Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through the Acts of the Apostles, making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to take us to the heart of the book’s message.
After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop. “Between Discussions” pages summarize the portions of Acts that we will pass along the way.
This guide provides everything you need to explore Acts of the Apostles in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections feature key passages from Acts, with explanations that highlight what these words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you both to explore Acts for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the Church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the book’s message. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with Acts. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the book and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what Acts means for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s Word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what Acts has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of the discussions if you read the weekly material in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “What’s Happened” and “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to be facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” before beginning (page 92).
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the sections of Acts that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussion. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) and individuals (page 95).
A History We Can Share In Introducing the Acts of the Apostles
The philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In this view, the reason for studying history is to learn about the errors that people made in the past so as to avoid committing those errors again. In remembering the past this way, a generation of Americans used the disaster of Vietnam to shape a foreign policy that shied away from foreign military involvements.
St. Luke, who wrote the history of the early Church called Acts of the Apostles, saw another purpose for remembering the past. If asked for his view, I imagine he would have said that those who are ignorant of the past cannot play their part in the present. Luke wrote his history to give his friend Theophilus a better understanding of the origins of the gospel he had received and the Church he had joined (1:1; unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this booklet are to Acts). Theophilus would then be prepared to take part in the Church’s life and mission.
Unlike Americans in the 1980s and 1990s who urged their fellow citizens to “learn the lessons of Vietnam” and avoid making the same mistakes again, Luke wanted Theophilus to learn the lessons of the Church in Jerusalem, Joppa, Antioch, and Philippi so as to continue living the same life that the first Christians began to live when the Holy Spirit came to them.
Nineteen centuries later (Luke probably wrote around the year a.d. 80), Luke’s history can serve the same purpose for us. Acts of the Apostles puts us in touch with the foundational events of the Church to which we belong. By understanding our history, we can enter more deeply into it. The first Christians’ situation was quite different from ours, but we can share their experience, for God calls us to open ourselves to the same Spirit, to practice the same mutual love, to carry out the same mission that we read about in Luke’s history. This is George Santayana in reverse: those who remember the past are enabled to repeat it.
The book that Luke wrote. If Luke could examine one of our Bibles today, he might be surprised by the location of his writings. Luke composed a two-part work, but in the New Testament the parts are not placed together. Part one, Luke’s Gospel, is grouped with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. Part two, Acts of the Apostles, follows the Gospels. In this arrangement, the two sections of Luke’s work are separated by the Gospel of John.
While there are good reasons for this arrangement (putting all four Gospels together at the beginning of the New Testament indicates the paramount importance of Jesus himself), when reading Acts it is useful to mentally reconnect the two parts of Luke’s work. Luke wrote a two-volume history because he was describing a two-stage action of God. Viewing the two volumes of the story together helps us grasp how the two stages of God’s action are related to each other.
In very broad-brush terms, Luke’s two-stage narrative can be summarized as follows. God had given the people of Israel a special relationship with himself and had promised that he would rescue them from oppression. He fulfilled this promise through Jesus of Nazareth, his absolutely unique Son. Through Jesus’ teaching, miracles, reconciliation of sinners, and inclusion of outcasts, God made himself powerfully present to men and women. When Jesus accepted a painful death in obedience to God’s plans, God raised him from death and placed him in authority over all things. That was stage one. In stage two, God sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers. The Spirit enabled them to continue in the way of forgiveness, humility, and care for the needy that Jesus had initiated. And the Spirit empowered them to invite men and women everywhere to join in this graced life by believing in Jesus.
The two stages are linked by parallels. Just as God sent his Son Jesus to make his kingdom present in the world, he has now sent his Spirit to Jesus’ followers, commissioning them to extend the presence of his kingdom. Just as God confirmed the authenticity of Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom with powerful signs, he now gives signs to authenticate the Church’s message about Jesus. Jesus had to suffer to accomplish God’s purposes; suffering is likewise unavoidable for the members of the Church as they carry out their mission.
Surveying Luke’s two-part narrative in this bird’s-eye manner helps us identify the principal actor in the whole drama. The main character is God. God exercises the initiative. God unfolds a grand plan, first through Jesus, then through the Church. This, in turn, highlights the importance of the Church. By his Spirit, God continues through the Church the work that he began through Jesus. The Church is not an afterthought, not a mere human attempt to remember Jesus. The Church is God’s instrument in the world.
I have been referring to Acts as a history. Before I proceed, it is appropriate for me to say something about the type of history it is. Acts is a history from the ancient Greco-Roman world, and ancient writers of history went about their task differently from the way that modern writers do. In Luke’s culture, history writers felt freer than modern writers to reshape their material in order to bring out the meaning of past events for their readers. Scholars who have examined Luke’s work closely have found many indications of the historical nature of his reports. Yet in many ways Luke has designed his narrative to convey his theology of the Spirit and of the Church. We should read Acts, then, with confidence that we are getting a fundamentally reliable picture of the early Church, but also with the awareness that Luke has not tried to present the kind of objectively factual account that would be the goal of a modern academic historian.
Acts of the Apostles is full of drama and conflict. In order to appreciate the drama, we need to see the situation of the first Christians from their point of view. Let us imagine that we could travel back to Jerusalem around the year a.d. 30. We arrive in a world that has no international Church. In fact, there are no church buildings or external signs of Christianity at all. No one keeps Sunday as a religious day; no one celebrates Christmas; no one follows a calendar counting years from the birth of Christ.
Let us suppose that we arrive in Jerusalem just after Jesus has finished appearing to his disciples following his resurrection. He has told them to remain in Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit to come to them. They are now gathered in a spacious home, praying and waiting. There are only about 120 of them, men and women.
All the disciples are Jews. Quite naturally, they have a thoroughly Jewish outlook. If you were to ask them questions, they would give you Jewish answers. If you asked them who Jesus is, they would tell you that he is the Messiah—the one whom God appointed to bring liberation and holiness to the people of Israel—and that he now reigns with God. If you asked them what God is doing for Israel through Messiah Jesus, they would say that he is inaugurating the final period of history, the end times, in which he will give saving help to his people. If you looked around the room at the disciples and asked them who they are, they would identify themselves as the renewed community of Israel—the portion of Israel gathered around the Messiah.
You might ask them to explain how it is that Messiah Jesus does not seem to have a program for bringing Jews back to the land of Israel from the foreign lands where most of them live; for purifying the temple so that it might be a place where God’s presence is powerfully manifested; or for freeing the Jews from the oppression of the pagan Romans. In other words, why isn’t Jesus doing the things that most Jews are expecting God to accomplish for Israel? The disciples might reply that they themselves have been deeply puzzled by this, but that, while they still have questions, they have begun to grasp that Jesus is fulfilling God’s plans for Israel in a different but better way.
If asked what implications the coming of the Messiah has for non-Jews, the disciples might admit that they don’t know. Jewish expectations on this question varied, and Jesus did not fully clarify the matter for them. If you asked whether non-Jews without being circumcised would be able to join the renewed community of Israel founded by Jesus, the disciples might stare at you in astonishment and terminate the interview, thinking that you are no longer interested in asking serious questions.
Drama and conflict arise in Acts because God’s actions transcend traditional Jewish understandings of God and Israel. God leads the disciples to bring the message of the expected-but-surprising Messiah Jesus to their fellow Jews. Some Jews accept the message and experience dramatic changes in their lives. Others reject it, and begin to argue with and persecute the disciples. Conflict occurs among the disciples also, as God leads them to a new understanding of his purposes for Gentiles.
Our reading in Week 1 is all drama. Peter, with the rest of the Twelve, makes a heartfelt appeal to his fellow Jews to reverse their thinking about Jesus and to recognize him as the promised Messiah. In a remarkable change of heart, thousands of Peter’s listeners come to believe in Jesus and join Jesus’ community of the renewed Israel. Among the new disciples, the salvation that Jesus brings takes concrete shape: it is not a nationalistic restoration but a life in the Spirit. A community of believers develops in which men and women experience forgiveness and joy through the Spirit as they worship God together, share a community life, and care for each other’s material needs.
Before long, conflict sets in. In Week 2 the apostles’ proclamation of Jesus brings them into confrontation with fellow Jews, especially the religious leaders, who do not accept Jesus because he does not fit their expectations for how God will come to save Israel.
Among the Jews of the day was an influential party called the Pharisees, who were known for being strict observers of the Mosaic law. While there was much common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees, many of them reacted against Jesus, for he claimed that God’s kingdom was becoming present through himself—a claim that displaced the Mosaic law from its central role in Judaism. Jesus’ followers’ claim that he was now risen from the dead and ruling as Messiah and Lord over the final phase of God’s dealings with Israel struck Pharisees as blasphemous. Many Pharisees hoped that their scrupulous observance of the law would hasten the day when God would grant national restoration to Israel. From their perspective, Jewish Christians’ devotion to Jesus appeared to be a dangerous diversion. Our reading in Week 3 shows us a Pharisee named Saul (also called Paul), who puts himself in the forefront of efforts to excise the Christian cancer from the body of Judaism. And then—in one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the entire history of the Church—Jesus appears to Paul and convinces him that Jesus truly has both fulfilled and transcended the expectations of Judaism.
In Week 4 the focus switches to the disciples’ own efforts to grasp how Jesus and the Spirit are leading them beyond traditional Jewish expectations. An extraordinary series of actions by the Spirit transports Peter across the religious and cultural divide separating Jews from Gentiles.
Despite the dramatic activity of the Spirit, the idea that Messiah Jesus wishes to be personal Lord over Gentiles is not easy for the disciples to accept. Peter’s welcoming of Gentiles directly into the community of the renewed Israel without their becoming Jews clashes so fundamentally with Jewish expectations that it creates conflict within the Christian community. Thus in Week 5 we read about a council of Church leaders that gathers to discern God’s will.
Once the Spirit has led the disciples to perceive that the good news about Jesus transcends its Jewish roots and reaches out to all men and women, the way is open for missionary work. In our final selection, Week 6, we observe Paul’s missionary labors among Gentiles. At this point, a new source of conflict appears, as Jewish Christians preaching the one God and his Son Jesus encounter people whose beliefs and interests are based in the polytheistic culture of the time.
Questions for modern readers. Returning to the twenty-first century, we reflect on what we have learned. Like the early Jewish followers of Jesus, the Spirit leads us also into drama and conflict. God challenges us to change. For example, he challenges us to move beyond a simplistic childhood understanding of him and develop an adult understanding of his mystery—and to move beyond adolescent skepticism to a mature, trusting-despite-darkness adult faith. He wishes us to serve him in new ways, and summons us to go beyond our limited expectations of how much we might love, how self-sacrificingly we might serve, what suffering we might endure. He wishes us to experience his powerful help. He wishes to work through us to make Jesus known. He wishes us to have an impact on our world. In all these respects, reading Acts leads us to question our lives and open our hearts to a new cooperation with the Spirit of God.
The Spirit Arrives
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 Describe your most memorable birthday. What made it special?
2 Describe a memorable dream. Did it have a message?
3 What was the most important decision you ever made on the spur of the moment? How did it turn out?
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: Acts 2:1–47
Zero Hour of the Christian World Mission
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? . . . 11 [I]n our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be
22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. . . .
32 “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . . 36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
The Christian Community
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Which of “God’s deeds of power” were the disciples probably speaking about in verse 11? Does Peter’s preaching help you answer this question?
2 What is repentance? Why does Peter call people to repent?
3 In a single sentence, how would you summarize Peter’s message in verses 16–21? in verses 22–36?
4 What other responses might the crowd have made to Peter’s declaration in verses 22–36? Why did they respond as they did?
5 What is the “promise” in 2:39?
6 Luke begins and ends his account of Pentecost on similar notes (compare verses 1 and 41). What might this “frame” suggest about the gift of the Spirit? In this reading, what sorts of things do people do when the Holy Spirit comes to them?
A Guide to the Reading If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
2:1–3. In the large house of a prosperous Jerusalem resident, a half mile or so from the place where Jesus died and rose, 120 of his followers are praying together, seated—as Jews would sit for prayer in a synagogue. They are waiting for Jesus to fulfill a promise he made repeatedly after his resurrection (1:5, 8). It is morning.
Suddenly an explosion of mysterious wind and fire fills the house. These pyrotechnics signal an unseen event. Jesus’ promise, the Holy Spirit, has arrived. Flames settle above the heads of all 120 disciples: every member of the community receives the Spirit.
The manner of the Spirit’s coming evokes the moment, centuries earlier, when God made a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–20). The sound of wind from heaven that fills the house echoes the frightening noise that announced God’s presence at Sinai (Exodus 19:16; 20:22); the flames reflect God’s descent to the mountain in fire (Exodus 19:18). By breathing life into the community of Jesus’ followers, God is renewing his covenant with Israel.
The whole people of Israel must be invited to share in this life—a task for which the Spirit has come to empower the disciples. The flames take the shape of tongues because the Spirit will guide the disciples to speak. They receive the Spirit not just for their own benefit, but so they might serve others.
2:4–13. We may suppose that the disciples make their way to the temple, the vast courtyards of which are the only place in Jerusalem that can accommodate a large crowd. Jews from all over the world are present; some are in town for the Jewish festival of Pentecost, others are immigrants. All are astonished to hear the disciples speaking in the visitors’ native languages about God’s actions (2:6–11). (This marvel of communication seems different from the speaking in unknown languages that other early Christians experienced as a gift of the Spirit, since that speaking in tongues required interpretation—1 Corinthians 12, 14.)
2:14–15. Peter, as leader of the apostles, steps forward to offer an explanation. To the accusation that the disciples are drunk, he offers a laid-back response. “Drunk? Before breakfast? Give me a break!”
2:16–21. In a more serious vein, Peter explains that the disciples’ unaccountably intelligible speech is evidence of God’s Spirit and that the arrival of the Spirit marks the beginning of a new era in God’s dealings with the human race. Peter calls it “the last days.” He does not mean that the world is about to end, but that the final period of history has begun. Peter uses cosmic imagery from the prophet Joel not to predict the imminent destruction of the universe but to underline the significance of the gift of the Spirit: this is an earthshaking event!
2:22–36. Peter tells his listeners that they were mistaken about Jesus when they demanded his death seven weeks before, at the Passover festival (Luke 23:18–23). He explains that through Jesus the new age of God’s dealings with the human race was dawning—as his healings and other miracles indicated (2:22). Now God has raised Jesus from death and has made him sovereign over all things, in fulfillment of a long-standing divine plan.
2:37–40. Shaken, the crowd asks Peter what they should do. “Repent!” he says. The Greek word means “change your mind.” They should, of course, repent in the sense of turning away from sin; but first of all they should change their minds about Jesus, and then decide to reorient their lives toward him.
For those of Peter’s listeners who had called for Jesus’ death, Peter’s preaching offers a precious second chance. Peter’s warning not to let it slip away—“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”—is not a blanket condemnation of the world. In Old Testament terminology, “crooked generation” referred especially to people who witnessed God’s mighty acts but then walked away unaffected (Deuteronomy 1:35; 32:5; Psalm 78:8). “Don’t do that!” Peter urges.
2:41–47. Thousands of men and women accept Peter’s message and are baptized—the greatest miracle of Pentecost! There is ample water nearby, kept on hand for use in the temple services and for ritual bathing.
The infant Church has now come into existence. It is filled with God’s Spirit and guided by the leadership group that gives it conti-nuity with Jesus (see 1:15–26). A pattern of teaching and prayer, public testimony and mutual care quickly develops. To experience salvation through Jesus means “being added” to this community.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Peter calls his listeners to change how they think about Jesus. How has your picture of Jesus changed over the years? What has contributed to the change? What implications has your changing picture of Jesus had for your life? What might you do to give Jesus an opportunity to reveal more of himself to you at this point in your life?
2 Where in your life is God giving you a second (or third, or tenth) chance? What difficulties, fears, or habits stand in the way of your responding to him? What do you need to do to begin to respond?
3 What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? Who do you know that seems filled with the Spirit? How do you experience the presence of the Spirit in your life? How can Christians make themselves open to the Spirit?
4 Where in your life (family, work, parish, city) do you see signs of God’s activity? How might God be calling you to cooperate with what he is doing?
5 What do you find attractive about the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost? What aspects of it offer a model for the Church today? for your parish? What is the most significant point in this reading for the Church today? Why?
6 What do verses 17 and 18 suggest about the range of people to whom God gives gifts by his Spirit? How might your attitudes toward people’s sex, age, ethnic background, income, or education affect your expectations regarding their participation in the life of the Church? What could you and your parish do to encourage a greater range of people to discover and use the gifts of service that God has given them?
“Encourage each other to participate. The more people involved in a discussion, the richer it will be.”
Whitney Kuniholm, John: The Living Word, A Fisherman Bible
Study Guide Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Pray for each other to be filled with the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. Let someone read Acts 2:38–39 aloud; pause for a few moments of silent reflection. Then pray together the Come, Holy Spirit on the next page.
The custom of praying for nine days in a row for a particular purpose (making a “novena”—from the Latin word for nine) is based on the disciples’ prayer in the days between the Ascension and Pentecost, as they waited for the promised Spirit. On an individual basis you may wish to make a novena for a greater experience of the Holy Spirit by praying the Come, Holy Spirit for nine days in your private devotions.
A Living Tradition
Come, Holy Spirit!
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
Come, Holy Spirit. Shine into waiting hearts and minds
your radiance bright.
Come, you Father of the poor,
come, you giver of all store,
come, our souls’ light.
You, of comforters the best,
you, our hearts’ dearest guest,
in turmoil, kind relief;
you our respite in distress,
in the noontime, cool caress,
comfort in our grief.
O Light making all things new,
the depths of all who hope in you
with yourself fill.
If you should take your grace away,
nothing good in us can stay,
all turns to ill.
Wash the grime of sin away,
irrigate our barren clay,
our illnesses heal;
soften every hardened will,
thaw the frozen, warm the chill,
your ways reveal.
Give to all your faithful, Lord,
to those who trust in your reward,
all gifts of grace.
Give us virtue’s blessed goal,
give a death that brings us whole
before your face. Amen. Alleluia.
One of the most beautiful of medieval Latin hymns, this prayer may have been written by Innocent III, a thirteenth-century pope. It is sung in the liturgy of Pentecost. One scholar has remarked that it could only have been composed by someone acquainted with many sorrows but also with many encouragements from the Spirit.
I was privileged to play a small supporting role when my wife Mary, after hours of disciplined breathing and some expressions of urgency and distress, pushed our first child out of the womb and into an obstetrician’s waiting hands. In the aftermath of this unprecedented event, I had a leisurely opportunity to observe our son’s first minutes in this world. While Mary endured some concluding unpleasantness at the hands of the obstetrician, a nurse wiped Dominic off and placed him naked in a little bed warmed by a lamp. There he was, a perfect, blue-skinned, miniature human being. I looked at his fingers and toes as though I had never seen fingers or toes before. By some incredible process, no less astonishing because of my involvement in it, a new person had made his appearance in the world, equipped with the full complement of members and organs, all properly connected and fully functioning. Tiny eyes glanced vaguely in my direction. What a kick!
I am reminded of my first meeting with Dominic when I read the second chapter of Acts. Pentecost has been called the birthday of the Church, and Luke’s account does read as a description of birth—the infant Church is suddenly thrust out into the world and begins to breathe. From the first moments, the Church displays the basic elements that will grow and mature in the millennia to follow. It is remarkable how many of the Church’s characteristics become visible in this single chapter of Luke’s account. For instance, Luke shows us that the Church is—
1. People empowered by the Spirit. The Spirit comes to breathe life into Jesus’ followers, and there is a burst of activity—marvelous signs of God’s presence, inspired preaching, people turning to the Lord, strangers loving one another. We might say that the Church is the group of people among whom the Holy Spirit makes things happen.
2. A community. Each person receives the Spirit, but not as an isolated individual; the Spirit comes to a community of people joined in prayer and hope (1:13–14; 2:1). The Spirit not only enlarges the group through new members but also deepens their relationship with each other. Because they share together in the life of God, they throw their lives open to one another and use their resources to alleviate each other’s needs (2:44–45).
3. A hierarchical community. Before the Spirit comes, Jesus appoints a group of twelve men as leaders (see 1:12–26; Luke 22:28–30). The leader of the leaders, Peter, makes the first public announcement of Jesus’ resurrection. This leadership structure is essential for the community of those who follow Jesus (2:42). To these leaders Jesus entrusted his teaching, which is the DNA for the formation of an authentic, Christian community.
4. A community on a mission. The Spirit’s coming on Pentecost is the initiating event of the day, making possible the central event, which is Peter’s preaching about Jesus as Messiah and Lord. This leads to the culminating event: thousands of people come to believe in Jesus, are baptized, and join the Church. The miracle of languages, Father Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., has written, conveys the idea that “the Christian message is to be borne to people of all languages and cultures.”
5. A community where everyone plays a part. Peter emphasizes that the Spirit is for male and female, young and old, high class and low class (2:17–18). The Church is for everyone, from prominent male apostles to obscure impoverished widows. By contributing to the community’s life of mutual love, every member contributes to the proclamation of Jesus, for the very existence of a community of love that bridges class divisions points to a divine source of power.
6. A community that worships together. Through morning and evening prayers in the temple and worship in their homes (including the Lord’s Supper), the first Christians follow a pattern of celebration through which the mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection continues to be present among them.
7. A community where Jesus’ mother is present. Mary is among the disciples at Pentecost (see 1:14). She was already completely open to the action of God’s Spirit (Luke 1:35, 38) and was the first to believe in her son. Now she is a sign of faith and hope to the disciples. In the heart of the Church, as fellow disciple and beloved mother of the Lord, she will continue to pray and bear witness to her son in every age.