Who doesn’t want to be like the early church?! I know I do. Who wouldn’t want supernatural signs of the presence of God such as speaking in foreign tongues and having tongues of fire over one’s head and having 3000 people turn to Christ in one day?! Who doesn’t want the unity, the joy, the growth, and the excitement?
Then why don’t we have these things?
There are 2 general answers. On the one hand, we could all be a bunch of spiritual losers who just don’t measure up to the faith and love and holiness of the early church. In this theory, the church has been on the road to de-evolution (“Are we not men? We are Devo”) ever since the first century.
But I’ve got a problem with this theory. If the church has been in decay ever since, shouldn’t we have evaporated by now? Shouldn’t we all have become devils? The truth is the early church was not as universally holy as we make it out to be, and we’re not as universally on the highway to Hell as we make the world out to be.
Theory B, please. Theory B is that the things of the early church were needed for a particular time in the early life of the church, and these things have passed away. We shouldn’t look for such things because God works in different ways now.
Certainly, there’s a lot of truth in Theory B. Most Christians who have ever lived never spoken in tongues and never will. God’s miraculous manifestations have never been the normal way He comes to us, and they never will be. I’m not holding my breath for Him to place tongues of fire over my head or manifest Himself through me to thousands by a mighty rushing wind around me.
But surely there’s something about the early church that we all love and want to emulate. If we don’t have the kind of love, unity, and joy they had, then we ought to examine ourselves for the reasons why. On the other hand, we live in very different circumstances from the 1st century church in Jerusalem, and sometimes our inherited assumptions about the church and how it ought to be need to be re-evaluated.
Maybe there’s a theory C, in which we are to be like the early church in principle but not in every detail. Maybe there’s a way to affirm the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives without falling into a dead literalism in reading Acts that misinterprets the work of the Spirit today. I sure hope so!
All of this is to say that when we read through Acts, or the letters to the churches in the New Testament, we should look with both of our eyes opened and focused. With one eye, we should see what the Spirit wants to show us about how we should live as His Temple. This may be a painful and challenging process. With the other eye, we should look and see that not every detail about the early church is normative for our experience today. Just because something happened in the book of Acts or the early church doesn’t mean that it has to happen that way today.
For today, I choose to allow myself to be both inspired and challenged by the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early church. In Pentecost, I am reminded that the Holy Spirit is alive and well on planet earth. He may not come in the same way as He did to the apostles in Acts 2. But He is just as alive and active. My job, and yours, today, is to look for signs that He is here among us. Think of it as a spiritual scavenger hunt. Only you’d better be prepared to look in some unlikely and ordinary places.
The Case of the Missing Holy Spirit in our lives is like Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter,” in which the most important letter was invisible because it was so visible and out in the open that it was overlooked.
By Pentecost, I am assured that Jesus Christ truly ascended and now reigns at the right hand of the Father. Pentecost is a sinew that connects the ascended Christ with His Body here on earth. On Pentecost, Jesus Christ truly began continue to do and teach the things He began while He was physically on earth.
And therefore every day in the life of a Christian is a day of Pentecost. Every day is a Feast of Firstfruits, in which we give thanks that the Lord has provided increase in our lives by His Spirit. Every day is a new giving of the Law, the Law that is written on our fleshy hearts and not on stony tablets. Every day is a day that we are enabled to keep God’s holy Law because by His Spirit we are united to Christ and His righteousness.
Every day is a new Genesis 1 in which we are given life and renewed in the inner man by the Holy Spirit, and every day is a day that the Spirit of God has breathed new life into us, the life that is the Son. Every day is the day that our dry bones are made alive and the promise of the resurrection is renewed, even as it’s rehearsed by our daily ritual of rising from sleep. Every day is the undoing of Babel and a false human attempt at unity, for every day is another day spent in the unity of the Spirit who makes real to us the one Body and one Spirit, the one God, one faith, and one baptism.
Every day is a day for us to truly be the Body of Jesus Christ once again. No matter how much we may have disintegrated or strayed since yesterday, today is the day of Pentecost, and the Church and her marks are all here, every day.
The church is one, and so we are called to be of one accord and to share a common space and share common lives. I’m currently reading a book about the ways in which the Internet and new media are restructuring the way the church is. Your very act of reading this is one embodiment of this, for without the Internet, there would be no Give Us This Day and many of you would not know me.
The Church is holy, represented by the tongues of fire. The Spirit of Christ is the Holy Spirit of God, and so if we want what the early Church had we must seek their holiness.
The Church is catholic, represented by the tongues from many different nations. Even while we inhabit our local churches, we must also seek the fullness of the church in our cities and towns and lives.
The Church is apostolic, and so we must hear anew every day the words and teaching of the apostles, and enter into their holy lives.
Who wants to be like the early Church? Then seek to hear and see and feel the Holy Spirit today. For if you truly find the Church, there you will find the Spirit, and where you truly find the Spirit, there you will find the Church.
Prayer: Holy Spirit, powerful Consoler, sacred Bond of the Father and the Son, Hope of the afflicted, descend into my heart and establish in it your loving dominion. Enkindle in my tepid soul the fire of your Love so that I may be wholly subject to you. We believe that when you dwell in us, you also prepare a dwelling for the Father and the Son. Deign, therefore, to come to me, Consoler of abandoned souls, and Protector of the needy. Help the afflicted, strengthen the weak, and support the wavering. Come and purify me. Let no evil desire take possession of me. You love the humble and resist the proud. Come to me, glory of the living, and hope of the dying. Lead me by your grace that I may always be pleasing to you. Amen. (Saint Augustine of Hippo)
Point for Meditation:
- Sing an appropriate hymn such as “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove” or “Come Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire” (Hymns #369 and #217, respectively, in the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal).
- In what ways might the Holy Spirit be coming into your life today? Prepare for such visitations that when they occur, you will be ready to respond appropriately.
Resolution: I resolve to seek one thing in the presence of the Holy Spirit today: peace, love, joy, unity, or whatever else He is telling me I most need.
Pentecost, San Marco Milan – By permission of copyright holder