Let me remind you what I’m doing here in my recent blog posts. I’m taking Acts 15:28 as a decisive clue for Luke’s understanding of the church. That is, the phrase, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” says something definitive about what it means to be the church. So, what are the elements that make moments like these possible?
One of the remarkable things about Acts is how many stories are told by the characters. Peter tells stories. Paul and Barnabas tell stories. Stephen tells stories. All in an overall story about the Spirit leading the church to the ends of the earth.
I’m fascinated by Peter’s story telling in particular. The events that lead to his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10 also lead directly to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. What’s fascinating is how Peter’s understanding of what God is up to grows with each telling of this story.
You remember how it begins for Peter. He receives the exact same vision three times while in a trance, in which a sheet with unclean animals comes down from heaven accompanied by a voice imploring him to “rise, kill, and eat.” Peter, however, protests because he’s a good church boy and keeps the food laws religiously. The voice from heaven persists, clarifying the moment, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet, despite this interpretative clue, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision he had seen.”
Following the vision he receives the messengers sent from Cornelius, who inform Peter of Cornelius’ visitation from an angel who brings instruction to send for Peter. The next day Peter returns with them to meet Cornelius. By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he is no longer puzzled about the meaning of the dream. He flatly declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision Peter received is about food, or unclean animals. And while the voice from heaven gives a hint that this might be bigger than just food, Peter’s declaration makes the expanded meaning clear. No person is unclean. The story has received added clarity in the retelling.
In chapter 11, Peter is compelled to relate the story again to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In the retelling, the meaning of the story is again expanded. Now Peter relates the story of Cornelius’ conversion to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house the way it did on Jews on Pentecost. We might say now, call no one unclean upon whom the Spirit has fallen. It was, after all, Peter himself in Acts 2 who suggests that the Pentecost event is a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days…I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.” In Acts 11, he connects the two stories.
Luke’s account of all of this is fascinating to me. In each re-telling, the significance of the story for those telling it, and hearing it, grows. Part of this has to do with the adding of new events, for example, the angel’s appearance to Cornelius and the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles. But it’s not just new information that gets assimilated into the telling of the story. It is also older stories that take on new meaning in light of the retelling of the more current story. And it takes multiple persons to provide the full meaning of the story. Peter’s confusion related to the vision is surely cleared up by in part by the visit of Cornelius’ servants and by Cornelius’ own account of things. The full meaning of the story is held by a community, not just an individual. No single person holds the entire meaning. It takes multiple storytellers.
This kind of telling and re-telling is essential to a 15:28 moment. And if my premise is right, then this kind of storytelling is also crucial to the church’s identity. That is, the church is not simply an organization with formal characteristics or marks, but it is a story-formed, story-performing community. The church lives in its Acts birthright when it bears testimony (a good Lukan work) to the movement of a living God through the stories it tells and performs.
This narrative understanding of the church, that the church is a story-formed, story-performing people, isn’t surprising given the fact that we express meaning primarily in narrative ways. We are constantly picking and choosing details from our life and placing them into a meaningful plot. And part of the way we pick and choose is by what others notice in our stories, or how others put little threads together in ways that we might otherwise miss. This telling and retelling is inescapably communal.
I’ve seen this dynamic at work in some pretty important ways in my work with congregations. I am a consultant for the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC), which works with clusters of congregations over a three year period. During this process, we have “cluster gatherings” where “process leaders” gather for reporting and training. Our consistent practice on the opening night of a cluster gathering is to tell stories. Each congregation decides on a story to tell the others from the work they’ve done since the last cluster gathering. We do it in a round-robin style where the storyteller stays put and the congregations rotate around to all the storytellers. So, a storyteller might tell the same story five or six times in an evening. At the end of each telling, those who are listening can make comments or ask questions.
As a consultant, I eavesdrop on the stories. Here’s the thing. They get better as the night goes on. The storyteller gets better with each rehearsal. But it’s more than just better communication. The storyteller is interpreting the story anew every time she tells it. The very effort to bring the experience to words clarifies its meaning. And the questions and comments made by others also pushes and shapes the story in certain ways. Things that others noticed now become a part of the story. It’s significance grows and becomes clearer with each retelling.
I think this dynamic is typical of the work of the Holy Spirit. From the initial experience that gives rise to a story, through its telling and retelling in community, the Spirit of God often moves to bring a meaningful testimony to the work of God.
So, congregations hoping for 15:28 moments must leave space for this kind of activity. It may take the whole church to tell the story of how the Spirit is leading. It will surely take the the creation of space dedicated to the telling of stories.