We're kicking off a new series in Acts next week. Called Shoved by the Spirit, we're looking at how the early followers of Jesus made it up as they went along - made up how to do church, how to do mission, how to live for Jesus in the world in the power of the Spirit.
Of course they were inspired by the Spirit and, of course, they had the teaching of Jesus still ringing in their ears. But all the same, they were doing what no one had done before - creating a community of people based on their common love of Jesus.
I've been reading the first great story in Acts - the healing of the lame man. I've been getting to grips with an article by mikeal C Parsons from the Journal of Biblical Literature (it's on line at the Society of Biblical Literature website if you want to read it - it's in volume 124 number 2, 2005. The whole issue is downloadable for free)
Parsons shows how Luke plays with our ideas of disability and inclusion. In the ancient world it was assumed that disabled and disfigured people showed in their outward appearance a moral disfigurement or weakness. All the philosophers thought this - even Plato and Aristotle. It was an idea that hung around for a long time. In C J Sansom's wonderful Shardlake novels, his hero - Matthew Shardlake - is a hunchback and frequent reference is made to the fact that many in Tudor England assumed he was in some way cursed or not to be trusted.
It interests me - this story has long been one of my favourites - because what Peter does is so instinctive. You get no sense of him and John chatting over the implications of reaching out to this man. Peter just does it - he picks him up, heals him in Jesus' name and welcomes him into his company. Parsons reminds us that the lame man does not speak at all; he is the recipient of mercy and inclusion.
So what does this story say about belonging and mission? Lots. I guess key among them is that Luke is telling us that through Jesus a new community is being created where everyone, regardless of their background and moral or physical state, is welcome.
As Parsons says: 'The lame man moves from inactivity to walking, from paralysis to praise. He also moves from sitting to clinging (Acts 3:11) to standing unassisted, alongside Peter and John. Thus he shares in the 'boldness' of the apostles (4:13)...Even though he does not speak, the lame man's boldness is seen in his 'body language' as he boldly takes his stand in solidarity with the persecuted apostles.'
To the crowd gathered as a result of the miracle, was the formerly lame man part of the community Peter and John led? They'd certainly have seen it that way. He belonged to the followers of the way of Jesus. Yet Luke tells us nothing about his faith other than he praised God for his healing.
I have long used this story to talk about social ministries that I've been involved in over the past 15 years or so. Everyone is welcome to taste the benefits of the Kingdom of God - the early Christians were living equal opportunities long before anyone else had thought of it! Can we live up to their example?
The story for me puts the issue of belonging (and membership and all that stuff) firmly into the context of mission. Who belongs? Anybody who wants to - indeed considering Peter and John's action, anyone that we reach out to and pull into our community!
More thoughts along soon.