Angela Tilby: Acts is hard work during Eastertide

03 May 2019

SINCE the arrival of Common Worship, the Sunday lectionary between Easter and Pentecost (based on the Revised Common Lectionary) prescribes readings from the Acts of the Apostles at the principal Sunday service.

These are meant to replace an Old Testament reading during Eastertide, which means that, if there are three readings at a Sunday eucharist, they are all from the New Testament. Even if there is to be only one reading before the Gospel, Acts has precedence. (An Old Testament option is provided, somewhat grudgingly, but even if this is used it must not supplant the Acts reading).

There is an obvious logic to reading the early chapters of Acts in Eastertide, as the Church lives out its Easter hope and looks forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But, although it makes sense in thematic terms, I find it hard work liturgically. The problem is the clash of two often strong (and sometimes long) narrative passages coming one after the other: Acts and then a Gospel; either one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, or a passage on resurrection life from John. You want to listen to those: they really matter.

Acts needs space to be heard well, which is why I find that I am more likely to attend to it when it is read in the course of the daily office than when it is crowded into a Sunday eucharist.

It is not that I don’t appreciate Acts: in purely literary terms, it is probably one of the best compositions in the Bible, skilfully crafted to tell its story of the Spirit’s work in the Early Church. It also wonderfully reflects the Mediterranean urban world in which Christianity emerged and spread, giving a vivid insight into ordinary secular life, commerce, travel, law, and gossip, as well as the dangers of fire and shipwreck. Thematically, it both completes the mission of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel, and provides a careful apologetic for the mission of Paul, who, at the end of the story, is in Rome, still free, though awaiting trial.

I know that there are those for whom the Acts of the Apostles is a blueprint for the mission of the Church today, and who might jump at the chance for a programmatic exposition of the narrative in preaching. I don’t read Acts in that way, but I do see anticipations and warnings of how the Spirit works through human frailty to form communities shaped by the gospel. I don’t always like the results — one thinks of Ananias and Sapphira — but we need to know the worst if we are to emulate the best.

So, I want to do justice to the Acts of the Apostles, but I am afraid that, on Sunday mornings between Easter and Pentecost, it all rushes past in a bit of a blur.

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