Date: August 2, 2015
Bible Text: Acts 1:1–9 | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
In the first book, Theophilus,
I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning
In 1997, some fans pulled all-nighters, crowded under umbrellas or ponchos or got soaked to the bone as they waited to dash for upfront seats when police finally let spectators into Grant Park at 6 a.m. They trudged through puddles as big as swamps to celebrate the Chicago Bulls winning their fifth NBA championship in seven years. Perhaps you too were there, caught on film sitting on your boyfriend’s shoulders to watch the events and recall just how awful the conditions were in the park. Or, maybe you watched the festivities on TV from work, but had been at the game the prior Friday as the Bulls beat the Utah Jazz to clinch the title.
During the celebration, the players were invited to speak. You could tell they were not scripted but coached on brevity, since each choose just a few words to mark his participation on this championship team and season.
The Bull’s forward, Dennis Rodman, was introduced as “waiting for his play-off shares” because “he needed the money.” When he approached the podium, he was greeted with cheers and jeers.
“I will keep this short and clean,” alluding to the prior year’s scandal of profanity. Rodman continued “A lot of people have criticized me for all the things I’ve done and all the things I’ve said. The NBA has done a lot of things to try to keep me down. But you know what? There’s just so much you can do to kick a man down, and I say the hell with the NBA.” In this celebration with untold thousands listening, Rodman turned it into an opportunity to be all about “me, me, me.”
Next up was one of the co-captains, who had hurt his foot during the season but rallied for the finals, he was needed, Scottie Pippin. Smiles and barks of support erupted as he approached the mic. “I’ve been here for ten long seasons and we have five championships…we have won…we look forward to number six.” Scottie Pippin was all about the teamwork and inclusive with we, we, and we.
Finally, the man with five NBA Finals MVP awards was introduced, Michael Jordan. He began, “on behalf of all the players, the coaches and the Bulls”, the crowd roared and he then got to the heart “this championship goes out to all the working people here in the city of Chicago who go out every day and bust their butts to make a living. We work for two hours to give you something to be proud about, your team and your city.” From Michael Jordan, “This is for you.”
The “me,” the “we” and the “you” perspectives they expressed allow us a glimpse into each player’s motive and, no surprise, is what laid the foundation for their legacy as basketball stars for Chicago fans. When you listen to them and hear the crowd’s response you cannot miss the impact on others as you compare the orientation of focusing just on me, broadening your vision to we or instead, turning outward and including all of you.
The same could be asked of those people who were among the first generation following the resurrection of Christ and who witnessed the world changing. If you know of Jesus and if you can begin to comprehend Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, how do you live? If you glimpsed the truth of a world and life much bigger than you and your tribe, how do you participate in bringing a new kingdom on earth to be?
A man rarely spoken of in the church but who is largely credited with a significant corpus of writings in the New Testament is called Theophilus. He learned of Christ and became focused on not just himself, or a small group, but on others and particularly you and me. His name appears only twice in all of the New Testament, once in the dedication to the Gospel of Luke and again in the first sentence of the Acts of the Apostles, “most excellent Theophilus”.
The name Theophilus can be translated from the original Greek as theo–God, and philo–lover: he was a lover of God. The dedication within these sentences implies Theophilus commissioned these books. In first century Palestine it was common for an author to acknowledge his patron in the opening sentences.
Scholars debate if there really was a Theophilus, with some arguing Luke and Acts are dedicated to all those who love God or who by reading them may become lovers of God. Therefore, we too can claim to be Theophilus.
Those who argue Theophilus truly existed point out “Theophilus” was both a common name and an honorary title among the learned Romans and Jews of the era. He was wealthy enough to commission such extensive writing and from this wealth most likely also earned social and political status, perhaps he was even a member of the local ruling party. Since both Luke and Acts are concerned with the radical inclusion of Gentiles into the Kingdom of God Jesus ushers in, Theophilus would have been a Gentile.
Some contend Theophilus was not just wealthy enough to commission the writing but was positioned within the society to effect the distribution. (I’ll admit the former consultant in me is persuaded of this since don’t all start-ups need both funding to move from idea to product and speed distribution to end users? But, maybe not.)
Theophilus must have been filled with the Holy Spirit to possess the courage to commission such a work. Luke and Acts were and are radical treatises, subverting the power of Rome and the temple. Theophilus was truly thinking of “the you,” the other, at great risk to his own life.
Without his generosity in underwriting the cost of writing these books, and we did not have Gospel of Luke, we would not have the narrative of Jesus’ birth—no Christmas, only Epiphany. We could not hear the Benedictus or Magnificat, great hymns contained in scripture. The stories of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep or the Prodigal Son would not exist—stories embedded in the fabric of our culture. We could not know of Jesus’ walk on the road to Emmaus after Easter or his Ascension, all events only recorded in the Gospel of Luke. These writings are larger than simple text and have shaped our understanding of Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness and the way we celebrate our faith. Without the Acts of the Apostles, we would have no link between the crucifixion and resurrection and the letters Paul wrote. In short, our New Testament would be 26% smaller and the texts that shape our faith would have far less substance.
From what the author writes, Theophilus knew of Jesus’ life, ministry and resurrection but wanted to persuade with proof, such that Acts is peppered with names of specific places and Roman and local officials who can be traced in other historical documents. With so much changing in the world, Theophilus wants the facts; he wants to communicate to us a truth we can stake our lives on.
When it was written, in the 60th or 70th year in the Common Era, some might have thought God came to earth and then left. Theophilus knew, as did all those in the first generation after Jesus death, God did not leave. Present throughout the Gospel of Luke is not only Jesus, but Jesus working through the power of the Holy Spirit. This same spirit is breathed upon all those who followed him and the same spirit is conferred upon us in baptism. The stories in Acts underline God works through the simplest people, the peasants and outcasts, elite and wealthy, Roman and Jew to change the world.
The Acts of the Apostles also marks the beginning of an in-between time. The followers of Jesus wanted to know when he would be coming back. We crave resolution and want to rush from Jesus’ resurrection to have God hand us a fairer, safer, freer world.
The Acts of the Apostles addresses those who would rather ask “wouldn’t it be easier to just wait for God to come again and set things right? Then we would not get into the messy and dangerous work of discipleship.” We could stay focused on just me and mine and we and ours. Let someone else take care of all the “you” out there.
The challenges for those followers, and for us, is to move from looking at the sky to embracing Jesus’ final command to roll up our sleeves and get to work as Christ’s witnesses in our city and to the ends of the earth.
A recent New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof reflected on the fifteen-year anniversary of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his recent interview with Bill and Melinda Gates and pondered what their pillow talk might be as leaders of this foundation that bears their name. Fifteen years ago, they began what is now the largest family foundation—giving away $34 billion—with the aspiration to transform health and nutrition for the world’s poor.
Kristof’s “back of the envelope” calculation—or—estimates their initiatives can be credited with saving the lives of 33 million children and based upon the current trajectory and investments, is on track to save or improve the lives of another 61 million children in the next fifteen years.
If you browse the foundation’s website, the Gates agree on the future of the foundation and are making big bets which are dependent upon one essential ingredient—people will expand their circle of compassion and willingly participate—not with the largess of the Gates, but in the small way everyone can do from his or her home in the way they behave and give. Expand the circle beyond just “the me” to have compassion for others.
Kristof highlighted how Bill and Melinda differ in their personal approach and involvement. Bill is fervent about facts, science research and polio and is more likely found interacting with officials. Melinda is concerned this alone would not enable them to make the leap from science to real-life gains. Her passion is in family planning and gender issues—“squishy” issues in Bill’s estimate and she spends time in the field with people. But, they make a team and respect the unique gifts.
After hearing about their future plans for the foundation in poverty, women and family planning, and nutrition, Kristof asked how these plans would influence the foundation and their legacy. Bill Gates’ single retort, “Legacy? We don’t optimize for that.”
“We don’t optimize for legacy”—they have a laser focus not on themselves or the foundation for which they are pouring in billions along with all their passion, they are focused on the “you” of this world, the other, the marginalized, those whose lives matter. Their legacy is not in caring about legacy, but in caring about someone else.
Legacy. Theophilus did not seem to care too much of his legacy as well if 1–we rarely ever hear his name yet have benefited for centuries from his investments and 2–we know the orderly account of God’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit and 3–have a gospel and a companion book of acts to remind us of who we are and what we too can become as followers of Christ.
We may never know who Theophilus was, or maybe we are to see ourselves as Theophilus, to become lovers of God and by that to risk our lives by living up to the command to take this gospel, to rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit and in Jesus’ name be his witness to the ends of the earth.
As we move to a moment of silence, please pray with me,
Gift-giving God, draw us in the spirit’s tether by the power of your Holy Spirit, open our minds to the mystery of faith and the liberating word that the Gospel is still moving out through the simplest actions of people no different from us. We give you thanks for the story of Jesus’ life and the assurance we can rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit at all times. Send your blessing, we pray, on the church universal, where our questions find welcome, where there is light for our darkness, and hope for things that are not impossible when we rely upon your spirit.
Draw us in the spirit’s tether. Amen.
 J. M. Creamer, A.B. Spencer, and F Vijoen, F. 2014, “Who is Theophilus? Discovering the original reader of Luke-Acts”, In Die Skrflig (48(1), Art . #1701, 7 page. http://dx. Doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i.1701.
 Loveday Alexander, “What if Luke Had Never Met Theophilus?,” Biblical Interpretation. Vol 8 Leiden: Koeninklijke Brill, 2000.
 Nicholas Kristof, “Bill and Melinda’s Pillow Talk,” The New York Times. July 19, 2015.