Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Church Acting Out

From time to time I hear people nostalgically talk about "the early church" and how we should get back to those basics. There's nothing quite like the book of Acts to help with that. After all, in Acts the believers are bold and powerful. They perform miracles and signs. They give eloquent speeches in front of kings and princes. They are heroic. Surely that's how the church should be!

That's the nature of historiography, I suppose; a somewhat valorised account of events. But even with our form criticism in full swing, Acts is still part of the canon and has things to teach.

The signs and wonders are popular. I can remember a few different pastors announcing that they want a church like Acts 2 (the day of Pentecost). The liturgy of most Pentecostal churches follows a reenactment of this scene, perhaps a reactualisation. Signs and wonders are certainly more popular than trying to form a church based around Acts 4:32ff in which none of the believers had private property and shared everything. Outside of groups like Jesus People USA and the Catholic Worker I don't hear of many churches who've tried it. I wonder whether today's churches tend to polarize around either of these models but never both.

I read with interest how closely Luke associates the description of shared possessions and how the apostles "gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." The abandonment of the claim to private possessions and the "great power" of gospel proclamation are intertwined in this passage (see also Acts 2:43-47).

Nostalgia for the "early church" is a good place to start and a bad place to finish. It typically refers to the early Jerusalem church rather than the early churches of other places and typically means the appealing parts of Acts. Acts is a difficult book, though. It paints a picture of sacrifice, hardship, charity and redemption. To wish for a life like that is to wish for the costly grace that Bonhoeffer taught. We need to temper our nostalgia so that we avoid the trap of cheap grace otherwise we will be the church Acting out a parody of its origins.
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