Each week, WordPress has a Weekly Photo Challenge, where they give a theme and invite people to highlight photography representing that theme, accompanied by a few meditations on it. Occasionally, I try and write a “photo sermon” or meditation based on those themes, accompanied by a photo of mine . This week’s theme is “Letters“.
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I grew up in church and grew up loving the Bible. I did devotionals and sat in Sunday School classes for the vast majority of my life. And yet, it wasn’t until I got to my junior year of college and took a class on the Gospels that I read any of the Gospels all the way through. Sure, I had probably heard most of the Gospels preached on or excerpted in devotionals and books, but I had never read a Gospel from beginning to end.
At the time, I thought it was because they seemed too holy. It felt like too much for my young soul to handle to read the very words of Jesus on my own. It was too weighty for me and scared me. Maybe I just wanted to wait until I could drink whiskey or wine while reading them.
I don’t know for sure, but part of me thinks it’s because narrative is tough. The church of my upbringing was obsessed with propositional truths and systematic beliefs. One can pay lip service to “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” all one wants, but at the end of the day, if you were to really press me (and many others from my upbringing) what Christianity or the Gospel essentially “is”, you would end up with a list of propositional statements one must “believe” in order to be “saved”.
(Of course, this was only after you “accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior”, though those truths you “had” to believe were seen as part of the “accepting” Jesus part).
You wouldn’t hear about the story of redemption and God’s work in the world. You wouldn’t hear a narrative. All of my exposure to Christianity had been in bits and pieces–little snippets and “truth nuggets”. The functional New Testament I grew up with was not part of one singular story, but it was cut up into a pastiche of “life verses” and “memory verses” and proof texts for doctrines.
This all contributed to my terror of the gospels. I just didn’t know how to understand New Testament narratives. The Old Testament was easy. They were stories out of which we could pull moralistic examples. David and Goliath? Not a story about how God delivers his people and the victory of one man over death is extended to all his people. Instead it’s about how you should be brave because David was brave.
I liked Paul and how he seemed to systematize everything in my mind. I had read his writings and enjoyed them. But Jesus? I had no idea.
Well, I took the class and loved it. I got a grasp of the flow of the text and how God appeared among us in history and how each gospel has its own literary flavor and unique development and place in the canon. I loved it. I wanted more.
So, the next class I took was a class on Acts and the letters of Paul.
And I was even more confused.
Oh, Acts. The book of the New Testament that has dogged me my whole life. I disliked it for a long time because no matter how many times I read it, I couldn’t keep track of the overall story. It was very confusing to me. Yes, I could comprehend each individual episode, but not how they all flowed into one another. I couldn’t “get” the overall narrative of the book.
This lasted until a couple of years ago when I did my Bible Survey Class for my church. Preparing for the class in which I walked through Acts and tried to help others get a grasp of it (and the next class where I fit Paul’s letters in the chronology of the book) was one of the most helpful and eye-opening studies of my life with the Bible. Now I feel I have a grasp on it and its contents (and maybe it’s purpose and thesis).
And now I love that book of the Bible.
But it’s also why I love the picture above. I took that picture right after opening up to the book of Acts to read it in full for the first time in my life. At the time, it wasn’t intentional, but I love how, in the photo, the book seems to open up into the world. It is pointing itself into the urban darkness like an arrow pointing us to where it will send us. It promises to take us into itself and not leave us unchanged.
One of the biggest things I learned about the book of Acts in my preparation to teach on it was that its 28 chapters cover a span of nearly 35 years. Before I found that out, I would have guessed 3 to 5 years, tops. This book takes us for a ride. It’s the backdrop against which the rest of the New Testament unfolds and Paul’s letters are written (hence why I used it for this photo theme). It is beautiful.
But it’s still not easy for us Enlightened westerners. It is not a theological treatise. It’s not systematic. It’s nearly impossible to pull eternal theological truths and principles from it. This was a unique time in redemptive history. It’s a transition period. It’s the first time some things are happening, the last time others’ are happening, and the only time still more things are happening.
Which is why its title is still so ominous to me in that picture. It’s raw. It chews you up and spits you out into a darkened world, ready to receive the light of God’s gospel, redemption, his People, and his Spirit.
So may this be an encouragement to maybe look at the teaching materials I linked to, and if you find them helpful, to go back into the book of Acts for a dive. Read. And be changed.
See my past Weekly Photo Challenges & Photo Sermons here.
P.S. I’m currently taking a Preaching Class. Since starting it, I’ve realized I’ve used the term “sermon” far too casually and loosely, including in these series of photo-based reflections. No, the above is not a “sermon”. In the future, I’ll change the name of these meditations. Thanks for nodding and winking along with me until then.