John records that Jesus talked explicitly about the coming of what he called the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would “teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” Interesting, then, how the Holy Spirit showed up, how the disciples responded, and what that means for the church in 21st Century America.
The Spirit arrived as wind. Evoking the image of the Spirit hovering over the watery chaos in creation, the Spirit hovers here over the still-inchoate reality of a new creation. It is the latest chapter in God’s relentless desire to enjoy intimacy with God’s creation and to make real the abundant life Jesus offered. As it turns out, though, what the Spirit revealed is that the abundant life Jesus had told them about was only available in joining together.
And the disciples begin speaking in languages that are brand new to them. The linguistic barrier that had separated and isolated humanity since the Tower of Babel, is obliterated in God’s desire that humanity see themselves as God sees us – connected, divinely drawn to one another by an ancient longing and a quite contemporary Spirit. But that was not the only way the disciples responded. Even at the time, the way of life of what was called The Way, defied all the social boundaries of the Roman Emperor. Slave and free ate together at common table. Single women enjoyed the same status as any other participant of the Way. Possessions were held in common. A revolution in the social order was underway.
In some ways the story of Acts is the story of the disciples’ resistance and yielding to this work of the Spirit. Willie Jennings, in his new commentary on the book of Acts notes that two things really stand out about Acts. The first is that the Spirit cares about place. The physical locations – where people go, what they do in that place, who they are with in that place – are not throw away details but integral to the meaning of the story and what God is up to. And secondly, he notes drolly, in the book of Acts no body is doing what they want to do. Think of Ananais’ reaction when God sends him to the recently blinded Saul. Nah, I’ve heard the rumors – he’s a criminal the Roman Empire still authorizes to round up believers and haul them in. Think of Peter who is appalled at the thought of the Gentiles being included in this new social order but finally goes to Cornelius’ home explaining later to his Jerusalem critics, “Who was I to hinder God?” Think of Paul’s frustrated attempts to go to Asia only to find himself in Europe instead. As much as the Spirit comforts the people of God, it discomforts them, too. It drives them to places and people where they don’t naturally want to be nor be with and offers there life in all its fullness. In some ways the church’s story today displays a similar tension between resistance and yielding to the work of the Spirit.
So what does this mean for the church in America today? One clear implication to me is that in a society where our lives are largely regulated by segregated spaces, the church needs to rejoin the Spirit’s movement in the exact opposite direction. The church needs to seek out encounters with people not like themselves. We simply cannot experience the Life Abundant Jesus longs to give us unless we do. It is for our soul’s sake. At Peachtree Christian church in Atlanta that means holding regular symposiums on race, police violence, the prison system, Atlanta housing development, etc., to which the whole city is invited (and this church’s sanctuary can seat just about the whole city). Southside Presbytery in Tucson regularly holds worship at a nearby detention facility – both inside it with the detainees and outside it as a public witness. In Warsaw, North Carolina, the Macedonian Ministry cohort of inter-racial pastors makes a point of holding their cohort gatherings in public places to the surprised (if not downright shocked) whispers of on-lookers. At The Well in Jacksonville, Florida “church” meets in public parks, or laundry mats or at local protest marches – not to talk but to listen to the inhabitants of those places. As preachers often say before the reading of scripture, may we “hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” And then get moving.