Altered by the Spirit

February 18, 2024
Acts 2:1-16, 38-47

This year during Lent, as Mary Jo said, instead of the traditional lectionary that gives us stories from the life of Jesus, we will be looking at the book of Acts. It’s not that the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry are not important. Of course they are. As Anabaptists, we spend a lot of time with them, we learn from them, even try to emulate Jesus’ life. And this year during lent, we will tell the stories of what happens after Jesus is gone. What do his followers do then?

Our theme, “Altered by the Spirit” gives us freedom to do things a little differently – altering the traditional lenten texts, even altering the order of service today and moving communion to the end of the service. I wonder what else will be altered as we go through this season.

In Acts 2, we get the story of what happens fifty days after Jesus’ devastating crucifixion and inexplicable resurrection. The disciples are – still or almost or already – finding their footing. One might imagine that after a traumatic event like seeing your beloved leader executed by the state that the disciples would hide in fear for a while. And they do – in John’s version of the gospel. But the writer of Luke/Acts (Acts is book two of the writer’s gospel) sometimes has  more rosy outlook. Here the disciples are depicted as continuing on with their lives. When you live under an oppressive empire, maybe you don’t have time for a complete grief process. Or when you write the story a generation after the events happen, you don’t include all the unhappy details. Luke’s version has the disciples carrying on. So as we saw with the children, the disciples are gathered in a room to observe Shavuot.

We often call the Acts 2 Pentecost story the “birthday of the church.” But let’s be clear; these followers of Jesus are Jewish. They are gathered for the Jewish observance of Shavuot – the spring celebration of Moses receiving the ten commandments. It is celebrated 50 days after Passover so it is sometimes called Pentecost. Jews, from many countries, who live in Jerusalem gather for the festival. Some Jews make the trek back to Jerusalem from their faraway homes for the celebration. Though they speak many different languages and are from a variety of cultures they are all Jewish and they have gathered to mark this great gift: Moses receiving the commandments.

This is an unusual text to turn to on the first Sunday of Lent. We usually tell the story of Jesus going into the desert after his baptism, and fasting for forty days. There he is tempted by the devil. In Luke’s version Jesus is totally alone, (unlike in Mark and Matthew where angels attend him.)

In this season of being altered, instead of that lonely, famished in the desert text, we have this story in the city with lots and lots of people being baptized and eating together. And Jesus is not there at all. Though, the same Spirit that was present with Jesus is present in this story.

As Luke tells it, Peter quotes a lot of scripture in his big Pentecost sermon. Peter, the one who denied knowing Jesus less than two months earlier, has now become a very convincing preacher. He quotes the prophet Joel and psalms and he tells the crowd about Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans. I imagine it like one of those tent meetings of old, or maybe the mega church arena gatherings today, where thousands are present. There is Peter; he knows how to turn a phrase. He knows how to raise his voice and then turn to a whisper at just the right moment. And that very day about 3000 were added to the number of those converted.

We hear that the text says about 3000 were “converted.” And we who grew up Christian know what that means, it means they became Christian. But Peter is not trying to “convert” people from being Jewish. He is trying to help them be even better Jews. He is pointing them back to the tradition. He explains Jesus to them, how Jesus fits into this Jewish life. And a town-sized group of people understand in a new way what it means to be faithful. They are converted.

So if they aren’t converted from being Jewish to being Christian, (since there was no Christian church yet) what does this mean? How are they converted?

The next verses tell us what conversion looks like: They embrace a new communal life, breaking bread and praying. They live together and share all things in common. They sell their property and goods, share the proceeds as each one has need. That is some real life conversion.

It reminds me of another story that Luke (19) tells – and only Luke’s gospel includes it. Remember Zacchaeus, the very rich and number one tax collector, who encounters Jesus and invites him to dinner in his home? Wealthy Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ teaching, that he decides to give half of his possessions to poor people. And pay back those he has defrauded – four times the amount they were cheated. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus was converted.

To my ears, knowing that these two stories are written by the same author, Jesus’ proclamation sounds a little bit like what Peter says to the people, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” And they were convinced. (It probably didn’t hurt that the apostles were performing “signs and wonders.” That was probably also pretty convincing.)

Peter says “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” They have been taken in by the empire. Some of these people have gotten rich and they have forgotten what it means to be faithful Jews. When they hear Peter’s words, they understand in a new way what life can mean, what shared life with others can mean. Like Zacchaeus, the rich people decide to sell their wealth and share with others who have more need. They alter their lives and choose a new way to live.

In this new life, they are still Jewish. In verse 46 it says Day by day they spent much time in the Temple. They faithfully gather with other Jews. They break bread together in their homes every day. (Some of them still have homes.) This brings them new joy, new clearness of heart. It seems that the way this community is living – supporting each other, attending temple, sharing food and resources – is a model and inspiration to others. Day by day their numbers grow and why not? It is a struggle to find meaning and joy living under the oppressive Roman Empire. But these followers of Jesus have found a way. Even though the Romans executed their beloved leader and prophet Jesus, these followers have found a way to keep living with meaning and joy.

Whether this all really happened and for how long communal living lasted is a question that scholars don’t agree on. It may just be something that the new converts tried as an emergency measure – because with 3000 baptized people coming together all of a sudden, they had to find a way to provide. Selling their stuff and sharing the wealth was a temporary fix in an extraordinary situation. Some contemporary scholars say, “Sure help each other out from time to time in an emergency (Acts 4:34-35) but really, God’s plan is for each of us to support ourselves. After all the apostle Paul had a job as a tent maker.” (David W. Jones)

Then there are scholars like African-American, Willie James Jennings, who view it differently. Jennings writes A new kind of giving is exposed at this moment, one that binds bodies together as the first reciprocal donation – where the followers will give themselves to one another. The possessions will follow. What was at stake here was not the giving up of all possessions but the giving up of each one, one by one as the Spirit gave direction, and as the ministry of Jesus made demand.”

 There it is, the Spirit is at work. The people’s understandings of who they are and how they are connected to each other are altered by the Spirit. They begin to understand Jesus’ ministry in very concrete ways, like Zacchaeus did.

But how long did that kind “socialism” last in the community? And did it spread to other communities in Corinth or Thessalonica or Ephesus? And more importantly, are we supposed to sell our stuff and share like that too? Is that what conversion means? Is that what being “altered by the Spirit” looks like?

Jennings answers those questions this way: The real questions are not whether this holy communalism…could …be practical in this ancient world or any world, but what must it have been like to feel the powerful pull of the life of our savior, and what energy did it take to resist the Holy Spirit, to slow down this pull enough to withhold themselves and their possessions from divine desire.”

In other words, Jennings asks – did it take more energy to resist the Spirit than to go along with it?

I think about it this way: The Empire believes that it can control the Jewish people. It taxes their work, their homes, their property, even the temple. The Empire is determined to control people through deprivation and fear. But the Jews that respond to Peter’s preaching, they let the power of the Spirit blow away the Empire’s threats – to their stuff and their lives. Instead they experience an invitation, a “powerful pull,” from the Spirit to change their priorities. Are they surprised by the new freedom they find? With joyful and sincere hearts they took their meals in common. This is a kind of freedom that the Empire cannot take away. The Spirit not only alters the lives of these Jewish followers, it alters the power the Empire has over them. They realize, in sharing, that there is enough.

In this season of lent, when we are being altered by the Spirit, I wonder what it would be like to alter our own routines. In Acts, we read that the people shared meals every day. What would it look like to share a meal with another household once a week? Or clear out that closet of stuff that isn’t used anymore? Or make a stretch donation to LAR. Or read the whole book of Acts. These are small steps but they might be easier than fasting?

In this season of Lent, we will hear stories from the book of Acts where people have strange and unusual experiences, where this unpredictable Holy Spirit is at work disrupting expectations and lives. How will the Spirit alter us this lenten season? How will hearing these stories of the Jewish community impact us? How might our understandings be changed? How will our hearts experience joy and new clarity?

May the powerful pull of the life of Jesus and the strong wind of the Spirit – guide us in this season.