Such a conclusion is hardly surprising when we consider both the text itself and the overall purpose of the writer of the Acts of the Apostles. For it may be tempting to read the words of Paul as his own. There is certainly no reason to regard them as distinct from, and certainly not as opposed to, his teaching in the Pauline Epistles. Yet it strains credibility to see this sermon as an accurate historical reconstruction. The structure and wording is far too close, for example, to that of Peter’s sermons in the Acts of the Apostles for us not to see the author’s hand in this. Rather than concentrating on what this tells us about Paul as such, we do better to reflect upon what today’s reading tells us about Luke-Acts and the theology and mission of its associated community. Let me suggest three things…
Firstly, Paul’s sermon in Antioch near Pisidia is constructed by Luke as a symbolic turning point in the development of the Christian Church and its mission to the Gentiles. The key to seeing this is in understanding that Antioch was not only a significant city on important trade routes with a population of mixed ethnicity, including Greek and Roman as well as Jew and Phrygian. It was also a significant Roman colony. Indeed, not only was it the military and administrative centre of that country, but it was also intentionally shaped by Roman culture and values. As such it was a veritable ‘little Rome’. That Luke portrays Paul as speaking into this context, is therefore to highlight, as part of his main theme in Acts, the turning of God, and the Christian faith, from Jerusalem to Rome. Paul speaks in the Jewish context here. It is however for the last time in Acts. More importantly, he is speaking to Rome, his ultimate destination in more than one sense.
Secondly, and related to this presentation of Paul as a Roman bound missionary, this passage offers us a striking example of Luke-Acts primary concern: offering us a salvation history which embraces not just the Hebrew past and the immediate Christian beginnings but the whole world in all its various national journeys. The first part of Paul’s sermon in Antioch which we hear today is at the heart of this. Not surprisingly this has powerful similarities with Peter’s earlier speeches. For the writer of Acts is seeking to demonstrate the unity of the leaders and people of the early Church. We may wonder today about that as an historical reality, as we may about whether Luke has thereby squeezed out distinctive features of Paul’s Gospel compared to that of Peter and others: key elements such as the power of grace in contrast to law for example, and the lived experience of being ‘in Christ’. The point Luke is seeking to establish is however that the Gentiles have received the same promises and blessings as the Jews. The Christian constructed Hebrew salvation history which is related in the reading we hear today is placed alongside that of others. The Gentile ‘god-fearers’ may thus not only keep what they had found attractive in Judaism but unite it with all that is good in their own cultures. As such they and all who belong to the new Jesus movement are equal.
So, thirdly and finally, we come to Paul’s genius, shared with Luke and other effective evangelists of this early period; namely their skills of cross-cultural communication. For today’s reading, sets the promise and blessing of the Good News of Jesus in the context of the salvation history of Israel and the Davidic Hope. Yet this is just one expression of Paul’s evangelism in the Acts of the Apostles. Elsewhere, in his speech in Athens, in Acts 17, he instead sets the Good News in the context of the brilliance of Greek philosophy, poetry and culture. On another occasion, in Acts 14, in Lystra,he is found in a context where neither Jewish salvation history nor Greek high culture are well known. So instead, Luke shows Paul speaking in realtion to nature, from the sun and the winds, the rain and growing things. Early Christian mission, we are shown, does not depend upon a set scheme or formula. The key common elements are the person and resurrection of Jesus Christ which fulfils and sanctifies the salvation history of all people. To share this message however requires that we begin where people are. Let those who have ears hear. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for St Francis College eucharist, 11 May 2017