Thinking About Pentecost

We have tendencies to compartmentalize, tendencies to keep things in places where they are easy to control or keep track of. We do this with the things of heaven and the things of earth. We are practiced at keeping heavenly things out of the details of earth.

Acts chapter two disagrees with this theory as heaven spills out over the earth. It comes down like fire.  Fire is dangerous, still we are willing to use it. We are quite ok with fire as long as we can use it to our advantage. It’s not much different talking about God. God is dangerous, still we are willing to use God. We are quite ok with God as long as we can use Him to our advantage. 

If we are able to keep fire where it belongs, like in a fireplace, we can safely deal with it. If we can keep God inside some religious theory, we can convince ourselves He is safe to deal with. But on Pentecost Sunday, the fire got loose and did not stay where it could be controlled. It’s as if the fire left the fireplace and starts to light up the rest of the house. 

We keep trying to turn God into something safe to work with. Maybe that’s why we don’t talk much about Pentecost. We keep trying to put the fire back into the fireplace. We keep trying to put God someplace we can control Him. We keep trying to act as if heaven didn’t spill out on the earth. 

We sometimes try to tell ourselves that Pentecost is a wake-up call, a mini-revival where sluggish believers become full of the Spirit. The thing is, that doesn’t really fit the story the New Testament seems to be telling. In that story, Pentecost is more like the evidence that the kingdom of God is in play and it is in play “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Gospel According to an Adventure Junkie

Late in the New Testament book of Acts we find ourselves in a shipwreck, another potential barrier to stop the spread of the gospel. Shipwreck looks to be a real barrier. For nearly an entire chapter we are on our way down. The storm is severe. The temperatures are cold. Acts says they were literally trying to hold the boat together by tying ropes around it. They toss nearly everything overboard. They lose the lifeboat. Eventually the boat is destroyed by the pounding surf. Threats are made to kill some of the passengers. They are forced to either swim or float to shore.

Luke, the author of this account wants us to know that shipwreck presents a real chance of not surviving. He wants us to be aware of the stormy conditions and cold winter water. He wants us to think about the dangers of hypothermia and drowning. Luke is an adventure junkie. And he also wants us to know that surviving shipwreck does not remove them from danger.

The crew, all of them, survives only to find themselves on unknown shores. What dangers might lurk here? In Odyssey, Homer asks the question in a similar situation, “Alas, to the land of what mortals have I now come? Are they insolent, wild and unjust? Or are they hospitable to strangers and fear the gods in their thoughts?” (Does anyone else think Luke carried a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in his travel bag)?

Shore is a very real danger. When we meet the residents there, they are called “islanders” or “natives” or “barbarous people.” How will these barbarians treat the ship wrecked strangers? Has the gospel survived shipwreck only to be stopped by barbarians on shore? We know that Paul survived shipwreck only to be bitten by a poisonous viper. But Luke wants us to know he simply shook it off into the fire.

Luke wants us to know the barbarians not only spared them but provided a fire to warm them. They then offered generous hospitality and when they were ready to sail again, they furnished the shipwrecked strangers with all the supplies they needed. The kindness of the barbarian islanders is the highest kind. Shipwrecked strangers have no way to repay.

Luke wants us to know this is an adventure. But this is no mere exploratory voyage. What looked to be business of the state was instead the possibility of God. Even shipwreck, snakebite, and unknown strangers that at first look like barriers become opportunities for the gospel to spread. There is no doubt that when Luke thought gospel he thought about adventure.

First Century Business

Lydia. From the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, and a worshiper of God. We meet her in the New Testament book of Acts. We meet her in Philippi, but from the brief introduction, we know she is not a native of that city. We also know she is sympathetic to Jewish religion. In fact, we find her first on the Sabbath where the Jews were going to pray.

Acts tells us about a little about pagans who practiced a Jewish like lifestyle. Though they were not proper converts, they were “worshipers of God.” They cleansed their houses of pagan idolatry and ate kosher. They prayed to God, gave alms, donated to Jewish communities, and on the Sabbath, like Lydia, they could be found at a place of prayer. This lifestyle allowed them to socialize and perhaps do business with fully practicing Jews.

Douglas A. Campbell tells us that a “seller of purple fabrics” implies Lydia was in the toga business. So, here is a toga lesson. Togas were code and everyone understood what your toga said about you. We already know the way this works. We ourselves wear clothes that say something about us. We see others walking around in certain clothes and we begin to make certain inferences about them. This is not a twenty first century phenomenon. It has been this way for a long time, at least since first century people wore their togas around in Roman cities like Philippi.

Purple was the color of choice. The emperor’s toga may have been totally purple. To have purple in your toga meant something respectable. However, purple was expensive. True purple was made by crushing purpura rock snails. Campbell estimates 12,000 snails would produce about 1.4 grams of dye. This is enough purple to perhaps stain the hem of one Roman toga. It would have been less expensive to sprinkle your toga with gold dust. So, even a toga with purple stripes would suggest some wealth.

What if the poor had a flair for fashion? What could they do? They certainly could not afford snail purple. But they could purchase a cheaper substitute. In the regions of Phrygia and Lydia, a plant could be found that produced a lesser purple. Though not the quality of snail purple, it was much more affordable. This was likely the business Lydia was involved in. Campbell tells us her name actually suggests she was once a slave named by her owners after her place of origin, the Lydian region.

We do not want to overlook Lydia. She becomes instrumental in the beginnings of the church in Philippi. Once a slave girl, now free, she relocated to Philippi and continued the business of selling purple fabrics. Interested in religion, she hears the gospel and receives its message. The text says she and her household were baptized. And then Lydia, first convert in Europe, offered her home as a place for the church to gather.

Praying for a Reckless Spirit

I have often heard well-meaning persons say something like this, “Holy Spirit, you are welcome here. This is a safe place for you.” I think I know what the speaker intends when using such language. I think that the one saying these words actually desires the presence of the Spirit. Still, these words sound strange to me.

Anyone who has read the New Testament, the source where we learn most about the Spirit, may wonder where anyone gets the idea that the Spirit is waiting for us to extend an invitation. However, we do find that Jesus tells his followers to wait on the Spirit. And there is no suggestion that the Spirit requests a safe place, though we might find that the Spirit can be somewhat dangerous. (Check with Ananias and Saphira about this). As Jesus told Nicodemus, you “do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” Predictability is not something we find with the Holy Spirit.

While we cannot define the Spirit in ways that sound like we have figured out all the Spirit is up to and where the Spirit will show up next, we can read the book of Acts and observe the Spirit showing up unexpectedly and recklessly and on its own terms. We will not be able to make the Spirit into something it is not, but when praying for the Spirit we can agree with the wise words of Todd Hunter who said “Whatever God meant by sending the Spirit – give us that.”

Reading the Opportunities in Acts

“I cannot read Acts without getting the impression that conflict, persecution, and catastrophe are opportunities. This is counter intuitive. We would like to believe that peace, comfort, and worry free moments are the times when we can best organize effectively and therefore prosper. Acts may suggest that times of comfort and prosperity bring with them a lack of urgency and intensity and priority. Without apology, Acts continues to present challenging situations. Without exception, Acts reports that the good news continued to spread. Acts leaves us with the impression that our writings, stories, and growth are strengthened during less fortunate situations.”

from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 103

Hospitality as a Context for Good News

I am convinced that Luke is eyewitness to some of the events he reports in Acts.  Having said that, he seems to disappear in the middle of chapter twenty-one and is gone until chapter twenty-seven.  While we cannot know exactly what is going on for Luke during that time, I think he was exploring the neighboring communities for people who could share some stories about the Jesus movement and the spread of the news about Jesus.

On account of where he is when we lose him, it is possible that he could have made personal contact with James (the brother of Jesus), Mary (the mother of John Mark), Mary Magdalene, Joanna (whose husband was the manager of Herod’s household and who could have shared stories about the Herods), and maybe even Mary the mother of Jesus.  Even if Luke was not able to talk directly with these people he may have talked to others who knew their stories.

I have to think that this is quite possible since just prior to his disappearance Luke tells us about people he is meeting and places he is staying.  He meets disciples in Tyre and in Ptolemais.  He stays in Caesarea with Philip and his four daughters (what a convenient place to hear stories about what later becomes chapter eight).  On his way to Jerusalem he stays with Mnason.  And he arrives in Jerusalem to be greeted by James and all the elders.

It is likely that he asked for and received directions in some instances.  It would have been rather easy to find Judas, Straight Street, Damascus and Simon the tanner, House by the Sea, Joppa.  These addresses are clear enough that a mail carrier could have delivered mail there. While we do not get such explicit addresses for Jerusalem and Caesarea, it does not mean that Luke did not ask for and receive this kind of information.

What are we to make of this?  Does hospitality play a larger role in the spread of the good news than we might first imagine?  It is possible that lodging and meals and hosting are extremely important contexts for meeting, eating, praying, and storytelling.  Is this one way that early traditions were passed on and where various events are collected and retold?  Did Luke find these people and places and interview them for his Gospel and for the Acts?  I can’t help but think that Luke wants us to know that these people and their hospitality played a significant role in spreading the good news.

Acts: a Lively Adventure

The conclusion to Acts includes a lively voyage to Rome.  It is interesting that this prompts discussion on whether Luke was influenced by Homer’s Odyssey.  I find this discussion fascinating and am not surprised that Luke may have enjoyed stories of the adventure genre.  If Luke loved reading adventures like these, how excited would he have been to participate in such a story?  This seems to be the case as here we find him writing about this voyage as the “first person peripheral narrator.”

In the Gospel and early in Acts, Luke the historian tells us that he relied on investigation and eyewitnesses.  But later in Acts, most fully in chapters 27-28, he implies that he is a participant in the spread of the good news.  Many episodes in Acts may be summaries of information received from others, but here with Luke on deck we get details that he may have witnessed with his own eyes.

Perhaps his own experience told him that an audience would enjoy such a story.  I think Ben Witherington is right when he suggests that we should not ignore Luke’s desire that the reader gain information but also experience enjoyment while hearing this story.  Perhaps this section of Acts is intended “to keep his listener on the edge of his seat.”  Again, with Witherington, I admire Luke’s ability to integrate an interesting voyage into his story while staying on course with his purpose of “chronicling the spread of the unstoppable good news.”

It is important to remember that the same Spirit that saturated us early in Acts may be less visible on this voyage, but is no less present.  The Spirit evident by wind and fire is present during shipwreck and snakebite.  The same Spirit who added three thousand to their number in chapter two is there in chapter twenty-eight when some were persuaded but others would not believe.  The same story that overcame a language barrier during a Galilean sermon is still being told openly and unhindered by a prisoner of the empire while under house arrest.

A Persistent God

It is interesting that we do not respond to the Spirit’s arrival the same as we do to the arrival of the Son.  Or, to His return from the dead.  In comparison, it appears that we downplay it, as if it were not as miraculous or as important.  Luke on the other hand, gives a chapter to how the birth went down, another to how the resurrection went down, and yet another to the arrival of the Spirit and how it went down.  Yet, our response to Christmas and Easter is vastly different from our response to Pentecost.

This is interesting because as Christmas (God arrived on earth as a baby) and Easter (crucified Jesus raised from the dead), Pentecost has an interesting plot.  Perhaps we can summarize the interaction like this; Jesus says He must go to the Father.  Followers express that they do not wish to be left alone.  Jesus promises that they will not be alone.  Followers ask what they should do, where should they go?  Jesus says to stay in Jerusalem and wait.  Followers wonder what they are waiting on and why.  Jesus replies “you’ll know.”

Luke the historian leaves no doubt.  “Suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind… and there appeared to them tongues of fire… and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues… and when this sound occurred, the crowd came together and were bewildered.”

I can’t help but notice a distinct pattern in the relationship between Creator and creation.  The Creator keeps showing up, again and again, unwilling to let creation go.  So we celebrate His arrival as a Middle Eastern baby.  We celebrate His return from the dead. We celebrate His arrival as Spirit.  This Creator seems willing to show up anywhere at any time.  This is a persistent God.  It is clear that He is unwilling to give up on us.

A Good Time for a Story

It snowed the day after Christmas.  The day also known as Boxing Day, or the Feast of St. Stephen.  I was reminded of a song that we used to sing in elementary school about a good king Wenceslaus.  The story goes that the good king (actually Duke Wenceslaus) looked out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about when a poor man came in sight.  The song tells the story of how Wenceslaus proceeded to care for the poor man.  I have always enjoyed a good story.  Always wondered why I never heard anything else of this Wenceslaus.  And it always interested me that Stephen was connected to Christmas.

Stephen was selected to serve.  As one to care for the poor widows of Acts chapter six.  Stephen is selected on account of his “good reputation, Spirit filled life, and wisdom.”  He is a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”  Stephen is described as being “full of grace and power” and was “performing great wonders and signs among the people.”  His wisdom and angelic face were signs that the favor of God rested on Him.  No wonder he was chosen by the people.  Yet, we do not remember him for any of these reasons so much as that he was selected by God to be the first martyr.

Execution may seem like an awkward time to be telling a story.  Yet Stephen tells a story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to David to Jesus.  Episodes like this remind us of the value in telling our story.  Awkward though it may be, Stephen starts in.  He tells a story about God and the way that God works among His people.  He tells our story.  There are so many things we could be doing that make more sense.  Do we really have time for storytelling? Stephen seems to think so.  And we know that at least one guy standing close by that day, approving of what was going on, would never forget the story that Stephen told.

Guys like Stephen make us nervous.  Guys like Stephen never live up to the potential we think they may have.  They do not attain their goals, do not cash in on their retirement, do not finish their dream house.  Guys like Stephen remind us that not all of us will not live long lives of health, wealth, and prosperity.  We hope our children seek someone else to pattern after.  But guys like Stephen remind us that it is always a good time to be telling our story.

The historical Wenceslaus also has an interesting story.  He became Christian on account of stories told him by his grandmother.  He was selected to be ruler on account of his virtue.  And he was murdered by his brother and an anti-Christian faction on his way to a religious festival.   Perhaps we should not be shocked that he was connected to Stephen by the song writer.

Stephen died in Acts chapter seven after telling his story.  As in the death of Jesus, false witnesses were produced against Stephen.  As with Jesus, he was charged with blasphemy.  As Jesus, Stephen offers a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners.  He prays that his spirit will be received.  Whether consciously or not, Stephen was a reflection of his master – Jesus.

Perhaps we should not be shocked that Stephen is connected to Christmas. After all, after celebrating the mystery of God becoming flesh, serving the people, and giving His life, it makes sense to remember one who became a witness to this mystery, served others, and reflected Jesus in his life and in his death.  And perhaps it is a good time to tell this story.

Acts: Introduction to a Journey

As John R. W. Stott spells out in Between Two Worlds, every year reminds us again of how God revealed himself as creator and Father, as Son of God made flesh, and in the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  We live in this Trinitarian structure.  It takes an entire year to begin to recognize a picture of who God really is (and then we must start over again because we can not grasp it all).  Pentecost is the time of year that calls our attention to the Spirit.

To assure that we are never alone, we have a constant companion in the Spirit.  Even when not visible to the eye, audible to the ear, or tangible to the touch, the Spirit is still evident to the heart.  That is why Gordon Fee describes the Spirit as an “experienced reality.”  I am reminded of Thomas Oden’s comment that the Spirit is “God’s own personal meeting with persons living in history.”

Pentecost is a reminder that God keeps his promises.  This is a natural season to remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  It is also a good time to be reminded of ethical, social, and missionary responsibilities.  To emphasize those things which remind us that life in the Spirit is a huge part of our ongoing adventure.  Before Pentecost, we wait.  Waiting may not be what one expects during a journey, yet here it is.  Following Pentecost, when the waiting is over and the promise is fulfilled, an adventure begins.  We might find it a good time to read the book of Acts.  And we can not help but notice that when the book of Acts is over, the adventure does not end.

Acts is a narrative of movement.  From one city to another, the Gospel moves forward.  Sometimes Paul is led to stay in a particular place for a while, other times he exits quickly.  At times he has companions.  Other times, he does not.  He may be found working or preaching.  Some places he visits as part of a planned itinerary, other places he is taken to forcefully.

No matter where the Gospel is taken, the Lord is the same.  Preaching in Europe or Asia, to Jews or Gentiles.  The Lord is the same whether his people be gathered for worship, placed in prison, or strolling through the marketplace.  People never become the focus of the story.  The Lord is the one in control.  It is his presence that enables the church to overcome the practical difficulties of this journey.  The Spirit works alongside us, witnessing on behalf of Jesus.  He lives with us as well as in us.  As D. A. Carson states,
“the Holy Spirit comes to us not just in our best moments, nor exclusively in times of crushing need, but always and forever.”

Acts reminds us that the journey may include arrests, trials, imprisonment, near assassination, shipwreck or snakebite.  These are not new strategies to oppose the Gospel.  The journey has always been filled with opposition.  Pharaoh tried to drown the baby Moses.  Herod the Great tried to destroy the infant Jesus. The Sanhedrin tried to stifle the witness of the apostles.  Not one of these plots were successful in stopping God’s plan.

In Acts, we get the impression that nothing will stop the forward movement of the Gospel.  The Spirit that descended at Pentecost gave the young church its tongue to tell what God is doing “with all boldness and without hindrance!”  The reader of Acts witnesses the beginnings of the journey that Pentecost has set in motion.

We live in the continuation of Acts.  Acts closes in open-ended fashion, with the door still open for work and witness rather than closed by death, because the Spirit is still active.  Acts is not history.  It is introduction.  An introduction to a story that continues in people like us.