Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.
The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so. It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.
In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware. Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now? If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?” The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.
But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.
I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience? Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life. We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves. The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.
Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy? Do you like sex, the experience of sex? Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?
Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy? If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.
Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.
It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does. Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.
Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game. The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.
Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences. It reads:
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work. And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.
While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living. He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.
In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.
The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur. These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.
While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2? What larger narrative is at work behind this summary? And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?
The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts. We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church. We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation. Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.
Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost. This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit. The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole. But let’s not stop there.
Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke! The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.
If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable. If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church. If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.
Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings. At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.
It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.
Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.
In a world without Easter, we cling to our life. In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.
The early church knew how to grasp their death. They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it. They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.
The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,
“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”
Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47. Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.
Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God. People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have. The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”
In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.
One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end. This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.
I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.
As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed. The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ. When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.
But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.
I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago. After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land. I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel. Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.
After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him. I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching. I wanted to eat with him again, break bread. I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work. I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner. I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.
When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed. His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here. Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things. He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could. If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.
Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.
Discover the resurrection of Jesus. Discover death. Lean into it. Find life. Find Freedom.