Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching (Acts 5:17-21)
Having finished reading through Luke without Bible reading notes, I thought I might as well go on to Luke’s second book — after all, if you enjoy an author’s first offering, why not try the sequel? Now I have always had a problem with Acts; I never found it a congenial book, and was puzzled at how I could like his Gospel so much, and yet dislike his history of the early church.
Part of the explanation came to me years ago when I had to write my own Bible notes on some of Acts. The way I have heard this book preached on and taught, at least in an evangelical context (and other church contexts don’t seem to preach on it much) was something like this: ‘Look what a great evangelist Paul was; why aren’t you more like Paul?’ Which is bound to make anyone feel negative about the book; especially if you are a woman and in many parts of the church, being more like Paul is actively barred to you. Besides, I don’t believe everyone is called to be an evangelist, though we are all called to be witnesses when the chance arises — if you want to know the difference, I think it’s a bit like being a professional chef versus doing home cooking for your family.
Read as narrative, Acts is full of fabulous and engaging, sometimes amusing stories (I love the one about Eutychus falling out of the window because Paul’s preaching has sent him to sleep — Acts 20:9). It also reflects many of the interests Luke has shown in his Gospel: the Holy Spirit, the outsider, the ministry of women (I defy anyone to read Acts 2:14-21, where Peter quotes the wonderfully inclusive prophecy of Joel, and still maintain that women can’t preach). And here, in chapter 5, is a little sentence I have never noticed before, the angel’s instruction to the apostles: ‘Go, stand in the Temple and tell the people the whole message about this life‘ [italics mine]. Not, ‘Go and tell them about Penal Substitutionary Atonement’, not ‘Go and tell them their sin separates them from God’, not ‘Go and tell them they can have Jesus as their personal Saviour’, but ‘tell them about this life’.
Before it was a set of doctrinal statements, before it was a sinner’s prayer at the end of a tract, Christianity was a life; a life the earliest disciples called ‘The Way’. How, as an Anabaptist who believes how Jesus lived is as significant for us as how he died, did I miss this? You might say I am sidelining the Cross here, but in fact I am extending its reach: the life Jesus calls us to is a cross-shaped, a cruciform life — we are meant to be living in such a way that we are at real risk of the powers-that-be seeking a way to dispose of us. And around the world, many Christians are still living with that real risk — not necessarily because their Christianity is a persecuted faith (and it is, in many places) but because the stands they take, the truths they proclaim, are directly in opposition to those who wield power for their own ends.
Besides, if I am sidelining the Cross, you could make the same accusation of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. He barely mentions the Cross except as the socially shameful way in which Jesus died. His sermon is all about Jesus’ life, about who Jesus was, and how this was a life that not even death could destroy. The first formulation of the gospel was not so much about Jesus’ death, but about his resurrection (which is precisely why the Sadducees, here in this story from Acts 5, objected to the apostles, since the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection).
What difference would it make if our preaching, our evangelism, our witness took this slant? For a start, it would make the Christian faith less transactional (to caricature, but not much: our sin prevented God from being able to relate to us so he did a deal through Jesus) and more covenantal: God wants a relationship with us, and in Jesus, who has identified with us in every way including identifying with our sin, God is offering that relationship.
It might also restore the truth that though we are not saved by works of righteousness, we are most certainly saved for them. When I was living in a theological college over 40 years ago, the students there had to write an essay on ‘What are we saved from?’. I thought at the time, and continue to think, that ‘What are we saved for?’ would be a better question. Our English language has at least two meanings for the word saved, illustrated in these two sentences: ‘Dirk Willems saved his persecutor from falling through the ice’ and ‘I’m sorry, this seat is saved for my husband’. And I suspect salvation in the theological sense contains both of those meanings.
So this little sentence has, if you like, saved the book of Acts for me. I now see it as a book that illustrates a particular life — perhaps an exceptional, rudimentary, experimental form of it (for all budding social or religious movements have that element of the excitement of the new, blended with a certain provisionality) but a life which is nevertheless available to all of us, even in our more staid and perhaps over respectable lives. And it is above all a communitarian life (see Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-35), because it’s much too hard to live it alone.