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Posts Tagged ‘the gospel’

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The other night I was blessed to attend The Summit’s ministry for young professionals (or “Young Pros” as it is affectionately called, or “The Meat Market” as it is less-so affectionately called).  It was an encouraging time of prayer, worship, fellowship, the reading of the Scriptures and the eating of hors d’euvres.  The Summit is a Southern Baptist mega-church of sorts that is sprawled across the Research Triangle.  It is missions-driven, community-serving, thoroughly Southern Baptist and very, very cool

The evening’s sermon text was Acts 2:42-48 and the message was vintage Summit.  But (there’s always a “but”) one bit of the sermon got my theological gears whirring and clicking.  Now, I hate to be “that guy.”  You know the one: the nit-picking seminarian who just can’t let any questionable detail in a sermon go.  And I’m not really “that guy.”  I am much more of an interloper, a post-conservative gadfly with something of an outsider’s perspective than the anal-retentive insider that “that guy” usually is.  So, having convinced at least myself, I will continue.

What got me to thinking was that the speaker took the phrase “And they devoted themselves  (proskarterou/ntej) to the apostles’ teaching” (2:42) to mean that the believers in Jerusalem devoted themselves to “Scripture.”  Of course, the interpretation is understandable: didn’t some of the apostles write some of the books and letters that came to be known as “Scripture”?  Well, yes.  But they had not done so at the time that Acts 2 describes.  Paul had not yet been converted, much less embarked on an apostolic writing career.  It would be several more decades before the Evangelists would put pen to papyrus.  And the pastoral and catholic epistles…well, you get the idea.

The reason that this seemingly innocuous sermonic anachronism has so stuck out to me is that it implicitly misconstrues the Jerusalem church as being essentially a robe-and-sandal-clad, Greek-speaking modern Evangelical church.  But the fact is that the Jerusalem church differed from Evangelical congregations in more than just attire and language.

For one thing, the Jerusalem Christians were still thoroughgoing, practicing Jews, “day by day, attending (proskarterou/ntej) the Temple together….” (Acts 2:46)  In short, the Jerusalem Christians in addition to meeting in each others’ homes continued participating in the Temple services, sacrifices and all.  It is indeed worth noting that precisely the same verb form is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did in the Temple as is used for what the Jerusalem Christians did with the apostles’ teaching (proskarterou/ntej).  While these earliest Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah, had been raised from the dead and had inaugurated “the last days” (Acts 2:16-17, 32), Judaism and Christianity were not yet two fully distinct religions.  Even if they recognized Jesus’ death as having been sacrificial, they did not yet see that as grounds for leaving off the normal Jewish sacrificial practices.

In addition to continued participation in the Temple, we can say that at least some of the Jerusalem Christians (and some who were closely associated with James the brother of Jesus, at that) were concerned with maintaining some semblance of kosher diets and with circumcising Gentile converts (Gal 2:12).  Indeed, it is striking how at variance the letter the Jerusalem Council sent to Gentiles is with Paul’s policy on dietary matters (compare Acts 15:28-29 with Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8).  All of this is to say that we need to be on guard against facilely homogenizing the Church’s historic diversity and really wrestle with the otherness of the Church as it was back then.  We and the earliest believers are parts of the One Body of Christ, but our unity with them is not an uncomplicated one.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, we must ask, What, then, was “the apostles’ teaching” if it was not their writings?  Well, since it was not yet committed to writing, it was obviously oral and, indeed, careful historical study has given us some windows into the character of this early, oral, apostolic teaching.  Some of this teaching came to be formulated into short, easy-to-memorize creeds.  It is commonly granted that Paul preserves some of these earliest apostolic creeds in his letters.  For example,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)

This text along with Philippians 2:6-11 and others are often taken to be apostolic traditions that Paul probably inherited from the Jerusalem circle (see Gal 1:18).
But probably better windows into the apostolic teaching to which Acts 2:42 refers are to be found in Peter’s sermons (2:14-39; 3:12-26).  These sermons emphasize the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus as the definite plan of God and the inauguration of the last days about which the prophets had spoken.
 
The point here is that seen through these two sets of windows the content of the apostle’s teaching amounts to  the good news of the career, death and resurrection of Jesus, otherwise known as the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It was to this message that that intensely Jewish body, the Jerusalem community, committed itself.  When we look at them we see not a community consulting a how-to book that could be entitled Christianity for Dummies, but rather a community in a particular time and place, with particular baggage, coming from a particular milieu, trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  They were a gospel-centered, not an (as yet unwritten) New Testament-centered, community.

I think The Summit is, at bottom, like the early Jerusalem church.  It is a place with all sorts of Southern Baptist baggage, a place beginning from a certain Fundamentalistic/Conservative-Evangelical milieu of thought.  But I also think it is a community that is desperately trying to reimagine life and reinvent themselves in the light of the teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, in a very real sense, I think The Summit’s practice is better than their preaching (and their preaching isn’t bad).

What then is the point of this post?  First, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to recover the centrality of the gospel of Jesus and that part of doing that entails not anachronistically reading sola Scriptura into the early Church’s praxis.  We do our Lord and ourselves a disservice by making the Scriptures out to be the source of our life (John 5:39-40) or making the Scriptures out to be an end unto themselves (Romans 10:4).  When the Bible displaces the gospel, things are bound to get out of whack.

Second, I want to suggest that Evangelicals need to get used to the idea that the earliest Church was not a singular community with a tidy, ready-made theology and practice.  In a very real sense, they knew that Jesus was risen and they were making up the rest as they went along.  Sometimes they had hits (e.g., Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised).  Sometimes they had misses (e.g., Gentiles are not allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols; abstain from marriage if you can, ‘cuz Jesus will be back at any minute).  We don’t have to emulate them in every respect, so we don’t need to sanitize our picture of them either.  And recognizing that fact allows us to emulate the apostolic Church in a deeper, more vital way.  It frees us, as it did them, to creatively live out the implications of the gospel for our own community in our own context and in our own way.

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