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    a painting of a dove at Pentecost

    The Mystery of the Early Church

    The Significance of What Happened at Pentecost

    Eberhard Arnold

    May 28, 2020
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    One hundred years ago, in a country devastasted by the First World War and wracked by revolution, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold and a few friends invited young people to gather in the hills above Schlüchtern, Germany, for a conference on the weekend of Pentecost. That Sunday, Arnold addressed the gathering, insisting that the only thing that could unite their ideologically diverse movements was the spirit that gripped the people at the first Pentecost. Directly after the conference the Arnolds toured the site where a few weeks later they would start the first Bruderhof community. The following remarks were published in June 1920 in Das Neue Werk (“The New Work,” the periodical today known as Plough), and in the first English edition of Plough in 1938.

    The birth of the first community of Christ in Jerusalem is too seldom taken seriously. The miraculous account of the disciples’ speaking in tongues is too strange for most people. The nature of the communal way of life of the early Christian church is no longer understood. And because both these decisive features of the early church are looked upon with skepticism, it is often impossible to portray this most important experience except in watered-down terms and concepts. It is a fact that the event of Pentecost seems to have receded into the background, not only for nominal Christians, but even for some who take Christ’s teachings seriously.

    No one person or group could have made the first church. No heights of oratory, no flaming enthusiasm, could have awakened for Christ the thousands who were moved at the time, or produced the united life of the early church. The friends of Jesus knew this very well. Had not the Risen One himself commanded them to wait in Jerusalem for the fulfillment of the great promise? John had baptized in water all those who listened to him. But the first church was to be immersed in the holy wind of Christ’s spirit, to be blown upon, penetrated by, and filled with it. All who had accompanied Jesus as he traveled through the land knew what they were waiting for: God’s rulership was to make the conditions of absolute justice and perfect love a reality on this earth. They knew, for they had been sent out as sheep among wolves on behalf of the coming kingdom, which was actual and present in Jesus himself. For the sake of this kingdom they had taken upon themselves the poverty of Jesus so that they might bring his peace to all the towns and villages they entered. For the sake of witnessing to this kingdom and confessing him who alone bears it, pure and whole, within himself, they had given themselves up to endure suffering and hatred at the hands of the authorities as well as their nearest relatives.

    For the sake of this kingdom they had taken upon themselves the poverty of Jesus so that they might bring his peace to all the towns and villages they entered.

    Yet in their willingness to follow their Jesus and to proclaim the nature of his kingdom and live it, they were again and again made aware of their weakness and lukewarmness. Because they had left everything, they looked all too often for compensation. They were still able to think in terms of the annihilating flames of judgment instead of radiant love, which is the heart of God and therefore the essence of God’s kingdom. They had not always mastered the evil spirits, even though their Lord had given them the authority. As soon as they tried to build up the kingdom of God, it fell to pieces in their hands.

    They did not have the perfect love in which their Lord and Master had accomplished everything, even to taking death upon himself and overcoming it; and so they waited for the eternal spirit of love, without which they could do nothing. Jesus had always spoken of this spirit as a breath of wind: it came as a gale over them and over the house they were in. No human power can create such a wind, and no one can hide from its blast. John the Baptist, anticipating the one who was to come, had spoken of baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit; now tongues of fire appeared. Just as fire liquefies the hardest metals, so the most resisting hearts were melted by the fiery tongues of the Spirit.

    Here lies the first mystery of the origin of the Church. The Spirit did not descend upon the speakers in such a way that they preached a sermon or gave a speech to an unenlightened crowd. Instead, fiery tongues of the Spirit ate their way into the hearts of the hearers and inflamed the crowd in one common experience of the same spirit and the same Christ. It is not important whether what took place at Pentecost was a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing, whether the early Christian speakers suddenly had a command of all languages, or whether those assembled heard the words in their own languages while the speakers lapsed into incoherent speech as though they were drunk. The important thing is that suddenly the apostles of Jesus were able to feel so completely with other people that their hearers could take their words to heart, for these words echoed the language of their hearts, their true mother tongue, and what was in their deepest being. The important thing is that the crowd was moved by the same spirit that spoke through the leaders, that the listeners had the same overpowering experience as the speakers.

    It does not matter what this turning point in history is called: mass ecstasy, an abnormal mass phenomenon, revival enthusiasm; or the festival of Pentecost, the founding of the Christian church, the conversion of the three thousand. Whatever it was, it was neither hypnosis nor the influence of human persuasion. People allowed God to work in them; they were overpowered and filled by his spirit. What was formed then was the only genuine collective consciousness, that is, the organic unity of the mysterious body of Christ, the community of the church.

    Today, after the experiences of 1914 and after the conscience of the world has been roused by the revolution and its will for peace and justice, we ought to have a better understanding for this event than former generations had. But the very comparison of the early church with the spirit of 1914 and with the collective consciousness of this idealistic political revolution points to what is of vital significance in the mystery of the early church. In 1914 it was a matter of the inner solidarity of a threatened nation; men were sacrificing their limbs and even their lives to defend wife and children, house and home, honor and freedom. There was a zeal to be faithful to one’s own people, an enthusiasm for this natural solidarity in opposition to other nations. While there is much that can be acknowledged as lofty in national enthusiasm, it remains relative and emotional. It is limited, and of relative value only. Its roots are not embedded in the ultimate source, in the Spirit and in the all-unifying God, but in the secondary power-centers, those of the blood and constantly fluctuating emotions. It is a matter of heroic feats performed by individuals and of the bond within a nation or political unit.

    Pentecost was God’s history, a powerful demonstration of God’s deeds for the whole of humankind and for each individual.

    In contrast, at the awakening of Pentecost the many who were gathered from different peoples and nations were brought to the point where they had to cry out: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God!” The great works of God were what counted, and nothing but. Pentecost was the all-inclusive working of God to bring about his future reign; it brought God’s absoluteness with the power of his perfect love, which reached out to all peoples. Pentecost was his message of righteousness, carried from the Jewish people to all nations; it was God’s history, a powerful demonstration of God’s deeds for the whole of humankind and for each individual. This explains the emphasis on the long list of nations at the beginning of the second chapter of Acts. It has to do with the same mystery that Paul says was revealed to Christ’s apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that is, that the nations are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:1–12). It was especially given to Paul to express clearly the experience of the early church at the close of its first period. Paul saw the mystery of the early church as a mystery of God, the creator of the universe; he saw it as a gift to all peoples, given directly into the depths of each person’s heart and at the same time embracing the whole of creation for all future time.

    The early church knew the richness of experiencing the mystery, “Christ in you”; basically, it meant expecting with certainty the glory to come. Here lies the difference between the spirit of community alive in the early church on the one hand, and on the other hand the limited collective consciousness found in an idealistic political revolution. Both look ahead to a future state where there will be social justice, peace among the nations, and the bond of community between all people. In the idealistic revolution there is a seed of the same divine protest against the spirit of mammon and murder as in the proclamation of the kingdom by Jesus and the apostles. In the idealistic revolution the same spirit is at work that gathered the early church. However, the awakening experience of the Spirit has not yet crystallized there. The Spirit has not yet created a unity that penetrates the whole of life. This unity has not yet taken form, for the “Christ in us” has not yet entered people’s consciousness; Jesus Christ is not yet recognized by everyone as the one and only true embodiment of the longed-for Spirit.

    The deepest mystery of the early church lies in the presence of Christ himself, who makes his dwelling in each person’s heart and reveals the power of his presence in the midst of his church. The uniting and unifying Spirit of Pentecost proclaimed that the one who had been crucified had risen. God had wakened him from the dead and made him the Messiah, the King of the coming kingdom. On the strength of this proclamation the early church immersed itself into the Name, into the very being, of this Jesus. When the murderers of Jesus stood before the eyes of the living Christ, they were confronted with absolute truthfulness. Then there arose in them the need for forgiveness of sins, the experience of inner poverty which could be satisfied only through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first response to this overwhelming inflow of the Spirit was the question that surged from people’s hearts: “What shall we do?” As a result, there came about a complete transformation of people’s inner being, a reshaping of their lives, which was the very change of heart and conduct that John the Baptist had proclaimed. He had seen it as the first requirement for the great revolution to come, the turning upside down of everything. We cannot separate or exclude personal rebirth from this total transformation in Christ.

    painting of the disciples of Jesus at Pentecost

    Juan Bautista Mayno, The Pentecost Public Domain

    What we need today is the same Spirit, the same living Christ who came to the early church. But it is just this that is so seldom found among Christians – that the clear proclamation of the risen Christ is revealed as the uniting Spirit who awakens people to their true destiny, their deepest being. How rare has become this love of Christ through which a man recognizes the heart of his neighbor, this love which enables a man to speak the other’s language because he has an inner ear for his deepest longing. When people experience the Spirit together as a community, the speaker’s words no longer reach the listeners as from outside them, but strike them from within and lead to unity of heart and soul. Then and only then do people gain true insight into their personal sins and their collective guilt incurred when Jesus was killed.

    The gathered church experienced as a reality Christ entering each individual heart and becoming from within the leader and sole authority of the whole church community. His spirit of love, working from within them, brought a deep understanding of what was of God in others, giving the individual heart an inner freedom from all that crushed and cramped it and freeing the soul from every burden. Working from without, this spirit came to the early church as a concrete expression of unifying love, which knows no boundaries.

    What Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount was fulfilled in the early church, as were indeed all his words. Fellowship in his Word meant life-creating and life-shaping power because he himself was the life in his words. The brotherly fellowship of being truly bound together in prayer and in the breaking of bread became genuine community, embracing the whole of life. Community means having life and goods in common. “All who had come to this faith remained together and had everything in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). After this communal experience of the Spirit, which surged up from within, there could be no question of any rules and regulations; the simple truth was that the early church was one heart and one soul. As soon as that becomes more than mere words, as soon as it is reality, all things are held in common and no one can say of his goods that they are his own. There could be no poor in the early church because the power of the risen Jesus was at work among them. Those who had land or houses sold them and brought the money to the church.

    When we think how simply yet radically the spirit of love in community was at work, it matters little how long these works lasted, at what moment this first love withered and died, or whether it could be applied in the same or similar ways in the future. It matters little whether or not people call this striking facet of life in the first church “communism.” All that matters is to recognize with our hearts, to feel through the love at work within us, that the spirit of Christ admits no boundaries of possessions or property as soon as he takes possession of us.

    Whenever the Spirit is allowed to work, he insists that his love and justice are put into practice without delay to build up society for the well-being of all.

    Whenever the Spirit is allowed to work, he insists that his love and justice are put into practice without delay to build up society for the well-being of all. He insists that we love not merely with words but in deed and in truth, by taking the vital needs of others just as seriously as our own and by looking after their food, clothing, housing, and education just as much as our own.

    Everything depends on seeing the mystery of the early church in unconditional love, which is the essence of the Risen One. There is only one thing that knows no conditions: that is love. There is only one absolute: that is God. There is only one direct way: that is the experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ. God is love. In Christ, his love is put into practice.

    Contributed By Eberhard Arnold Eberhard Arnold

    Eberhard Arnold was a theologian, educator, publisher, and community leader.

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