Sunday School Lesson – Acts 16-28 – Part 1

I think most of us Christians take Paul for granted. I’m not sure how many of us, especially those of us swimming in a Christian context the entirety of our lives, believing as we all do in a resurrected Jesus as an inevitable fact, can fully appreciate the world the early Christians were reckoning and the mission Paul, in particular, chose to embark on.

Trying as I am to get a crash course on the contextual world at that time, leaning heavily as I am on NT Wright’s biography of Paul has helped me a bit to put myself into that world.

First of all, consider Paul, he grew up a devout, in his words zealous pharisee in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, a city teaming with intellectual diversity, Romans, pagans, philosophers, and Jews spanning that devoted spectrum. Paul, notably, was a Roman citizen but also notably a devote, perhaps a prodigious scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. His knowledge of philosophy, scripture and languages become evident in his writings and interactions on his multiple missions.

But early on, his zealous membership in the pharisaical tradition placed him in a violent collision course with the early Christians. The Jews at this time were desperate to shed themselves of Roman rule and reinstate the Jewish kingdom in Israel. They knew the scriptures, and they believed what it would take to get their was complete devotion to the one true God, and complete adherence to the law of Moses. Any deviation from that path could not be tolerated and in that vein, violence was deemed necessary to stamp down heresies.

We know what happened next. Paul has the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s blind for three days, in total darkness, realizing his worldview has been completely turned upside down. He’s miraculously healed, joins the early Christians and re-absorbs what this means. Acts traverses this time period rather quickly, but in reality, he spends quite a bit of time reorienting himself with this new paradigm. Restudying the scriptures, discovering fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus, but in a way he never anticipated.

Soon after, Peter receives the revelation to share the message of this gospel to the entire world.

So, now consider the world at this time. Paul is about embark on multiple missions, walking hundreds of miles, talking to zealot Jews desperate to overthrow the Romans, expecting a Messiah to help them get that job done, conversing with Romans and non-Jewish pagans, who have established complex societies steeped in a deep historical culture of philosophy, multiple gods and a Roman empire whose head is considered near deity.

Many, likely, never heard of Jesus. Many who had, knew him as a radical, sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the most ignominious punishments at the time.

In Acts 17, Paul spends some time in the synagogue in Thessalonica. He ends up organizing a small community of believers here but not before incurring the wrath of the Jews. In verse 6 they say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;”

They were right about that. Paul’s mission was to turn the world upside down. And for those of us now living in it, it’s easy to forget just how successful he ended up being in that mission.

Sunday School Lesson – The Resurrection and Acts 1-5

Imagine what it was like for Jesus’ closest followers, loved ones and family members the day after he was unjustly crucified. He had a remarkable and revolutionary three year ministry – took on the Jewish power structure, amassed loyal followers and left an imprint of service, revolutionary teaching and compassionate action culminating with an ignominious crucifixion among thieves.

Jesus was buried on Friday, the Jews observed the Saturday sabbath. Then, early Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, another Mary – likely Jesus’ aunt and other women came to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus. The four gospel accounts differ on the specifics. In Mark and Luke, they arrive to find the stone already moved. In Mark, a young man in a white robe sits in the tomb and tells the women that Jesus is risen. In Luke, they find an empty tomb and pause in wonderment when two men appear near them to announce the news. In Matthew, a great earthquake erupts, while an angel moves the stone in what seems to be timed roughly at the moment the women arrive. Mark and Luke make no mention of guards, but Matthew does.

John has the more fully fleshed out resurrection narrative that drives the way it’s typically described in church talks and movies. In this narrative, Mary Magdalene arrives alone to discover the moved stone and immediately runs back to tell Peter. Peter and another apostle run to see for themselves. They discover the empty tomb and then leave. Mary returns to the empty tomb, but lingers, weeping. It’s here Jesus appears unrecognized, mistaken for a gardner, asking “why weepest thou”?  When Jesus calls her by name, she recognizes him and is told he must ascend to his Father but tells her to tell the events to the disciples.

The narrative proceeds similarly in the four gospels. The women see the angels, then Jesus. They tell the disciples who often don’t believe at first. Jesus suddenly appears, to Mary, to different disciples and finally to them all in various ways. Invariably, he’s unrecognized at first. Luke describes the two disciples on the way to Emmaus who unknowingly discuss the events of the past few days with Jesus. They don’t recognize him until when urged to abide with them longer, he joins them for a meal. In the act of breaking and blessing the bread, they recognize.

In John, only Thomas is shown to disbelieve until he can see for himself. In John, when Jesus appears, they recognize him. Later, though when some of the disciples decide to fish, while on the boat out in the water, Jesus calls out to them. They don’t recognize him until Jesus suggests they throw their net on the right side of the ship, echoing the events when they were first called to be his disciples. At that point, catching so many fish they are unable to haul them all in, they realize this is Jesus.

How important are the contradictions and discrepancies between the narratives. Not much. Each author felt the urge to record this important event highlighting different details. What’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t expect any of it. They didn’t recognize at first, they often doubted. Recognition often came in Jesus’ actions, when he acted in ways that he had acted before, or when he calls Mary, in particular, by name.

It took them time to understand and appreciate the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of the gospels, most poignantly and personally in John, they are called deeply into the ministry. In John, Peter is commanded that if he truly loves Jesus he would feed his sheep, three times.

Finally, in Acts 1, Jesus leaves. Some had hoped Jesus mission would be to restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory. They ask Jesus in Acts 1:6 “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”. What they got, instead was a call to do as Jesus did, to serve, to talk truth to power, to heal, to organize a church, to speak with boldness and authority and to spread the good news.

In Acts 1-5, we witness that transition in action. In chapter 1, they call a new disciple to replace Judas Iscariot. They narrow the field to two worthy candidate, emphasizing the need to choose someone who had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. The leave the final selection to revelation, ultimately selecting Matthias.,

Acts 2 highlights the fact that these early Christians were still Jews, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost. The spirit rushes in like a wind, the disciples begin to teach and everyone, many who have gathered from foreign lands, understand language in their own tongue. Some assumed they were drunk and its to them Peter delivers his first address, testifying of Jesus, quoting scripture and accusing them of the crucifixion.

They heard this and ask the question each of us should ask, “What should we do?” Three thousand people are baptized that day. With these new converts, they organize a community focused on mutual care, sharing all things in common.

In Chapter 3, Peter’s new life continues to echo Jesus. With John, as they enter the temple, they encounter a lame man from birth begging for money. Peter gives him so much more, healing, telling him to arise and walk. Peter continues into the temple with the newly healed man and teaches those within of Jesus.

Speaking truth to power gets them arrested in Acts 4, where they are questioned. Here, the narrative takes note that neither Peter or John are educated, they are common, but speak boldly anyway. Not sure what to do with them, they release them with an admonish to quit this preaching.

Finally, the last chapter, Acts 5 describes a rather disturbing story. Converts Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for failing to honestly report the sell of property, echoing a bit the old testament story of the man who was struck down trying to steady the arch. It’s harsh punishment and difficult to understand. I get that this kind of deceit could undermine the community they were trying to build up. But capital offense for it seems uncharacteristic and out of step with Christ’s core message.

Acts 5 finishes with another imprisonment of the apostles. An angel releases them at night and they go to the temple to testify despite previous orders not to. They are brought before the council for more questioning. They continue to testify with boldness enraging those in power. Gamaliel talks the others in the council out of killing them, saying if their work is of man, it will fail, if it’s of God, you will not be able to stop it.

In that, Gamaliel is right. And that is the story of Christianity. From these humble beginnings it has filled the entire earth. Its a message that could not die with the death of even Jesus. But it’s through that death, ironically enough, that the message has touched an untold number of lives, multiple generations later.