God loves a lot of things: just scales, righteous deeds, His creation, a cheerful giver. And another thing God must love is a good story.
Picture this: The saga of the much-anticipated Messiah has apparently ended with an awkward anticlimax, its protagonist dying a humiliating death and sealed away in a garden tomb. Life in Jerusalem goes on as usual. Rumors are flying: tales of the dead man appearing here and there in city and countryside. But anyone who’s dry behind the ears knows that rumors always fly. Humans seem to need that dash of mystery and thrill to leaven their dull lives—give it a few years, and they’ll be running after some new sensation.
But suddenly thousands of people are shouting in the street and rushing toward the temple where an impromptu rally is going on—or is it a riot? Crowds are the rule at Pentecost, but this is no ordinary crowd; indeed, no ordinary day. The air itself seems to pulse, as though panting with excitement. The noise of the multitude gradually ceases as one man runs to the top of the portico steps and turns around to face them. He’s dressed like a peasant, but seems too large for his burly body; so alive, so radiant he could be wrapped in flames, like that legendary bush that burned without burning up. He holds up his hand and opens his mouth to speak …
And the world is forever changed.
The book of Acts is the most exciting story ever written—even more perhaps than the gospel, with its dazzling climax. For the resurrection is only the end of the first act, the fulfillment of one promise and the reiteration of another: “You will receive power from on high and you will be my witnesses. …” In other words, You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. At the beginning of Acts, the disciples are huddled in an upper room—encouraged, but not emboldened. The memory of their risen Lord warms their hearts but hasn’t changed their lives—yet. Then come that mighty rushing wind, that revival meeting, that explosion of the reborn family of God, and the rest … is history?
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then: high points and low points, differing opinions over whether the church was an overall positive force in human development. Now we huddle figuratively in an upper room and wonder if any kind of force remains.
Here’s another story, by Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The main character is a silly old woman setting off on vacation with her son and his family, squandering their goodwill—and the reader’s—while on the road. Halfway through they stumble upon the Misfit, a fugitive murderer, and his band of fellow sociopaths. The woman lapses into hysterics as they shoot her family, one by one. The gun finally points at her. Then, in a signature O’Connor moment of truth, she recognizes the Misfit in metaphorical terms and reaches out to touch his shoulder, murmuring, “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”
He immediately shoots her three times through the chest. But soon after he observes, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Literature is open to interpretation, but to me O’Connor’s old lady looks like the church as the world sees her: silly, irrelevant, and hypocritical. But she comes into her own when there’s a gun to her head. From the Emperor Domitian ordering another round of persecution to the Third Reich hounding Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his allies, crisis brings clarity, and clarity speaks truth.
For all its thrills and chills, the book of Acts doesn’t end in a ringing climax but rather leaves us hanging with Paul in Rome. An oversight? Of course not. Luke is passing the story on to subsequent characters, all the way down to us. The rest is not history; the rest is now.