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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice


Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17. 22-34
: Dialogue Evangelism

Note:
For this and the remaining weeks of Easter,
the Reflections will cover the Sunday reading from Acts
(See Introductory Notes)
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Have you ever had the opportunity to share your Christian faith? What did you say, and what was the outcome?

Reflection on the text

We don’t have many detailed accounts of how Paul actually went about his missionary engagement. Here he enters into the cut and thrust of philosophical debate in the market place of ideas, providing valuable insight into his strategy and the content of his gospel message at the point of first contact with unbelievers. This remains a source of wisdom and inspiration for engagement with a doubting and unbelieving society today.

It is worth reading from verse 16 to get the context clear. Paul was quite worked up about the idolatry evident in Athenian society – not surprising for someone who believed in one God rather than many gods – and he uses this as his starting point. He even quotes from one of their own poets. Predictably, there was some scepticism about the resurrection of the dead – but some wanted to hear more about this later.

The outcome of the encounter was not impressive in terms of the head count. Only a few turned to Christ, including one city dignitary (v. 34)

Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. What do you consider to be the main issues of concern that matter to people today, that could form the basis of sharing the gospel message?

  2. To what extent is the 'reading' of people's culture part of your mission strategy as a church? What aspects of modern 'culture' do you need to explore?

  3. Share together your reflections on the main aspects of modern youth culture. What are some of the potential 'entry points' and 'conversation openers' for sharing the gospel with them?

  4. What aspects of the gospel message would you use in a conversation with someone who has never heard it before?
Praying Together

In your prayers, name some of the people with whom you have been seeking to share the message of God's love in Christ. You may also wish to name things that form barriers to faith.

Pray that the way you ‘live and move and have your being’ in the love of God, as a church and as individuals, will have a major impact on the people whose lives you share.

Conclude with the Lord's Prayer or Collect for the coming Sunday, and the Grace.

A further thought

It is not abstract thought but concrete example
that gives power to the church's words.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Going Deeper

Paul engaged in conversation with local philosophers, many of whom ridiculed him for his strange beliefs. But there were some who wanted to hear more and so he was invited to the Areopagus, the centre of public debate where all manner of things were discussed: law, philosophy, religion and politics. There he made his case for Christ (v 32).

Paul had clearly done his homework. He used the shrine to an unknown God as his way into debate. He had also read their poets and quoted directly from Phaenomena, a poem written by the Athenian Aratus in about 270 BC. Aratus wrote about the God 'in or perhaps through whom we live and move and have our being: for we are his family'. This illustrates a basic assumption of Christian mission: God is already there ahead of us in all cultures. We should always be looking for evidence of God’s presence.

It is interesting to note that the centre of Paul's message is not the atonement but creation (v24), resurrection (v 31) and judgment (v 30). This suggests that there are many different ways of presenting the gospel of reconciliation in Christ.

An Introduction to Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is the seamless sequel to Luke’s Gospel. It is thought they were written some 5 decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus,
around 85 AD.

The ‘book’ records the beginnings and spread of the Christian household community movement across the Roman Empire. We are shown how a religious movement which was deeply rooted in Jewish culture managed to ‘leap’ barriers and take root and flourish in a diversity of Gentile cultural contexts.

The author of Luke and Acts, who remains anonymous, provides a new portrait of Jesus the Christ for Gentiles living in a very different world from that of rural Palestine. Indeed, he opens a window into urban Greco-Roman society providing insights into the political and social circumstances of his day.

Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, says that Acts was written to help Christians survive the death of the apostles. The author uses two devices: continuity with the past from Israel to Jesus to Peter to Paul and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit who empowers for God’s mission.

Biblical scholar Michael Trainer gives a very handy summary of the two scrolls in his book Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (p.26 see details below):

Gospel of Luke   Book of Acts  
1:1 - 4 Prologue 1:1 - 5 Prologue
1:5 – 3:38 Birth Story of Jesus 1:6 – 26 Birth Story of the Church
4:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission 2:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission
4:14 – 9:50 Ministry in Galilee 2:14 – 12:25 Ministry in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria
9:51 – 19:27 Jesus' journey to Jerusalem 13:21 – 28:16 Paul's journey to Rome
19:28 – 24:53 Ministry in Jerusalem 28:17 – 31 Ministry in Rome

Trainer goes on to say:

‘According to Luke, the story of Jesus is incomplete without the story of the early Christian communities and, by inference, the story of the audience addressed by these stories. Jesus’ ministry is a model for the ministry of the Christian community; the story of the Christian community is grounded in and parallels the story of Jesus.’

Luke tackles a number of issues:

    1. How to remain faithful to the vision and spirit of Jesus in very different cultural and social circumstances.
    2. The reliability and historicity of the evidence available to Luke (documented eyewitness accounts and verbatim citation).
    3. How Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ live together in harmony and mutual respect.
    4. The implications of Jew and Gentile eating at table together.

Trainer says, the author of Luke/Acts

‘addresses a vibrant, active, missionary-conscious Christian community seeking to deal with problems on two fronts: internally, with issues of multiculturalism, wealth, table communion, ministerial effectiveness and diversity; and externally, with relationships and the wider Greco-Roman society.

Faced with these issues Luke was left with one or two options: to encourage readers to retreat into their own sectarian vacuum cut off from the reality of life around them, or encourage them to engage the questions and issues of their world. Luke chose the second option.

The Gospel and Acts… reflect that choice. Simply put, in both volumes Luke encourages readers to remain in dialogue with their world while bringing the tradition that they have received about Jesus to bear on it.’ ( page 27)

We face the same challenge to adapt and apply the Jesus story in our own context as we wrestle with the major challenges of our time – global warming, climate change, destruction of the habitat and survival of species; the global and local rich-poor divide; living simply in a consumer society; addressing issues of peace and justice in a world of violence and oppression.

We recommend that you take time to read the whole of Acts in one sitting prior to engagement in the study series.

We are grateful to Michael Trainor for kindly allowing us to use material from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 1995, St Paul’s, Homebush NSW, pages 26 and 27. For more on Michael Trainor’s work see: http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/theology/staff/trainor_mf.php

See also:

Raymond E Brown’s classic work,1984, The Church the Apostles Left behind, Paulist Press, New York, chapter 4.

Acts - The Gospel of the Spirit by Justo L. Gonzales, Orbis Books, 2001

Acts - The peoples Bible Commentary by Loveday Alexander, Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006

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