Listening for the Holy Spirit – Learning from the life of the Apostolic Church

Dr Luke Macnamara, a scripture scholar at St Patrick’s Pontifical University Maynooth, reminds us of how we can learn from the Apostles when listening for the ways of the Spirit.

As is clear from the first line of Acts, Luke the author of the Gospel of Luke is also the author of the book of Acts. The book of Acts recounts the beginnings of the Apostolic Church. It is traditionally known as “the Acts of the Apostles”, though some scholars argue that it might be more appropriate to designate the book, “the Acts of the Holy Spirit”.

This is an acknowledgement of the prominent role of the Spirit in the book of Acts. The Spirit is implicitly present throughout the narrative, but it is especially active and visible at key moments in the narrative, when major changes in direction of the Church take place.

A time of waiting for the promise of the father

The Gospel of Luke concludes with the teaching of Jesus and his ascension. This final teaching is very significant. It includes the full witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fruits of this mystery repentance and the forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24:44-48).

For this to happen the disciples must first receive the promise from the Father, power from on high which Jesus will send them (Luke 24:49). In the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke summarises his first volume as containing all that Jesus taught and did from the beginning until the day when he was taken up into heaven (Acts 1:1).

Luke emphasises the final instruction through the Holy Spirit that the disciples received from Jesus before he ascended (Acts 1:2). Jesus’ teaching is at the heart of the Gospel, and the final act of the risen Jesus is to hand over his teaching to his disciples through the Spirit.

While the Gospel concludes with the Ascension, in Acts Luke rewinds to before the Ascension to emphasise the handing over of the teaching through the Spirit. The Risen Jesus’ teaching and the Spirit are both necessary for disciples to accurately hear, discern, and respond. Disciples cannot share this Spirit-mediated teaching without first receiving the Spirit promised by the Father. The disciples must wait in Jerusalem to receive this gift.

Empowered by the Spirit, the disciples will then be able to assume the Spirit-mediated teaching and become proclaimers of the Risen Lord’s teaching. Note should be taken of the care with which Luke arranges his narrative.

There is no premature teaching by the disciples. They must first receive the Spirit which empowers them to teach, and they must also be formed by the Spirit-mediated teaching, which shapes disciples’ language, thought, behaviour, to become like that of Christ. It is the Father and the Spirit who set the timetable for recruitment and formation of disciples for preaching and ministry in Acts.

The disciples actively await the Spirit

The Pentecost account begins very succinctly. The disciples were gathered in one place, but nothing is said about what they are doing (Acts 2:1). The wider context of Luke-Acts gives us clues. The disciples during gatherings with the Risen Jesus often receive teaching (Luke 24:13-27, 44-49) and share a meal (Luke 24:29-31, 41-43; Acts 1:4).

At the final encounter with the Risen Jesus, the disciples are told to await the promised Spirit (Acts 1:6). Obedient to the final command of the Lord, they return to the city to the upper room, where they pray constantly (Acts 1:14). This is not a passive waiting. During their constant prayer, they share the teaching of the Lord and celebrate the meal.

Between the time of promise and fulfilment, the disciples actively prepare to receive and welcome the Spirit, through following the example and teaching of the risen Christ.

The fire of Pentecost

The experience of the coming of the Spirit is mysterious. Suddenly, from heaven there is a sound like a violent wind that fills the whole house and tongues as of fire rest on each of them. The violence of the wind might be translated as “vital” or “full of life” and recalls the resurrection, a gift appropriate for an Easter people.

The heavenly origin of the wind indicates that it is from God. Even the suddenness of the action is characteristic of the divine. Fire has multiple connotations in the Bible. Sometimes it points to judgement. It also signifies the protective presence of the Lord as in the pillar of fire that accompanied the people by night during the forty years in the desert (Exod 13:21) or a divine revelation as in God’s appearance to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:2-6) or the divine presence on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:18).

These allusions point to multiple functions of the fiery Spirit. The Spirit reveals the good and the bad, allowing for discernment and judgement either for salvation or condemnation. The allusions to the pillar of fire suggest the ongoing protective, caring, and guiding role of the Spirit, while the allusions to the burning bush or Sinai suggest the opening of a relationship with the divine through the Spirit.

The form of the fire, the tongues, point more directly to a communicative function. The tongue is the organ of speech. The Spirit-mediated teaching has already been received by the disciples from the risen Jesus. Now they are empowered with the life force of the Spirit to preach and teach all nations.

This is confirmed by the ability of Jewish pilgrim groups from various parts of the ancient world to understand the disciples’ preaching (Acts 2:5-12). The content of the preaching is Jesus, the core teaching of his death and resurrection (Acts 4:2, 18; 5:21-28, 42) and the fruits of this mystery, namely, repentance and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31).

The Spirit is intimately connected with the Father who has promised it, and with the Son who has revealed its coming and whose ministry occurs in and through the Spirit. The empowerment of the disciples with the Spirit at Pentecost works in concert with the Spirit-mediated teaching of Jesus. The metaphor of tongue and speech works well to combine both.

The tongues of fire enable the speech and the Spirit-mediated teaching provides the words. This allows for both the freedom of the Spirit to empower and inspire but also helps to assess inspired contributions according to the Spirit-inspired teaching of Jesus, to which Christians individually and collectively must constantly return and listen to attentively with the ear of the heart, attentive to the same Spirit which both inspires and teaches.

The descent of the Spirit upon Gentiles at Caesarea and Ephesus

After Pentecost, there are further outpourings of the Spirit on the community, when gathered in prayer which result in renewed preaching (Acts 4:31).

The Gentiles gathered in the house of the centurion Cornelius receive the Spirit while listening to Peter’s proclamation of the teaching of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection and the possibility of forgiveness of sins that results (Acts 10:34-48).

In a Gentile parallel to Pentecost, twelve men at Ephesus after hearing Paul’s preaching are baptised and then following the laying on of hands receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues (Acts 19:5- 7). From these three accounts, the coming of the Spirit is associated with gatherings for prayer and teaching, and the liturgical actions of baptism and the laying on of hands. While focus is very much on the liturgical actions, since they are most visible, prayer and teaching are foundational for reception of the Spirit.

All church gatherings that seek the aid of the Spirit require prayer and attentive listening to the word, the teaching of the Lord. It is the Spirit who inspires all prayer and apostolic teaching, who opens hearts to hear and to receive the words and thereby moulds hearts to receive the Spirit. It is from such hearts that the Spirit can then speak.

The Spirit and mission

The extension of the mission is signalled in advance both at the end of the Gospel of Luke and at the beginning of Acts, on each occasion just prior to Jesus’ Ascension. The extension of the mission is spoken of in ethnic terms in the Gospel (all nations [Luke 24:47]) and in geographic terms in Acts (Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the ends of the earth [Acts 1:8]).

In both cases the Spirit is the force that will empower the mission (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). This prediction is fulfilled as the mission extends outwards from Jerusalem to new zones and new peoples.

Philip is directly guided by the Spirit when he goes to preach to the God-fearing Ethiopian (Acts 8), while the meeting of Peter and Cornelius, prompted by divine visions and the Spirit, results in the extension of the mission to his Gentile household (Acts 10).

It is perhaps easy to overlook the enormity of the extension of the mission to the Gentiles. Luke takes time to narrate this event in full and will return to it again in later chapters. Peter during prayer has a vision of all kinds of animals descending to him in a sheet and he hears a command telling him to kill and eat the animals.

Peter acts in conformity with the law and refuses to eat anything unclean but then the command comes a further two times (Acts 10:9-15). When messengers arrive from Cornelius asking that he come to him, the Spirit commands Peter that he go with them explaining that he, the Spirit, had sent them (Acts 10:19-20).

The change suggested by the divine vision is confirmed by the Spirit as it sends Peter to Cornelius and his household. Peter accepts this command by going to Cornelius and he re-affirms the teaching of the vision and the Spirit when he preaches that God shows no partiality and that people of all nations may come to him (Acts 10:34-35).

The Word of God of the Old Testament is here reinterpreted by Peter through the teaching and prompting of the Spirit. Sharing food with Gentiles now becomes possible. The coming of the Spirit upon the household while Peter is proclaiming the Gospel to them is confirmation that they are to be included among the baptised. This major development will be retold by Peter when he returns to Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18) and he will again refer to it at the later Jerusalem meeting (Acts 15:7-11).

The Spirit is intimately involved in mission from beginning to end. It is the initiating force for disciples to become missionaries (Acts 1:8) and the prompting voice or inspiration to move to new pastoral opportunities (Acts 8; 10).

The Spirit also invites reinterpretation of the purity laws with respect to food to allow Jews and Gentiles to share the same table. In this, the Spirit takes a surprising turn, but there are multiple promptings to guide the disciples along the way.

The Spirit in times of decision

The dispute concerning the distribution of food to widows between the Hellenists and the Hebrews leads to a convocation of the whole community (Acts 6:1-2). The twelve propose that seven be chosen who would fulfil the task of the service of tables. The seven are to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. The standing of the seven is reflective of their fullness of the Spirit.

The community welcomes the decision of the twelve and choose seven to serve tables. The choice is confirmed as the word of God continues to spread and new disciples are added to the community through both the twelve and the seven as will be seen in the ministry of Stephen and Philip (Acts 7; 8).

A later dispute develops at Antioch that all newcomers to the faith must be circumcised to become disciples. This leads to the church there sending a delegation to Jerusalem where a very heated debate occurs.

The Apostles and Elders convene to address the issue. Several prominent figures speak, namely, Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James who concludes the discussion and proposes a solution. The letter from the Apostles and Elders to the Gentiles at Antioch and surrounding provinces specifies the parties at the outset before recapitulating the issue at stake.

The letter then delivers the adjudication of the assembly but in rather striking terms: “The Holy Spirit and we have decided” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit is front and centre and only afterwards the Apostles and Elders subsumed under the personal pronoun “us”.

This is a striking example of how although the Spirit had not been mentioned in the account of the gathering, those attending and especially those speaking are known to be full of the Spirit and therefore open to its promptings. The reading of the signs of the expanding mission and the testimony of the apostles is interpreted through the Spirit as a faithful expression of the divine purpose.

The Spirit and Synodality – Some suggestions

There is a paradox regarding the Spirit. It always comes first, initiating and accompanying teaching and preaching leading people to belief. However, it is something that disciples and communities must wait for. Jesus speaks of the Spirit as the promised gift of the Father, but it is he the Son who will send the Spirit.

The coming of the Spirit, therefore, involves the whole Trinity. This time of waiting is not one of inaction. The disciples come together to pray and to share the teaching of the Lord. The prayer is profoundly Trinitarian since it is addressed to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. The prayer is an expression of the disciples’ relationship with the Trinity and opens to a deepening of this relationship through the imminent reception of the Spirit.

In addition, Jesus’ teaching provides the words or vocabulary for this prayer, and he models prayer for the disciples. The shared life and liturgy form a fertile ground for reception of the Spirit. The gathering of the disciples is not a network of relationships closed in on itself but looks to the coming of the Spirit so that those relationships may be transformed.

As the Spirit takes hold, the fire of the Spirit melts hardened hearts and so the gathering becomes a unified community. Our regular speech is carried by the breath that we breathe outwards. Here, the fiery tongues give voice to the words that Jesus has taught us, articulating them in ways that build up the community to be in communion with God.

The Spirit always precedes in a twofold way any missionary endeavour. All missionaries are filled with the Spirit, but there is also a further prompting of the Spirit to initiate a mission. There are some surprising turns in the mission which extends to include Gentiles and people from the ends of the earth. The Spirit does indeed blow wherever it wishes (John 3:8) and has its sights set on the whole world.

The tower of Babel led to inability to understand others and division. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is a reversal of Babel whereby we become capable of communicating and hearing one another and overcoming division.

The dynamic of the Spirit-directed mission is one of overcoming barriers to unite the human family with God and bring peace. The Spirit plays a key role at moments of challenge within and beyond the community of believers.

While speeches and interventions at the assembly of the Apostles and Elders get most “airtime” in the narrative of the Jerusalem meeting (Acts 15), the concluding letter aptly summarises the directing role of the Spirit: “The Spirit and us have decided”.

There is a profound wisdom here that might be emphasised for today. Listening to the Spirit is required in advance, during, and after deliberations, since the Spirit inspires, accompanies, and brings to completion all our human endeavours.

The Spirit should also be invoked for and by those who will hear the results of the deliberations. Thereby, the same Spirit will be at work both in the production of any new decisions and in their understanding by the faithful. So, hopefully, shall our endeavours conform to the divine will and so will they share the perspective of eternity.

Dr Luke Macnamara is a member of the Benedictines and a lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth.

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