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Luke tells the resurrection of Jesus not as the end of the story, but as the climactic middle, which creates a new beginning, relaunching the story. Acts is like Luke part 2 “A New Beginning” or “The First Christians.” It’s not just about God coming into our neighborhood as a human being. They divine dynamic continues with people like us – and us – dispersed into the world to disrupt the status quo with Christ’s radical message of suffering love, transformative grace, radical equality as children of God, and evangelistic empowerment. This morning we jump ahead into the Acts of the Apostles where we see that the early church was messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God was there and God was faithful. Our lives are messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God is here and God is faithful.
The text was assumed to be a largely straightforward, historical recounting of the earliest days of the church. It recorded the who, what, when, where, and why of the early church. How then does this text about antiquity and its events influence us today? I heard growing up that the Acts of the Apostles was the record of the church as it should be. There was an impulse to go back to the church as it was in its earliest days. A sort of theological nostalgia guided our reading of this text: if only we could do church the way it used to be done, we would be in a much better place.
This text seems to shatter this reading practice. First, we read about a church divided along linguistic and cultural lines, a church that cannot live into the promise of a community where “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). Second, we see church leaders too busy to deal with the distribution of food to the widows, and even some latent tribalism. Notice that they don’t proclaim “All Widows Matter!” Third, we read about the demise of Stephen, a martyrdom that seems to precipitate anew the church’s journey to be witness even “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In short, this is a church that is contentious, overwhelmed, and confronting great loss. Perhaps what we learn in Acts is not to look for a blueprint for an ideal church but instead to develop an imagination for what God does when God draws our lives together into communities characterized by unity and division, focus and uncertainty, joy and loss.
What might it look like to be a community that cares for the widows in our midst, whomever they might be? What might it look like for the church to call some among us to important, indispensable tasks? What might it look like for us to be amazed at the ways God’s call often exceeds and overrides our expectations? What might it look like for us to bear testimony to Christ in ways that evoke Stephen’s courage and clarity? What might it look like for us to be the church that must grieve the loss of someone like Stephen and fear that we might be next?
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation