Sally Dyck
TableContents of Foreword: Why Acts? Why now? Acts 1: From disciples to apostles Acts 2: Peter rethinks his faith for the community Acts 3–4: Be bold! Acts 5: A mark of discipleship Acts 6–7: And the fun begins! Acts 8: A spiritual biography Acts 9: Just about the only dramatic conversion in the book! Acts 10: For Pete’s sake! Acts 13: The downfall of our way of life Acts 14: Everybody wants to go to heaven. but nobody wants to die Acts 15: A model for conflict resolution Acts 16–20: Paul’s road trip Acts 21–26: Glorifying God in the dock Acts 27–28: Church of the open door The abbreviation MSG refers to The Message version of the Bible 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 © 2010. Bishop Sally Dyck All rights reserved Minnesota United Methodist churches have permission to reprint for church study purposes 2 .
2006) Bishop Sally Dyck bishopsallydyck blogspot com 3 . purpose and mission Some say we need to go back to the first-century church The first-century church was pre-Christendom—Christendom being the predominance of Christianity in the religious landscape of history—and the 21st-century church may be post-Christendom In neither the first nor 21st century should Christians assume that people will flock to us or that we have sway in the culture But as a result. by which he fills everything with his presence” (Eph 1:22-23. by Anthony B Robinson and Robert W Wall (Eerdmans. we are made even more mindful of what the church is and open to what we might be in the 21st century Paul wrote in the pre-Christendom years. the body of Christ is much bigger and includes far more than we imagine—it goes beyond our doors and membership and imagination—but the body of Christ is still the hands and feet and heart through which God seeks to work in our world today I encourage each United Methodist to read Acts and reflect upon the differences and similarities between the first and 21st centuries This guide is a conversation starter and not a commentary There are many commentaries on Acts and I commend them to you I have found helpful Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day. is not peripheral to the world. Christ rules the church The church. you see. MSG) Throughout Acts we see a first-century world that sees the church as peripheral Today our culture also often sees the church as peripheral Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this Ephesians passage suggests that Christ’s body is still the means by which the living Christ speaks and acts As they learned in the first century. I challenged all Minnesota United Methodists to read the Acts of the Apostles I also challenged the clergy to use Acts as a sermon series or Bible study at some time during 2011 I encourage people to read Acts because today’s church is struggling with its identity.Foreword Why now? Why Acts? At the 2010 Minnesota Annual Conference session. “At the center of this. in which he speaks and acts. the world is peripheral to the church The church is Christ’s body.
Acts 1 disciples to apostles From Leadership succession occupies a central place in the first chapter of Acts While we scratch our heads at “drawing straws. in order to cultivate spiritual vitality and reach new people with the gospel When joining the United Methodist Church. powerful. attesting to the fact from their own experience that God is good. or organization. or administration (but) to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. and gracious This was to be the cornerstone of their existence and the existence of the church” (p 1682) No longer disciples who sit at the feet of Jesus. that is. the apostles are catapulted into a changing and hostile world to give witness to the risen Christ Being a disciple can be very comfortable—learning and growing and reveling in the power and presence of Jesus—but Jesus’ disciples were called and taught as disciples in order to give witness Going from disciple to apostle is a conversion that came through the power of the Holy Spirit. we make witness our fifth vow This is a recent addition that reminds us of the importance of sharing the faith with others What will it take for us to go from being at the feet of Jesus to being Jesus’ feet in the world? 4 .” qualifications for the twelfth disciple must have been fairly similar Eugene Peterson has a note in the The Message that indicates that the twelfth apostle was chosen as any apostle “not (for) any particular work. the harsh reality of persecution. or teaching. no matter how long we’ve been Christians. and a rapidly changing world This conversion is necessary in our lives.
and believed it That takes a lot of courage It’s not that he threw out whatever he knew. from a former vision of the Christ to a new one. and the prayers” (2:41–42. from an old way of being to a new way of being And it’s clear that we can’t be Christians alone. it takes a faith community with the joys and sacrifices that all human relationships require Yet it was life together that drew people to the power of the emerging church: “they committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles. MSG) Are we offering a robust “life together” that provides food and faith? 5 .Acts 2 rethinks his faith Peter for the community Suddenly it seems like for the first time Peter “gets it”! He rethinks salvation history as he has known it. evidently As soon as Peter rethinks and communicates a new vision of salvation history. “What do we do?” Rethinking and revisioning require new ways of acting Yet if we’ve ever tried to learn a new thing. the life together. the Christ. be a better person. been taught it. is and was and will be But rethinking isn’t enough. but he looked at it differently and through the power of the Holy Spirit. he was able to communicate salvation history in such a way that people understood who Jesus. practice a new habit. the people ask the question. the common meal. we know that we can’t do it by ourselves Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower the change from disciple to apostle.
skepticism. healing and forgiveness are all very bold actions and certainly not safe. bland.” surprised when it created some controversy Innocuous is how many people view Christian faith—safe. now propelled into the world. harmless. mercy. a witness. harmless. not huddled in fear And for their efforts. they suddenly are bold and filled with the confidence that they can be witnesses to the power of God Peter and John were bold in telling the lame man that while they had no money to give him. and inoffensive in the sense of not going to create much attention or impact Justice. Peter addressed the crowd with a bold message of how God has been working through history and people to bring them to this moment in Christ Jesus Boldness and confidence are the marks of an apostle. and cynicism toward the church Recently I heard a radio commentator refer to an interfaith service as being “innocuous enough. they did have Jesus and they boldly healed him Once again.” they’re hauled in front of the “powers that be ” They didn’t know what to do with the apostles so they gave them a slap on the wrist and told them to keep silent But they couldn’t keep silent Boldness kept them telling the story of Jesus and doing mercy even when it got them in trouble There are places in the world where people are persecuted for proclaiming Jesus and doing good in his name. the U S is not one of them Yet many of us are reluctant to be bold in our Christian faith because of others’ ridicule. mild and inoffensive! How might I be more bold with the goodness and mercy of Jesus in a culture that says it “loves Jesus but not the church”? 6 . mild. “no good deed ever goes unpunished.Acts 3–4 Be bold! Who are these two—Peter and John—and what you have done with the disciples we knew in the gospels? Filled with the Spirit. bland. in the spirit of the adage. someone who is living out faith in the world.
these two wanted to belong to this powerful and energizing movement of the Spirit but without the responsibilities or the expectations of what it meant to belong They were hedging their bets—what if this movement doesn’t amount to anything and we have given it our all? As a result. they shared everything in the early church Sharing one’s goods with others was a mark of discipleship There was a redistribution of wealth in the early church that made sure that each had what they needed The story of Ananias and Sapphira doesn’t make a very good stewardship sermon text since encouraging people to share what they have with others isn’t best motivated through guilt or fear However. unsure if the church will continue as it has or as we want it to be? 7 . robbing ourselves. not fully giving of our faith. they were robbing God and themselves of the full abundance and bounty that God has for our lives Why did they die? Did they die of shame? Or did they die due to a lack of real life and living in Christ? Are we the walking dead at times? Are we hedging our bets.Acts 5 of discipleship A mark No one was in need. hope and love to others because we’re not sure it will ultimately pay off? Are we more like Ananias and Sapphira than we’d like to admit. God and others in the process? Are we killing the Spirit in the church today because we are holding back.
Bible studies.Acts 6–7fun begins! And the Growth in a church does not curtail grumbling and conflict. and any differences in how people are treated or served or cared for will quickly bubble to the surface The Greek-speaking group (newcomers/outsiders) had hard feelings toward the Hebrewspeaking group (insiders) A language barrier didn’t help and may have aggravated the cultural misunderstandings. and people don’t always get along! Put people together who aren’t of the same affinity group. or a daily discipline of worship against caring for the Earth Instead what’s needed is all hands on deck All gifts engaged—in the community of faith as well as within each one of us But note that the server. it simply means that there needs to be enough people with hearts and hands to care for the souls and the stomachs of those in need of God’s grace Too often the conflict in Christianity—certainly in United Methodism—is that we pit mercy ministry against justice. giving a perceived inequality in the way in which the poor Greek-speaking widows were being cared for. quite the contrary! “Who are these people and why are they coming?” was one of the most constant questions that I was asked when the church I served was growing Combined with a multicultural presence. the one called to care for the widows. new and sometimes transitory members. literally being discriminated against in the daily food lines With the growth of the church came an increased demand for workers. sharing Jesus against eliminating malaria. and discussion about forgiveness and reconciliation were regular fare there Conflict is a major reason why people leave a church or don’t want to be a part of the faith community Churches comprise people. to be Jesus’ hands. and everybody from someone who shot her husband to some of the most influential people in the city sat side by side on Sunday mornings Growth didn’t come without conflict that needed careful attention and management Sermons. evangelists and servers are needed Does that mean that one form of service is better than another? No. also told the story of Jesus He knew why he was serving and whom he was serving as he gave his life to serve Do I know why I am serving and whom I am serving? 8 . reminiscent of Jesus’ words that the harvest is ripe and the laborers are few The disciples say that they can’t both preach and care for the needs of the congregation. a wide range of theological perspectives.
reflect and preach on the journeys that people take—each one unique to an individual— to find themselves in and out and along the way of faith Philip comes out of left field in my estimation.Acts 8 A spiritual biography I wish the author of the Acts of the Apostles would have told more of the stories of the disciples. including unsavory characters like Simon the magician who tried to buy the Holy Spirit Then Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch along the desolate road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza Strange and scary places! Yet Philip holds whatever fear or prejudice he undoubtedly harbored in his life and was willing to see that no one has a proprietary hold on God and what God was doing through the Holy Spirit Philip seems to just appear wherever God needs him—here and there. but maybe it’s that wherever Philip went with whomever he met. preaching wherever he finds himself You get a sense of his Ezekiel-like nature of being taken up and dropped down. they preached the gospel Could it be that the decline of Christianity’s acceptance in our culture will “scatter” us outside the walls of our buildings? Philip ended up in Samaria—not a favorite place for Jews in that day—and proclaimed Jesus to the Samaritans. which begins in the next chapter Maybe he didn’t know them! I love spiritual biographies I love to read. where has he been? One gets the sense that he has really blossomed with the Holy Spirit He confronts some new challenges—and perhaps that’s why his story is almost as a transition to Paul’s story Persecution scatters the church and wherever they were scattered. like this one of Philip. instead of just Peter and John and then embarking on the story of Paul. he shared the love and grace of Jesus Christ Do I share the love and grace of Jesus wherever I go? 9 .
forgive. but a man gripped by judgment and even hatred for those who claimed Christianity So he justified his hateful and murderous actions with religious convictions God literally had to knock Paul off his high horse in order to get his attention God had to strike him blind with the light of Jesus in order to help him see God humbled him to raise him up for a mission that forever changed the direction of the church Maybe there’s another dramatic conversion in this story: the conversion of the people in the church How were they suppose to accept. turned around in terms of forgiveness. sent by God.Acts 9 about the only dramatic Just conversion in the book! Paul was a super-religious person and he experiences conversion. and love Maybe that’s the key for most churches these days that are struggling to share the gospel in new ways It’s a dramatic conversion and witness to the world around us when we show just how much Christians love each other in spite of all our differences Who are the Barnabases in our faith community that can help us give witness to our own conversion from fear and infighting to love and forgiveness? 10 . who was on his way to persecute them and other Christians? Who would want to be Ananias. acceptance. a turning around from where he was going to where God intended for him to go He wasn’t a broken-down person in any outward way. and—gulp—love Paul. to go get Paul and bring him back to Damascus? They were initially suspicious until Barnabas stood up for him and paved the way for his acceptance into the faith community It was a turn-around church.
but these wondrous things weren’t easy Having one’s whole mind and heart changed about a whole race of people. isn’t easy. MSG) Back in Jerusalem the leaders and friends of Peter—who knew him back when he was just a fisherman. not to love God. but do we live this in terms of our hospitality toward others? Christian fellowship is more than just having a good time together. for instance. it’s welcoming the stranger to our table The stranger may be someone who looks and acts and is in many ways different from ourselves This is a call to a multicultural faith and therefore a multicultural fellowship Does God really not play favorites? “The news traveled fast and in no time the leaders and friends back in Jerusalem heard about it—heard that the non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ were now ‘in’” (11:1. challenging everything he had ever been taught about faith and faithfulness and even food He had to be converted. who denied Jesus. turned around in our love for neighbor and God? When and how have I grown the most in my faith? 11 . who never “got it”—were uncertain to say the least and outraged that this action was “ruining our good name” (v 3) So Peter tells the story to them and they quieted down But the spread of Christianity to the “outsiders” didn’t quiet down Instead “quite a number of the Greeks believed and turned to the Master” (v 21) God did wondrous things in the life of Peter. easy. as different from Peter as an alien: a Gentile a Gentile who becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and is undeniably one with Peter in Christ Jesus Loving your neighbor means being willing to eat together. but to love his neighbor.Acts 10 sake! For Pete’s It began with a vision that must have totally repelled Peter. but wondrous nevertheless Do we too often expect that our Christian faith will only grow under ideal. fellowship in the early church meant that anyone was welcome at the table We say this in terms of the Eucharist. a real life person. comfortable conditions? Isn’t it when we’re stretched in our hearts and minds that we grow closer to God.
MSG) Their “precious way of life” that they were mourning was assumptions and traditions about who was in and who was out. what it meant to be among the elect. MSG) The “outsiders” were wildly enthusiastic and grateful for their windfall of grace but there were others who felt like “their precious way of life was about to be destroyed” (v 52. and how to live Preconceptions. assumptions and prejudices no longer ruled. just as it is today Some were wildly enthusiastic and others “wildly jealous making an ugly scene” (v 45.Acts 13 The downfall of our way of life The response to the gospel was mixed in the early church. nor is the church the center of social life. purpose and mission all had to undergo some rethinking and reorienting No longer is Christianity assumed to be the only religious choice in many of our communities. nor can we be assured that children know the Lord’s Prayer or the stories of Jesus or countless other references to scripture “Our precious way of life is being destroyed!” we may wail Yet Paul and Barnabas joyfully kept sharing the radical gospel of Jesus. seeing everyone and everywhere as part of their mission field How am I feeling about the ways that our precious way of doing church has come to an end and where do I eagerly and joyfully turn to share the gospel? 12 . so identity.
even though it would have been tempting After all.” you might argue Oh. going on a mission trip. or hard times (as in “no good deed ever goes unpunished”) play in my faith? 13 . really? Increasingly churches are oriented around the personality of the preacher. there were detractors who beat Paul unconscious Paul and Barnabas continued to share the good news as they went from community to community. work for me. or generally meet my needs? As the old song goes. including sexual Paul and Barnabas didn’t let the people worship them. daily devotions (when I don’t always get something out of it). but sometimes clergy take advantage of the power that a clergyperson has over others and sometimes laity transfer a sense of God onto the clergyperson Either way it’s a power dynamic that’s unhealthy It manifests itself in misconduct of all kinds. sacrifice (when it hurts). founder or leader Mostly that’s not a problem. forgiving. reading the Bible. emphasizing that it wouldn’t be easy: “Anyone signing up for the kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times” (v 22) I’m afraid that we live in a time that equates faith with the expectation that we will be rewarded with whatever we want How will Christianity. but nobody wants to die”: we all want the benefits without the hardship Sometimes our needs are met and the joy.Acts 14 wants to go to heaven. praying. giving money to the church or anything else asked of me make my life better. that would have been easier than what followed! For all their good efforts in sharing the gospel. rewards. and good feelings abound That can’t be the only reason why we do this “Anyone signing up for the kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times!” What roles do the cross. give me more meaning in life. “everybody wants to go to heaven. Everybody but nobody wants to die One 21st-century problem is akin to the first-century problem in which Paul and Barnabas found themselves People began to worship them instead of God. feed me. service (when it doesn’t seem to benefit me). mesmerized by the wonderful words and mighty acts that they were sharing “We don’t worship people. make me more comfortable. the church.
he encourages us to do no harm. even those personal preferences and expectations loosen up and become untangled But the part about this chapter that always breaks my heart is that at the end of it.Acts 15 for conflict resolution A model The pages in my Bible are worn around Acts 15 It’s a model for conflict resolution and mediation for our divisive times But as Bishop Reuben Job says in his book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Abingdon. and to stay in love with God so that we can develop the faith that demonstrates self-discipline and love for others At the core of the conflict in the church was its very identity and mission Many conflicts arise. 2007). why are we so hot and bothered? What is the identity of our church? What is its direction in mission? 14 . it takes spiritual maturity and selfdiscipline to do what is required to truly forgive and seek reconciliation in the midst of conflict and differences “(I)t demands too much in the way of self-discipline and a very deep faith that God will empower and lead the faithful for many of us to agree with a theology and practice too rigorous for our timid and tame commitment” (p 24) And yet. we need to return to the essential question: is this about our identity and the missional direction as a church? If so. but they’re not always rooted in our identity and mission More likely they’re rooted in personal preference and expectations Yet when our identity and mission as a church is clearly understood and articulated. what is it saying to us? If not. arguing and fighting. Paul gets into an argument with Barnabas (he’s the one who went out on a limb to get Paul accepted by the Christians after his conversion) and they part company Right there at the end of this incredible chapter on how to holy conference and learn to live together! I guess that all goes to say that none of us is spiritually immune to what causes brokenness and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation So when—not if—we find ourselves in loggerheads in the church. to do good.
then continues by land instead of setting sail to the next place (Assos) By ship he went on from there as he made his way toward Jerusalem By land or sea. only to desire to go back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. “Are you a missionary?” I was a little taken aback by the question My puzzled look spurred him on to say. to preach the good news to the Europeans Paul and Silas go down to the river to pray and form a house church. with whomever would be at his side. where Paul couldn’t move the masses of “spiritual. a missionary of sorts Wherever you go and whomever you meet. the neverending horizons of opportunity as well as challenge to share the gospel! A repairman at our house asked me. “Yes. only to come to a full stop in Athens. Paul and the gospel undermine the local economy—which doesn’t go over too well in most communities) In Corinth and Ephesus it appears that there was plenty of time to preach and teach and model the way of Jesus The communities of faith grew in spirit and numbers Paul—the indomitable and indefatigable apostle of good news—travels to Macedonia and Greece. upset a local economy in Philippi as well as Ephesus. “I see all the pictures on your walls of people from all over the world You must be a missionary!” I said.Acts 16–20 Paul’s road trip Paul thought he knew where he was going next But a dream provided him a Spirit-inspired MapQuest sending him where he hadn’t expected to go: to Macedonia. joined also by Silas and Timothy And then on to Ephesus (where again. but not religious” people It was a rough ending to a difficult missionary trip Paul found some traction in Corinth with Priscilla and Aquila. get beat up and jailed. I’m a missionary (of sorts) ” Oh. knowing that it wouldn’t go well for him there Oh. the places that Paul went. it’s not without its bruising at times. but what else could bring me in contact with so many different people and opportunities to be an ambassador of Jesus? You don’t have to be clergy to be an ambassador of Jesus. you have an opportunity as well as the challenge to share Jesus in word and deed When was the last time someone saw that I was a missionary (of sorts)? 15 . the places I’ve gone—not just in the world but throughout Minnesota—and the people I’ve met because I’m a missionary of sorts is an incredible blessing to me Like Paul. have to sneak out of Thessalonica so they wouldn’t get jailed or beaten. Paul traveled his known world to share the good news.
the big debate in American politics and government today! Just what is the role of government in our country? Someone tried to force me into explaining why I am of one political persuasion or another I responded by saying that my identity isn’t in my political party or views My identity is in being a follower of Jesus Sometimes that coincides with a political platform and sometimes it is in direct opposition Sometimes it aligns so it looks like I might be of one party but I see myself as a follower of Jesus and not a Republican or a Democrat in terms of identity (even as I may vote one way or another at any given time) and put myself through my first year in college by working for a Republican candidate running for office Where do we find our worldview shaped? CNN. or our Christian faith? What does it mean to base my identity in being a follower of Jesus and not in being a follower of a political party or another worldview? 16 . preaching Christ crucified and risen in his life. stylizing it for his audience He seems to use every situation to glorify God What a concept! Paul finds himself before Roman officials and it’s an uneasy relationship between Christianity and government or politics in the first century—just as it is today The New Testament scriptures differ in their admonishment toward the government or politics In Romans 13. I’m afraid. he simply knew that he must Perhaps he knew that his story of the church. Fox News. needed to be told to the leaders in Jerusalem And likewise. the political and governmental powers are evil and to be resisted Here it seems that the role Paul plays is to hold the government and its politics to accountability: do what you’re supposed to do and don’t do what you’re not supposed to do! That is. spreading through the Greek-speaking world. the leaders in Jerusalem had a story to tell of how the church was spreading there It was an internal dispute. NPR. he was arrested and brought before the religious authorities and eventually the governmental authorities Paul is on trial and yet instead of being on the defense. he’s on the offense. Paul tells people to cooperate and pray so as to live as peaceably in the Roman Empire as possible In Revelation 13. and for all people He tells his conversion story again. in the world.Acts 21–26 in the dock Glorifying God Paul feels a divine necessity to go to Jerusalem. accusing Paul of telling people in the Greek-speaking world that they could be Moses-light As a result. even though his friends begged him not to go No polls or surveys were taken.
but our hearts.Acts 27–28 open door Church of the Paul finally gets to Rome but not without major difficulties Once again his sheer innate leadership comes out in the midst of the storm on the sea He takes over. I don’t know what is! Too many people don’t have anything good to say about the church and instead of despairing. we like Paul need to set to work at sharing the good news. our kitchen tables. passing it around and eating heartily” (27:35) seems to imply He keeps himself alive when the soldiers decided to kill all prisoners (after he fed them!) and because he had provided leadership throughout the difficult trip. . the centurion saved Paul In Rome he is under house arrest This final chapter has some interesting twists The first is that when Paul told the Jewish leaders in Rome that he had come to make sure that he was “on Israel’s side. . MSG) If that isn’t 21st-century church.” they said. giving thanks to God. and all Jesus’ friends? Is the door to salvation and the door to justice open for those held captive by this world’s sin and evil? 17 . “Nobody wrote warning us about you And no one has shown up saying anything bad about you But we would like very much to hear more The only thing we know about this Christian sect is that nobody seems to have anything good to say about it” (28:21-22. telling the story of Jesus and being his hands and feet and heart and head wherever we are and with whomever we meet The other aspect of this last chapter is the last verse: Paul’s “door was always open” (28:31) The 21st-century church is called to be an open door—not just our church buildings. caring for people’s physical and spiritual needs He prevents the sailors from mutiny He keeps people’s spirits up It’s the only time we read where Paul seems to celebrate the Eucharist. and wherever we find ourselves residing and relating Is my door always open to the next person I meet? Is our church door always open to anyone who wants to come? Is the door to my heart open to Jesus . or at least that’s what “breaking the bread. our circles of friends.
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