Bible Study | April 27, 2023

The birth of the church

Drawing of a dove in front of a cross and flame above a crowd of cartoon people of all colors
Image by Gerd Altmann on

Acts 2:1-42

The Acts of the Apostles can be a confusing, even unsatisfying, book. It switches its focus from one apostle to another without telling anyone’s story from beginning to end. Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul—all figure prominently, then disappear. Others come into sharp focus like a meteor, then fade from view.

Nor does Acts have a proper ending. It just stops at a crisis point, with Paul under house arrest in Rome, awaiting his trial before the emperor. Where’s the sequel? Acts II!

An editor with Luke’s manuscript in front of her might have asked him to devise a more coherent plot line. Maybe Luke would have explained that what he was really doing was writing a history of the Holy Spirit in the early church, and that’s why no one person is the focus of this book.

If Acts is a history of the Holy Spirit, then the second chapter is crucial. With “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit undoes the damage of Babel, breaking down the linguistic barriers that separated humanity into artificial tribes and nations, and began the process of calling us together as one humanity in Jesus Christ.

When the pilgrims who had come from across the Roman Empire to Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration all hear Peter speak in their own languages, it is one more proof that the Holy Spirit is present, and was also present in the past through prophets like Joel, who once said, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Acts 2:17-18).

The Holy Spirit, we discover, is not for one nation, nor is it limited to royalty, or one brand of faith. As Paul will tell the Athenians, God’s Spirit was already preached among them, claiming they’d already heard the good news of God through their poet Aratus, who wrote, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28).

This is big.

The room where it happened

My favorite song in the musical Hamilton! is “The Room Where It Happened.” Aaron Burr laments the fact that a secret swap (congressional votes for Hamilton’s grand vision of a national bank in exchange for placing the national capital in the South to benefit slave owners like Jefferson and Madison) was made in a backroom to which he has no access.

Luke also wrote about the room where it happened, where great events take place. In this case it’s an upper room, which served as a center for hospitality, a hideout, a harbor, and a haven.

Between the Passover and Pentecost, the disciples experienced the risen Lord, the teachings of Jesus, and received their commission here in this upper room. And then, before they were sent headlong into the world with the good news, there’s a deep breath, and the upper room becomes a harbor.

We are programmed to think that action means activities—constant motion—and feel guilty if we pause to catch our breath. But rest and respite are a part of the natural order of lives. We need to recharge our batteries, whether we think so or not. Our time in harbor means refitting ourselves, taking advantage of workshops, resources, and networking, as well as just plain stopping. Regardless of how long that time in harbor may be or what heights God guides us toward, the Holy Spirit is always with us.

Later, after the events of Acts 2, the apostles spill out into the streets and some of them move farther and farther from Jerusalem. However, they still need a haven where they can eat together, worship together, and in times of crisis, pray together.

That upper room was a place with meaning, rich history, and was available when needed. Later (see Acts 12:1-17) when persecution was ramped up by Herod Agrippa to suit his own political purposes and James was killed and Peter arrested, the upper room (which had already become one of the house churches of Jerusalem) became the place where people automatically gathered for prayer.

This launching pad for the church was not a museum, but a place where relationships were redefined. We can see that the room’s owner, Mary the mother of Mark, and Rhoda, a slave, ignored social boundaries. It was a place where miracles happened, even when it seemed as if they couldn’t possibly occur. It was a haven—for active ministry. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church can change direction, be the pivot point, yet remain rooted in the faith of our fathers and mothers. It is the backdrop to God’s never-ending story.

Harvest time

The word Pentecost refers to the 50 days after Passover, which was the time when the first fruits of spring planting were harvested. Our Jewish cousins call it Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks.

For many of us who have gardens, harvest is fun. Our gardens provide fresh taste and variety to our meals, but harvest is not a matter of life or death. If our tomatoes disappoint us this season, we won’t starve.

But for most people in most generations, harvest was a matter of life or death. Pentecost celebrated the fact that the barren earth had once more, through hard work and God’s blessings, given life and hope.

Giving God the credit doesn’t mean we should do nothing and simply wait for God to act. Farmers know when rain prevents them from getting out in the field there’s still plenty to be done to prepare for the harvest. In God’s harvest, we have to do our part as well. We can pray. We can study the Bible. We can be faithful in attendance. We can be open to the outsiders who will demonstrate that the Bible really works! And we can find things to do.

Every year the harvest is different. In the same way, the action of the Holy Spirit is different, too. Sometimes our tomatoes are bountiful. Other years our spaghetti squash is more memorable. So, too, the harvest in our churches may be measured in attendance, but the Spirit may also enrich the spirit of a very small church to serve more richly and bountifully than they or their neighbors imagined.

Fast-forward 17 centuries

Following the first Brethren baptism in 1708, our faith ancestors were hounded from place to place as they searched for sanctuary in Europe. In 1719, Brethren temporarily split over the issue of whether one could marry someone outside the faith, and half the church crossed the Atlantic Ocean, always a dangerous proposition, and arrived in Germantown, Pa. (The other half would follow in 1729, by which time the rift had been healed, probably because the small band of Brethren realized just how small their gene pool was!)

Those first arrivals had to work hard to establish themselves in various crafts and as farmers, so it was nearly four years before they finally came together for worship. The inspiration for this was a rumor, unfounded, that a favorite preacher named Christian Liebe had arrived in Philadelphia.

Though the story proved untrue, the Brethren, under the leadership of Peter Becker, decided to gather on Christmas Day 1723 at a home near Germantown for their first love feast in the New World, which was preceded by several baptisms where they literally broke the ice in the nearby Wissahickon River.

The hardy band of Brethren were so inspired by this event that, the next fall after harvest, the “Fourteen Evangelists,” as they were called, “the entire male membership . . . set out on foot and on horseback on October 23, 1724” (Fruit of the Vine, Donald F. Durnbaugh, Brethren Press, 1997, p. 77) on a missionary trip that resulted in further baptisms and the founding of churches. Those early Brethren looked on this as their own Pentecost.

Frank Ramirez is pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Indiana.