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Being and Becoming Church: The Spirit-Filled Genesis

Bible study on Acts 2:1-13 by Hyunju Bae for the WCC Assembly, 5 November 2013: This text is often read from a mission perspective. How can we understand the Pentecost event from a unity perspective that can bring new insight, dynamism, and power to the ecumenical movement? The role of the Spirit in unity in diversity, as well as the relationship of Pentecost to justice and peace, are interesting to explore in today’s changing landscapes.

15 July 2013

Bible study 4

By Hyunju Bae

Acts 2:1-13

Translation: New Revised Standard Version

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

The Acts of the Apostles describes a powerful process, the growth of the early Jesus movement in the ancient Mediterranean world. Transforming people, the good news of Jesus Christ spread beyond the bounds of Palestinian Jewish communities into the Hellenistic Gentile world of the Roman Empire. At the outset of his description of the energetic development of the Christian movement, Luke presents the Holy Spirit as the vitalizing enabler for creative and courageous Christian witness. Acts is a story of the first Christians who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, defied the gravity of geographical, cultural, political, and spiritual restrictions with astounding inner strength, both individual and communal, to become witnesses of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8).

The initial chapters of Acts describe the formation and nature of the first church in Jerusalem in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same author wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, and the two volumes are to be read as one literary unit. The prophetic tradition, especially the prophetic Spirit, is one of the thematic consistencies in Luke-Acts. It is only natural that Luke, who portrayed Jesus as a Spirit-gifted prophet who ‘brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, lets the oppressed go free, and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19), also conceived of the first faith community of Jesus’ disciples as a Spirit-filled prophetic community, practicing justice and love.

The text in its context

Staying Together (v.1). This text is situated at a strategic initial point in Luke’s overall description of the formation and life of the Jerusalem church in Acts chapters 1-5. The opening verse of the present passage catches our eye because of Jesus’ disciples’ evident intent to stay together: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). They had just undergone a series of traumatic and incredible experiences, the meaning of which they were yet to grasp. They had tragically lost Jesus (whom they had believed in and trusted as the Lord and Christ who came to usher in the kingdom of God) through crucifixion, considered the most severe form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. Worse, they must have felt ashamed of the unbearable fact that one of the insiders betrayed the Lord and that they themselves failed to be faithful disciples when exposure of their relationship to Jesus might have endangered their own safety and survival. Before long, however, they experienced the unexpected and extraordinary events of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. They seemed not to know what to do, and their inability to grasp this series of unique experiences at once is reflected in their gesture of “gazing into heaven” as Jesus went up (Acts 1:10).

The disciples’ response to this series of remarkable experiences, which were beyond their understanding, was to stay and pray together. It didn’t matter that they were a heterogeneous group of fishermen, tax collectors, Zealots, men and women. “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14, RSV). They gathered there as a bewildered community, not with the expectation of being endowed with mystical or supernatural powers but to celebrate together their hope in God amidst fears, anxieties and uncertainties.

A spirit-filled community (vs.2-4). The day of Pentecost came. Pentecost is originally the Greek name for the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which concluded the period of seven-week grain harvest with the presentation of an offering of new grain and other offerings to the Lord (Lev. 23:15-16; Deut. 16:9). On that very day, the disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit (vs.2-4), as Jesus promised (1:5). The Holy Spirit came upon them “like the rush of a violent wind” and “as of tongues of fire.” In the biblical tradition wind is an emblem of the Spirit of God, which is life-restoring and spontaneous (Ezek. 37:9-10; John 3:8); and fire is the form of God’s descent upon Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18). The coming of the Holy Spirit receives its metaphoric depth in association with the baptism with fire: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).

The Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other languages. Unlike the unintelligible glossolalia at the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 14; 2 Cor. 12:1-4), despite differences they experienced an ability to communicate with one another, a basic necessity for building community. The curse of Babel is removed (Gen. 11:1-9). While what happened in Babel was the loss of communicability and reciprocal comprehension due to diverse languages, what took place at Pentecost was the restoration of communication and the opening of the possibility of mutual understanding. It was a celebration of their diversity, which is a gift of God as they saw themselves as one in faith, witness and hope.  The Holy Spirit comes down upon them in the form of gushing wind and tongues of fire. These are images associated with fury, force, destruction, purification and also transformation and change. Does this suggest that their coming and being together has a purpose distinct from other community formations?

An alternative community (vs.5-11). Now the scene shifts from inside to outside the house, from speakers to hearers (2:5-11). The multitude of Jews, whether they are pilgrims from the diaspora or residents of Judea, gathered at the compelling sound that the Holy Spirit fostered. A long list of countries and peoples is enumerated to suggest “every nation under heaven.” Broadly speaking, the list moves first from east to west, then from north to south, generating the impression that the scale of Christian mission has something to do with “the ends of the earth” (1:8).

What is prominent here is the importance of the “Galileans.” To their embarrassment and amazement, the diaspora Jews found that the leaders of this event were Galileans (2:7). The mission to proclaim “God’s deeds of power” (2:11) thus begins from the margins. It was the despised and marginalized Galileans who experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and served as its pioneering instruments. In the ensuing story the Galileans, once regarded as not worthy of respect (John 1:46), are now addressed as “brothers” (2:37) and later acknowledged as leaders who provide teaching for the community (2:42). The coming of the Holy Spirit effected the restoration of these marginalized people and their transformation into creative agents, to open up the possibility of unity among people with linguistic and cultural diversities. Not only the age-old socio-psychological convention of stereotyping was overcome but also reversal of centrism took place. It was an experience of unity, a genuine human togetherness that was not governed by unhelpful dynamics of hierarchical power but by mutual affirmation and responsibility.

Unity is strong and real only in situations where the power of some does not overwhelm others. We are overwhelmed by many expressions and experiences of oppressive forms of unity. Genuine unity is sustained in a spirit of humility, honesty, accepting each other’s difference and shaping together shared visions and goals. It is only then that the unity we have in Christ becomes a gift of the Spirit. As the three synoptic gospels record, when Jesus rejects power, he receives the Holy Spirit and announces the good news of the reign of God. When we reject power that dominates and destroys, the Holy Spirit finds its way to us, effecting new possibilities that benefit the larger community and not just individuals or individual self-fulfillment.

The mission of the church is not confined to the task of reaching out to witness but is to draw people and communities to become open, just and inclusive communities. An upper room, a humble corner at the margins of Jerusalem, thus became the birthplace of Spirit-filled creative movement – the church. This mission from the margins continues in the next chapters of Acts and is executed in the footsteps of the life-giving mission of Jesus Christ himself, who came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45).

The last two verses (12, 13) demonstrate two opposing responses to this astonishing manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit through the Galileans (12-13). Some, in amazement and perplexity, began to seek the meaning of this new event, while others, remaining numb and apathetic, intensified their deep-rooted traditional prejudice and insulted the disciples by dubbing them as drunkards.  This new community finds itself and with those on the margins and not those in places and positions of power and privilege, so it becomes an object of suspicion and sarcasm.

A prophetic community (vs.14-36). This passage, though not part of the text for our reflection now, is the threshold to a subsequent story about the genesis and nature of the first church, born of the prophetic Spirit. In a following address (vs.14-36), Peter not only quotes from the prophet Joel, who proclaimed a Spirit-endowed egalitarian vision. Peter himself also functions as a prophet who criticizes the ignorant and arrogant authorities, Jewish and Roman, for having killed Jesus (v. 23). What sustains their unity is their mutual accountability and responsibility, and their courage to differ and to resist the existing oppressive and unjust norms and values.

A remarkable trait of the faithful community of the Holy Spirit was the sharing of possessions (vs.37-47). The first church “had all things in common; they would sell their possession and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (vs.44-45). Sharing of possessions was not so much a compulsory regulation as a spontaneous and compassionate voluntary act, repeated as “any had need.” Luke’s portrayal might be an attempt to present the first church as both an ideal community in which the Greek and Hellenistic philosophical ideal of true friendship is attained, and as a faithful community in which the promise of Jewish scripture that “There will be no one in need among you” is fulfilled (Deut. 15:4; Acts 4:34). What matters is that the act of sharing goods and possessions itself embodies the vision of justice which creates true peace. The first church practiced the prophetic alternative economy of compassion and sharing.

The text in our context

Many Christians tend to think of the work of the Holy Spirit almost exclusively in a narrowly individualistic way, mostly in terms of the miracle of speaking in tongues. But the true miracle that the Holy Spirit performed was in building the faith community that lived up to the prophetic alternative vision of justice and peace. Luke, who described Jesus as the Spirit-anointed prophet in the Gospel, demonstrated in Acts that God’s prophetic ministry continued in the life of Jerusalem church individually and communally. Jesus said, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). This was the wisdom that guided the first church, enriching it instead with abundance of life, joy and praise. The first church did not know the so-called individualistic “prosperity gospel” (5:1-11).

Recapturing the biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit is crucial for the church in the 21st century. The prophetic Spirit is the mother of the church, and this church is called to be a community with difference in its being and actions. Too often an individualistic and exclusively charismatic perspective eclipses the prophetic face of the Holy Spirit and impoverishes our understanding of the richness of the Holy Spirit. From Luke’s perspective, personal healing, bold proclamation of the gospel message, and the practice of prophetic alternative community are inseparably intertwined in the life of the church (Acts 2-4). The therapeutic, the kerygmatic, and the prophetic dimensions are interwoven.

Luke employed a vivid metaphor of wind and fire to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit. The historical creativity of the Holy Spirit, bringing the first church into existence, is somehow reminiscent of its cosmic creativity. The Holy Spirit, who created the faith community in one of the civilized urban hubs in the ancient world, also contained within its own sacred energy the forces that operated beyond human control, even evocative of the untamable wilderness (Acts 8:26). In the end, the first church was not so much a closed and self-sufficient institution as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), open to the transcendent space of life that the Spirit generates. Neither an exclusively charismatic understanding nor a closed rationalism does justice to the richness of the Holy Spirit. What sustains unity is a common vision of Spirit-led community.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. When and how is unity as a gift of the Spirit?
  2. How do we re-imagine power in relation to genuine expressions of unity?
  3. What makes you assert or deny the prophetic character of your church?
  4. A litmus test for true unity is its power to effect common good, and to create new realities for all, particularly for the marginalized and the discriminated.  Share inspirational examples of true unity in your own context.
  5. Is your church inclusive enough, especially for people with disabilities?
  6. What are the examples of the stereotyping of “the other” in your own community and culture? How can we avoid getting caught in these oppressive cultural traps?
  7. How do we view the reality of migration – as an obstacle or opportunity for unity?

 

Prayer

God of abundant life,

we remember the day of your creation of the church

as the amazing day of a new beginning in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Bless us to be renewed and empowered

by the healing and prophetic energy of the Holy Spirit,

so that we may serve you and the world in joy, strength, and unity.

Give the church the courage to struggle for justice and peace,

as witness of your creative work of grace and love. Amen.

 

About the author

Hyunju Bae teaches in the Department of the New Testament Studies at Busan Presbyterian University. She is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Korea.