Thursday, June 04, 2009

Acts: The Gospel of the Holy Spirit?

This post is dedicated to my good friend KeyStroke

At Mass on Sunday I was struck by the reading on Pentecost. I began to think a great deal about Acts as a whole. I realised that Acts is to the Holy Spirit what Luke's Gospel is to Christ; it is Luke's Gospel of the Holy Spirit, if you like.

What struck me most about the pericope is that it forms the real beginning of Acts. There's a transitional bit where Christ ascends, and then the Apostles pray together. Before the Holy Spirit can descend on them though, they have to do one more preliminary thing, let the Holy Spirit pick Judas' successor. The the Spirit descends on them, and then the rest of Acts narrates the effects on this descent; the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Church as a whole and individuals in the Church.

Reading Acts it is clear the Spirit is present from the very beginning. Christ speaks of Him, Peter refers to Him as having moved the prophet David to predict things about Judas. He obviously dramatically comes upon them at Pentecost. He is almost always depicted afterwards as prompting, leading, and filling up the various different people mentioned in the bible. The Protomartyr Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit when he gives his apologia. An angel is sent by the Holy Spirit to lead Philip to the Ethiopian Eunuch, and it is the Holy Spirit who whisks Philip away. It is interesting that in the episode before this, when Philip goes to Samaria, the other Apostles go to Samaria after him to Lay Hands (the primitive way of describing what we call Confirmation in the West and Chrismation in the East) on the baptised. This is repeated later in 19:2ff Why? So that they could be completely filled with the Holy Spirit. I'll discuss some ramifications of this in a moment. The Spirit also prevents Paul from going places, instead directing him to other places (such as in 16.7, 20.22, and 21.4). When the Apostles hold the Council of Jerusalem and dispatch their letter, they make very clear that their decision is in reality the decision of the Spirit, much as all subsequent Oecumenical Councils have done.

Sometimes the Spirit's role is subtle. Consider the very troubling and striking episode of Ananias and Sapphira at the beginning of Chapter 5. Here the role of the Holy Spirit seems a little less obvious. They commit fraud, lie about it and are struck dead by Peter? The scene strongly reminds me of the story of Susanna and the Elders. In that too, the elders are tricked into admitting the truth they would have concealed even before God. But what this story really illustrates is that in doing what they did, sinning against the Holy Spirit, they have committed a sin "that leads to death" (cf 1 John 5:16-17), and that by sinning against the Spirit who gives life (cf John 6:63) they demonstrate they have no life in them ... and so they die. Not that Peter killed them, but that they killed themselves by rejecting the life given them by the Spirit.

It is clear that while the Spirit leads individuals, He is also intimately connected with the Apostolic mission of the Church. When Paul comes to the believers in Ephesus (Chapter 19), he found that hey had become believers, but like in Chapter 8, their baptism needed to be accepted by the Apostolic Witness on behalf of the Church, in effect the Church endorsing and sealing their belief in the Spirit. Paul, as Peter and John before him, lays hands on the believers and completes the action of the Spirit by conferring Him completely. Thus it is not enough for the believers to have come to Christ on their own, they had to receive the Confirmation of the Church, of the high Apostolic Witness to complete the action of the Spirit.

And this brings me to the action of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. The Spirit both works in the Church as a whole and on individuals, but at the same time and not in contradiction to one another. That is by working on individuals and working on the Church the same action of the Holy Spirit is evident. We see plenty of evidence of the corporate action of the Spirit. Consider the three transitional paragraphs 2:43-47, 4:32-37 and 5:12-16. These transitional paragraphs are also examples of the Spirit's subtle work. Th reason all the people share their possessions and so on, again, is because they are filled with the Holy Spirit who is helping them live out the Gospel. Their sharing of possessions isn't a political statement of some embryonic communism, but rather evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We also see it in the Council of Jerusalem. As I said before the Council Fathers make it clear it is the decision foremost of the Spirit that they relay to the believers. We also see the work in individuals, such as Philip and Stephen.

And when we get down to it, the Acts of the Apostles is proof beyond question that Christ really did give a discourse or discourses on the Paraclete (i.e. the Holy Spirit), because everything Christ promised about the Holy Spirit didn't come true slowly over time, but were immediately realised in the Earliest Church. Christ promised that the Spirit would give us the words to speak when the time was right, now read Stephen's martyrdom again. Christ promised that the Spirit would lead the Apostles to all truth. Read the Council of Jerusalem again. And on and on it goes. rather than some made-up discourse years later, as some scholars allege, these promises clearly were made by Christ before Luke wrote Acts, because Acts clearly lays out how these promises were fulfilled.

In any case, this idea of how present the Holy Spirit was in the Church, and the fact that Pentecost is not just the birth of the Church, but the beginning of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Church and our lives. But it is important to learn the lesson of Acts. The Spirit is not just for individuals acting alone. The Spirit gives His gifts to people because He is at work in the Church. The gifts are for our Good, sure, but that Good is not in isolation, like John Donne's "island;" it is for our Good, so that it can also be for the Good of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ (cf Col 1:24). This is the lesson of the Holy Spirit and the lesson of Acts.

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