Throughout the Easter season, the liturgy takes us through the Acts of the Apostles, the narrative of the early Church as recorded by St Luke. If we approach the text with fresh eyes, what we’ll find is a story that is equal parts surprising, dramatic, and deeply challenging to modern sensibilities.
It is also, in no small measure, a very strange book. There are so many incidents, details, adventures, and conversations that we would characterise as nothing less than bizarre. To give you a taste of what’s in store when you read the Acts of the Apostles, here are four of its weirdest moments.
A popular characterisation of the New Testament is that it stands in stark contrast with the Old Testament, preaching a softer, more palatable view of God. It’s hard to maintain that thought when we read stories like this.
One of the distinctive features of the early Christian community was that ‘everything they owned was held in common’ (Acts 4:32). Ananias and Sapphira, a married couple, sold some of their property in order to give the proceeds to the community, except for one thing: they kept a little bit for themselves. Peter, somehow detecting this, challenged them, saying that Satan had possessed them and that they had lied to the Holy Spirit and to God. Then we read this:
When he heard this Ananias fell down dead. This made a profound impression on everyone present. The younger men got up, wrapped the body in a sheet, carried it out and buried it’ (v.6).
In a surprising twist, Peter then turns to Ananias’ wife, Sapphira, and says something that makes him sound like a gangster in a Martin Scorsese film:
Peter then said, “So you and your husband have agreed to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test! What made you do it? You hear those footsteps? They have just been to bury your husband; they will carry you out, too.” Instantly she dropped dead at his feet’ (v.9-10).
Naturally enough, Luke says this event ‘made a profound impression on the whole Church’ (v.11). It’s unclear in the text the extent to which the married couple had properly converted. A common interpretation is that the couple were giving the proceeds to the community in order to look good, to further their sense of personal and social honour, instead of giving from the heart. Another interpretation suggests that this scene only makes sense within the ancient understanding of perjury and divine judgment: in committing themselves to the community without the intention of giving what they promised, they swore falsely, bringing judgement upon themselves.
The book of Acts records countless miracles. God was clearly working in powerful, public, and surprising ways. We’ve read in the stories of St Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) the phenomenon of bi-location, of being in two places at once. But teleportation? Apparently that’s something that happened as well.
The apostle Philip was instructing someone in their understanding of the Scriptures, and after seeing the truth of Jesus Christ they wanted to be baptised. At which point, this happens:
But after they had come up out of the water again Philip was taken away by the Spirit of the Lord, and the eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. Philip found that he had reached Azotus and continued his journey proclaiming the Good News in every town as far as Caesarea.’ (v.39-40).
Note the word ‘again’. Apparently this had happened to Philip before!
Another death, this time King Herod (not the one who slaughtered the innocent children; the other one, his grandson, King Herod Agrippa I – there are six Herods in total, so it’s a bit confusing).
At one point in the text, Herod is giving what the people thought was a brilliant speech, so much so that they cried out, ‘It is a god speaking, not a man!’ (v.22). In response, this happens:
and at that moment the angel of the Lord struck him down, because he had not given the glory to God. He was eaten away with worms and died’ (v.23).
The ‘angel of the Lord’ is a famous Old Testament figure, responsible for striking down many of God’s enemies. Using standard biblical laconicism, however, all Luke tells us is that he was ‘eaten away with worms’. Try and imagine that for a moment. Was that right there, on the spot? Did worms suddenly burst from his body, or was it merely internal? One theory is that this death emphasises Herod’s pagan heart, despite being King of Judea: pigs were notorious carriers of worms, and Jews were forbidden from eating them. Alternatively, this death might have something to do with a disease contracted from . . . his many wives.
Of all the words to describe the experience of reading St Paul, boring is not one of them. His words were charged with energy and excitement and with a cosmic vision of Christ’s redemptive work that to this day astounds people. It’s possible he tended to preach a little too much, though:
A number of lamps were lit in the upstairs room where we were assembled, and as Paul went on and on, a young man called Eutychus who was sitting on the window-sill grew drousy and was overcome by sleep and fell to the ground three floors below. He was picked up dead’ (v.8-10).
Apparently the author, Luke, thought Paul had a habit of going ‘on and on’, a lovely inclusion on his part that adds a great personal flavour to the text.
Not to worry, though. Raising the dead is just another thing that happens now:
Paul went down and stooped to clasp the boy to him. “There is no need to worry,” he said, “there is still life in him.” Then he went back upstairs where he broke bread and ate and carried on talking till he left at daybreak. They took the boy away alive, and were greatly encouraged’ (v.10-12).
This isn’t even mentioning some of the more dramatic stories: there are mob riots, demons mauling people in the streets, angels that free the apostles from prison, sorcerers, public executions, and life-threatening travels across the Mediterranean. Truly, it is a stunning book.
The Acts of the Apostles is particularly relevant for us as we consider more deeply how we can “take the way of the Gospel” and be inspired by the early Christian communities to live and evangelise more faithfully. This Easter season, why not pick up the Book of Acts and see what it has to say to you? You might be surprised.