Memory, Community, and Acts 19

The liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the greatest and central liturgy of the Christian year not only because it is the principal liturgy of the most important feast of the year and of the ‘Queen of seasons bright’, but also because it is the year’s greatest liturgy of remembrance.  Within the Vigil there is the act of remembrance or anamnesis which occurs whenever the Eucharist is celebrated and a priest and people recall the Last Supper and Calvary and the Resurrection.  The Vigil, however, also rehearses the mighty acts of God in a variety of other ways:  in the Paschal Praise or Praeconium (the deacon’s Exsultet); in the Old Testament prophecies, whether four or twelve; in the typologies brought forth during the blessing of the font; and in the summoning of the saints and the recollection of the faithful of all ages in the Litany of the Saints.  The Church is gathered and constituted in the Vigil, as old Israel was and is annually reconstituted by the Passover Seder.

Israel, old and new, was created by divine acts in history and, from the human side, is renewed by memory of that history.  In the original Passover, God commanded memory and Moses obeyed:  ‘And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day….And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13:3,8)   Exodus 13 is filled with commands to remember, with tokens to bring forth the memory, and with adjurations to tell the children so that they will come to have the memory also.  Through the Seder liturgy those children become a ‘we’, and if they say, ‘Why do you do this?’, then they are not part of that we, not a part of Israel.

The Bible after Exodus contains frequent recapitulations of salvation history, reminders of the memories which make God’s people.  Sometimes the summation is in verbal form, in a psalm or a speech.  One of the longest such speeches forms the bulk of Acts 7, where Saint Stephen reviews the history of the Old Testament in vv. 2-53.  In that case the reader notices both what Stephen mentions and emphasizes and also what he omits or passes over quickly.  The speech is a commentary and interpretation, with the interpretation including explicit commentary but with the commentary also implicit in the selection of material for inclusion and omission.  Memory can be selective.  In the case of Stephen’s speech many readers notice that Stephen downplays Israel’s most successful and popular heroes, while emphasizing Old Testament instances of suffering or persecution or failure.

Other notable summaries in speech or psalm, to give a few examples, occur in Psalms 105 and 106, in Joshua 24:2-13, and, in a highly negative version, in II Kings 17:7-23.  These memorial summations extend into the Apocrypha and, as suggested above, into both Jewish (Seder) and Christian (Easter Vigil) observances.

Scripture also includes passages in which salvation history, or important parts of it, seem to be recapitulated in narrative form, through stories.  A good example of such narrative summation is Joshua 5.[1]

In the events of Joshua 5 much of Exodus is recapitulated in action.  Along with this recapitulation, the chapter embraces the far larger web of allusions and stories in which the Exodus itself is embedded.  The miraculous passage of the Jordan and the dispiriting of Israel’s foes at the beginning of the chapter (Joshua 5:1) recall the passage of the Red sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and all of the other passages of water to which the Red sea crossing alludes, from the waters of creation and of Noah’s flood, through the wonderful passages of water by Elijah and Elisha, and so ultimately to Jesus himself going down into the waters of baptism and walking upon the waters of Galilee.

The renewal of circumcision in Joshua 5:2-9 looks even further back, to the Abrahamic covenant and, through the institution of that covenant, into the broad themes of law and covenant for which circumcision stands as a symbol.  In the course of commanding the renewal of circumcision in 5:6, the narrator also recalls the disobedience of Israel during the Sinai years.

The renewal and keeping of the Passover (5:10f.) looks back to the unleavened bread and paschal lambs that immediately preceded the Red sea crossing and the Sinai wandering.  The Passover renewal also, of course, alludes to all the meals and bread and grain and sacrificial types of the Old Testament and, through them ultimately, to their great archetype of the Eucharist.  Likewise, in 5:12 the cessation of manna, a great factor during the Sinai years, suggests the passing of Old Testament types as their fulfilment, represented by the entry into the Promised Land under Joshua, approaches.

The encounter of Joshua with the angel of the Lord (5:15) hearkens back to the theophany of the burning bush in Exodus 3:5.  These two events form an inclusio that brackets the entirety of the Exodus.

We have already mentioned Joshua 24 as containing a summation of salvation history in speech.  After this speech, in Joshua 24:32, there is a notice concerning the burial of Joseph’s bones.  If the encounter with the angel in 5:15 forms an inclusion with Exodus 3, the burial of Joseph forms another even more embracing inclusio.  The reference to Joseph’s bones follows the story of the conquest of the Promised Land, which is recounted in the bulk of the book of Joshua, but refers back to the conclusion of Genesis (Genesis 50:24-6).  If Joshua 5 embraces everything from the beginning of the conquest of Canaan back to Exodus 3, then the reference to Joseph’s bones embraces everything further back into Genesis and further forward through the end of the conquest:  the periods before the Exodus begins and well after it ends.  In fact, the story of the burial of Joseph’s bones looks back even further:  as far back as Jacob, for Joseph is buried ‘in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem’ (Joshua 24:32, see Genesis 33:19).

This tendency to summarize or recapitulate the history of salvation, through speech or narrative, is central to the Old Testament but also, as the example of Stephen’s speech shows, is present in the New.  In particular, the combined work of Luke and Acts shows a strong theory of salvation history, its chief periods, and its progress.  That history, for Luke, is most simply outlined as including the periods of Israel, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and then of the Pentecost-powered movement of the apostolic church from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Luke’s gospel gives an interpretation of Israel’s history, the story of John the Baptist, then the good news of Jesus, with its culmination in the passion, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus in Jerusalem.   That culminating point of Luke’s gospel is then the starting point of his Acts.

The early chapters of Acts show Peter and the Jerusalem college of the Twelve apostles preaching Jesus as the Christ who died and rose.  Peter and his colleagues themselves do the same mighty acts that Jesus did, miraculously healing the sick, escaping prisons, and knowing the hidden.  Once the mission to the Gentiles begins to develop in earnest under Paul’s leadership, Acts similarly endeavors to show that Paul also preaches the same gospel that the Jerusalem apostles preached and then does the same mighty acts that they did:  Paul too heals, escapes prisons, knows the hidden or secret, and even raises the dead.  Luke’s general interest in an outline of salvation history is further confirmed by his explicit narrative of salvation history in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.

With this general idea of Biblical recapitulation, including Lucan recapitulation, in mind, the 19th chapter of Acts may take on a particular significance.  Acts 19 is not an obvious recapitulation in speech along the lines of Acts 7.  In Acts 19, however, Paul in the narrative is shown dealing with people who suggest all of the main stages of salvation history.  The Lukan pattern that was fulfilled by Jesus in Luke’s gospel was repeated by Peter and John and Philip before Paul in the missions to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the Gentiles.  Paul’s mission in Ephesus in Acts 19 runs through the main groups with whom God works successively in Lukan salvation history.  By fulfilling the pattern of salvation history in deed, Paul in Acts 19 shows the authenticity of his mission.  Paul walks in the steps of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles before him.

The chapter begins with a seemingly odd encounter of Paul with disciples of John the Baptist.  In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters, teaches, and baptizes disciples of John, then lays his hands on them in a renewal of Pentecost.  The parallels between Paul here and Pentecost include both the effects (‘the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied’) and the number (there ‘were about twelve of them’).  It is perhaps significant that in his subsequent sermon in the synagogue of Ephesus, Paul’s preaching is summarized by Luke as concerning ‘the kingdom of God’ (19:8).  Usually, when apostolic preaching is summarized in a phrase or two in Acts, it is said that ‘Christ…is the son of God’ (9:20), that Jesus is the Christ (9:22, 18:5) or that Jesus offers salvation (16:31).  The summary of Paul’s preaching here as a proclamation of the kingdom of God goes back to the days of the Baptist, when John and then Jesus and then his commissioned apostles all proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps this alternative summary, appropriate to the first days of the gospel, is suggested by the recent mention of the Baptist’s disciples.

In any case, when the story proceeds to Paul’s preaching in the synagogue (19:8-10), Luke shows Paul in a familiar setting:  usually in Acts Paul begins work in a new place by going first to the synagogue.  Preaching to a Jewish audience also, however, suggests the Old Testament stage of salvation history.  Paul is going even further back than the time of the Baptist and preaches to old Israel using the law and the prophets to prove that Jesus is the Messiah.

In the following verses Paul encounters and defeats two forms of occult practice or belief.  The first appears in the form of apparently heterodox, itinerant Jewish exorcists, who are overcome by the demoniac they seek to heal.  The second form is the frank practice of magic.  These two encounters suggest popular religious practice that acknowledges the reality of the supernatural but seeks to manipulate it outside the stages authorized in Luke’s understanding of salvation history.  Spiritual matters need to fall within the Judaism of Israel, the preaching of the kingdom by the Baptist as the transition, and then the gospel of Jesus as Christ.  While the exorcists and magicians do not fit neatly into these main categories, they represent practices, acknowledged but condemned in the Old Testament and gospel, which inappropriately and inadequately attempt to deal with the demonic and with the mundane changes and chances of the world.

The other, great, and perhaps related alternative religious method for dealing with these problems was, of course, paganism.  Paul’s encounter with paganism in the so-called Silversmiths’ Riot comprises the second half of Acts 19.  Paul is actually ‘off stage’ during the riot, as his friends restrain him.  Nonetheless, the cult of Artemis in Ephesus combines both the strains of the ‘sunny’ paganism of Greco-Roman religion and some of the darker elements of eastern cults.  Paul’s own speech against paganism comes in the Mars’ Hill speech in chapter 17, but the riot here shows in narrative form the clash of ideas and faiths.

In Acts 19, then, Paul encounters representatives of Israel, of John the Baptist, of the occult, and of the great pagan cults.  In all of these cases Paul’s gospel is essentially the same, but its presentation differs as the story shifts the audience and the rival faith.

[1] One of the gross deficiencies of the 1943 Prayer Book lectionary is its complete omission of this important chapter, both in weekday Morning Prayer lections and in the more scattered Sunday morning cycle.  The omission is startling.

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