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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice


Pentecost

Acts 2.1-21
: Building a new world in the shell of the old

Note:
For this last week of the Easter-Pentecost season,
the Reflections will cover the Sunday reading from Acts
(See Introductory Notes)
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Have you ever experienced, or heard about, someone or some group who seem to have found a new sense of direction and a new source of energy and determination? What happened? How did others react to the change?

Reflection on the text

The Church has been described as ‘God’s counter-cultural insurgency that actually thinks the world can be put back together’ again. And it all began at Pentecost.

One powerful counter-cultural feature of the church after Pentecost was its inclusiveness: the community transcended all racial, ethnic, regional and social barriers (v5), and so undermined the imperial ‘order’. Luke’s list of the ‘nations’ present on that day covered the whole area of the Roman Empire (v 9-11). God was gathering an alternative ‘household’ to that under the lordship of Caesar. This ‘international’ household, held together by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, claimed Jesus Christ and no other as their Lord. They embraced everyone. No one was beyond concern. Language was no barrier (v11). Here we have a profound reversal of the human scattering and division at the tower of Babel (see Genesis 11).

When the day of the Feast of Pentecost came, the disciples were gathered in one place (v 1), possibly in the temple courts where they went regularly to pray and to meet with others. The extraordinary incident described is not accidental. It is to enable the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, to become witnesses to Jesus both in Israel and to the wider world.

No wonder the experience is described as bewildering! Each person is hearing of the wonders of God in their own language: not in Hebrew or Aramaic, but their own mother tongue. ‘What does this mean?’ (v12) is a question that would continue to be asked as the New Community, the followers of the Way, continue to share and live the Good News of God’s saving action in Christ.

Peter’s sermon illustrates a new found power and confidence that has come through the gift of the Holy Spirit. He dismisses the idea of drunkenness, and refers to the prophecy of Joel (2 v 28-32) which foretells of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all people. Men and women, from every kind of background, were being called to prophesy and witness to the risen Saviour.
Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. Is it possible for a person to be a Christian on their own and not be part of a Christian community? How might this passage of scripture help?

  2. Where do you see people in the community working to overcome racial, religious, language and other barriers and seeking mutual understanding? In light of the increase in racial tensions in some communities in Britain through immigration and asylum, and recent references to the ‘rivers of blood’ speech of Enoch Powell some 40 years ago, what might you do as a faith community to increase understanding between different groups in your community or town? How might you offer hospitality and friendship to those who feel alienated because of religious, racial, ethnicity or language differences?

  3. Peter found courage in preaching the good news he had never known before and with the others would discover a unity that only weeks before would have seemed like a dream. How might our community of faith go about increasing the confidence of its members in the gospel?

  4. In what ways does or should your faith community ‘break with social convention’ in its lifestyle (in relation to the global industrial growth economy) because of your understanding of the gospel?
Praying Together

Remember in prayer those faithful Christians who meet together, sometimes in secret for fellowship and mutual support and to seek God’s purpose for their lives.

Remember in prayer those (individuals or communities) who have discovered a renewal and re-affirmation in their lives and are exploring how they might live a deeper life of service.

Remember in prayer all those called to be leaders of worship and preachers that they might continue to find fulfilment and a deepening awareness of God’s call and the need to be strengthened and enabled through God’s Spirit.
Taking it Further
  1. Consider what you would describe as ‘the great things God has done’ in your experience. Make a list (5 minutes) and then share them with someone else (5 minutes). Try and identify some action you might take in response to that sense of thankfulness.

  2. Given that Christ’s Church post-Pentecost transcends boundaries of race and nationality and that we have sisters and brothers scattered among all races and nations, what are the limits of our allegiance to the nation state in which we live?

  3. If you want to explore the counter-cultural and counter-imperial theme further, see: http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/2008/01/31/severing-the-rhetorical-roots-of-the-empire/
More background information
  1. This reading can be broken into three stages.
    • the coming of the Holy Spirit ‘to’, ‘upon’ and ‘within’ the community of the disciples
    • the people from many nations who witnessed the outcome of this extraordinary event, and
    • Peter’s confident evangelistic message (which actually continues through to verse 36).

    Time and again in Acts, the question asked of the Christian community was: “What is it that motivates your extraordinary behaviour?” The answer to that question was simple: the reign of God has broken into world history. When the church is true to being the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a new reality is revealed, the life of God’s new world order of justice, love and peace.

  2. Luke has sometimes been accused of ignoring many of the tensions and difficulties experienced in the early church which Paul in his letters highlights, however this was probably because Luke wanted to model what the community’s life should be like when living truly as God intends.
  3. The miracle of tongues was necessary because there were ‘present in Jerusalem Jews from every nation under heaven’ (v5). It highlights the universal implications of the experience of empowerment and the Spirit’s work in widening the horizons of mission.

An Introduction to Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is the seamless sequel to Luke’s Gospel. It is thought they were written some 5 decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus,
around 85 AD.

The ‘book’ records the beginnings and spread of the Christian household community movement across the Roman Empire. We are shown how a religious movement which was deeply rooted in Jewish culture managed to ‘leap’ barriers and take root and flourish in a diversity of Gentile cultural contexts.

The author of Luke and Acts, who remains anonymous, provides a new portrait of Jesus the Christ for Gentiles living in a very different world from that of rural Palestine. Indeed, he opens a window into urban Greco-Roman society providing insights into the political and social circumstances of his day.

Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, says that Acts was written to help Christians survive the death of the apostles. The author uses two devices: continuity with the past from Israel to Jesus to Peter to Paul and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit who empowers for God’s mission.

Biblical scholar Michael Trainer gives a very handy summary of the two scrolls in his book Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (p.26 see details below):

Gospel of Luke   Book of Acts  
1:1 - 4 Prologue 1:1 - 5 Prologue
1:5 – 3:38 Birth Story of Jesus 1:6 – 26 Birth Story of the Church
4:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission 2:1 – 13 Preparation by the Spirit for Mission
4:14 – 9:50 Ministry in Galilee 2:14 – 12:25 Ministry in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria
9:51 – 19:27 Jesus' journey to Jerusalem 13:21 – 28:16 Paul's journey to Rome
19:28 – 24:53 Ministry in Jerusalem 28:17 – 31 Ministry in Rome

Trainer goes on to say:

‘According to Luke, the story of Jesus is incomplete without the story of the early Christian communities and, by inference, the story of the audience addressed by these stories. Jesus’ ministry is a model for the ministry of the Christian community; the story of the Christian community is grounded in and parallels the story of Jesus.’

Luke tackles a number of issues:

    1. How to remain faithful to the vision and spirit of Jesus in very different cultural and social circumstances.
    2. The reliability and historicity of the evidence available to Luke (documented eyewitness accounts and verbatim citation).
    3. How Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ live together in harmony and mutual respect.
    4. The implications of Jew and Gentile eating at table together.

Trainer says, the author of Luke/Acts

‘addresses a vibrant, active, missionary-conscious Christian community seeking to deal with problems on two fronts: internally, with issues of multiculturalism, wealth, table communion, ministerial effectiveness and diversity; and externally, with relationships and the wider Greco-Roman society.

Faced with these issues Luke was left with one or two options: to encourage readers to retreat into their own sectarian vacuum cut off from the reality of life around them, or encourage them to engage the questions and issues of their world. Luke chose the second option.

The Gospel and Acts… reflect that choice. Simply put, in both volumes Luke encourages readers to remain in dialogue with their world while bringing the tradition that they have received about Jesus to bear on it.’ ( page 27)

We face the same challenge to adapt and apply the Jesus story in our own context as we wrestle with the major challenges of our time – global warming, climate change, destruction of the habitat and survival of species; the global and local rich-poor divide; living simply in a consumer society; addressing issues of peace and justice in a world of violence and oppression.

We recommend that you take time to read the whole of Acts in one sitting prior to engagement in the study series.

We are grateful to Michael Trainor for kindly allowing us to use material from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 1995, St Paul’s, Homebush NSW, pages 26 and 27. For more on Michael Trainor’s work see: http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/theology/staff/trainor_mf.php

See also:

Raymond E Brown’s classic work,1984, The Church the Apostles Left behind, Paulist Press, New York, chapter 4.

Acts - The Gospel of the Spirit by Justo L. Gonzales, Orbis Books, 2001

Acts - The peoples Bible Commentary by Loveday Alexander, Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006

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