The Acts of the Apostles and the Common Lectionary: One Preacher’s Concerns
AN ACCOUNT THAT CHARMS
That a local church’s club for young women was called The Dorcas Club is an indicator of just how appealing the characterisations in the Book of Acts can be. For years this group of the recently married, young mums and women early in their careers worked as companions to make their own the biblical description of Dorcas as a doer of good works and a helper of the poor. The community in which they lived was blessed by their efforts.
In Acts, as in the Gospel that bears his name, Luke provides an array of relatable characters and stories that can assume ready currency in our lives. Lydia, Aquila and Priscilla, Barnabas, Timothy, Dorcas, Rhoda, and the rest, step off the page almost like soap characters whose very names prompt our imaginative conjecture. And that’s compounded by the ubiquity of terms like ‘good Samaritan,’ ‘prodigal son,’ and ‘rich fool’ in everyday speech. It is easy to assume that Luke speaks to our present times in a more direct way than other biblical texts.
Luke, and I’m assuming that the Gospel and Acts were written by the same person, portrays a way of being Christian and a way of understanding Christ that has an apparently immediate connection to our own contemporary outlooks – or, at least we are tempted to unthinkingly respond as if his words do. Where compassion and care are taken as contemporary shorthand for what being a ‘real Christian’ is about, Luke provides memorable examples. Where fervour and its triumph is the mark of ‘genuine discipleship,’ again Luke in Acts offers lots of evidence of a church expanding and finding a ready response from individuals and communities. Of course, these are crude caricatures of these complex texts. Nevertheless, the tender-heartedness of Luke’s writing has an immediacy about it that can make it harder to notice the cultural distance between his times and ours, and his worldview and ours. Serious preachers are alert to such pitfalls. My concern is that the common lectionary in practice tends towards making it harder to avoid the pitfalls.
A DOMINANT VOICE?
The principal service readings in all three lectionary years for Easter to Pentecost require that a passage from Acts be the first reading and be always used. The consequence is that Luke’s voice is the dominant voice in this lectionary. In bald and simplistic terms, and I appreciate more subtle factors need to be included in the analysis, Luke provides 93 of the passages selected for public worship, whereas Matthew contributes 54, John 52, and Mark 39. Could it be that the effect of this is that congregations receive a decidedly Lucan version of what the Church is, and that tends to underplay important distinctions and differences emphasised in the other Gospels?
For example, Mark could be read as a prompter for the Christian community to work through how it could in itself be the witness to Christ. That Gospel’s famously abrupt ending that has the women running from the empty tomb in fear could be the gospeller’s way of drawing the young church into examining just how it was to go about witnessing. The idea appeals to me as it brings to the fore issues of response and communicating the divine in complex circumstances – surely things particularly pertinent to our own times. Mark seen in these terms offers a contrast to Acts’ more positivist ‘they will listen’ (28:28).
Similar things can be said of the conflictual tone that Matthew adopts and what that might say to being the Church in times when the notion of faith is questioned, or John’s perhaps more philosophical bent and the difficulties of knowing eternal verities within the experiential realities of the everyday. To my mind, looking at the first Christian communities through such particularities offers us much. This is not to denigrate the more exultant tone of Acts but only to question whether there aren’t other voices in our scriptures that can help us understand the nature of the Church now. The way the lectionary directs us might be silencing those other voices when we need to hear them. Acts’ account of the Holy Spirit moving in the life of the Church will, of course, inspire our present discipleship, but that should surely not encourage us to avoid other less obvious insights into the ways of the first Christian communities.
This preacher’s response is to make sure I ask of all the texts I address in this season what is being said here about the nature of the Church. That the Acts of the Apostles describes so obviously the life and dilemmas faced by our earliest Church forebearers must not divert attention from what other not-so-obvious passages might be saying. The particularities of each gospel’s approach; the controversies Saint Paul faced; the differing approaches to gospel and inherited faith understandings as represented by, say, the letters of James, Paul, Peter, and John; and the strange visions of the Apocalypse; all offer us ways into discerning what ‘Church’ meant in its foundational years. Preachers must not avoid making the connections between, say, the stilling of the storm and the troubles of a tiny fledgling storm-tossed church, or the superabundance of grace evidenced in believers’ lives and the wine at Cana, or the resonance in innumerable other passages between story, symbol, view (implied or explicit) and the life of the Church. Let making those connections characterise our use of the whole of scripture, not just Acts.
FULFILMENT OF WHAT?
My second concern about the use of Acts in the Common Lectionary arises out of Luke’s determination in both the Gospel and Acts to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament promises. It seems strange to me that, despite this Lucan emphasis, during principal services in Eastertide we are directed to omit an Old Testament reading and replace it with one from Acts. According to Luke, ‘God has fulfilled … what he had foretold through all the prophets’ (3:18) but Acts is commonly heard in our congregations without any reading from those prophets. For seven weeks the Old Testament is silenced at our main acts of worship. I wonder at the logic of insisting that Christ’s incarnation, saving death and resurrection is no ‘bolt from the blue’ at the same time as excising those very texts that most clearly witness to that developing story of salvation.
This criticism is usually answered by reference to the practice of Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, who in the Eucharists of the season of Easter replaced Old Testament readings with those from the Acts of the Apostles. Augustine was probably following the practice of Cyril of Jerusalem (c315-386), although the regular omission may be even earlier than that since it is also observed in the Liturgy of Addai and Mari (c200). With such a historical pedigree the Common Lectionary insistence that ‘Acts must be used as either the first or second reading at the principal service’ is claimed as a proper recovery of ancient custom.
That, however, seems to me to be a less that adequate justification on several counts: it ignores the practice of churches where the Eucharist is not necessarily the principal Sunday service; it downplays the symbiotic relationship in many usages between lections at non-Eucharistic and Eucharistic worship (for example, in how the Book of Common Prayer was/is used in Church of England congregations); it reinforces an unhelpful division between Jesus the Jew, steeped in what we have come to call the Old Testament, and Christ the universal saviour unlinked from his own culture and inheritance; and it imposes a detrimental distinction between the Eucharist in Eastertide and the Eucharist at other times of the year – I would argue that they are all celebrations of Easter. In churches where there is a daily Eucharist, Acts has a predominance in public reading each year not afforded to any other part of the Bible. My concern is that this dominance – however expressed – effectively becomes determinative of how we see the Church.
One way of meeting this concern is simply, of course, to use an Old Testament reading and preach on it. This is much harder to achieve in some traditions than others. The Church of England provides Old Testament lections for those who ‘require’ them, but not all reading regimes do so. An alternative might be to sometimes use the Old Testament passage referenced or alluded to in the Acts or Gospel reading. For Acts passages this is much more easily achieved in lectionary years A and B, than in C.
Another approach is to be deliberate in emphasising the ‘cultural distance’ between the Lucan worldview and contemporary worldviews. This is to explicitly counter the too easily assumed correspondence between Luke’s perspective and our own. It attempts to make Luke a little stranger to us. This might appear counterintuitive to much that we usually attempt to achieve in preaching but emphasising cultural difference can bring new appreciation and excitement to texts that have lost their edge through familiarity. Scholars I have found particularly helpful in this are Kenneth E. Bailey (Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, 1983) and Rick Strelan (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles: Collected Essays, 2020).
In its Rules to order how Holy Scripture is to be read the Church of England’s Common Worship service book (p.540) says, ‘In the choice of readings other than the Gospel reading, the minister should ensure, that in any year, a balance is maintained between readings from the Old and New Testaments …’ That rule expresses an ideal that is shared in many traditions. We know that God’s grace so evident in the person of Jesus has a long history to it and we are eager to learn of that lengthy inheritance, as he himself did. We are eager that the words of scripture that shaped Jesus may shape us as well. Our ideal is to be wholeheartedly committed to the whole of Scripture. My worry is that the Common Lectionary coupled with our inherent reserve about departing from its provisions makes that ideal all but impossible to achieve. That little note to the lectionary, ‘Acts must be used,’ has a weight to it we find hard to shift. Yet shift it I think we must. If we don’t, our regular but infrequent worshippers – apparently a larger and larger proportion of those in church – will gain a wholly false impression of both the relationship of the two parts of the Bible and the place of Acts within the wider New Testament.
Augustine’s Eastertide omission of the Old Testament seems to have been intended to underline just how radical a new beginning the resurrection of Christ is. The faithful gathered at the Lord’s Table are to look forward, conscious of how devastatingly unique the new life Christ brings is and what that requires of the lives of the faithful as they look forward to the consummation of all things. And I will certainly add my ‘Amen’ to those convictions. I don’t feel, however, that such confidence and celebration is best served by an over-weighty use of Acts that ignores the Old Testament witness and underplays other perspectives in the New Testament. Yes, the resurrection does change everything, but we need more than one gospeller’s approach to best appreciate that. After all, the whole of the New Testament is the product of the then new post-resurrection Church.
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