We saw a few weeks ago how the book of Acts has a prominent place in the modern Communion lectionary through Easter week. We’ve seen that the book of Acts may be read from in place of the Old Testament lesson through Easter season. Now it’s time to look at why Acts shows up at this time of year, in the Communion lectionary, and at none other time.
The book of Acts holds a unique position in the canon of Scripture. It is not an Epistle, nor is it a Gospel. It’s like the Epistles in that it’s looking at the life of the Church after Jesus ascended; it’s like the Gospels in that it’s a collection of narratives. Its very introduction makes it out to be a sort of sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Ultimately its literary contribution to the Bible is much more like the historical books of the Old Testament – showing us the power and presence of God in the world through his people. That likeness, perhaps, is why the book of Acts is almost always provided in place of the Old Testament lesson in the Communion lectionary.
As for the time of year… Acts has a particular focus on the life of the Church immediately after the Gospel work of Christ Jesus. It re-tells the story of his ascension, it tells the story of the Day of Pentecost, and provides first-hand insight into the immediate history of a few of the apostles, as well as some of the missionary and church-planting ministry of St. Paul and others. As the great feast of Easter (due in part to the ancient custom of holding baptisms at the Easter Vigil) has a particular liturgical emphasis on new life in Christ, it was only natural that the book of Acts came to be a go-to book in the season following. Let’s take a look at how the book of Acts is read in the ACNA Sunday Communion lectionary:
Easter II – 2:14a, 22-32 – Peter preaching Christ from the Old Testament
Easter III – 2:14a, 36-47 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter IV – 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60 – diaconate established, Stephen martyred
Easter V – 17:1-15 – Paul is attacked for preaching the Gospel to Greeks as well as Jews
Easter VI – 17:22-34 – Paul preaches to the Gentiles
after Ascension – 1:1-14 – the ascension of Jesus
Easter II – 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 – Peter preaching repentance unto faith in Christ
Easter III – 4:5-14 – Peter and John examined by the Jews for healing in the name of Jesus
Easter IV – 4:23-37 – the church rejoices and grows in generosity
Easter V – 8:26-40 – Philip preaches to and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch
Easter VI – 11:19-30 – the church grows among Gentiles and is generous abroad
after Ascension – 1:15-26 – the replacement of Judas with Matthias
Easter II – 5:12, 17-22, 25-29 – the apostles are arrested for preaching Christ
Easter III – 9:1-19a – Saul (to be Paul) converts on the road to Damascus
Easter IV – 13:14b-16, 26-29 – Paul preaches Christ mostly from the Old Testament
Easter V – 13:44-52 – Paul is abused for his conviction to preach to the Gentiles
Easter VI – 14:8-18 – Paul and Barnabas heal a cripple
after Ascension – 16:16-34 – Paul exorcises a demon, is imprisoned, and preaches to his jailer
Noting the Patterns
If you just look at the chapter and verse numbers, it’s hard to see there’s any rhyme or reason to these tours through Acts. But when you note what those readings contain, similar contours can be traced in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle. The first three Sundays mostly follow a pattern of preaching, resistance, triumph & growth. Easter V and VI then deal with the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles, typically to the chagrin and anger of the Jewish synagogue members.
The odd Sunday in this sequence is the Sunday after the Ascension. In Year A it just repeats the Acts 1 lesson from Ascension Day; in Year B it (sensibly) deals with something that occurred between the ascension and Pentecost. But in Year C it seems to be rolled into the Eastertide progression of readings from Acts, noting some of Paul’s ministry (and abuse) among the Gentiles.
When preparing for Eastertide and the Sunday after Ascension, the preacher(s) ought to make a decision: either commit to using the Acts readings each Sunday along the way, or commit to using none of them during this period. These readings are not paired with the Gospel or Epistle, much less the Collect of the Day, but form a sequence of five or six Sundays exploring the spread of the Gospel from the apostles to the Jews to the Gentiles. Whether they are the preaching focus or not, they form a sequence that ought to be carried through from start to finish, if they are to be used at all.
In my case, I was committed this year to preaching the “Epistle” texts from Revelation, so I opted not to use the Acts lessons, preferring to have OT lessons that would match the Gospels so there’d be more unity to the liturgy on a given day.
Whatever you decide is appropriate, be sure you stick with it through the season to maximize the liturgical benefit, one way or the other!