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The birth of the church (May 7, 2023)

A lesson for May 7, 2023, about preparing for Pentecost.

Outlook Standard Lesson for May 7, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 2:1-42

This unit’s overall theme is also this Sunday’s lesson title, “The Birth of the Church.” Due to its annual prominence on Pentecost Sunday, this text is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. It will be the core text for the Sunday lectionary on Pentecost three weeks from now. How can this text be more than just a Pentecost-Day reading, but also a guide to preparing us for Pentecost?

The church of the Lord Jesus

The central topic of Acts 2 is not the Holy Spirit, even though the manifestations of the Holy Spirit – wind, fire, foreign languages – grab the most attention. When we all dress in red on Pentecost, we are part of a long tradition of highlighting those phenomena that drew the Jerusalem crowd to the disciples’ gathering place. But the text makes clear that the main point is to magnify God’s gift of salvation, especially as revealed in and through Jesus.

Peter’s sermon declares in plain vernacular that God’s salvation story, which is being proclaimed in foreign tongues to international visitors, is in fact the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God has made “Lord and Christ.” It’s a story of God upending a disordered world, raising Jesus from the dead, turning his crucifiers’ victory into death’s defeat. It’s the theme already sung out by Mary when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus: God is about to turn everything upside down.

From its beginning, the church of the Lord Jesus is an upside-down community. It stands against established orders and powers, calling them to change their world-controlling ways. “Repent” is the key word in Jesus’ first proclamation, and it is the key word in the first Christian sermon recorded in today’s text. Change your ways!

Repentance is the basic condition for being part of this new society, which eventually becomes known as the “Christian church.” John Calvin argues that the “church” includes all who are called out by God for salvation and service, dating back to the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs. After all, the Greek word ekklesia means simply “a called assembly.” Pentecost is not the birthday of “the church” but of “the church of the Lord Jesus.”

Sealing the deal

The first action demanded by Peter is repentance. The second is baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. True repentance is sealed by baptism.

Pentecost sets the stage for the apostles’ message of repentance sealed by baptism, which in turn leads to a new Pentecost of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Repent and be baptized… and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter declares.

Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are inseparable in the early church. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. John the Baptist announces that Jesus will “baptize with the Holy Spirit,” and Jesus tells his disciples in Acts 1 that they would soon be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Later in the book of Acts, when Peter proclaims the Gospel to Gentiles in Caesarea, the Spirit is poured out and the hearers speak in tongues in what is sometimes called a “second Pentecost,” after which Peter immediately administers Christian water baptism.

Hearing the Gospel, repenting from sin, receiving baptism, and manifesting spiritual gifts – all are part of a single whole, rather than a line of discrete events. Word, Sacrament, Gift. All belong inextricably together in the church of the Lord Jesus.

Preparing for Pentecost

Acts 1 tells the story of Jesus’ disciples waiting in the Upper Room for what he has promised to send them. They must have been Presbyterian, because the first thing they did was to fill a vacant seat on the session! But the most important feature of their time of waiting is not the election of a new elder, but being together in prayer.

After Peter’s sermon, thousands repent and are baptized in Jesus’ name, and they become the nucleus of the church of the Lord Jesus. They have no Book of Order to guide them in constituting the church. Nor do they have any Gospels or epistles to give them Christian guidance. All they have is their DNA. And that leads them to form a community of regular prayer, teaching, fellowship, and breaking bread.

When Jesus’ followers adopt this way of living together, they are prepared for Pentecost to continue recurring. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a one-time baptism but a constant immersion in a new way of life. We prepare for Pentecost by nurturing these practices together – prayer, teaching, fellowship, breaking bread.

Questions for reflection

  1. What roles do the four cornerstones of the brand-new Christian Church – prayer, teaching, fellowship, breaking bread – play in your congregation today?
  2. How have both God’s sovereign work (outpouring of the Spirit) and your own obedience (repentance and baptism) been part of your life as a Christian?

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