I want to talk about history. I’m not sure if I’m up to it: I’m no philosopher, but, as I’ve pondered the story that we have from the Book of Acts this morning it has been the context in which the events took place that has tweaked my imagination rather than the ‘this happened, then that happened’ nature of the account.
Somewhere in the mix this morning is something that Christians call ‘Providence’: or at least they used to. I can’t imagine that it’s a word you use very often or think about. But every time we sing ‘God is working His purpose out’ (hymn number 172) we’re signing up to ‘providence’ being something we believe in – namely that life has purpose and meaning, there is a God involved in giving this purpose and meaning and His purposes will come to fruition in due course. It’s not an easy doctrine. It’s not the same as ‘pre-destination’ that implies (in its crudest form) that everything that happens is God’s will. No. Providence has more space in it for human disobedience, human choice, for sin (personal and communal) – not everything is God’s fault or purpose BUT he can use everything towards His purposes….after all, He turned the cross into a symbol of love, redemption and forgiveness, He can take our bad choices and work them towards His best. Providence works in and through the messiness of our choices and actions.
We’re pondering this because of the story of Dorcas. A disciple (isn’t it great that she is simply given the title we considered last week with Ananias)…a disciple whose gifts lay in sewing and knitting and creating clothes for people who needed them. Dorcas dies, everyone is duly upset (more than upset but pardon the attempt at brevity)..and Peter is called for. Why? Why do they call for him? Let’s not make the mistake we so often make of assuming people in ancient times were somehow gullible, less educated or intelligent than we: Dorcas had died. This much they knew. They had laid her out in the upper room of a house. In the middle east a funeral should follow within hours…so why do they call for Peter? What do they expect of him…and actually, how do they know where he is?
It’s those questions that have set a hare running for me….with apologies to those who aren’t fans of country sports. And so I read back in the text and what did I find? Well I found that Peter, just a couple of verses before our passage had arrived at Lydda (not far from Joppa) not long before and that there he had been asked to pray for a man who was paralysed (Aeneas – I confess I don’t ever remember reading his story ever). Aeneas had been paralysed for 8 years. Peter prayed and Aeneas was healed, and we’re told, ‘all the residents of Lydda and Sharon (the surrounding area) saw Aeneas and turned to the Lord.’ The people in Joppa called Peter from Lydda because God had used Peter to perform this miracle in Lydda and news had travelled the 15 miles or so down to the coast at Joppa.
But why was Peter in Lydda? He was in Lydda because the Christian Community in Jerusalem had been scattered after the murder of Stephen. Peter and John had had a run in with the Sanhedrin themselves in Acts chapter 5 (for healing a man in chapter 3 who was paralysed). Stephen’s ministry tracks back to Acts chapter 2 and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the conversion of Jews from across the diaspora to the new Christian faith. He is presented again in Acts chapter 6 as one of those chosen to wait on tables with the distribution of food to the widows cared for by the Christian community. Stephen then appears preaching and confounding the Jewish teachers in chapters 6 and 7. His death will introduce us to Saul (about whom we learned last week) as Saul witnessed Stephen’s stoning and looked after the coats of those carrying out the execution.
Why do I tell you all this? Because Luke, the author of Acts seems to want to show us something that is both obvious but also important – ‘that one thing leads to another’. In Luke’s mind these stories aren’t random – they string together into a shape or pattern: they show the spread of the faith, the causes of that spread and the work of God in and through God’s people. Luke’s book begins in Jerusalem. It ends in Rome. Across the pages of this history he introduces us to characters and shows us how their actions lead to something new happening, some new development. These things aren’t always positive: we will learn of conflict within and from without the Christian community…and how things panned out, how Christians with differing opinions reconciled (or didn’t). We will follow Paul’s missionary journeys and hear both of how his message was welcomed…and also violently rejected. But the important thing for Luke is that he discerned meaning and pattern in what was taking place. He writes because he wishes to present to us not so much the Acts of the apostles as the ‘acts of God’.
You possibly know the quote that ‘history is one damned thing after another’. It’s a quote attributed to Arnold Toynbee, a British historian whose surname you might recognise because one of his grandchildren is Polly Toynbee (who writes for The Guardian newspaper). Arnold Toynbee produced most of his work in the 1940s and 50s including a 12 volume ‘Study of history’. The thing about the quote ‘one thing after another’ is that Arnold did not actually believe it. He quoted it to disprove it. Luke strings together his story with purpose and meaning. For him the events are not random or accidental: God is at work. Arnold Toynbee would agree. Against those who reduce all human interaction to the random collision of chemicals, electrical impulses and the like, Toynbee believed that civilisations work within processes and arcs or trajectories with meaning. Whilst his granddaughter is President of the British Humanist Association and a strident atheist, Arthur Toynbee was a person of faith. Humanism wasn’t enough for him: he believed in something, someone ‘beyond’ human experience.
So here’s a question: what do you think? Because that will affect how you make your way through life. Luke could have written so much but it seems that he reports for us ‘key moments’, ‘turning points’ in the growth of the church and the spread of God’s word. I wonder, if you were to reflect on your life would you be able to point to ‘God-incidences’ where things came together in a way that you perhaps had not expected…or where a meeting led to something quite remarkable either for you or for others? Could we do the same as a church? I suspect we could…and its why church history is important both at a local but also world level: not just about names and dates but about what God might be doing, how He might have led His people as they face new challenges. If, as we considered Ananias last week, we noted that each of us can choose to play our part in what God is up to (and not know what might flow from this), this week we are given an example of how we might recognise the work of God. Yes, in the miracle itself (you’ll have to make up your own mind what was going on here with Dorcas) but in the coming together of a number of people’s stories that enabled something new to take place….because, of course, the story doesn’t stop in the upper room with Dorcas being raised and the people celebrating. Precisely because Peter is in Joppa his reputation travels north to Caesaria where there is a faithful, generous, devout centurion on his knees saying his prayers and who is about to call for Peter to proclaim the gospel to a tough crowd, a new crowd, of gentiles (non Jews). The gospel is about to break out of its Jewish container and become world faith…and we’re proof of that because one thing has followed another – but all ‘in the purposes of God.’
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