Acts in Easter
Easter 2 2023 Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Since the three-year lectionary cycle was introduced into many Churches in and after the 1960s, the Acts of the Apostles have been heard much more often on Sundays, primarily in Easter. The framers of the Roman Lectionary took the lead from evidence that the ancient Church (the model for so much of the changes of that period), at least in some places, displaced regular Epistle readings with a course reading through Acts in Eastertide; while this is exactly what happens in some instances like the Daily Office lectionary for The Episcopal Church, on Sundays the Acts readings appear where the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible selection would otherwise be expected.
This may cause a few heads to be scratched, given that the introduction of readings from the HB/OT is otherwise such an important feature of the new lectionaries, relative to the old Epistle-Gospel pairing (that’s right; we did not have Old Testament readings at the Holy Communion previously). Let us be explicit though about the qualms this Easter displacement evokes, and raise the question of supersessionism—the notion that Israel itself is displaced as the chosen people by the arrival of the Christian Gospel and Church. You may have thought we were through that sort of issue, with the perils of Holy Week past, but in not reading the OT in Eastertide (except when using the Psalms) we may now seem to be displacing the Jewish scriptures with Acts.
If you think that is a bit of an overreaction to the lectionary change, consider the actual RCL first reading for Easter 2. Peter says:
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.”
This passage raises the slightly different but related one of Christian anti-Judaism. It’s not usually Luke-Acts (which I will treat as a coherent two volumes by “Luke”) that provokes these concerns; we saw recently the issues related to the Matthean and especially Johannine Passion narratives that recur in Holy Week. But the prevalence of these challenges across scripture is one of the reasons that clumsy solutions like eliminating John from Good Friday would constitute precisely the “virtue signaling” that some of its advocates have tried to attribute to the more thorough and necessary solution of careful and responsible hermeneutics. This one can’t be solved by one grand excision on one day.
Luke in both volumes has a positive attitude to the Temple and its rituals, places the resurrection appearances squarely in Jerusalem, and depicts the expansion of the nascent Church as grounded in this Jewish milieu, while expanding around it like ripples in the pond, rather than departing from it. The author is eager to depict a harmonious (if sometimes complex) relationship between the religiously and ethnically (to use anachronisms, certainly) Jewish Christian community remaining in Jerusalem, and the forays into a Gentile mission grounded in the experience first of Peter and then of Paul.
For Luke-Acts, the story of Acts itself is arguably not just a continuation of the Gospel, but a sort of continuation of Israelite history, like the Deuteronomistic narrative following the Pentateuch, which takes us effectively into the eve of the Hellenistic period with Ezra and Nehemiah. Whatever we make of the Gospel genre itself, Acts being added to Luke turns both itself and its predecessor into continuations of this sacred history.
This is where the challenge for Christian interpreters appears. Luke-Acts is in at least one sense “supersessionist,” if we mean that the Christian story claims to continue the story of Israel. We need not, to be clear, take the view that the historical Israel—the Jewish people—ceases to be a center of divine promise and presence, although that has often been the implication, given anti-Jewish interpretation and practice. But this subtle issue may be lost in the face of Peter’s speech just quoted.
Part of our usual way around the problem of Jewish collective guilt, as it seems to be presented in Matthew and John, is to re-emphasize how the role that some Jewish authorities may have played in Jesus’ arrest and death was a far lesser one relative to the Roman imperial power, whose stock in trade was crucifixion. Jesus died at Roman hands, not Jewish ones. Yet Luke’s Peter seems to double down on the point of complicity.
The point actually being made in this speech is hard to reach from the edited version in the lection, and the shadows cast by those other texts may also cause us to misread it. Peter’s speech refers to the group as “Fellow Israelites” (v. 29a). He is speaking to an “us” not a “them.” His own status in this narrative is not exactly unblemished (Luke 22:54-62). While I invoked the “collective guilt” trope, because I think we need to acknowledge it, this is not Peter’s point (or Luke’s) at all. Peter is speaking to a specific group of people in Jerusalem, those depicted as having colluded in Jesus’ recent death. If this were a historical picture, the net is surely cast too widely, but in the narrative it is intended as microscopically precise. Luke is specifically depicting that crowd of Jerusalemites, not Jews generally, as doing or having done three things: colluding with the Romans to cause Jesus’ demise, then hearing Peter, and then responding to the Gospel.
This isn’t anti-Jewish unless Isaiah is or Jeremiah is. The notion that Israel might fail and repent and return is not exactly a novel one; it is the biblical narrative, again and again. Luke’s Peter is Jewish too, and one who had colluded passively at least. Whatever had happened a few days earlier, salvation once again is found in Jerusalem the holy city.
Reading Acts at Easter is complicated, but anti-Judaism in our reading is likely to be our own, not from Luke-Acts. Reading Acts reminds us that the story does not end with Cross or Easter or Pentecost, but is an ongoing story in which discipleship, including responsible reading, is about the assessment of our own actions and not merely the judgement on those of other times and places. This work suggests that God’s saving love, shown so often in renewal of relationship between God and God’s people previously, continues, that Jews and Jerusalem have an ongoing part in it, and so now do Gentiles as well.