By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen
Prior to ordination, I spent over a decade as a professional theatre artist. I worked as an actor, director, puppet builder/puppeteer, and improviser along with many other roles. Because my work was so varied, when people asked me what I specialized in, I simply said, “I’m a storyteller.”
When I think back over my life, I realize that my vocation as storyteller began at a very young age when my parents and grandparents told me stories. Our favorite genres were family history and stories of the Bible. I can remember loading all the stuffed animals into the top bunk of our bunk beds and screaming in terror as I imagined the room filling with water. I was Noah, chosen by God to save the animals. Every time we went to the fancy grocery store with the automatic glass doors that parted in the center, I would run ahead of my family, spread my arms wide, and shout, “Let my people go!”
As embarrassing as I’m sure these antics were to my family, they solidified the biblical narratives not only in my imagination, but in my very body. To this day, when I hear of Moses leading the people across the Red Sea or Elijah and Elisha parting the Jordan, I can feel the energy in my arms and imagine the wind roaring through my hair. My internalization of the biblical stories lives in my muscles and nose and ears and mouth.
Jesus, through his incarnational presence of God made flesh, not only brings God intimately into the world, but Jesus puts flesh and bone onto the promises of the Law and the Prophets. In today’s post-resurrection reading from Luke, Jesus says, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:39 NRSV). It is vital for Jesus that his disciples know that this is not spirit only, but God made flesh resurrected in spirit AND body. Jesus goes on to say, “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:44 – 45). All of Holy Scripture points toward the promise of Jesus and his reality that dwells here and now in our physical world and bridges the gap between God and humanity.
If Jesus establishes a physical reality and relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, it follows that this physical reality continues through all Christian witness from the Christian Scriptures, through the history of Christianity, and into our present reality. We who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection live an incarnational continuation of this story until our own ascension with Christ.
This incarnational understanding of Holy Scripture certainly informs today’s Gospel reading, and I would argue that it should inform all readings of the Bible. Drawing on my own experiences as a theatre artist and techniques I learned from David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie in their book, Mark as Story, I often begin the study of any pericope by writing out the characters and the setting. When I begin thinking about these stories in a realized, incarnational way, I often glean new information that not only informs my preaching/teaching but allows me to experience and internalize the Bible in an intimate way.
Let’s explore this method using today’s first lesson from Acts. This pericope has a deeply rooted and horrific history of interpretation that allows Christians to blame Jews for the death of Jesus. This kind of hatred has led to senseless, cruel, and theologically unsound violence against Jews in movements such as the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Preachers/teachers today have an ethical responsibility to condemn such an interpretation, and I believe this method of narrative analysis helps us do that.
For example, in the Acts lesson appointed for today, I began with a list of characters. Immediately visible are Peter, John, and the people Peter calls “the Israelites.” Looking more closely, I also realized that the newly healed beggar born lame is present. If we read back, we see that many of these Israelites are the faithful Jews who daily carried this man to the Beautiful Gate of the temple in order to help him in his alms collecting. Some of those gathered had deep pity for the man. Others may have seen him as an annoyance. Imagine our own thoughts, reactions, and emotions when we see people begging outside our own churches. Either way, there is deep relationship between the man healed and the crowd Peter is addressing.
Furthermore, Peter names another vital character in this scene: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors” (Acts 3:13). God not only acts within this story, but the nature of God—which God; whose God—becomes known in this familial description.
Turning from characters to setting, we see that the crowd is in the Portico of Solomon in the Court of the Gentiles at the temple. We learn in the preceding pericope that “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon” (3:1). The setting for the narrative, then, is one of pious Jews going into the temple for prayer, and they are stopped at the liminal space right before entering a holier part of the temple set aside for Jews.
Synthesizing this analysis, we see that we have an entirely Jewish cast in a Jewish setting. As theologian Willie James Jennings remarks, “Peter speaks to his people. This is an in-house conversation. We have lost the sense and struggle of this family argument.” Utilizing the actor’s tool of imagining how something must feel as we draw upon our own experiences, most of us know what it’s like to be in a family feud. Most of us know what it’s like to be in a church argument. Anyone who has served on a vestry/church council/leadership board, has certainly experienced or can imagine the awkwardness and sometimes pain of disagreement and the effects those have on the community. Likewise, we can imagine the healing that comes from acknowledging our histories and turning toward our communal, life-giving goals.
As you prepare to preach this or any text, I invite you into an imaginative process that brings the text to life. For me, I have the most fun when I do this with others. It may feel silly, but gather a group of adults, make costumes from things lying around the office, and act this scene out. Through imagination, empathy, and incarnational living of the Scriptures, you may find that their meaning becomes deeper, and they will become part of your physical reality as a baptized member of Christ’s own body.
 David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999).
Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 43.