Pentecost Sunday June 5th

The Christian holiday of Pentecost is celebrated on the 50th day from Easter Sunday. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles, part 7: The Acts of the Holy Spirit

For Luke, the story that he tells in Acts is a miraculous one. At every stage the growth of Christianity is inspired, directed and enabled by the Holy Spirit, as far as Luke is concerned. What's more, the work of the Holy Spirit doesn't just start at Pentecost. According to Luke's gospel, it is through the Holy Spirit that Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus; the Holy Spirit confirms Jesus' calling at his baptism, fills Jesus as he teaches and heals and gives words to the disciples.

Luke's theology of the direct and visible experience of the Holy Spirit, as described in Acts, has been very influential in certain Christian communities. On several occasions, Luke speaks of the Holy Spirit 'falling' on people, being 'poured out' on people, being "given" to people, and although he doesn't always say exactly what happens, the effects are visible and audible. At Pentecost, the disciples are enabled to speak so as to be understood in several different languages; and Cornelius, the Roman gentile centurion, and his friends speak in "tongues" when the Holy Spirit falls on them. On that occasion, Luke does not say whether the words were comprehensible to those listening, or whether they were charismatic Christians experience today as "glossolalia", a babble of words not generally understood by those hearing them 

On one occasion in Acts, the effects of the Holy Spirit are so exciting that Simon the Magician offers to pay Peter and John for the power to lay on hands and produce these reactions.

At various points in the narrative, Luke records that the Holy Spirit speaks unequivocally to direct matters. For example, the Holy Spirit directs the church at Antioch to lay hands on Paul and Barnabas and commission them for their work. The Holy Spirit also speaks through prophets.

Luke states all these phenomena in a fairly matter-of-fact kind way, and without any explanation of why such things might happen. It appears that he expects Theophilus and his circle, to whom the book is addressed, to be familiar with the things he is describing. The book is not about these experiences, but about what they achieve in terms of the spread of the church.

Some aspects of Luke's theology of the Holy Spirit have been abstracted from the overall context of what Acts says about the Holy Spirit, to the point where the visible coming of the Holy Spirit at baptism, and the presence of phenomena such as healings and prophecy become marks of authentic Christian discipleship. Individuals and churches that do not display the work of the Holy Spirit in these ways are thought to be defective.

But it would be ironic if the experience of the Holy Spirit became uncoupled from the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the theology of Acts. The effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit in Acts is the spread of the good news about Jesus, and the creation of a new human community. In both Luke's gospel and Acts, this new community is particularly hospitable to those who are not welcome in normal, self-selecting human groups. In Luke 4, Jesus applies to himself a passage from the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah: "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." It becomes a hallmark of Jesus' work, that he calls sinners, like Levi the tax collector, fallen women, and those whose diseases make them untouchable.

The pattern continues in Acts. The earliest Christians, too, heal those in need (Acts 2:6), take women seriously (Acts 9:36-41), and welcome the poor (Acts 4:34). Paul talks of the new community as one where "Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female" all belong together (Galatians 3:28), and this is the community whose birth Acts describes. The Holy Spirit challenges the barriers that people put up between those who are "in" and those who are "out".

Acts is not arguing that the Holy Spirit makes a new community so inclusive that it has no shape or definition at all, merely that its shape and definition are not man-made. This community is potentially all-inclusive, since the dramatic commission that Jesus gives the apostles is to make disciples of all nations. But in order to belong, people often have to lay down their most treasured and sacred self-definitions. In Acts, Jewish Christians have to join a society which does not share the food and hygiene regulations which demonstrate the holiness of God; and gentile Christians have to give up the sacrificial and sexual practices which speak of the sacredness of matter. All have to give up a sense of directing their own destiny, in order to become part of the history of the Holy Spirit.

If Acts argues anything, it is that this new community is not a human idea and it won't be a human achievement. Where even the faintest traces of it exist, it is the act of the Holy Spirit. Acts is a book full of hope, not because it has a starry-eyed view of human beings, but because it is describing a history that ought to have been impossible.

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