“He found disciples” is the most fascinating sentence in this week’s Acts reading. I’ve argued before that Luke-Acts tells the stories of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and of the Apostles with a strong literary continuity, and the identification of these John-followers as “disciples” is a passage that I’d forgotten for some time that confirms that argument. For Luke-Acts, the movement of the Spirit is unpredictable, never nullifying expectations for people to relate to the new community of the Way but also appearing out ahead of the Apostles, surprising the Apostles, and otherwise stealing the show at every turn. So when Paul encounters this group of people, a crew who does not even seem to have a concept of Holy Spirit, the narrative voice calls them disciples without any finger-crossing and fully expecting that, once they hear what they once did not know, they immediately respond by submitting to baptism into the name of Jesus, and after the laying-on of hands, about twelve of them (they’re just about like apostles now!) are prepared to proclaim the gospel, by word and by sign, in Asia Minor.
Before anyone goes pitying my hermeneutical naivete, I recognize that Luke-Acts is a narrative that aims to be normative. And that’s precisely the point: because the story that this text tells is nothing like the world of sectarian and denominational bickering over baptism that I’ve known in my career as a Stone-Campbell Christian in an conservative-evangelical world, it stands as a paradigm, an alternative to the soft ecumenism and the borderline isolationism that have defined the boundaries of the discussion in my own experience. In the Acts version, those Paul finds are already disciples, and he invites them into a new baptism. Nobody ever thinks either of refusing fellowship or refusing baptism, and there’s never any sense that “they” have to become like “us” in order to be faithful to Christ: the way that Acts tells it, everyone is figuring this out, as faithfully and obediently as they can manage, in every moment of the story.
Again, just in case some of you still pity the poor blogger, I don’t think that every writer, constructing a story of the first-generation Church, would have told this story. If anything, Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Corinthians and even the Romans indicate that Paul himself sees the faithful in those places as needing more instruction, still floundering and lapsing either into exclusion or libertinism (or, in Corinth, both, but that’s Corinth). But to fault Acts for presenting the Church at its best is to miss the point of Acts: this is the book that ends with the gospel proclaimed, unhindered. This is the book where disputes whose outcome will define the future of Christianity come to a very civil settlement at Jerusalem, where Jacobus (James, for those with no Latin or Greek) says “I say that we will,” and that’s the end of it. This is not the world of the “realist” who refuses to believe in even the horizon of harmony but a series of exemplary stories, told with an emphasis on the work of the Spirit so that future generations might see what Spirit looks like.
So I call on Christians to look to Acts not because it’s the only way to tell the early Church’s story but because it’s one way to tell that story, a way that has in its sights the souls of those who read and the good of the Church for whom Acts will become Scripture. 1 Corinthians will always be there if we get tempted to triumphalism, but when we need direction for our desires, an image to which we can aspire, give me Acts any old day of the week.
May the Scriptures enliven our imaginations so that we can proclaim boldly the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.