Texts: Acts 2:1-21,John 14:8-27
The material effects of the descent of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost
Why do we read Acts in the Season of Easter? It’s a little out of order. We read Acts in Easter because Acts tells us how the incarnation passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ effect people in this earthly life. I will lead us in reflection on these earthly and material effects and impact on us and the world around us. This is perhaps more obvious in other passages in Acts than the one for Pentecost. Yet if we pay attention to the manifestations of the Spirit at Pentecost and the perceived extent of the effect of that manifestation we can begin to understand the material nature of the impact of the Spirit and thus the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
Let us attend to what can be seen, heard, touched and is located on the earth in Luke’s account of Pentecost. Most notably, and what is generally emphasized in our celebrations of Pentecost, the speaking and hearing of various languages. We should remember that this is a physical and really very earthly and human effect. Unlike the glossolalia mentioned in Paul’s epistles where the language spoken is unknown to any of the hearers in the gathered body and thus requires translation, at the descent of the Spirit upon the Church, (at this time those Jews who are believers in Christ and who had undergone the baptism of John) Jews speak Languages they don’t know that are then also understood by those in the crowd that gathered (also Jews from different parts of the earth). This effect is relational and reconciling. There is also the noise of wind and what appear to be tongues of fire that rested on each of the Apostles. The descent of the Spirit caused a commotion, sent out sound waves and emitted photons in the form of tongues of fire. This manifestation had an impact not only on the 120 or so gathered who formed the church of that time and moment, but of those outside that group. The Holy Spirit’s descent causes a commotion, it draws attention, and it also draws mockery and disdain. So, the Holy Spirit descending to fulfill and continue the work begun in Jesus’s life Passion, Resurrection and Ascension has physical and material effect such that people stop and take note, but the effects themselves aren’t meaningful in and of themselves. Ultimately Peter has to clarify the meaning in this first proclamation of the Church. Since, Peter is preaching to those of Jewish faith and it is important to establish Jesus as the Messiah, it must be demonstrated how these manifestations fit with Jewish expectation and Torah expectations of the Messianic age in the Tanakh. Peter points to prophet Joel and what he says about the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic age, well this is the fulfilment of Joel’s expectation and prophesy about the messiah and the messianic age. Now Peter doesn’t mean here that there’s a one to one correspondence between the manifestations experienced by all those on this Pentecost after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, but that if one wishes to understand the meaning of what this crowd has seen and heard and experienced, one should be consulting this prophecy.
Luke gives us another means of interpreting the meaning of this event, it’s geographical extent. Luke’s list of places from which the Jews in the crowd are from is a list of what would have been understood by Luke’s first readers as the extent of the inhabited earth. Meaning that for Luke the extent of this local event is in effect global. Through the diaspora of the Jews who were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost, represent the known inhabited world. There are ancient traditions that mark the coming of the Gospel and the Church to certain regions to this moment of Pentecost. Most notably the Latin Father Abrosiaster dates the founding of the Roman Church to this moment and not the direct proclamation of the Gospel by Peter and Paul. For Luke this one local event is at this very moment also global in its extent.
Signs and wonders as physical manifestations of God’s reign in the earth.
What are we to make of all this commotion, and earthly and physical impact? First, is that the result of what God did in Jesus of Nazareth and in the incarnation and Passion isn’t simply an internal and purely “spiritual” (if “spiritual” means non material psychological and internal experience) reality. This means that if we’ve encountered this reality of God come in Jesus of Nazareth and the reality of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, we will have seen it, it will have a material effect, something we can see, hear and touch. Second, is that this material manifestation is oriented towards a goal, that is only understood if we know how to interpret what we are seeing hearing and handling. It is this second thing that I wish to focus on for the remainder of our time. Since, the exact physical and material effects of the descent of the Spirit do not necessarily continue to happen, there are other possible manifestation and material effects of the mediating and sustaining and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In order to see them and interpret them correctly we must understand the depth and extent of the theophany of the Spirit at Pentecost.
In order to interpret and correctly identify the effects of the Spirit in our midst and in the earth, we need to understand the role of the Holy Spirit and meaning of the descent of the Spirit. Most fundamentally we must remember that the Holy Spirit is God, a person or hypostasis of the Trinity. In that sense the Spirit's presence in our midst is for the same purpose as the coming of God the Son in Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Spirit is the same work as of the incarnate Word’s, Jesus of Nazareth, life, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The Spirit doesn’t inaugurate another work of God in the World, but is the means to continue the work. This is the work God had been doing in the people of Israel which was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, and through the Spirit is continued in the Church, in continuity with Israel. Fundamentally God’s work is to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation, to reconcile humanity and God. The purpose of God’s work in the world is relational, and is born out of God’s desire for us and for all creation: The work of God in teh earth is aimed towrds relationship and love.
The material meaning of Pentecostal and Charismatic signs and wonders
Using the above framework we can look again at the manifestations and their interpretations given to us by Luke and by Peter’s first sermon. First the manifestation and its effect are things that are evident and noticeable. Sound of wind, tongues of fire that are seen, languages spoken. Those who wanted to discount what was happening couldn’t deny the event they simply gave it another explanation, the drunkenness of the individuals around whom the commotion started. But the manifestations aren’t random either. Sound of wind, tongues of fire. These are consistent forms of epiphany and theophany that the people of Israel have known and experienced. They aren’t new, remixed yes, entirely new, no. God manifesting God’s presence through meteorological phenomenon especially wind, and in fire is consistent with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the celebration of Pentecost marks. The effect of the coming of the Spirit as a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, does so in continuity with the work of God in human history and the people of God, Israel. The manifestation and effect is relational and reconciling, it bridges gaps and breaks down barriers that simply are the case in the world. Languages and location and identity divide us as human beings, on the Day of Pentecost God uses what divides to bring together, and shows that the intended effect of the incarnation and the passion is to bring together, to reconcile in relationship. Furthermore, Peter in referencing Joel tells us the effect is intended for all no matter one’s social location or identity and no matter your geographical location, yet it also doesn’t erase those differences or identities, rather it makes possible relationship and connection where it seems impossible or difficult. Lastly, it shakes up what is considered inevitable, simply set in the nature of the cosmos, or dictated by the powerful. Peter tells us that what we have seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the same as the cosmic powers of sun and moon being changed, shaken and upended.On this Pentecost, what might we take from all of this? First, pentecostal and charismatic manifestations and signs and wonders aren’t meant to be ends in themselves, without interpretation they are dead ends. Yet, to ridicule or otherwise diminish them is to deny the incarnation. To so ridicule or diminish is to deny that salvation is earthly and material. The story of God’s activity in the world to reconcile God and God’s creation that begins with Abraham and is brought to fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth. If we attend to that story we will see that this reconciliation this transformation isn’t an escape from materiality and the earth, but is a deep and profound affirmation of all that God created. Yet, many of the material conditions of our current worldly existence are at odds with God’s transforming and reconciling work on the earth and in the entire cosmos. The miraculous, or signs and wonders, are manifestations, epiphanies, that are meant to point out how and where God is at work. We members of Christ’s body the Church should be both where these manifestations appear and those who should be looking for these theophany. Yet, these epiphanies and theophany aren’t only the miraculous. We should find in various ways a transformed and reconciled and transfigured world replacing the world as we know it and find it. The Church isn’t supposed to be seeking merely the reform of worldly structures and certainly isn’t supposed to be a means of escape from this earthly existence, rather it is to up end the worldly powers of whatever name they go by: socialist, communist, capitalist, neoliberal, progressive, conservative, democracy, monarchy ad infinitum. God came to earth to transform and redeem and reconcile God’s creation the physical and material created universe seen and unseen. The signs of the descent of the spirit at Pentecost and the signs and wonders that manifested around the early Church and show up again throughout history, show us that God means to transform our material existence. God’s reconciling work is for the earth, for all creation, for the entire universe. Our very existence is to be transformed, and it happens in time, in history, and on earth. Yet, the work of God is also not from history, nor is it historical nor merely material. This is the incarnation, this is the coming of the Spirit, this is the meaning and reality of the Church in germ. Look, listen, be sent into the world so that we may truly see where God is at work and be ourselves individual and corporately sites of God’s reconciling and transfiguring work on earth upending all worldly systems.