SCRIPTURE STUDY: Jerusalem Spring

Following the initial Pentecost event, where a new moment in salvation history is signaled by the reversal of the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, Peter delivers a speech invoking Isaiah, Joel and the Psalms of David to interpret the experience of this new fledgling community of Jesus’ followers (Acts 2:14-36). The passage ends with Peter’s claim that “this Jesus whom you crucified” has been made by God “Lord and Messiah”. The terms “Lord” and “Messiah” when applied to Jesus have now to us lost nearly all of the shock value that they would have had for that first generation audience. The titles “Lord” and “Messiah” would have carried political as well as theological meaning for Jews and others during the time of the early church. They are titles which bring up a tension between Jesus and any other ruling power, party or individual. Especially in Luke’s writing (the author of the gospel and Acts), the “lordship” of Jesus is juxtapposed to the “lordship” of Caesar. To claim Jesus as Lord is to make a political statement that goes against the current political arrangements of the time. And to invoke Jesus as “Messiah” would have also stirred up Jews against the current political and religious status quo, especially Jews who were awaiting a Messianic leader like David to free them from Roman oppression. We cannot take these titles lightly, nor ignore the politically-charged emphasis of such a claim as Peter makes. To call Jesus “Lord” and “Messiah” is to make a definitive pronouncement against the powers of nation, party, and president as to our deepest allegiance.

The people’s response to Peter is telling (2:37): they are “cut to the heart”, signifying a genuine and passionate guilt and pain over their participation in Jesus’ arrest, sentencing and death (remember the way the crowds were manipulated by the religious leaders against Jesus). Peter’s invitation to them (38) when they ask what they can do is to repentance and baptism, two words that should recall an earlier figure in Luke’s gospel to us–John the Baptist.  If we look back to Luke 3:10-14, we see the template for this passage in Acts. The crowds are asking John the same question: What are we to do? John’s repentance consists of this: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the one who has none; and whoever has food should do likewise.” When the same question is again asked, this time by the tax collectors who had grown rich off the people’s misery by accommodating and serving the Romans and cheating their own people, John tells them to “stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” To soldiers, “do not practice extortion. . .” and so on. The sign that one has truly repented is the practice of justice in relationship with other human beings, especially toward those to whom we have taken advantage of because of their relative lack of power and our ability to exercise power over them. What we have therefore in Peter’s answer to the people is not some “spiritual” repentance; rather, Peter calls the people to the practice of justice as evidence of their change of heart.

What we see later in the chapter (2:42-27) is that Peter’s call to an ethic rooted in repentance and evidenced by the practice of justice is the very ethic by which the early Christian community will live. They “devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,” a teaching which we have seen is not esoteric and spiritualized but rather concrete and practiced in relationship. Their communal life is accented by their “bonds of responsibility” for one another. The breaking of the bread together has overtones to the Emmaus story, the Last Supper and the feeding of 5000 in the wilderness. The passage goes on to say that “they held all things in common,” and that possessions and property were put at the service of those who were in need (44-45). Such an ethic puts the “common good” above rampant individualism. Verse 45 also makes it clear that another’s need has a claim on us, a claim that sometimes requires sacrifice from us.

The picture that Acts paints of the early church could easily be dismissed as idealistic, not grounded perhaps in reality. But what cannot be argued is that these are the values and this the ethic and lifestyle that the early church wants to hold up as the goal to which we should be oriented, the world for which we should strive. We have seen and heard of other movements that have experienced periods of rich transformation, profound community, and creative possibility–Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain and its Prague Spring of 1968 is but one example. It is a vision of what is possible–a vision that can carry us, sustain us, and for which we are willing to work and sacrifice and strive, despite the obstacles. The “Jerusalem Spring” of the early Church in Acts 2:42-47 is not a pipe dream or unattainable ideal. It is the prophetic practice of community, in contrast to the surrounding society and culture, to which the Church is called in every generation.

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Posted on 10/27/2008, in SCRIPTURE STUDY and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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