CathBlog - Good News would go nowhere without the Spirit

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BY MARK JOHNSON

For those with ‘ears to hear’, one of the most uplifting passages in the New Testament is that of the description of Pentecost in the Book of Acts. It is a familiar and much drawn upon episode of the life of the Church. 

The Apostles were gathered in a room, frightened and unsure, wary of the world outside the safe confines of a closed room, whereupon from heaven there came upon them sound like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues as like fire resting upon each of those gathered. 

The one Holy Spirit filling each; the one Spirit then manifesting through and with each in a diversity of languages enabling a great many, from a diversity of nations and cultures, to hear ‘about God’s deeds of power’. 

It was not one language spoken by a few and therefore excluding those many unable to understand, but a diversity of languages, each in their integrity and their diversity inspired by the Spirit. The lesson of Babel was not lost upon the writer of Acts as it is upon us. The Apostles spoke one language by which they understood each other, by which to tell each other the familiar remembrances of their experiences of Jesus. 

We can imagine such sharing of familiar stories and recollections being a comfort. It was all they had. In a room, closed to the outside world, they were comforted by memories. The imperative of the Good News seems to have been forgotten by them. Fear had inhibited them. 

But the Good News is not the preserve of one select group, nor one means of communicating it. The Spirit, breaking through the boundaries of human uniformity, fear and limit, enabled the Apostles to diversely proclaim to a multitude, to reach out beyond the safe confines of closed rooms to those outside, each listener hearing of God’s great deeds of power via their distinctive differences and world views. 

What was once so threatening had become the opportunity of proclamation; and what once was a scene of confused retreat from the imperative of the Good News was transformed by that Spirit promised by Jesus into the birth of the Church.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider this scene and also the integrity of its usage by Tradition. 

It will help if we keep in mind that such a reaching out to difference, to otherness, by way of change, will later reach its climax in the confrontation between Paul and Peter in regards to the question of the inclusion of the Gentiles and the radical challenges presented. It will also help if we take careful note of the sneering accusation levelled at the Apostles by some as being, not only drunk, but ‘filled with new wine’ (Acts 2:13). 

Where have we encountered the importance of ‘new wine’ before? Whether it be in those passage in each of the Synoptic Gospels which proclaim the new wine splitting the old wine skins; whether it be the power of the Spirit liberating the Apostles from their enclosure and fear; whether it be the early disciples of The Way seeing the need to leave behind the confines of religious certainties so to embrace those ritually excluded, we can appreciate in each related episode that the Church only comes to be not only in the abandonment of the crippling confines of self interest and fear induced need for familiar certainties, but simply in the recognition that it has no choice in the matter.

This lack of choice may come as a shock to some. We are used to theories of our co-operation with Grace, the imperative of assent. We have grown self-important by such a theorised relationship. 

So too has our understanding of the work of the Spirit and of the Kingdom been intentionally dulled and safely reconditioned by the excruciating slowness of change within the Church – unless of course a panic stricken flight from change and a lacerating condemnation is advocated. 

What we have been made to forget is the inconvenient truth that it is in the nature of the Kingdom to manifest irrespective of what feeble restraints attempt to contain it. So too with the Spirit: no frightened and timid small group of disciples, no matter how elevated by Tradition, is an obstacle. 

No small, closed and stuffy room is containment. Human frailty and self interest do not stand in the way. 

Here it is that we must stop and face squarely the repercussions of the Pentecost event, given especially how loudly and proudly Pentecost was jingoistically co-opted and repackaged here in Australia at the last World Youth Day. If we rightly look upon Pentecost as the birth of the Church and continue to draw from this event that same power which carried the Apostles, we need to face the truth that if it weren’t for the Spirit there would be no Church. 

If left to the Apostles alone the Good News would have suffocated within a small upstairs room. The power of the Spirit did not wait for when the Apostles were ready. The power of the Spirit does not wait for the exhaustion of our own timidity. 

The more that we huddle within small and asphyxiating confines, reassuringly rocking back and forth muttering our mantras of small certainties and securities, the more then that the Kingdom has already overtaken us and in fact become what it will with or without our participation. But if without our participation what then is it that we have become and proclaim?

Mark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate. Pentecost image - Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

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