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Easter 6, Year B (2003)
Acts 10.44-48: Spirit precedes baptism: nothing stop Spirit, not even the Church.
Ps 98: Sing to Lord a new song - he has done marvellous things
1 John 5.1-6: love of God: obey his commands, not burdensome: Js is Son of God
John 15.9-17: as Fr loves me, I loved you; abide in my love (v.16ab: QCB chapel door)
Collect: (good!) his continual presence...raise us to eternal joy (89 )(1581-89=1492)
Post-Com: God our Father...Jesus gives water...may we thirst for you, spring of life
Summary: Luke in Luke-Acts (1) tries to keep everyone onboard, (2) deflates those set in their ways, and (3) thus invites us to entertain new ways, new outlooks.
If we may liken the gospel to a diamond, then each of our four evangelists highlights different facets of it. This morning I would like to point out something about St Lukeís writing that has long tickled my fancy.
In both the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles Luke is concerned to try to keep everyone on board, so to speak, by broadening his appeal to as wide a potential audience as he can manage. Thus, whereas in the earlier gospel of Mark, the Pharisees were among those who plot to destroy Jesus, Luke carefully omits such Markan references to the Pharisees. The worst they ever do in Lukeís Gospel is to grumble about the company that Jesus keeps, and they even warn Jesus that Herod is out to get him.
The Gospels of Matthew and John very clearly present Jesus as Godís Word, his Wisdom, who both fulfils and supersedes the Law and the Prophets. I believe Mark does this as well, although less clearly. But Luke, on the other hand, while presenting Jesus as fulfilling the Law, the Prophets and the psalms, clearly does not present Jesus as the figure of Wisdom, since Jesus himself speaks of the figure of Wisdom as something other than himself. Luke does not want Jesus to be seen as replacing or superseding the Law and the Prophets. By doing this he hopes to keep open the appeal of the gospel to those who have a more conservative outlook, both those who are actual members or those Jews who may be potential members of the church.
Where the other three gospels frontally attack the Jerusalem temple as the place of Godís presence, Luke instead in Stephenís speech in Acts only attacks it obliquely, so that in Acts Godís presence is there only when people empowered by the Spirit are there.
In this and other ways, Luke tries to keep the appeal of the gospel as open as possible to both Jews and Gentiles. With tongue in cheek, one might even say he was trying to be a good Anglican. I believe Luke was also among other things arguing that the church should not become too fixed in its ways, and it is this that I want to share with you now, for I think it may have something to say to us as well.
All during Eastertide we have been having readings from the Acts of the Apostles, Lukeís second volume. I sometimes think of Luke as a mickey-taker, for on at least three occasions in Acts I believe he is taking the mickey out of those in the Christian community who, in effect, think theyíve gotten everything sewn up neatly. And in each of the three stories the Holy Spirit upsets their apple cart for being so uppity.
The first time is in Acts 6 when the issue arises in the church in Jerusalem concerning food distribution. The text says "the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food" (6.1). That is, the community had Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking members, and the former were complaining that their widows were not getting their fair share of the food. Luke has very carefully labelled the re-constituted twelve, that is, the original eleven plus Matthias, as being "the apostles", and it is these apostles who now say to the Hellenists, in effect, "Choose yourself seven good men full of the Spirit to see to this. Itís not our job, for our job is to preach and to pray". And the way Luke tells it, we can almost hear the Holy Spirit saying, "Iíve got news for you guys," for it is Stephen, Philip and the rest of the seven who do not simply wait on tables but now do all the preaching and evangelising for the next several chapters and they are the ones responsible for the spread of the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem.
The second story is the one we have this morning, with Peter going on at some length preaching away, and then the Holy Spirit pre-empts him as though to say, "Cut the cackle." And notice that in this story the imparting of the Spirit precedes baptism. So much for neatly tied up liturgical practice!
The third story concerns Paul and Barnabas, and I believe it probably involves the concerns of churches founded by St Paul.
In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers". And in each of his letters Paul calls himself an apostle, by which he means an evangelist, a church-founder, but also a church-founder who has the oversight of the churches he has founded. Paul does not simply call himself an apostle, but he argues for the legitimacy of his apostleship. For Paul apostles are church-founders who bring Godís wisdom, his love in Christ; prophets are local pastoral preachers who help build up the church, the Body of Christ, in hope, and the teachers are the ones who teach the scriptural base that elicits faith. This concept of a three-fold ministry concerned with faith, hope and love is upheld in the letter to the Ephesians, which was written after Paulís death, quite possibly by the person who first collected together some of the letters written by Paul or in Paulís name. In the letter to the Ephesians we find the equivalent terms of evangelist, pastor and teacher, with the terms apostles and prophets now being reserved for the earlier founding generation. It seems likely to me that the Pauline churches may have tried to argue that their three-fold ministry was the best kind and possibly the only "correct" kind for the churches.
I think it is something like this kind of outlook that Luke is confronting in Acts when he has Paul and Barnabas set apart with prayer and the laying on of hands by, note this! prophets and teachers at Philippi, and it is only after this that Luke twice refers to them as apostles. So much for uppityness by Pauline churches, I would guess. There certainly is no fixed pattern of ministry in Acts.
I believe the point that Luke is making in all three of these stories is, in effect, nothing can stop the Holy Spirit - not even the Church.
Although Luke has Paul made an apostle by Paulís second and third orders of ministry, thus inverting Paulís scheme, he is certainly not out to denigrate Paul himself. In fact, he places Peter and Paul in relation to each other in Acts by several times telling equivalent stories about each of them. So if he has had the Holy Spirit interrupting Peterís long-winded sermon, then he does the same thing with Paul, when Paulís lengthy sermon puts Eutyches to sleep so that he falls out of the window and has to be revived by Paul, who then carries on preaching again. Long-winded preachers, take note!
Perhaps Lukeís Mickey-taking might speak to us here at St Markís in these unsettled times when the economic realties facing the dioceses of the Church of England are throwing up the need for some serious re-thinking of what structure may best enable us to respond to our call to the Kingdom, firm in the living knowledge of the Resurrection and of the power of the Spirit in our lives and fellowship in Christ.
So, in the words of our psalm, let us sing a new song to the Lord, for not only has he done marvellous things, but there are yet more marvellous things to come.