As a part of the Love InSight program I’ve written a few Bible studies for parishes and parish life. One of them is based on the first seven chapters of the book Acts of the Apostles. The main question at the heart of this study is: what can we learn from the first Christians today? In this study, Acts 4 makes for our liveliest discussion. Today, I want to share with the rest of the world some of the fruits of that discussion. Note: I cannot recap the whole lesson; I am simply pointing out some major takeaways.
Summary of Acts 4
In Acts 3 Peter and John heal a lame man and give credit to the name of Jesus for this power. In Acts 4 the Sanhedrin has them arrested (presumably for going against Jewish teachings, which they were in fact doing). Peter defends himself by preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, basically saying, “you had him put to death, but now by him, this man is healed.” The major help in his argument was that the man who had been healed was seen crippled everyday at the Temple for over 40 years and was now standing right by Peter and John.
Given the evidence, the Sanhedrin cannot convict them and they simply say, “Do not go around using the name of Jesus.” Peter basically replies, “Sorry, but we can’t do that. Adios.” After persuading new converts (it says 5,000) they go back and pray together as a community. They don’t pray for deliverance from persecution, like you might expect. Rather, they pray for boldness in their mission. They don’t simply pray individually, as I said, they pray together, for their mission of spreading the news about Jesus. Finally, at the end of chapter 4, we see the famous passage where all the believers in Jerusalem put their possessions together, lay them at the feet of the Apostles, and hold all things in common and distributing according to each person’s needs.
So what can we learn from all of this? Here are 4 takeaways for spreading the Gospel from Acts chapter 4:
1) Establish credibility with the people you are evangelizing
Peter and John had the benefit of healing someone and that person became the testimony of their credibility. I’d say not enough Christians today believe that God will do powerful things through them and so powerful things like this are rare today. I credit a lack of faith, not a lack of God for this deficit. Yet, there are other ways to establish credibility other than working miracles. The primary way: becoming friends. If you’re only friends with perfectly good Christians (if those even exist), you’re probably not doing a lot for the work of evangelization (which all of us are actually supposed be doing). The key to this step of becoming friends: have some conversations that matter. Once someone trusts you in conversations that matter, you have at least some degree of credibility with them.
There are other ways to establish credibility that can affect many people at once. Think of the life of Mother Teresa or St. Padre Pio or many, many other great saints that by their holiness and model of selfless love were able to impact the lives of thousands of people (sometimes even at once). Whether you use miracles, friendship, fame, or best of all, selfless love, establishing credibility is the first step.
2) A noticeable proclamation of the Gospel
Immediately after Peter and John healed the cripple (established credibility), they stood in front of many people in the Temple and preached. The word in Greek for preaching or proclaiming is kerygma. Notice, they didn’t start with teaching or catechesis (didache in Greek), they started with preaching. What did they preach? The truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection so that people could become Jesus’ disciples. Before we go promoting the Church’s teaching on this issue or that issue, people should be invited to become disciples of Jesus (to get to know him and follow him). In the friendship model above, there is a subtle change. Instead of having conversations that matter in general, at some point we can begin to have conversations that matter about Jesus. So, when we say “proclaim” or “preach,” what we mean is: invite people, in whatever way is appropriate to your relationship, to become a disciple of Jesus.
In Acts 4, Peter and John were able to use more boldness since they just publicly healed a man. Mother Teresa spoke powerfully to world leaders at times because the whole world knew she epitomized sincere, self-giving love. Regardless, in the endeavor to evangelize, at some point after credibility is established, some kind of conversation about following Jesus is paramount. There are probably many people in our own parishes that still need this kind of invitation. Parishes can even start programs that have this conversation for you. If you go this route, all you have to do for steps one and two is be friends with someone and invite them to come with you to the program at your parish.
3) Having an environment of prayer
Whether or not you bring the person with whom you had the conversation about Jesus with you, the first Church had space and a place where believers prayed together. I say “space” in reference to time. Sometimes we get so busy with our school or jobs or at home that we don’t even have a space for community prayer in our lives. The first Christians made space and they met together in one place. In this place, they didn’t just pray rote prayers, though they were often based on the on the psalms, which would have been routine for Jews in the 1st century. Instead of simply praying from memory, however, they added a certain spontaneity to their prayer by praying for boldness and that their mission would be effective. Notice: they didn’t pray that persecutions would cease. Instead they prayed that the Gospel would be spread. Is this the kind of thing we pray for in our communities, in our parishes, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Where two or more are gathered, Jesus is there with us. And if you pray for things you know God wants, he will answer your prayers. Jesus commissioned his disciples to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. If you pray with others to be a part of that commission, he will give you the grace to do it. If parishes want to be centers of conversion today, it should by the power of the Holy Spirit, not just our own effort. In Acts 4:29-31 we see the house where they were praying shook as a sign that the Holy Spirit came in power. Thus, in coming together and praying for their mission, the deep burning desire to spread the Gospel that they had at Pentecost is renewed for them. Today, let’s also pray together more often so that we may continue in our desire for and grace to spread the Gospel.
4) A community that promotes selflessness
After the proclamation of the Gospel and praying together, the last part of chapter 4 shows the believers bring all of their stuff to the feet of the apostles to be distributed according to their need. Though we might get tagged as a cult if we did this today, there’s at least a very strong metaphor in the idea of selflessly bringing all of our stuff to the feet of the apostles. We all have gifts and abilities and, at the very least, we have the ability to love others. The first Christians did this selflessly, not thinking about their own needs, but submitting to the oversight of the apostles. Though it’s a good start, parishes should not only be a conglomeration of friends who enjoy each other’s company. I believe wholeheartedly that parish life would greatly improve if we began to use our gifts and talents to embody a true selflessness for each other and the message of the Gospel. When new believers are brought into an environment like this, they will want to stay. They will know that they will always be loved, accepted, forgiven, cared for, and have a mission in life no matter what challenges come their way.
God has a unique and unrepeatable plan for your life. As a disciple of Jesus, you have a unique mission for spreading the Gospel. Likewise, each of our parishes has a unique mission for spreading the Gospel (sometimes to members of our own parishes). We should start finding people who want to see the message of discipleship brought to the ends of the earth. We should unite our efforts with them and begin to make a difference with our lives that will last for eternity.
To close, here once again are the takeaways from Acts 4: 1) Establish credibility with someone; 2) before catechesis, invite them to follow Jesus (proclaim the Gospel to them); 3) pray together to live out our mission in the world; 4) live a selfless life of community amongst brothers and sisters on mission with you. If we do all these things, it does not mean we will have 100% success. It does mean, however, that we are doing what God has asked us to do, namely, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). In the end, these takeaways lead us to a simple truth about the Christian life: Be a disciple, live alongside other disciples, and invite others to become disciples.
This is an important subject to me. I do not claim know everything about it. I’d like for you to kindly contact me or comment with additional thoughts, if you have any.