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Preaching on Acts for mission formation.

When someone in the church wants to talk about mission, it's a good bet that the book of the Acts of the Apostles will soon come into the discussion. This seems natural, since Acts is all about the mission expansion of the early church. Yet in the first few centuries of its existence Acts was not generally used to teach and preach on mission. Even today, it is difficult to preach on Acts from the lectionary. The brief reflections that follow are meant to challenge preachers to think creatively about how Acts might be used to preach, particularly with the goal of forming the faith of the people of God for mission. This focus is appropriate in an issue that honors Robert Smith, for some of his early writing was on Acts, (1) and readers of Currents know well his contributions in this journal to the art of preaching.

It may seem strange to us now, but Acts apparently did not find much of an audience for a hundred years or so after it was written. It is impossible to be certain why this was so, but the best guess is simply that it was not found to be useful for preaching or instruction. (2) Acts was separated from the Gospel of Luke because of its different content and had to prove its own value in the churches. Because Acts was neither a Gospel that contained the words and deeds of the Lord nor an Epistle with the teachings of Paul or other apostles, it had an uncertain status through most of the second century. At the end of the second century, however, Acts suddenly sprang into prominence in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian, largely because Acts proved very useful in the doctrinal and ecclesiological struggles against Marcion and the Gnostics. Acts became an important witness to apostolic unity and support for the "rule of faith" of the Great Church. (3) The historical and doctrinal functions of Acts were far more prominent than its use for instruction and preaching on mission.

In today's church there is an abundance of Bible study material using Acts to help people think about evangelism and mission. And we know that many of the inspiring stories in Acts are Sunday School staples, complete with maps of expansion and travels and dramatic pictures. But when it comes to preaching, the situation is different. Here the unique character of Acts, a hindrance to its acceptance into common usage in the first centuries, still comes into play. It doesn't really fit into the structure of the lectionaries, being neither Gospel nor Epistle.

The various versions of the popular three-year lectionary now in wide use do manage to give Acts some prominence by incorporating readings from Acts as alternative readings during the Sundays of Easter. But there are problems with Acts in the Revised Common Lectionary. (4) The pericopes are necessarily abbreviations of the larger sermons or stories from which they are taken. Much of Acts consists of connected narratives or long sermons (themselves part of larger narrative contexts), but this material does not easily fit into the Procrustean bed of lectionary readings. So the hearer during the Sundays of Easter gets very little sense of what is going on overall in the plot of Acts. Further, limiting Acts to the Sundays of Easter, even over three years, severely limits what can be covered from a book of 28 chapters. A glance at the index of the Revised Common Lectionary shows the problem. Chapters 1-11 are covered fairly well, but there is nothing at all from chapters 12-15 or 18-28. To be sure, some of these latter chapters spend time repeating Paul's Damascus road experience and have long stretches of defense speeches, legal maneuverings, and sea voyages. It is hard to see how any lectionary would select some of this material. But there is some obviously important material in these "missing" chapters as well: the "Apostolic Council" of Acts 15 and Paul's farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, for example. But even the seemingly theologically thin material, I believe, might be useful if it could be incorporated in a preaching plan.

I am not blaming the framers of the lectionary. Acts fares no worse than other biblical material, especially the Hebrew Bible, and even a three-year lectionary must be selective. What I am suggesting, though, is that a preacher should consider more fully the value of Acts for shaping the people of God for mission (a purpose I think gets close to what the author intended by writing this book). This function need not be limited to Bible studies and Sunday School coverage of Acts but can find its way into regular preaching. To do this, I suggest, the preacher needs to consider other ways to look at the basis for preaching, beyond simple textual exposition of a lectionary pericope.

What follows are some strategies that use insights from a narrative approach to Acts, showing how this kind of preaching could help shape the faith of the people of God for a life of mission in the world. Two important aspects of narrative are plot and setting. I begin with an example from the plot of Acts.

The final journey of Paul from Ephesus to Jerusalem to Rome

Fully one third of Acts, from 19:21 to the end, revolves around the plot of the great journey that Paul announces here: "Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, 'After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.'" Not one text from this long section is read in the Revised Common Lectionary. Yet clearly we cannot do justice to Acts without taking account of this section, even though there is little in it that can be reduced easily to lectionary-sized chunks. What can a preacher do? If you want to hang a sermon on something that does come up in the lectionary, it could be on the Third Sunday of Easter in Year C, when the first lesson is Acts 9:1-6 (7-20). (5) The key words are given to Ananias in verses 15-16: "But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.'"

This text could be used to fast-forward to Acts 19:21, as Paul's mission in Acts enters its final great movement in the progress of the Word of God, through Paul, to "Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel." This movement is part of the overall plot announced in Acts 1:8: "... and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The common idea that Rome is the "ends of the earth" is probably wrong. Ethiopia would more readily have come to the mind of a first-century Greek reader. More probably the phrase is meant to be all-inclusive--Ethiopia, Rome, and wherever. Still, Rome is obviously the destination of the main plot line of Acts, at least from 19:21 on. If the word of God is to reach "Gentiles and kings," Rome must be seen as the central goal. At the climactic end of Acts Paul is in Rome "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance." It doesn't get any better than that for the word of God (even if Paul is still a prisoner awaiting trial and probable execution). (6)

When Paul determines in Acts 19:21 to see Rome, he echoes the similar determination of Jesus to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). And this is not the only parallel set up by Luke between Jesus and Paul. (7) Like the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem in Luke's Gospel, the journey of Paul to Rome in Acts is not straightforward. Paul first has to contend with a riot in Ephesus before he even leaves. Then he goes to Macedonia, back to Troas in Asia, and from there to Miletus, where he summons and addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus. Then it is on to Tyre in Palestine (interestingly, Paul bypasses the previously central Antioch) and on down the coast to Caesarea and finally to Jerusalem. There he gets a rather ambiguous reception from the Jewish Christian church led by James. His attempt to show good faith to the Jewish Christian leaders and to thwart Jewish opposition backfires, and he is seized by a mob in the temple. Rescued by Roman soldiers, he goes through a complex series of interrogations, plots, and trials, and a long imprisonment in Caesarea, before finally being forced to appeal to Caesar. Now he sets out for Rome, but ironically as a Roman prisoner. Doubly ironic is the fact that the journey as a prisoner is thrown off course by a storm. Yet through it all Paul does in fact reach Rome safely, as announced back in 19:21.

What kind of basis for preaching to shape a mission faith can be found here? One thing that runs through this plot is a complex interplay between Paul's determination, human emotion, and the unpredictability of events. When Paul indicates that he knows the danger he is heading for and says farewell to his supporters, he encounters strong emotions of grief (20:25, 38). He even receives divinely inspired warnings about the danger ahead (21:4, 11), and his friends seek to persuade him not to go to Jerusalem. It may even seem that the Spirit's warnings contradict the divine determination for Paul to go to Jerusalem. More likely we should see that these prophetic warnings and the protestations of Paul's fellow believers are parallel to Jesus' knowledge of what awaits him in Jerusalem. They are not warnings meant to dissuade him from going but rather a test of his will to go in spite of what awaits him there.

But once he is in Roman custody in Jerusalem, the help from the church does not materialize (unlike the help both divine and human that the apostles received when they were imprisoned earlier in Acts), and he seems to stand alone. Still, help comes from unexpected quarters, such as from a conscientious tribune (21:31-40), from his nephew (23:16-22), and later in the kindness and protection of his guard (27:3, 42-43). Above all Paul receives a series of private visions and reminders of God's purpose for him (22:21; 23:11; 27:22-24). And he states courageously his determination to face even prison and death (21:13-14). Again, we are reminded of Jesus going to Jerusalem as he predicts what will happen to him there. We are also reminded that God's providence is still in operation (Acts 27:25; see Luke 1:45; Acts 27:34; see Luke 21:19).

It is striking in this whole plot how the will of God is worked out in ways that depend on human faith, courage, and discernment but operate in an ironic and unpredictable manner. Paul determines to go to Rome via Jerusalem, a determination based on prophetic discernment and courageous faith. Yet most of what happens is not at all under Paul's control. He is seized by the Jerusalem mob and held under the power of the Romans. The helplessness of the ship carried by the stormy wind in chapter 27 gives the reader a vivid sense of human inability to control events. Paul could never have predicted the way things worked out.

There is a strong message here of the complex interaction between human discernment of and obedience to the will of God and human powerlessness before the way events actually work out. Yet not only does Paul show personal courage and confidence through all of this, he uses the unexpected opportunities along the way to provide help to others, as when he gives good advice and encouragement to his shipmates (27:21-26) and heals the father of his host on Malta (28:8-10). The plot of this story is a call to make our obedient choices and then trust in God as these choices lead us into an unknown future.

Consider the following illustrations. Twelve years ago my wife and I, on something of a whim, made an innocent inquiry to the Division for Global Mission of the ELCA about possible short-term teaching opportunities in other countries. When the call to teach at the United Theological College in Jamaica came out of that inquiry, we accepted, thinking that this was not a permanent direction for our lives. Twelve years later we are amazed at how that simple step has led to commitments and relationships we never dreamed of.

Christians of African descent in the Caribbean are acutely aware of the irony of their history, both the tragedy and the glory. The slave trade tore their ancestors from their homeland and culture and brought them to a cruel existence in a foreign land. Yet that journey also has led to the acquiring of a deeply held Christian faith and an insistent love for their adopted nations in the Caribbean. This story is much more tragic and cruel than that of Paul or most missionaries, yet the same complexities of force and choice run through it.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana sends candidates for the ordained ministry to study with us at UTC in Jamaica. When a young woman or young man in a village in Guyana applies to be accepted as a candidate for ministry, what lies behind this decision, and where will it lead? In a country with one of the highest emigration rates in the world, the possibility of using the ministry as a means of getting to North America is a real consideration. Yet, if we are aware of the ironic ways of God's mission, perhaps we will not drive ourselves crazy in worrying about possible mixed motivations. We will understand that one faithful step can lead in many different directions, quite apart from what we intend or control.

As a final example, consider a congregation in a deteriorating section of a city in North America or many other places in the world. Its members think about mission and want to do something faithful to the congregation's call. But what? The way forward is murky. Everybody has a different idea about what is right and what will work. The adventure of Paul in Acts can help to shape the thinking and faith of this congregation. Courageous steps are needed, as is discernment of God's will. But its members also need to be reminded that the future is not under their control; the steps they take now will have unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences. In times of seeming abandonment, God provides encouragement, hope, unexpected help, and surprising opportunities. But it all begins with that faithful first step to turn to the people who are in need.

I have concentrated on only some facets of the complex plot of the latter third of Acts. My point is that the preacher will need to move away from a method of close exposition of a single pericope to take a broader look at the larger plot. I believe that, with this approach, Acts offers great possibilities for preaching to shape people's understanding of mission.

The house as a setting for mission in Acts

A second example of preaching on the story of Acts comes from the aspect of narrative setting. It is instructive to work through Acts noting the variety of settings where the speeches and actions take place. One of the most frequent settings is the house. The kinds of things that take place in houses in Acts are quite different from those in other major settings. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem is a place for Jewish and Jewish-Christian worship (2:46; 3:1; 21:26-27; 22:17-21; 24:17-19), for Christian gathering and preaching (3:11-26; 5:12, 20-21, 25, 42), but also for the experience of opposition (21:27-34; 26:21). (8) Much action in Acts takes place on the streets and in other public spaces of cities (2:4-41; 5:15; 14:13-18; 16:13, 16-19; 17:17; 17:19-33; 19:29-40). The synagogue is a central location for preaching in the middle parts of Acts (9:20; 13:5, 14-47; 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 19,26; 19:8). But much of the plot of Acts revolves around the more threatening judicial settings, both Jewish (4:5-22; 5:21-40; 6:12-15; 7:1-57; 22:30-23:10; 24:20) and Roman (16:19-22; 17:6-9; 18:12-17; 21:34-22:29; 24:1-22,24-26; 25:6-26:32). A good amount of the action takes place in prisons (4:3; 5:17-19; 8:3; 12:4-8; 16:23-34; 22:4; 23:10-11, 16-30; 23:35-27:1; 26:10). A few other kinds of settings are important: encounters on the road (8:26-39; 9:3-7), the lecture hall (19:9-10), and on board ship (27:1-44).

The setting of the house in Acts provides space for a broad range of activities related intimately to the progress of the mission of the church. It is important to imagine that owners must make their houses available for these activities, at great cost of time and expense. The preacher could invite people to imagine their own homes as the setting for these activities:

--hospitality for travelers and evangelists (9:43; 10:9-16, 23, 32; 11:11; 16:15, 40; 17:5; 21:8-14, 16; 28:7-8)

--a refuge for the injured and shipwrecked (9:11-12; 16:32-34; 28:7-8)

--a place for healings (9:17, 37-41; 28:7-8)

--a place for private prayer (9:11-12; 10:9-16, 30)

--a place for the church to gather for prayer, teaching, and breaking of bread (1:13; 2:1-4; 2:46; 4:23-31; 5:42; 12:12-17; 20:7-12)

--a place for the falling of the Spirit, for prophecy, and visions (2:1-4; 9:11-12; 10:9-16, 24-28; 21:10-14)

--a center for mission activity and preaching (16:15, 40; 17:5; 18:7; 28:16-31)

--a place of conversion and baptism (9:17; 10:24-28; 16:15, 33)

--a place for church meetings and business (1:13-26; 5:1-11; 6:1-6; 15:1-21; 21:18-25)

--a place for intercultural contact (10:24-48; 11:3, 12)

--a place that can be violated, with occupants carried off by opponents (8:3; 17:5)

--a place for house arrest (28:16-31)


One thing that emerges from this survey of the house setting in Acts is how deeply the early Christian mission and church life depended on the space of the house. For a fledgling, unofficial, and often beleaguered group the house provided the only meeting space available for their religious, social, and business activities. Because the house was under private control, its space was not subject to official institutional control. Hence there is in Acts a strong contrast between the traditional and official space of the temple and synagogue on the one hand and the house on the other. According to Acts, the temple and synagogue remained the locus of Jewish Christian piety as well as of proselytizing activity, but the gatherings and activities in the name of the Lord Jesus had to be located in spaces under private control. The house also provided an intimate space for the kind of rich fellowship and communal meals that characterized the Christian groups.

But if the house was a necessary space for the gatherings of believers, it was also an indispensable location for outreach and movement. It may seem incidental to the narratives of travel, but the provision of hospitality was in actuality no small thing. Without it the kind of easy travel and longer temporary stays that characterized Paul and his colleagues would not have been possible. Acts also provides some touching scenes of the house being used as a place of healing and refuge. Acts presents a consistent picture of Paul's attempts to use the synagogue as a mission base, but when these prove to be of limited success, he often moves his base of operations to a house provided by a believing host.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the house was not an absolute protection for those inside. Before his conversion Paul was willing to enter homes to drag out men and women believers to be arrested and punished (8:3). In Thessalonica Jason was dragged out of his own house, along with some other believers meeting there, by an angry mob (17:5). Many Christians around the world today know all too well this kind of experience.

The preacher can make good use of this material, but by making broad allusions to many stories rather than by exposition of a single pericope. People can be challenged by the realization that the life of believers and of the church as a community does not depend on church buildings. Mission can and should take place in less "official" space, for a variety of reasons. The kind of tension seen in Acts between the official religious spaces and the private houses may still be important in societies where Christianity is a minority religion or facing opposition. Where Christianity is more comfortable, the alternative space of the house may be helpful as the church seeks to avoid becoming too intimidating to new people. New currents may well find a comfortable space in homes rather than in the church building. Of course, the lack of official control represented by the religious use of private space can be threatening to the churches today, as it was to official Jewish and Roman religion at the time of the early church. But it may be that churches need the creative energy and innovation represented by groups meeting in homes. In fact, this has been happening in many North American churches, where small group ministries have become an essential part of a growing and vibrant church life.

Homes can become important in other ways. The churches in Guyana, for example, influenced by the cultural environment of Hinduism, use home services as a very important part of Christian religious life. On many family occasions--anniversaries, birthdays, moving into a new house--friends, family, neighbors, and church members can be called together to share in a service in the home, led by the pastor, and a meal. This becomes a rich opportunity for witness as well as for family solidarity, as many people are present there in the home who would not readily come into the church.

Hospitality is not just a virtue to be cultivated but a genuine and important means of sustaining the mission infrastructure and movement necessary if the church is to continue and grow. My wife and I, who very much value the privacy of our home, have learned to appreciate this since we have become involved with Caribbean Christianity. Both in people coming to stay or have meals in our home and in our visits to Guyana and Suriname when we depend entirely on the hospitality of pastors and church members, we have learned the joy and value of hospitality as an aspect of mission.

All of this is a challenge to Christians who tend to see their home as their private space and seek to control who enters it very carefully. The preacher can use Acts to show believers how their private space can be opened up to become a setting for mission. Further, many people tend to think of corporate religious activity belonging primarily in a formal religious space. Acts can be used to teach that the home is an important possible space not only for individual encounter with God but also for the advancement of the mission of the church.


I have given some illustrations of how the preacher can supplement the lectionary's use of Acts by paying attention to aspects of the narrative. This approach will enable the preacher to use parts of Acts not covered in the lectionary. At the same time, the preacher will help the hearers to discover something of the adventure of a life of mission in the name of the Lord. Acts may have been slow to take its place in the canon of the New Testament because of its uniqueness, but that uniqueness should not deter the preacher from using Acts imaginatively to shape the hearts and minds of believers for a life of mission.

1. Robert H. Smith, Acts. Concordia Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970).

2. On this early non-use of Acts see Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 3-9.

3. On the canonization of Acts see David E. Smith, The Canonical Function of Acts: A Comparative Analysis (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

4. The Revised Common Lectionary, by the Consultation on Common Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992).

5. I cannot imagine using only verses 1-6, since the story of Paul's change is hardly complete without the words of Ananias and Paul's healing and baptism.

6. Wayne A. Meeks speaks of the word of God almost being personified in Acts, which was written to affirm the conviction that nothing can stop the word of God. See "Assisting the Word by Making (Up) History: Luke's Project and Ours," Interpretation 57 (2003): 151-62.

7. See Charles H. Talbert and J. H. Hayes, "A Theology of Sea Storms in Luke-Acts," in Jesus and the Heritage of Israel: Luke's Narrative Claim upon Israel's Legacy, ed. David P. Moessner (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 282.

8. John H. Elliott explores what he regards as the major contrast in Acts between the temple and the household in "Temple versus Household in Luke-Acts: A Contrast in Social Institutions," in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, ed. Jerome H. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 211-40. Elliott gives an analysis of how "the temple and the household symbolize different and opposed forms of social organization, identity, and allegiance" (p. 230). Elliott's analysis is instructive and uncovers a real contrast, but the picture must be made more complex by investigating other settings as well. In Acts, at least, the setting of the temple is surprisingly positive and in any case fades away as the story moves to the Gentile mission. The house, however, remains a significant setting throughout the narrative. I use the word "house" to emphasize the physical space, whereas Elliott's use of "household" shows that his emphasis is on the kinds of relationships that cluster around the household institution.

David W. Kuck

Lecturer in New Testament and Homiletics United Theological College of the West Indies Kingston, Jamaica
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Author:Kuck, David W.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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