The Unnoticed: Some Characters from Acts
I have often found the Acts of the Apostles an intimidating book. Accounts of the amazing growth of the church and its heroic leadership are sometimes hard to get along with; they have simply not been my experience. With this being the second of Luke’s writings, I wonder where all the talk of priority of the small people, the poor and the excluded we read of in his gospel is? Well, I think it is all down to the way we read Acts. We often read it from a mindset of power and strength rather than seeing God at work in all people, especially those who simply ‘did not fit’. Here are some folk who did not fit.
THE GREEK AND THE AFRICAN (ACTS 8:26-40)
Here we have two people who did not fit into the mainstream for a variety of religious and cultural reasons. First, Philip: he was different to the rest of Jesus’ disciples for he was linked into the Greek community. He had a Greek name and probably spoke Greek. Knowing their community, it was Philip who mentioned to Andrew that some Greek people wanted to meet Jesus. So here we have a Greek-speaking Jew operating in an Aramaic-speaking community that was a despised minority because of their commitment to Jesus. Philip was on the edge of so many groups and maybe felt misunderstood, to a degree, by them all.
He received a message that he must leave the centre of where all the action was (Jerusalem) and get himself on the wilderness road to Gaza. It is here in the middle of nowhere that Philip gets a God-urge to catch up with our second misfit: a foreigner travelling in a flashy chariot. This foreigner is an Ethiopian. He also was an outsider, albeit a wealthy one. He was treasurer to his Queen and so was a senior court official, a diplomat, maybe a politician. But (and it is a big ‘but’) he was a eunuch. His sexuality does not really fit any of the categories we debate today. In his day, even though he had gone to Jerusalem to worship, he would not have been allowed into the Temple as his ‘type’ were forbidden by religious regulations.
What is fascinating is that these two outsiders met in a nowhere liminal space to discuss a passage from Isaiah that talks about the coming Christ as a slaughtered sheep, easily discarded. In Philip, the Ethiopian met a kindred spirit and in Jesus he met the even greater Spirit – no wonder he insisted on being baptised.
THE CHARITY WORKER (ACTS 9:36-43)
Next, we take a look at a woman who, though raised back to life, spoke nothing. Furthermore, her story is sandwiched between two accounts of men having dramatic crises: Saul on the Damascus road and Peter disturbed by a vision. Sadly, she is easily overlooked and placed at the margins in Acts. However, Luke carefully placed her story central to theses other two dramatic events.
The woman had two names: Tabitha, her Hebrew name, and Dorcas, its Greek translation. Living at the main port of Joppa, she lived in two worlds. There was the world of her faith, as a Jewish believer in the risen Jesus Christ and there was the dominant world of the Roman Empire, whose language was Greek. So, with her dual identity she had to negotiate living between two conflicting worlds. Tabitha/Dorcas had the difficult and demanding task of discerning how to cling onto her radical and stubborn belief in the resurrection of Jesus while living under the shadow of the imperial culture of domination and death.
Tabitha/Dorcas is unique in the New Testament; she is the only woman to be called a ‘disciple’. While living as a believer in Jesus on the edge of her Jewish identity and also not at home in the Greco-Roman world, she was central to the community of faith in the port city. Not only that, but she was also the driving force behind the charitable work of supplying much-needed clothing for the local widows. When she unexpectedly dies, the community is distraught, refuses to accept the situation and so sends for Peter.
Despite the fact that Tabitha/Dorcas had been laid out, on his arrival Peter went straight up to her and stood by her bed. In the great tradition of Elijah and Elisha, he called and invited her back to life. Such was the impact of her life within her community and across that town that many came to believe.
In this whole account, this amazing woman remains silent, yet her life speaks so loudly. What she did for excluded widows was not only the fulling of the ancient Jewish law and an act of compassion, but it was also a loud proclamation of the gospel of Jesus. Tabitha/Dorcas stands as a disciple alongside the others (men) in a world that demoted women as being less than human.
The author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote that our calling is the place where ‘our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ The amazing thing Tabitha/Dorcas did was to live out her calling on the edge of colliding worlds.
THE GATEKEEPER (ACTS 12:6-17)
Being a servant and gatekeeper was not the grandest of roles, but for Rhoda it was probably a relatively secure position in John Mark’s family home. On this occasion many believers were present because they were concerned for Peter who was held in a local prison. His dramatic release from the jail by an angel normally takes centre stage in this account. However, let us just think for a moment about Rhoda who plays an important part in the story.
Rhoda was an outsider. First, she was a female in a highly patriarchal society. Women were not taken seriously and, without men, did not count as full human beings. However, her place of work was a house run in the name of a woman, Mary, so she would have had a more sympathetic boss than many. Second, she was a slave and so had no guaranteed rights or protection.
Being freed from prison at night, Peter made his way to Mary’s house. It fell to Rhoda to see to the rapping on the main gate; the main body of believers, inside, were praying. On hearing Peter’s voice, Rhoda was too excited to open up and rushed back into the house. (She knew his voice having often overheard him at Mary’s house while doing her duties or eavesdropping around the home).
Running in and interrupting the gathered meeting she blurted out her news that Peter was at the gate. But they did not believe her; they told her she was out of her mind. She kept on about it, but they side-lined her by saying it must be an angel. Peter’s continued banging on the gate eventually led the praying people to realise the truth of Rhoda’s witness and let him in.
Rhoda was not taken seriously as she lacked the necessary status as both a woman and a slave. She was an outsider and, like the women who reported the resurrection of Jesus to the disciples on Easter Sunday, she was accused of talking nonsense.
It is hard for us to get away from the idea that it is the prominent and powerful who know God’s will better. In Acts both Peter and Paul needed a big ‘shake’ before they saw properly. In God’s way of doing things, it is often the outsider who knows better.
NOTE ON GRAHAM’S MOST RECENT BOOK:
Graham has also recently published Seeing Luke Differently: reflections on spirituality and social justice from the third gospel (2021). It sets out a fresh and vivid approach to Luke’s companion volume to Acts. Its approach sees contemplation and social justice as crucial gospel priorities and recognises them as being two sides of the same coin in the life of Jesus. Written in poetic form, their more oblique style gives voice to other possible interpretations.
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