Week 3 (4.24.2016)
The Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles is the second book written by the Gospel writer Luke. In the first book, Luke wrote his account of the life and ministry of Jesus. The book of Acts, stands as the only book of its kind weaving the stories of Peter and the Jerusalem church with the missionary stories of Saul/Paul in modern day Western Syria, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece and Rome. Luke did not write the history of the early church only the missional activities of the Apostle Paul. Luke did not record stories of the mission Eastward to Eastern Syria, Mesopotamia, and South into Egypt and Northern parts of Africa. Nor did Luke tell stories of the evangelizing work of any of the disciples other than Peter.
The Holy Spirit, like the wind, was active well beyond the stories included in the book of Acts. However, the stories that Luke tells has caused some to suggest that this book be renamed the book of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is so active in Acts. What is evident is that the witness and ministry of the early church was driven and empowered by the Spirit. Like the ministry of Jesus, people were healed, set free and experienced new life through faith in Christ and participation in the community of faith, the church.
The acts or actions of the apostles is a fitting description of this book as well because the Holy Spirit works through people to accomplish God’s purposes. The Greek word for witness is martaria, which is a root for the word martyr: a person who died on account of their faith. Paul testified about the cost he paid as a witness to Jesus: imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked, 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.
The Acts of the Apostles has two sections: 1) Local Witness: in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, chapters 1-9; and 2) Witness to the Ends of the Earth, chapters 10-28.
Ground Work: Read Acts 9:1-22
In this first story from Acts, Saul had his eyes blinded by God so he could see anew what God was doing in this Jesus movement. It is powerful to consider how God made an enemy of the gospel such a positive force for God.
Damascus is the capital of Syria, a province of the Roman Empire, and it is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Gen 14:15; 15:2; 1 Kings 11:24; 15:18; 19:15; 20:34; etc.). The area around Syria is one of the most ancient inhabited places on earth. The earliest reference to Damascus is found in the annals of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. From the third millennium B.C.E., Syria was occupied by a minimum of twelve Empires by the time Roman general Pompey the Great captured Antioch in 64 B.C.E., and occupying Syria as a Roman province.
Damascus was a great city of trade, with ample water from a river, wells and a canal. It possessed a large Jewish colony estimated at about 50,000 at the time of Saul. King Herod of Judea built a theater and gymnasium even though it was outside of his jurisdiction. If in the early or mid-thirties, a few years, after Jesus’ death, Paul seeks out this city as the place of the battle against Christianity, it must have been rather prominent here. This congregation too must have been founded by the Hellenists, for Paul sees the law threatened. It is this motivation that puts Saul (Hebrew name or Paul Roman name) on the road to Damascus.
While the author Luke identifies Saul as the God-appointed missionary to the gentiles and the central character of Acts, it is quite clear that God used many other followers to evangelize and disciple new followers as well. In reality, the Pauline mission was preceded by an ‘anonymous’ stage unconnected with names of particular renown, one which moreover continued alongside the Pauline, for it was not Paul in fact that initiated Christian congregations in Damascus, Antioch, Ephesus or Rome.The evangelists behind the birth of these and other city churches remains a mystery.
The road from Jerusalem to Damascus (called the Via Maris Highway or Way of the Sea referred to in Isaiah 9:1) ran through Hazor north of the Sea of Galilee and on to Damascus. The distance from Jerusalem to Damascus was 150 miles. If Saul could walk at a pace of 30-35 miles per day, it may have taken Saul some 4-5 day journey.
Saul walked with passion. He was filled with a profound commitment to extinguish the flame of the spreading Christian faith. While we do not know from Acts or church history the origin of the church in Damascus, there was a significant enough house church there that was known about in Jerusalem that Saul chose to go and arrest these Jesus’ followers.
Saul went on his trip with the authorization of the high priest (Caiaphas, up to the year 36 C.E.) in Jerusalem. It was not just his own whim. As Saul and his companions approached Damascus, God did the unlikely thing, God intervened in Saul’s quest and called Saul to follow and lead God’s mission. While his companions saw a great light, Saul saw Jesus and alone heard his voice. (Compare the story of Saul’s conversion in all three records of the story in Acts: 9:1-19; 22:6-16; and 26:12-18. Note similarities and uniqueness to each retelling).
None of us travel this life alone. We are at our best when we when we walk together with others. Saul discovered his need for his companions when his eyesight failed. His friends led him the rest of the way to Damascus. When they arrived, Saul remained for three days at the house of Judas on Straight Street, the main East/West route in Damascus. There Saul prayed continuously while he fasted and abstained even from drink. Saul was bearing down to sort out this crisis of faith following the vision where he met the face of Jesus whose followers he was en route to persecute.
The scene of the story shifts to a new character, a follower of Jesus from the church in Damascus. Other than his name being Ananias and a Jewish-Christian (22:12) we do not know much more about him. He has heard a lot of bad press about Saul and his violence against the church. It is possible that Ananias was one of the followers of Jesus who fled Jerusalem because of the persecution against the church (8:1). Knowing that back story, is it any wonder why Ananias would be hesitant to go and face Saul?
God Works through People. The primary way that God gets stuff on earth is through people like you and me. The Bible is a collection of stories about God calling and working through people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Ruth, judges like Deborah and Samson, kings like David and Josiah and prophets like Isaiah and Amos. When God wanted to make a way of life, reconciliation and peace for the whole world, God became human in the person of Jesus.
Jesus did not complete all the work of ministry that needed to be accomplished. He called followers to himself and taught truths, how to pray and the work they were to do. Jesus sent them to teach about his way of life, to heal the sick, and make follower of others. God continues to work through his people the church to extend the kingdom of God. With our eyes wide open, God will work through us as church too.
There are a lot of words that can be used for a business and legislative meeting of the church but ironically a spiritual event is not often one of them. As a business man, Ron has found the decisions and decision-making process of the larger church body, the Northern Illinois Synod Assembly, engaging his interest. In the middle of presentations on resolutions, budget discussion and elections to various committees the wind of the Spirit unexpectedly blew into the Assembly gathering and captured Ron’s attention and heart.
Ron recounted: It was at the Synod Assembly where I heard Bishop Wollersheim announce he was going to Arusha, Tanzania to lay the cornerstone for a new hospital. When he said these words my heart just began beating like crazy and I knew at that moment this was something I had to do. After a bit I mentioned it to Debbie and she was on the same page as me. Ron Gustafson made his first ever trip to Tanzania in February 2005. Up to this point in Ron’s life, neither the continent of Africa nor Tanzania in specific was in Ron’s bucket list! Little did Ron realize at the time that Tanzania would move from a racing heart of excitement to a missional virus in his blood stream that would take him to Tanzania many times.
There was a meeting in May 2005 at the Synod office with various pastors, Bishop Wollersheim of the Northern Illinois Synod and Bishop Laiser of the North-Central Diocese of Tanzania present. Likamba Lutheran Parish was officially named as a companion partnership with Grace Lutheran Church in Loves Park at this meeting. Pastor Terri Driver-Bishop and Ron Gustafson were also present.
Ron added this reflection: What motivates me about the people and mission of the church in Tanzania is seeing we can actually make a difference in people’s lives through things like the hospital and its outreach into the rural areas, the church bells that add excitement and wholeness to congregations especially the very new ones that have very little resources. Without electricity or watches the bells ring and tell people it is time to start walking to worship.
Ron’s story illustrates that we can never anticipate when the Spirit will speak and call us to new adventures. Ron was not dissatisfied with life nor looking for a new challenge or adventure. The Spirit spoke and for his part, Ron was open and curious. God spoke to Pastor Bob and Terry Driver-Bishop as well. Before long, the church council of Grace was discussion and bringing the idea of being partners with a Lutheran parish in Tanzania before the congregation. The rest of the story continues to be written.
- As you read the story of the conversion of Saul, what did you notice that you do not recall seeing before in this story?
- If you were to imagine yourself as Ananias, what do you think was going through his mind? How does this story relate in any way to how we at Grace respond to new people?
- Saul spent three days praying and going without food or drink. It was a sacred time of seeking the presence of God. How do you engage spiritual disciplines to listen for God? If this is not part of your past, how may you want to open yourself up to God? What are you considering doing?
God speaks to us sometimes when we are not even expecting it. Like Ron, it is never too late to join in on God’s mission. Sometimes it takes us far awa
 Hans Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973, p. 65.
 Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971, p. 299.