Beginning in January 1977, the nation was captivated by the moving drama “Roots,” which told of the origin and earliest days of an African-American family. It enabled people to see their African-American brothers and sisters in a new light as a people with a noble heritage who had undergone the horrible sufferings of slavery and racial hatred. It also fostered a concern for roots and the study of family beginnings throughout the country. From our past we can learn what we have become, and perhaps what we should be.
The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the subsequent narrative of the growth and spread of Jesus’ disciples throughout the Mediterranean world place us at the roots of our faith. Throughout history the church has recalled the vita apostolica, the life of the early community, as both an ideal and a paradigm for its life. On this Pentecost, as we approach “ordinary time,” memories of this historical beginning and the early years of the church can guide us.
Prior to his ascension, the risen Jesus tells his disciples that they will “receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you,” so that they will become witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This provides an overture to the expanding mission of the church as it moves centrifugally outward from Jerusalem. Pentecost fulfills Jesus’ promise as those gathered are baptized with the Holy Spirit and begin to witness the power of God, when, speaking their own language, they are understood by people representing the geographical boundaries of the known world. This presents a reversal of the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) and anticipates the universal mission.
The dramatic coming of the Spirit does not cease with Pentecost. In Acts (often called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit”), the crucial breakthroughs in the early Christian mission occur through the coming of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes upon the Samaritans at their conversion (8:17-18), and the long narrative of the “Pentecost of the Gentiles” (Acts 10) tells the story of Peter’s “conversion” when he realizes that “the gift of the Spirit had been poured out even on the gentiles.” At the critical council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Holy Spirit moves the community to admit gentiles without the requirement of circumcision, which had functioned for a millennium as a sign of God’s covenant and for which Jewish people had suffered martyrdom. The missionary journeys of Paul extend throughout the Mediterranean world under the power of the Spirit.
In Acts the Holy Spirit is the empowering and creative gift of God. Not only does the Spirit move the community outward in mission, it forms a church that is inclusive. Gathered at Pentecost are not only the Twelve, but women, who were most likely those who followed Jesus in Galilee, were present at his death and received first the resurrection proclamation. Mary, who was not mentioned by name after Luke 1-2, is present, and all receive the gift of the Spirit. Throughout Acts Luke pointedly adds women to the company of believers and to those persecuted for the faith, and later Hellenistic women of means support the mission of Paul, while Priscilla and her husband Aquila are leaders and teachers in the Pauline communities.
Acts presents a favorable view of those who have not yet heard the Christian message. The Spirit moves Philip to approach the Ethiopian court official who is reading Isaiah and immediately asks for baptism. Even prior to his conversion, Cornelius is “devout and god-fearing,” gives alms to the Jewish people and prays “constantly.” On the Hill of Mars in Athens, Paul sees an altar to an “unknown God” and tells the Athenians that the God they were worshipping is the creator and parent of the human race (Acts 17:11-34).
The Spirit shapes the inner life of the community. Luke offers an epitome of Christian life as groups joyfully gather in prayer, giving attention to the teaching of the Apostles, breaking the bread and sharing their goods and lives so that economic and social distinctions are transcended (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35). As the community moves forward in mission, persecution does not destroy it but stimulates it to further endeavor; and Christians speak constantly with courage and boldness. The joy with which the Gospel itself opens characterizes the life of the believers.
Pope John XXIII prayed that the Second Vatican Council would evoke a “new Pentecost” in the church, and many new movements manifest the presence of the Spirit, such as the charismatic presence of John Paul II, the growth of the church in Africa and the success of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But there are other movements, and some people, when they hear the wind rustling through the house, quickly put up storm windows. The Spirit seems often identified with institutional centralization and power, and movements like basic Christian communities are viewed with suspicion. Rather paradoxically, the fastest growing groups of Christians, especially in the “two-thirds world,” are Pentecostals, whose theology and life reflect Acts, often literally. They are God-centered, stress transforming religious experience, appeal to the poor and disenfranchised and thrive as small communities without centralized organization. As the church celebrates its roots in the Pentecost event and moves into ordinary time, Acts provides a manual of discipleship for a church in mission through the ages and reminds us that the Spirit works in wondrous and surprising ways.