Being the Church Then and Now: Issues from the Acts of the Apostles

William Loader

3. "These people are not drunk as you suppose" (Acts 2:15)

The language of spirituality and cultural monopolies


Jesus had instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they should receive power, until they should receive the Holy Spirit. They were to be witnesses. They had the vision of the kingdom as their agenda. But they were to be more than visionaries and more than workers to erect the kingdom by their own efforts. The one who promised the reign of God in peace and justice also promised the enabling gift of the Spirit: John the Baptist’s prediction of a baptism by the Holy Spirit would come about in their own day. In advance of the day when the great vision would be fulfilled, God would already send the Spirit, the gift traditionally expected in the last days according to Jewish expectation.

The Spirit belongs to the kingdom, as the breath of God also belongs to God’s being and his reign. The Spirit, the breath, the wind of what is to come already blows. The vision sets the agenda and by the Spirit, as it were, turns its pages and brings it into reality. Today we look at Luke’s account of the coming of the Spirit, which is the life of the kingdom to come and the life of the kingdom now, the Church.

1. The Day of Pentecost

Luke is not the only New Testament writer to tell of the coming of the Spirit. In John’s gospel on the evening of the day of resurrection Jesus breathes on his disciples and commissions them: “As my Father has sent me; so I send you.” Paul does not mention an event, but he does sometimes use a term for the Spirit, which indicates its relation to the kingdom promise. He calls it arrabon, advance instalment. Luke is different again. Those who passed on the tradition to him had associated the coming of the Spirit with the first major pilgrim festival after Jesus’ death and resurrection, namely the feast of Pentecost, traditionally the festival of the gathering in of the harvest, associated also with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. Jerusalem had been crowded again. The scene was set for a mass gathering of people curious about the continuing Jesus movement. Something of major importance happened in the Christian community and Luke’s generation looked to it as the fulfilment of the promise.

Luke’s tradition probably told of an overwhelming awareness in the group of the presence of the Spirit coming upon them in a way that led to ecstatic and joyous praise, including glossalalia, speaking in tongues. Luke takes this tradition and with the skill of an artist reshapes it so that its abiding significance is there for all to see. The crowd has come together from all the nations around about. All hear the gospel in their own language. Here the curse of the tower of Babel is overcome. There human pride and ambition built a tower, only to see it collapse and people come to be scattered and no longer able to understand one another’s language. Here the barriers of language are broken down, communication is restored. The Spirit creates the miracles of unity.

This may have been in Luke’s mind as he wrote. We shall never know. He leaves no particular clues in this direction. We are on surer ground however when we look at other symbols of the story. Jewish tradition had it that at the giving of the Law on Sinai a great flame came from heaven and divided into 70 parts, one for each nation of the world and all heard and understood the Law in their own language. Luke uses the imagery of this event to give profound symbolic colouring to the event. Here is the Christian feast of Pentecost. Here the tongues of flame alight on the 120 and the message of the Word of God is heard by Jews from every land. It is folly to read the story literally and worry about burnt hair or wonder why they didn’t simply use the language all the visitors would have understood, namely Greek. Luke is saying that the coming of the Spirit is as epoch making as the giving of the Law, the scripture on Sinai and more. Here is the Word of God for God’s people Israel in every land wherever they have been scattered and through them for all people everywhere to the uttermost parts of the world. The Spirit will make all this possible.

These symbols spoke more powerfully to Luke’s churches still grappling with their Jewish roots than they do perhaps for us. They would have recognised the imagery. They would have read of 40 days of appearances and thought of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. They would have immediately seen the symbolism in the number 12 and the number 120. Here was the new turn in Israel’s destiny. God’s people, Israel, was indeed to be Abraham’s seed in which all nations would be blessed. Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. Peter makes this plain: by raising him from the dead, “God has made him Lord and Christ or Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Praise God for his promise to restore the kingdom to Israel. Praise God that already now he has poured out this advance instalment, the Spirit. These ecstatic men and women are not drunk as you might think. They are full of the joy of the promised Spirit.

But this is much more than the celebration of the earliest Jewish Christians at the Pentecost festival. It is also the Church’s festival for Luke’s day and it is our festival. In it we celebrate the coming of the Spirit, then and now and in every age. The word Spirit has a fascinating range of meanings: breath, wind, spirit, soul. The mighty rushing wind plays on this range of meaning. At the creation the Spirit moved over the face of the waters. That may be a correct translation. An alternative is to say: there was a tremendous storm over the deep. Spirit is about power, force, energy, life giving power. Spirit may also connote breath, life giving breath. God breathed into the human being; it became a living person. In Ezekiel’s vision God’s breath blows upon the dry bones and they live.

2. Speaking of the Spirit and Idolatry

Spirit is not ghost, not a spirit, like a good demon, a good angel. Talking about Spirit is talking about God, God in power like the force of a wind, God in intimacy like breath. Sometimes the power of divine presence overwhelms us; we may shudder and shake quite literally; we may shout and cry aloud; we may sing for joy; we may extol God in tongues of praise; sometimes the power of divine presence brings to us a stillness, silences us, takes from us all forms of speech. It doesn’t matter when or how we respond to the Spirit. It matters that we respond to the Spirit. As the Spirit of creation produced a bewilderingly diverse creation, so the Spirit who comes to us produces a rich diversity of responses in human beings. The Spirit by which God drove Jesus into the wilderness and then back into the poverty of Galilee, the Spirit that came upon Jesus enabling him to announce the vision of the kingdom and to live out its agenda during his ministry; this same Spirit takes us to the place of testing and directs us to the world’s Galilee; this same Spirit lifts our eyes to the vision and our hearts and hands to its agenda of love in the world. The fruit of this same Spirit in Jesus and in the Church is love, is the living out of the agenda of the kingdom.

Not the how nor the when matters. The Spirit strikes us in many ways; and the time of the Spirit is always. It is the what that matters: namely, that we live in openness to the vision of the kingdom and to the power and intimacy of the Spirit of the kingdom manifesting itself in love. Ultimately to talk of the Spirit is to speak of God and to speak of being filled with the Spirit is to talk of being filled with God. Or to put it in other words, to let God rule fully now in our lives, to let the kingdom of God be what it needs to be now in us and among us.

Paul said: “Where the Spirit is, there is freedom.” Yet Paul also knew that where the Spirit is, the flesh, the craving for human power and glory, the Babel tower building, will reassert itself. There are a number of ways in which this may happen and they were issues for the early Church as they are for the Church today. Many of them will be familiar, but let us name them and by the power of the gospel of Jesus exorcise them. They are all forms of idolatry and cover the spectrum of theological persuasion.

The first is to glory in the events or experiences related to the Spirit and not in the Spirit, in God. I say "events and experiences related to the Spirit", because this brings together both the genuine events and experiences which people have as a result of the impact of the Spirit on their lives and the phoney trumped up events and experiences sometimes associated with the Spirit. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the Church: “Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and perform many miracles in your name? And then I will confess to them, I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of lawlessness.” And Jesus’ teaching ministry concludes, according to Matthew, with the warning that only those whose lives are marked by caring for the needy as if they were caring for him shall be saved. Paul has similar stern warnings for the Christians at Corinth for whom the gifts of the Spirit have become the centre, who count them and crave them and glory in them, and do not have love. They’ve got religion and they’ve got nothing.

Paul is not attacking miracles or tongues or powerful manifestations in themselves. But these manifestations, responses to the Spirit, can just as easily become sins. Yes, he says, you can sin by speaking in tongues. Using an old law of ecstasy he says: the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. In other words, you are in charge of your own religious experiences and abilities. Use them to God’s glory, not for your own, nor in ways that are destructive of the community. I can no more justify my action by appealing to the Spirit having moved me than could Jim Jones in Guiana. I am responsible for my response to the Spirit.

It would be easy to launch a tirade here against massive abuses of Christianity by media preachers, but that would not help us here. The form in which we face the issue is when people have been told, and believe and peddle the notion that the Spirit comes in certain packaging. Usually this is associated with a certain range of feelings one should have, an ability to point to enough extraordinary things having happened to you to assure yourself and others that you’re God’s. Mostly Jesus, especially Jesus in Gethsemane, fails these criteria miserably. A broken figure on the cross comes pretty well down in the super radiant Christian stakes.

This packaging of the Spirit not only prescribes very subtly how the human side should look, but also develops theories about how the Spirit is marketed. The Spirit is made to seem like a substance, which God dishes out piece by piece, a little bit at baptism or conversion, a maxi second helping at some later stage, and then, according to your theory larger doses or special doses on special occasions. But God does not come to us in bits and pieces. The message of the gospel is that God is fully there with all God’s love. God is not a commodity. God is there in fullness. It is we who come to God in bits and pieces; it is we who hold back. God does not hold back. Sometimes when we stop holding back we are overwhelmed. Words fail us. We want to dance, shout, sing for joy in the Spirit. The gospel is not about Jesus giving the first course and the Spirit the second. Jesus is the bread of life. And the Spirit the Paraclete takes what is already his and declares it to us. Luke describes the impact of the Spirit upon people in a variety of ways. Sometimes the impact hits them after they believe, sometimes as they believe, sometimes before baptism, sometimes after baptism. Luke wasn’t interested in protocol. All that mattered was the break through of the Spirit into people’s lives.

When we stop putting God at the centre and start putting our experiences there, we are putting ourselves in the place of God. When we put our experiences in the place of God, we delude ourselves about our power. We have God under our control. We manage God. We turn God on and off. We have made God in our own image; we have descended to idolatry.

But putting religious experiences at the centre is not the only way we practice the ancient art of idolatry. It is equally idolatrous to imagine that we have captured God in the structures of our institution. If the only time we talk of the Spirit is in the words of the corporate liturgy, or in the words at baptism or at ordinations, then we are in effect saying that the Spirit has become locked into the Church. That, too, is a deluded power play. For we control the institution; we control the doctrine and the practices. In the name of the kingdom we keep the Spirit captive in the manageable. The Spirit of the kingdom becomes the spirit of the church with a small “s”. “These people are not drunk as you suppose.” This is a statement based on social and cultural norms. Cultural norms are extraordinarily powerful, both as negative and as positive forces. Tolerance, acceptance, let alone enjoyment, of culturally different forms of worship from our own is difficult at the best of times. But the Church is beset with cultural monopolies especially in the realm of spirituality and worship. I speak here as a white middle class Australian male with a university education and an aesthetic preference for c1 European music and art. What a qualification! It’s not difficult to appreciate the worship of a completely different and distant culture from my own. If the contrast is sufficiently great I shall have few difficulties. We have majored in the Uniting Church on multiculturalism and intercultural sensitivity.

But I wonder how far we have considered the significance of subcultures within, for instance, white Australian society. I fear that mono-culturalism is rampant here. I see it in two directions. One is the tendency towards mono-culturalism in our worship, in our liturgies, in their language, their style, even the fact that they are printed or how they are. I am really looking forward to the availability of Uniting in Worship and to the second phase of the Commission’s work on contemporary worship. but what I am addressing is wider than this.

There is a complex network of cultural norms operating in the world where I feel most at home. Attitudes towards emotional display or self disclosure; group behaviour: style of conversation; musical and artistic taste; the roles of men and women. I find it almost impossible to transcend this my cultural norm and almost inevitable that I become subtly imperialistic about it. Do I not shape ordinands in this particular direction? Yet I can also recognise, sometimes to my horror, how very relative my culture is, how very sick it is at some points and strong at others. We may not face the problem as directly as my Anglican friends who are at least aware of the struggle against being the outposts of English better society; but I wonder if we ever face it at all. What an odd thing it is that churches have organs, for instance. I love them. But what is this cultural option doing? Is it any wonder that the other subcultures scream out against the imperialism of our spirituality, my spirituality? Is it any wonder that the Uniting Church in many regions is the Church which serves those who are not quite Anglican and just a bit more than Baptist and Pentecostal? We need to look over our subcultural fences and hear a voice from on high tell us: these people might not be drunk as you suppose.

I do think the charismatic or so called renewal movement also deserves mention here. It is surely in part the fruit of protest against the staid mono-culturalism of mainline protestantism. But so also are a range of other largely American inspired adventures in greater freedom of group relationship and self disclosure. The problem is that such groups can be just as mono-cultural and imperialistic. The charismatic renewal has all the hallmarks of being a legitimate cultural phenomenon responding to a strongly felt need. There is a common way of speaking, behaving in public; a similar pattern in leadership and organisation; preferred patterns of spirituality and music. When it becomes imperialistic, at its worst, it wants everyone else to join it and be enculturated into the same corporate and individual spirituality. It has in reality no monopoly on spiritual growth and maturity; nor has any other of our spiritual subcultures, including mine. All of them can be imperialistic and go off the rails. All of them can coexist in the rich diversity of the kingdom. Spiritual mono-culturalism is another idolatry and tackling it in the Church, just in our own Church, is an enormous challenge and task. It is not that I can ever really transcend my own cultural identity; but I can stop kidding myself I’m somehow the norm and I can stop declaring others drunk.

The Church of the Kingdom has to be the Church of the Spirit. A lively and diverse spirituality is its life blood. This doesn’t mean anything goes. Corporate worship is the occasion where people are led to focus on God, to respond to God in openness, in confession, in pain, in hope, and to hear God through the witness of scripture and tradition, to receive God’s blessing in fellowship and communion, and to be sent by God out into the world in love with the agenda of the kingdom and the power of the Spirit. This is a recognisable pattern. Where it happens, there is worship; where it does not happen, something else is taking place but it is not worship.

In the Pentecost story Luke underlines for us what it means to be the Church. We are the people called to live with the vision of the kingdom of God as our agenda. But this is only possible as we are open to the breath of the Spirit. Cultivating that openness is not searching for experiences: it is not confining Spirit talk to the formal phraseology of the institution and assuming control; it is not cultural monopoly and the imperialism of our aesthetics. It is openness to the many languages of love. It is letting this love burn on our heads and in our hearts. It is making our way to the temple courtyard and being one with an odd assortment of pilgrims who we know are also praising God in their own language. It is surrendering control and power to love. Ultimately it is to face the Spirit and pray: your kingdom come.

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