Questions and Reflections

Category: Acts

Ask Pastor Marc: The Holy Spirit in John and Acts

Last week, I was asked about John 20:22-23. In that passage, Jesus shows up when the disciples have locked themselves in a room. Jesus walks through the locked door, offers them peace, and then "breathes" the Holy Spirit onto them. It's an interesting piece of scripture especially since the beginning of Acts 2 shares how the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Jesus' resurrection. Acts 2 and John 20 seem to announce the specific historic moment when the Holy Spirit enters the world. Both episodes seem to contradict each other. 

I think it's important to remember that we have 4 different gospel stories rather than one. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are texts written by specific people to specific faith-filled communities. The Holy Spirit gave each author words revealing how Jesus mattered to them, their communities, and everyone who came after them. Each text describes different aspects of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. Each text also describes different experiences of the Trinity. This includes the Holy Spirit. Luke (who wrote the book of Acts), sees the Holy Spirit as something bombastic. The Holy Spirit inspires believers to preach life-giving words to their neighbors, friends, and even strangers. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter, Paul, and the other apostles to bring Jesus to far flung place. In Luke-Acts, the Holy Spirit inspired believers to move and not be silent about their faith.

In John, however, another aspect of the Holy Spirit is highlighted. John calls the Holy Spirit the parakletos which can be translated as advocate, comforter, helper, or intercessor. In the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, "The Holy Spirit, according to John, is the one who is called to be alongside us." In John 14, we are introduced to the Holy Spirit in the middle of Jesus' last sermon to his disciples. Jesus knows Good Friday is coming. He knows he'll die, rise, and ascend to heaven. The disciples do not fully understand what's about to come. Jesus' final sermon is a way for Jesus to bring comfort to his followers. He promises to send them "another Advocate." So who was their first advocate? Well, their first advocate was Jesus. The Spirit, according to John, is a manifestation of the promises Jesus makes. Jesus will not orphan the disciples because "the Spirit will now accompany them." In John, the Spirit is very personal. The Spirit is a quieter encounter but an encounter that promises all of God's people that they'll never be abandoned no matter where in life (or death) they go. 

The Holy Spirit doesn't appear in only one historical moment in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the multitude of ways God makes God's promises known to us. The Spirit grants us a new life held in God's abundant love. The Spirit was there when the universe was created and is there when we are baptized. The Spirit is always present but is experienced in our lives in many personal, amazing, and breathtaking ways. 


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The 3,000

One of the trends I'm discovering in my preaching and faith exploration involves using our imagination. Throughout the Bible, God invites us at specific points to imagine what comes next. Our first reading from Acts 2:14,36-41 is, I think, one of those points. Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon. He is preaching to a crowd filled with people from all over the world who are visiting Jerusalem. The people are hearing Peter's words in their own language and are amazed at what they see. Peter's words are also convicting. He tells them, in short, that "the people of God put God to death when God came to them" (Paraphrase borrowed from Professor Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary). For the people listening to Peter, this statement cuts them to the core. They feel like their souls and identity have been torn apart. They ask Peter, "what can they do?" We shouldn't see this question as their way to try and get on God's good side. The people listening to Peter are first and foremost recognizing who they are as human beings. The Spirit is revealing to them their identity and what people do when God shows up. The ones listening to Peter are now lost. They ask what they can do because they realize there is nothing they can do to fix their relationship with God. So Peter looks at them all and tells them to turn towards God and be baptized. 

The reading from Acts says 3000 were baptized that day. Imagine the strain on the altar guild. Imagine how long baptizing 3000 people would take and where it might happen. The entire group could have left the city to find a river to be baptized in. The banks would be filled with people standing in dirt and mud, waiting for their turn. People leaving the water would be dripping wet. Their feet and legs would soon be dusty and covered in mud. Everyone there would carry the physical signs of baptism. And then, once the baptisms were over, they would be part of a new community. In verses we do not hear today, the 3000 devoted themselves to their new faith community. They sold their possessions and put everything into a common account. They shared their financial resources, making sure all were cared for. Listening to Peter, God's people discovered who they are as human beings. They recognized what people do when God shows up. But, through the Spirit, God gave everyone a new imagination to live out God's love wherever God takes them next. 


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The Path of Life: Re-reading Psalm 16

In light of the Resurrection, what do we do now? This question is central to our reading from Acts today (Acts 2:14,22-36). Peter and the other disciples are in Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost), a Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the law (Torah) at Mt. Sinai. The disciples are not the only ones in the city. Jerusalem is filled with many different pilgrims and tourists speaking many different languages. During the festival, a mighty wind blew through the disciples and tongues of fire appeared over their heads. The disciples made Jesus' story known to crowds who heard that story in their own languages. 

In the church calendar, we celebrate Pentecost 7 weeks after Easter. We will hear that story on June 4. But our interpretation of today's reading depends on remembering the Pentecost event. Peter is explaining to a confused crowd what just happened. And he does this in a specific way. He dug into the Hebrew Scriptures (what we sometimes call the Old Testament) to understand what God is doing now. By engaging scripture, Peter suddenly read Psalm 16 in a new way. 

Peter's sermon does something new. He took seriously where he was (Jerusalem under Roman control), who he was speaking to (Jews from everywhere), and what scripture teaches (quoting Psalm 16:8-11) in light of an ongoing conversation with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Ellen T. Charry writes, "Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding..." (Brazos Theological Commentary - Psalms 1-50, page 76). Peter knew Jesus because he spent time with him. He was there when Jesus heal the sick and shared God's love through word and deed. He mourned Jesus' death and celebrated his resurrection. Peter's faith is molded by Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Psalm 16 was, most likely, a psalm designed to show people what a "morally flourishing and satisfying life with God" can bring. But after the Resurrection, the text changed. The Psalm is now an invitation to cling to Christ. Even though the reading of the text changed, the hope within the text did not. Hope begins and ends with God so let's set the Lord always before us. 


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A reflection on Acts 2

Our first reading is from Acts 2:1-21.

This story from Acts 2 is such a visual story. It almost deserves a Hollywood treatment. The apostles are gathered in a house, there's a sound that sounds like a tornado, and then flames of fire that show up on people's heads. This is a dream scene for a special effect artist. In the current miniseries on NBC, "AD: After the Bible," they creators did just that. There are clouds, flames, and bright lights where the apostles are gathered. This feels like a special effects kind of story.

But Pentecost isn't about visual effects; Pentecost is about something much less flashy. Pentecost is about the power of voice and understanding because the gospel isn't only centered in flashy moments. The gospel is centered in relationship; a relationship with God and with other people. For such relationships to exist, communication and commitment are more important than some visual effects we would see at a rock concert in a stadium. 

When the Spirit comes to the apostles, the apostles are given a voice. We know the apostles could speak (they do question Jesus a lot) but they were a community that is at a loss now that Jesus was no longer physically with them. They've lost their voice. Then the Spirit comes, filling them with a strange ability: they could speak languages they didn't know. So they spoke, and people who were visiting Jerusalem from other places heard these apostles speaking in their home languages. Nothing in the text says that the apostles could understand each other. Instead, it's only after the apostles hear from the crowd that they are being understood that Peter finally understands what's going on. The Spirit is transforming the band of apostles to be something it wasn't before: a community full of people who don't look, talk, or act the same but who are united in their faith in Jesus and their love for each other. This community will include old and young, men and women, slaves and free. The community will prophesy, calling the world to live as God wishes the world to be. God has always been active on earth but this new community will purposefully include different kinds of people. And this community will be invited to be Jesus in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus' commandments: loving God and each other. To do this, we, like those early apostles, need to engage with people who aren't like us, learning their stories, and discovering just how God is working in them and in the places they call home. 


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A reflection on Acts 1:15-17,21-26

Our first reading is Acts 1:15-17,21-26.

This Easter season our texts from Acts have focused on how God breaks down the barriers we create to signal who is in God's family and who isn't. The early Christian movement grew with people who were not like the apostles and who were not Jews. As God brought different kinds of people into Christ's body, the early followers of Jesus were pushed beyond their comfort zones. The story of the early Christian movement is not just a story about a group of people who survived Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The story also shows how different the makeup of the movement became after Christ died. 

Today we're zooming to the beginning of Acts. The Christian movement is small and scattered. They're still figuring out what to do now that Jesus is no longer physically walking alongside them like he used to. The early disciples restructure themselves, realizing their 12 is now 11. The number 12 had special meaning for the people of Israel. It represented the 12 original tribes who settled the promised land after the Exodus from Egypt. 12 felt like a complete number so the apostles decided to find a replacement for the one who betrayed Jesus. 

Replacing Judas must have been a difficult job. We know little about Judas except for what he did. The gospels might disagree in the details about how the betrayal happened but they are firm that Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities. Judas, who was probably one of the earliest followers of Jesus, betrayed their teacher, friend, and Messiah. He broke their trust deeply and severely. Even though Acts tells us that this had to happen, that reason doesn't negate the brokenness Judas caused their community. 

So the disciples did what we do in times of transition, change, and healing: they gathered together and prayed. They asked God to help them move forward and they did this collectively, intentionally, and trusting that God would bring them through. Judas' memory and the wounds he inflicted in the community still remain. But we trust that they will be scarred over, reminding us that healing isn't only a return to how things were because even Jesus's wounds are still with him.      


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A reflection on Acts 10:44-48

Our first reading is Acts 10:44-48.

Today's first reading from Acts is the climax of a much longer story. A roman soldier named Cornelius receives a vision from God to invite Peter into his home. Cornelius represents a kind of spirituality prevalent in Jesus' time: the God-fearers. God-fearers were Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed and worshiped God but they were not full converts. They had not fully joined the Jewish community. So an angel of God tells Cornelius to invite Peter into his home so that Cornelius can hear more about Jesus. 

So, in response, Cornelius sends a few people to find Peter. Before they arrive, however, Peter has a strange dream where a picnic blanket falls from the sky that's full of foods he shouldn't eat. Peter's a practicing Jew who believes Jesus is the messiah so he follows the food laws. He knows what God has told him not to eat. But God tells Peter to eat what's considered "unclean" because God has cleansed it. When Peter wakes up, he's confused by what's happened but before he can think about it too much, the visitors arrive. Peter greets them and offers them food and housing for the night. Refreshed, all return to Cornelius the next day. And as Peter and Cornelius talks, Peter finally gets what God is telling him. 

God is doing something new in Jesus. The traditional understanding of who is part of God's family and who isn't is broken down. God is opening the faith community to those who aren't Jewish. God is inviting unexpected people into God's family and Peter is called to recognize that. Peter isn't causing new people to join the Christian community; he's recognizing how God is doing that and he's just welcoming them in. 

Today's text is funny because it occurs when Peter is preaching. The Holy Spirit interrupts him so Peter stops and sees God at work around him. Peter recognizes God operating in people who are not like him. And the only thing he can do is to baptize them and include them more fully into Christ's body. We're invited to be like Peter, to see God at work in unexpected people and in unexpected places. God is busy making the Christ known in amazing ways. It's our job to find where it's happening and walk with God there.


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A reflection on Acts 8:26-40

Our first reading is Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. 

There's something fantastical and boundary breaking by being part of the body of Christ.

Today's story in Acts comes at a time when the Christ movement starts to break out from Jerusalem. For the first 7 chapters, Acts is laser focused on how the early church grew and developed around the Temple. But then chapter 8 starts and the movement expands. Stephen is killed and everyone but the apostles flee the city. As these early disciples enter the surrounding areas, they begin to bring Jesus to new people and new groups. Philip meets the Samaritans, a religious and cultural group that shared much with the Jewish identity but disagreed with how (and where) God was worshipped, hear Christ's story. The cultural and religious boundaries between the Jews and the Samaritans are transcended by Jesus and many Samaritans become believers. Then Philip is told to take a long walk between Jerusalem and Gaza where he happens upon the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Up until the modern era, eunuch's served a variety of roles in the courts of kings and queens. They were viewed as "safe" since they wouldn't be able to produce offspring with women (or feel the need to). So eunuchs were given important roles, serving as generals, secretaries, and oversaw the money in the treasury. Even though eunuchs could be politically powerful, they were also viewed as outsiders. Eunuchs wouldn't be allowed to worship like others or participate in religious rituals that non-eunuchs found life giving and wonderful. The Ethiopian eunuch who goes to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem is a complete outsider. He wouldn't be welcomed to worship like everyone else and those living in Jerusalem view him with suspicion. There is a large cultural difference between the eunuch and Philip and, in many ways, they shouldn't interact at all. But they do. The Holy Spirit actually orders Philip to breakout of his own cultural story and interact with someone from a completely different background. 

When Philip arrives at the eunuch's side, he finds the eunuch reading Isaiah 53 out loud. In these words pointing to the Suffering Servant, Philip hears and recognizes Jesus. And once Philip hears Jesus, he is compelled to tell the eunuch about him. Jesus' story breaks through the differences between these two. Their different cultures, nationality, and sexual identity doesn't interfere with the Spirit including both of them in Jesus' body. Once the eunuch is baptized, Philip is whisked away and Philip's journey continues. The Spirit continues to use disciples to breakdown social barriers and making the body of Christ bigger and more diverse than it was before. The Spirit doesn't seem interested in making sure we're all the same. The Spirit, instead, wants everyone to know that God loves them and Christ died for them. And that's a message that can't be contained by any one culture, nationality, race, or group. 


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A Reflection on Acts 4:5-12

Our first reading today is from Acts 4:5-12.

"By... what name did you do this?" 

At first glance, this question towards Peter sounds a little odd. Peter is being investigated for what he did in the Temple (and what we heard last week). Peter healed a man who could not walk and that caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Peter is arrested and the religious authorities are interrogating him. They want to know what power Peter has or, if he doesn't have that power to cause miracles, who does? The authorities want  Peter to name names. 

We all have names and our names have power. God's name in the Old Testament is written as YHWH ("I AM").  It's not a true personal name but is instead a stand-in for how to address God. The authors of the OT assumed their was a personal name for God but, over the years, it was viewed as too holy and powerful to write down. Only chosen individuals, like Moses or the prophets, had access to God's personal name and with that name came the power to cause miracles and to do amazing things. I forget where I heard this next tidbit but an early attempt to discredit Jesus and the early church was the claim that Jesus wasn't that special, he just tricked his way into learning God's personal name. Nowadays, we might not think names have supernatural powers like but we know names carry power. Knowing a name implies a relationship and an ability to call on them when we're in need (or want something). "Networking," "who you know," and "family money" are all phrases we use today to signify the power that names carry. Relationships (and the opportunity to form those relationships) help advance our careers, get us out of trouble, and have access to experiences and resources that other people don't. Everyone has a name and everyone's name has a system of power that comes with it. So when the religious authorities ask Peter for a name, they're asking for information about who he has access too. And Peter does the only thing he can: he talks about Jesus. 

Peter's words are powerful because they focus on Jesus as the source of all that he can do. Jesus, who the authorities rejected and sent to be killed, is still active in the world, loving those who are rejected, and bringing light into dark places. The world currently around Peter is hostile. They attacked Jesus and are against what Jesus brings. Peter stands against that hostility, naming his reality: that all the good they do and the love they share comes not because he's a good, moral, or amazing person. The love he shares comes from Jesus Christ. We do what we do because we're disciples of Jesus. That's the source of who we are and what we do. It's also a challenge - inviting us to do what Jesus did and that's love everyone that comes into our path.


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A reflection on Acts 3:12-19

Today's first reading is from Acts 3:12-19

Today's first reading is a step back in our journey through Acts this Easter season. Last week, we were in chapter 4. Right now, we're in chapter 3. The disciples are in Jerusalem when Peter and John go to pray in the Temple. While there, Peter sees a man who has never walked and heals him in the name of Jesus. The man leaps and jumps praising God, and clinging to Peter and John in thanksgiving for healing. People are surprised, confused, and wondering what just happened. So Peter responds with our reading today. 

One of the core elements in today's reading is what it means to be part of God's family. Peter's words emphasize two things: how God continues to expand who is in Jesus' group and who isn't. Now, this can get very dicey and appear to be very black and white. Peter could use this opportunity to reject those who are gathered in the Temple. Even though they share the same identity as Jews, the people at the temple responded to Jesus differently. The disciples proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah while the rest do not. That's the boundary between who is part of Jesus' group and who isn't. Peter could look at those gathered around and reject them. He could say that they rejected Jesus and, in a sense, killed him along with the Roman authorities. Peter could wash his hands of them, condemn them, and say that they have no hope in ever being part of God's true family. 

But Peter doesn't. Instead, he invites them in because being part of God's in-group is open to all. 

We'll always struggle with who is "in," and who is "out." But God continues to push us to open the group by inviting people into a relationship with Jesus and with us. There's a risk when we do that. The people who might accept our invitation might not be like us. They might do things differently, enjoy different activities, or speak different languages. They might not even look like us. The ones we invite might change the group and make it different from what it was before. And that's scary. But that's God's call. God's love invites relationship and communion with everyone. God's love invites us to grow and change. Peter invited those around him into Jesus' family, knowingly inviting them to join the Body of Christ and making it shine with the love of God that encompasses all.


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A reflection on Acts 4:32-35

Today's First Reading is Acts 4:32-35.

This text from Acts is rather striking, isn't it?

What we're seeing is a vision of the Jesus community after Pentecost. The community is preaching in the temple, gathering in regular meetings, and some of the early disciples are being arrested for their beliefs. The community hasn't even been called Christian yet (see Acts 11) and Stephen won't be killed until Acts 7. So at the start of this post-Easter community, we find this text from Acts 4. Ownership of property and things, like land, houses, and I assume bowls and cups, no longer exists. Items are sold or shared. The apostles dictate where the money goes and who receives any. This model works because everyone is on the same page. The community can practice a radical form of generosity because they are so united. Our habit of using things to separate us from one another no longer exists. 

But the community in Acts isn't a blueprint that we're called to follow. This kind of community doesn't last (read Acts 5 to see why).  So instead of selling our houses and giving the money to Pastor Marc to handle, let's ask just what is going on here. We're invited to see what's happened to cause this community to act this way and that's the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is causing the community to swirl around each other, to care and love each other in ways it didn't before. The barriers that we build to create a hierarchy of importance (such as how much money we make, how big our house is, how many vacations we go on) is broken. The community embodies the love that Jesus preached and practiced. People are cared for, division are broken, and love is the only rule. 

The community of Acts 4, however, isn't perfect. These short verses are focused on those already inside the community. There is nothing about giving to the poor, sharing with non-Christians, or having meals with the unwanted. They are turned inwards when so much of Jesus' ministry was directed towards the people "out there." All communities are called to embody Jesus, to proclaim in our actions and identity the love that God shares with the world. Radical generosity is a part of that. Loving the stranger is a part of that too. Turning away from ourselves and looking at those around us, asking what they need and how Spirit is moving in their lives, matters too. The first communities after Easter struggled with this. We struggle too. But this call from God, to be a community that embodies everything that Jesus is about, continues. That's our mission and our job.


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