The Acts of the Apostles: A Discussion …

Day five on our quick run through the New Testament and here are my observations …

First, a brief note on translations.  As some of you know, I am doing my reading from N.T. Wright’s recently released translation of the New Testament.  Now Wright is clear that no translation should be considered the definitive translation, and he goes as far as to say:

“… [even if you know Greek itself, but especially if don’t] you should always have two English translations open in front of you.  No one translation – certainly not this one – will be able to give you everything that was there in the Greek …”

The reason I point this out is that his phrasing in certain well-known passages is actually causing me to slow down and really think issues through.  And for that, I am exceptionally grateful for his work as well as for his wise counsel regarding the utilization of a multiplicity of translations.

This brings me to my first real observation on the text itself.  Look at how Wright translates Acts 2:42:  “They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”  Something about the way he opens this particular verse really spoke to me.  It starts by saying: “They all gave full attention.”   But “full attention” to what?

  1. “The teachings of the apostles.”
  2. “The common life”
  3. “The breaking of bread”
  4. “The prayers”

As I look at that list and consider the words “full attention”, I realize that I probably give the most attention to the teachings of the apostles, slightly less attention to the common life, still less attention to the breaking of bread, and a shocking lack of attention to prayer itself …  Once again, I am struck by the same impression I had when I read through Matthew.  My “discipleship” bears little resemblance to the discipleship prescribed by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and again in the book of Acts.  What about you friends?  Do these things get your “full attention?” Or do you give them cursory nods on Sunday and a few other occasions during the week? 

My second observation actually comes out of my teachings at the Classical Consortium.  This year, in Classical Rhetoric II, we took at look at various sermons preached in the book of Acts.  And then we analyzed the common features of these sermons and compared them to our presentations of the Gospel today.  Quite often, in today’s culture, we tend to present the Gospel as something that can be brought alongside culture.  In other words, we present it in a way that causes the reader to believe that they can have “eternal life” and the idyllic, American life complete with a house, two cars, a dog and a white picket fence.  If drawn out, it looks something like this:

But when we look at the bulk of the New Testament material, it becomes clear that this sort of “synthesis” between the Story of the Gospel and the story of the culture just is not possible.  Because the Story of the Gospel is in direct opposition to the story of the dominant culture.    If we were to draw it out, it would something like this:

Now, take a look at what I read in Acts 3:8-12.

“Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit.  “Rulers of the people and elders,” he said, “if the question we’re being asked today is about a good deed done for a sick man, and whose  power it was that rescued him, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man stands before you fit and well because of the name of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.  He is the stone which you builders rejected, but which has become the head cornerstone.  Rescue won’t come from anybody else!  These is no other name given under heaven and among humans by which we must be rescued.”

Here, in these five simple verses, you see Peter pulling out all the stops.  First, he assails the Jewish leaders and charges them with crucifying Jesus and rejecting the “cornerstone.”  But Peter’s work was not done.  In his very next breath, he takes on the Romans who had adopted an early pronouncement by Augustus Caesar in 17 BC that “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.”  So here, Peter presents the Gospel, and in doing so, he takes shots at the two leading cultures that dominated the world of his day.

So as I finished my reading of Acts, I found myself wondering: What would a radical encounter between the Gospel and the dominant culture of today look like?  What “sacred cows” would have to be slaughtered in the lives of many Christians?  And what would it cost us to engage in that kind of work? 

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4 Responses to The Acts of the Apostles: A Discussion …

  1. iholdtheline says:

    I’m going to be careful what I say, because I don’t want to misconstrue anything you have said.

    I’m not sure if I wholly agree with you. You can have the idyllic American life and also have eternal life. But, I think you know that.

    Culture is constantly being confronted by the Gospel! It’s simply in its nature to try and reform/revolutionize culture. It’s been doing it ever since the beginning of time.

    I guess your point isn’t the Gospel confronting the dominant culture on a mass scale, but on the individual scale. Correct?

    What sort of things do you think the culture instills into Christians today is in direct conflict with the calling of the Gospel? To be honest, not a lot of things come to my mind and I am sitting here now struggling to think of something.

    I don’t think the struggle is between the dominant culture and the Gospel, I think the struggle is between the Gospel and human nature. Culture simply is one of the many reflections of human nature; good or bad.

    So, those are my thoughts.

  2. Hey Caleb. Gotta say that I appreciate you chiming in even though you’re not doing the 27-day read through the Bible that started this project (You are, of course, more than welcome to join us in that reading if you like. Just click on the “Reading Schedule” link on the top menu and hop in.)

    Now, as to your many questions. The first thing I would say is that I am talking about a direct confrontation with culture that is both individual and corporate. I would argue that one of the great failures of the modern church is our willingness to succumb to the privatization of faith. Everything is discussed on an individual level, with very little thought being given to the articulation of a public theology. One of my theological heros is a man by the name of Abraham Kuyper. Not only was Kuyper and excellent theologian in his own right, but he took his theological expertise into a public vocation when he became the Prime Minister of The Netherlands. What he understood that many of us do not is that the Gospel of King Jesus is a direct challenge to the popular myths that dominate any culture at any time in the history of humanity.

    As for your question regarding cultural values that have infiltrated the church, the list is long, but very, very undistinguished:

    1. Reason as the final arbiter of truth
    2. Materialism and our instinct to live as practical atheists
    3. The hyper-sexualization of the human body
    4. Finding security in personal wealth as opposed to God’s promises
    5. The quest for more – more experience, more knowledge, more simply for the sake of more
    6. The cult of celebrity (think about what I said regarding Willow’s response to N.T. Wright coming
    to speak versus Pastor Hybels speaking at Rick Warren’s church)
    7. The “right” to personal happiness (think about the divorce rates amongst evangelicals versus
    the rest of society)
    8. The supreme value placed upon personal autonomy and the “right” to choose (think about how
    many Christians favor one theology over another not based upon the evidence of Scripture, but
    on their feelings regarding the subject).

    The list could go on and on and on. Remember, culture is nothing more than the corporate will of the fallen human nature. So if you see human nature as being fallen, than how much more obscene is the collective culture likely to be?

    Again, thanks for chiming in.

  3. mahoneyrm5150 says:

    One very hidden area where dominant culture overwhelms the American church is how we “do” church, from things as simple as the songs we chose (including the metaphors employed), the architecture, the order of service and elements of a service. That, I believe, is the value of liturgy. It keeps the church’s form of worship resistant to cultural forms. That reality also speaks to the value of “traditional” church architecture (steeples and ceilings that point us to God and stain glass that surrounds us with the biblical narrative); such architecture resists the “mallificaiton” of the church structure, leading to a furtherance of a consumer’s mentality.

  4. Bob Bryant says:

    Acts 8:18 – “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles hands, he offered them money and said, ‘give me also this ability so that everone on whom i lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’

    Simon faces, what Henri Nouwen refers to as the temptation to be spectacular, in his book “In the Name of Jesus.” Christ faced this same temptation when Satan took him to the top of the temple and commanded him to jump off and be caught in the arms of the angels. Nouwen talks about his own training to be a priest writing, “I had to be well-trained and well-formed, and after six years of training and formation, i was considered well-equipped to preach, administer the sacraments, counsel, and run a parish. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road. Questions had answers, problems had solutions, and pains had their medicines.” After going to live and work at a community of mentally handicapped adults, he was confronted with the fact that he had been living his life trying to perform the spectacular, what he describes as tight rope walkers performing amazing sights. He continues on, “You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful litergies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we hoped, and that we were not as able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected. But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and the individual heroism, which are obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the Church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.”

    Reading through the gospels and Acts in the last week, I have been confronted with this question of why does my experience of faith not look like the disciples and the early church? Where is the place of miracles and healing? I confess that often times, I feel like Simon the Sorceror, desiring to see those kinds of results. Perhaps much of this is due to the environment in which I find myself ministering for the past 8 years of hurting, abandoned and abused kids desperately in need of healing. I sat with a young boy yesterday about 15 years old at the point of wanting to end his life due to the sexual abuse that he experienced from his mother that for so long went unspoken. As i sat there, I could feel myself desperately searching the roladex of things to say in my head to offer this young child comfort, hope and healing. What makes him any different than the blind man, the leper, the bleeding woman? At the end of this conversation, I walked away with the reality that this child was still hurting and I have walked away so many times over the years with this same reality. I battle this temptation to be spectacular, just like Simon did in Acts. The reality of Acts and the early church is that these belivers found themselves in community, as Scott stated earlier, giving full attention to the teachings, the common life, breaking of bread and prayer.

    Nouwen sums my struggle and desire to be a part of the body of Christ well…”I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when i am alone. I need my brothers and sisters to pray with me, to speak with me about the spiritual task at hand, and to challenge me to stay pure in mind, heart and body. But far more importantly, it is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, no I; Jesus who is Lord, not I. John 3:30 “He must become greater, I must become less.”

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