The first three chapters of Acts makes me laugh. Not in a “oh, this is so funny!” way, but in a “there’s so much going on, and things keep happening!” way. In just three chapters, there’s Jesus promising the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ ascension to heaven, Matthias replacing Judas as one of the apostles, Pentecost—when the apostles receive the Holy Spirit, Peter’s explanation to the crowd, the baptism of 3,000 converts, a description of the believers’ community, Peter healing a beggar, and Peter’s explanation of the healing. Whew! And things just pick up from there.
Luke, the writer of the Gospel of the same name, is also the author of Acts– and there is not much time for breathing from the end of the Gospel of Luke to the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s like Luke was on a role with inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and he just HAD to keep writing.
The first few chapters of Acts certainly support this renaming. The book starts with Jesus telling the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father has promised: the Holy Spirit (1:4-5). After Jesus’ ascension and even before Pentecost, God guides the choosing of Matthias (1:24-26). Right away, we see the apostle’s insistence that prayer and God’s actions be the basis for all they do.
And then Pentecost happens. The passage that’s read on every Pentecost Sunday, that we’ll read on May 27th this year. The disciples are gathered together. Suddenly, there’s a rush of violent wind. Tongues of fire appear over the disciples’ heads. They are filled with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit gives them the ability to speak in different languages. And some of the Jews that are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost crowd around, amazed that these disciples from Galilee are speaking in the different dialects and languages that the other Jews speak. And not just speaking, but telling about God and God’s powerful actions. Some of the crowd wonder what it all means, while others dismiss it all saying that the disciples are drunk. (2:1-13)
But Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, explains what has happened, using words from the Prophets—God has promised to pour out the Holy Spirit on all people, and that has happened. And Jesus, who was crucified and rose from the dead, is the Messiah, the one everyone has been waiting for. After Peter speaks, about 3,000 hearers are “cut to the heart” and become baptized, and then live in a community together in harmony. (2:14-47)
So, what does chapter 2 of Acts mean for us today?
One thing is that this Pentecost moment is the birthday of the church. It was this filling time, when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, that started their ministries. Empowered by the Spirit, they were able to tell the Good News to others (like Peter did right away), helping people to know Jesus and to be baptized and to start their own ministries. They healed those who were sick, cast out demons, and were given the words to speak in difficult circumstances. Without Pentecost, there would be no church today. So, on Pentecost, feel free to announce: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH!!!
Another thing we learn from this text is that when the Spirit comes with power, it can be flashy, quiet, and everything in between. The Pentecost experience, with the wind and the tongues of flame and the speaking in different languages, is conspicuous and hugely life-changing, for the disciples and those crowded around them. But the Spirit also inspired Peter to speak, and the Spirit was present in a real way when those converts were baptized. That was just as powerful and life-changing. And the Spirit sustained those believers when they live in community, praying together, eating together, and sharing all they had. Also powerful and life-changing. In just 47 verses we see the many different ways the Holy Spirit is active and present in the believers’ lives.
During my time in ministry, I’ve had the privilege to help run the Alpha Course. It’s a non-denominational “Introduction to Christianity” class, geared toward those who are curious about the Christian faith. Secondarily, it is also used for Christians who would like a refresher course. It runs for ten weeks, and includes a meal, a brief time of worship, a video, and small group discussion. A little more than halfway through the course, participants are invited and encouraged to attend a retreat weekend, in which they learn about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. During the retreat, we have some prayer time during which we pray together and we offer individual prayer as well.
What I love about the Alpha Retreat is that space is given for the participants to experience the presence of God, what I like to call “Holy Spirit Time.” Although God is always present, rarely do we take time to just be with God. During the retreat, we simply allow time to be with God and pray. And because we allow this time and space, the Spirit does not disappoint. It has been a highlight of my ministry to see how the Spirit moves in the participants’ lives, along with experiencing the Spirit myself while I pray with them and also receive personal prayer.
During this Holy Spirit time, sometimes there are dramatic things that happen to people (“manifestations,” they’re called), but much of the time the participants experience God’s peace and power in quiet and unassuming ways. Just as the Spirit is active and experienced in different ways in chapter 2 of Acts, the Spirit acts and is experienced in different ways during the Alpha Retreat.
This text in Acts, along with the rest of the book, reminds us that the Holy Spirit is active and present all the time in many different ways, guiding us and leading us, giving us the words to say and helping us in our ministry here on earth. And so, I leave you with one of the oldest prayers of the Church: “Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit!”