The six sides of the Mediterranean world faced each other across the sea and waited for something that should look all ways at once. The church had to be both Roman and Greek and Jewish and African and Asiatic. In the very words of the Apostle to the Gentiles, it was indeed all things to all men. – G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
In the early Church as now, Christians had Good News to proclaim, but they had to face the challenge of making that news intelligible to a kaleidoscopically diverse world. At nearly every turn they faced, not just hostility, but confusion, rejection for the wrong reasons, acceptance for the wrong reasons, and the difficulty of communicating a message both shocking and too good to be true: that the God of Glory had been condemned as a common criminal by the best authorities, both Jewish and Gentile, and that he had risen from the dead for the salvation of the whole world. Not surprisingly then, the Church both appealed to and faced opposition from, many sides. It had to engage in spiritual warfare for the hearts and minds of a wildly diverse crowd and show that the Jewish Messiah is not just the glory of his people Israel, but the light of the Gentiles as well. To see how this worked we will look at the different ways in which the gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem, Samaria, Paphos, Lystra, Philippi, Ephesus and Athens in the immense diversity of the first century Mediterranean world.
The apostolic task was, humanly speaking, impossible. But as the book of Acts makes clear, it is not ultimately the task of the apostles. Luke opens Acts by declaring that his first book (the gospel of Luke) has only told what Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The plain implication is that what follows are the acts, not of the apostles, but of the Spirit of the Risen Christ.
That is why the founding of the Church begins with the miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2). At Jerusalem, the heart of Israel, God gives a sign, rooted in the Scripture and tradition of Israel: He bestows the Spirit on the first fruits of his Kingdom during the feast of First Fruits. And as a signal of what shall follow, he undoes the curse of Babel by sending the one message of salvation out through the many languages of the earth as the disciples emerge from the Upper Room, each proclaiming the gospel in the many tongues of the pilgrims gathered for the feast. The newborn Church shows itself both Jewish and Catholic. As she will do throughout the book of Acts (and throughout history) the Church announces news. But it is news that is the fulfillment of “all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” (Acts 3:21). The New Covenant is really new, yet it is not a novelty or a perversion of the faith of Israel, but the fruit on the olive tree of the Old Covenant.
Not all Jews, however, see this. And so persecution scatters the Church like so many dandelion seeds. Some of the believers, so often accused of following a Samaritan and an occultist (Jn 8:48; Luke 11:15), ironically find themselves among real Samaritans and magicians, notably Simon the Magician, plying his trade in Samaria and wowing the locals into saying, “This man is the ‘Power of God’ that is called ‘Great'”. Luke takes the opportunity here to distinguish the Faith from non-Christian magic and to show how the Church adapts its message to the culture in which it makes its proclamation (Acts 8:9-25).
As their reaction to Simon the Magician suggests, the Samaritans are captivated by displays of spiritual power. So when Philip arrives, that is what God gives them. However, the distinction between Philip’s miracles and occultic magic is not altogether clear to Simon. He “believes”, is baptized, and becomes “devoted to Philip.” But then we find out why: when Peter and John come to bestow the gift of the Spirit, Simon speaks from the fullness of his power-hungry heart. “He offered them money and said, ‘Give me this power, too .'” Peter rebukes him and commands him to pray. The Magician, horrified, asks Peter to pray for him, yet significantly does not pray for repentance but that “none of what you have said may come upon me.” Luke hints that Simon fears, not so much the sin, as the consequences. Whether Simon’s half-repentance solidifies into a serious change of heart or slides back into his old habits of self-interest is not made clear by Luke. What is clear is that False Simon Magus’ magic is about self-glorification, whereas True Simon Peter’s miracles are about God’s glory.
This same adaptation of the message to the culture is evident when Saul of Tarsus begins his missionary work in Acts 13. When he appears before the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, at Paphos Saul is, for the first time in Acts, called by his second–and Gentile–name: Paul. This is linked by Luke to three things: 1) t he first formal proclamation of the gospel to pagans; 2) the distinction of the power of God in a true son of Jesus from the power of Satan in a false “Bar-Jesus” (like the distinction between the true and false Simons); and 3) the demonstration that the gospel is no threat to the Roman culture or piety Paulus represents. Elymas is rebuked as a deceiver and miraculously struck blind (just as Paul had been on the Damascus Road). But the blinding is “for a time” just as Paul’s was. The implication is that this too is intended to be redemptive. Elymas, also, is intended for salvation, for he too is in the grip of the devil. Paulus, astounded by the power of Christ, believes. The many-sided gospel simultaneously proclaims the good news to Roman high society, confronts and defeats the demonic powers at work in Elymas Bar-Jesus the magician, and (through Luke who is telling the story) challenges the Greco-Roman reader to make the distinction not only between the God of miracle and the occult but between the sinner and his sin.
Moreover, lest the Gentile reader infer from this incident that Jews like Elymas are somehow peculiarly wicked and that Gentiles like Paulus are naturally more spiritually insightful than Jews, Luke moves on to Lystra (Acts 14:8-20) and an extraordinary portrait of the kind of challenge the Church faced, not from Jews, but from pagans.
Paul, while preaching to the Lystrans, notices a man who cannot walk. Seeing his faith, he says in a loud voice, “Stand up on your feet.” The man is instantly healed, but the crowd reads the event, not in light of Paul’s message, but through the lens of their own culture. “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” they cry in their native tongue. Rather than seeing the hand of Jesus at work, Barnabas is mistaken for Zeus and Paul for Hermes. (Interestingly, we know from the Roman writer Ovid that a local legend said these two gods had visited the region and been refused hospitality by everybody but one elderly couple –with horrific consequences for the village.) Their views thus colored by folklore, the Lystrans lose no time fetching the local priest of Zeus to sacrifice in worship of Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles, once they surmount the language barrier and realize the crowd’s intent, respond with horror and a rebuke.
In such an apostolic action we see two aspects of the early Church’s approach to paganism. The first is uncompromising hostility. The apostles do not enter into dialogue with the priest of Zeus or acclaim the Lystrans for meaning well. They flatly demand the Lystrans “turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” The central falsehood of paganism–its constant confusion of Creator with creature–is sharply and decisively rebuked.
Yet, within a few words, we see another side of Paul’s attitude toward paganism and its nature religions and legends. For Paul does not simply reject all paganism out of hand. As he will later do at Athens, Paul tells them, “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Like the author of Ecclesiastes, Paul believes God has “put eternity in their hearts” (Ec 3:11) and so implores them to regard the good things of creation as signs pointing to God, not as gods themselves. Creation, like Paul himself, is a messenger. But Jesus is the Message. Even so, says Luke, “they scarcely restrained the people from sacrificing to them.”
Yet, such is the way with mobs, within a few days Paul is nearly killed by the same crowd that sought to worship him. Won over by Jews from towns Paul had previously visited, they stone him. Paul escapes and moves on to yet another confrontation with paganism which Luke again points out in order to show both show the contrast between the occult and the faith, as well as the way in which the Church makes its proclamation to the pagan world.
In Acts 16 we find Luke’s eyewitness account of the beginning of the Christian mission to Europe. Luke recounts the supernatural character of the mission (in which the Spirit of Jesus first prevents Paul from going to Bithynia and a Macedonian appears to Paul in a dream, asking him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us”). Paul, guided by the Spirit, enters Europe and the many-sided gospel crosses socio-economic and gender lines as it crossed ethnic and religious lines. The first Gentile convert we meet is a well-to-do woman named Lydia whom Paul evangelizes in Philippi along with several other women. In Christ there is not only no Jew or Greek, Roman or Samaritan, there is also neither male nor female, rich nor poor.
This does not mean, however, that wealth is without its dangers. In Acts, the spirit of mammon and “possessions” is often closely associated with another, more sinister, kind of possession. A striking example of this is seen as Paul and h is friends are going to the place of prayer and are “met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying.” In a curious way, she is a kind of satanic parody of an apostle. Her message is perfectly orthodox (“These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you the way to be saved!”), yet the spirit behind it makes an embarrassing ruckus just as the demon-possessed people in the gospel of Luke make a ruckus proclaiming the true identity of Jesus (Luke 4:33-35). There is no hint from Luke or Paul that the girl is a quack or that her possession is fakery. On the contrary, they take the spirit infesting her personality as seriously as Jesus took demons. And so Paul casts out the spirit in the name of Jesus.
Result: the girl’s owners realize their human money-making machine is permanently out of gas and, with a grubby materialism blind to the spiritual realities swirling around them, drag Paul off to jail. A very similar pattern, by the way, will be followed when Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19. There, as well, Paul’s miracles will be contrasted with the pagan spirituality practiced in Ephesus. There, as well, occult power will be overwhelmed by the power of the gospel. There, as with Simon the Magician, sharp contrast will exist between the reality of Jesus’ power in the believer and the notion of using the name “Jesus” as a kind of magical incantation, as the “seven sons of Sceva” discover to their embarrassment (Acts 19:13-16). And most striking, in Ephesus, as at Philippi, the intertwining of sheer commercial interest with “principalities and powers” in league against the gospel will again be manifest when the silversmiths (who make big bucks selling shrines of the goddess Diana) recognize in Paul a threat to their business and cause a riot. (Recall that the Temple of Diana at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a major center of trade.) In short, both at Ephesus and Philippi, Luke shows the many-sided gospel confronting not only Jew but Gentile, not only rich but poor, not only the businesswoman like Lydia the seller of purple but the businessman like Demetrius the silversmith, not only human but supernatural agents as well.
Moreover, Paul will evangelize not only “low” forms of paganism such as occultism and crass moneymongering, he will also appeal to the “high” forms of paganism, particularly at Athens and Ephesus. In Athens (Acts 17:16-33), confronted by a culture that values philosophy, poetry and “talking about and listening to the latest ideas”, Paul appeals not to Scripture, but to several Greek poets and the Athenians own forlorn sense of spiritual incompleteness attested by their monument “To an Unknown God.” Again adapting the message to the culture, he proclaims to them “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 1 7:23). Similarly, at Ephesus (Acts 19), when he is rejected at the Ephesian synagogue, Paul will set up as an itinerant pagan philosopher would, teaching in the Hall of Tyrannus. Once again, the Church matches the message to the culture. And once again, we see the problem of misunderstandings arising. At Athens, confusion arises from Paul’s stress on “Iesous and Anastasis.” The Athenians take him to be preaching about a god and his consort when Paul is actually speaking of “Jesus and Resurrection.” Luke must, as so often before, point out the misunderstanding so that the Faith can be distinguished from the distortions of the surrounding culture, even as he demonstrates the ways in which the Faith is the fulfillment of that culture’s deepest loves and aspirations.
In all this, the experience of the Church of Acts is instructive for us today. We also live in a multiplicity of cultures and ideas, some of them amenable to the Faith, some hostile, some seeking to “digest” the Faith and subsume it into the service of other agendas. As Catholics, we have a peculiar freedom to “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes 5:21) as the Church held fast to whatever in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture was reflective of Christ. However , at the same time, we have an obligation to confront our culture with the claims of Christ and to prophetically bear witness to him when our culture does not reflect his love and truth. The witness of Acts is not that this is easy, but that the Spirit who both began and sustains the Church can and will do it.