Pentecost and the drama of prophetic community
In the context of the current renewal of missional theology the suggestion that the church is essentially ‘prophetic’ in its nature is contentious for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it is likely to raise concerns about the relationship between emerging theologies and the modern charismatic movement. So for example, prophecy has typically been understood by charismatics as an individualized gift of the Spirit rather than as an attribute of the church as a corporate entity; and for many the idea may carry uncomfortable memories of the trivialization of divine speech or of the abuse of authority. On the other hand, the prophetic has been associated in other traditions with forms of direct social-political critique and action that may be difficult to reconcile with evangelical notions of mission. The challenge, then, is to ground the notion of a ‘prophetic community’ in the biblical narrative in a way that moves us beyond the limiting charismatic model of prophetic speech without breaking the link with a core and sustainable definition of mission.
This essay, which was prepared for a TREK gathering in Portland, Oregon, on the theme of the prophetic church, reflects my conviction that we must ensure that the categories of thought that are becoming definitive for the emerging, post-modern or post-evangelical church (such as ‘prophetic community’ or ‘missional community’) are found to have an authentic biblical integrity. Having sat in on Dwight Friesen’s class on postmodernism at Mars Hill Graduate School this week, I am a little more sensitive to the negative connotations that the word ‘biblical’ has for many who are struggling to escape from the suffocating embrace of modern evangelicalism. But it seems to me that the hermeneutical shift from a dogmatic and systematic structuring of thought to a narrative-historical account of the emergence and significance of these ideas will be a crucial step in the rehabilitation of scripture.
The eschatological impact of Pentecost
On the day of Pentecost the disciples, assembled in a house in Jerusalem, are filled with the Holy Spirit, and as the Spirit moves them, they begin to speak in other tongues (Acts 2:1-4). Hearing the uproar, a crowd of devout Jews from many nations gathers outside the house. They are astonished to hear the disciples declaring the ‘mighty works of God’ in their own languages and wonder what it all means (2:11).
Peter takes the opportunity to explain to them that this was all foreseen by the prophet Joel. But before we consider the actual content of the prophecy, we should take note of the context. Joel describes a ‘day of the Lord’, a day of devastation, when a powerful nation will come to make war against Jerusalem. It will be a ‘day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness’, the ‘sun and moon are darkened’, because the smoke from burning villages and towns will fill the sky (Joel 2:1-3, 10). If, even at this late stage, Judah should repent and cry to God for deliverance, then God will drive the enemy back and restore Zion, and they will come to know that ‘I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else’ (Joel 2:27). In that day, when God will ‘restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem’, he will gather the nations that are hostile to his people in the Valley of Jehoshaphat and will ‘enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land…’ (Joel 3:2).
In the middle of this story about judgment on Israel, repentance, renewal, and judgment on Israel’s enemies, we find the passage that Peter quotes. There are two parts to it. There is the statement, first, that during this time of crisis God will pour out his Spirit on all in Israel: all will see visions, dream dreams; all will prophesy, not just a select few. Then secondly, when the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:17-21). These two parts are not unconnected. The Spirit poured out on many in Israel at Pentecost is not the Spirit of covenant renewal of which Ezekiel speaks (Ezek. 36:26-27). It is specifically the Spirit of prophecy; it will be confirmed by ‘wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below’ that presage the coming turmoil. Peter’s argument, therefore, is that at this time – at this critical moment in Israel’s history – the Spirit has been poured out on a diverse and growing community that will see and prophesy collectively what God is about to do. The disciples together, young and old, male and female, servants and masters, have become a prophetic movement that will exist in the midst of Israel, and eventually in the world, as a sign that God is about to ‘judge’ his people.
In response the crowd asks Peter what they should do. His answer is that they should save themselves ‘from this crooked generation’ by calling on the name of the Lord. Jerusalem faces the same judgment by war envisaged by Joel, the same terrible day of the Lord – a self-inflicted calamity of rebellion and violent repression. But if they repent and have themselves baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the sins of the nation, they will be saved from this quite concrete and realistically conceived destruction.
The meaning of the Pentecost event, therefore, is not simply that this is where the church began as a movement of the Spirit. The shared experience of the Spirit was a sign that God was in the midst of Israel and that his people ‘shall never again be put to shame’ (cf. Joel 2:27); and a link can certainly be made here with Ezekiel’s motif of a new covenant. But the narrative significance of the event is that the church in the New Testament began as a prophetic community whose eschatological horizon was defined by the prospect of judgment on Israel and of a day when ‘there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’ (Joel 2:32).
From this narrative we can extract a simple formula or template: the church is a prophetic community with a shared eschatological horizon. It is prophetic not in the first place because it is made up of spirit-filled individuals, amongst whom are those with the particular gift of prophecy. It is prophetic because it has participated corporately in a decisive symbolic event. It is prophetic in its concrete historical existence as a community. But how do we transpose that pattern to the circumstances of the church today? What I want to suggest is that we remain a prophetic community, just as we are a priestly community, but two significant things have changed: i) the prophetic orientation of the community has changed from an internal witness to an external witness to the world; and ii) the eschatological horizon of the community has changed from vindication to re-creation.
The early prophetic community was oriented towards Israel. The community in its charismatic activity was a sign: on the one hand, that God was about to bring a catastrophic judgment on his people; and on the other, that there was an immediately available avenue of escape. Once this community moved beyond the confines of Palestinian Judaism, however, it became a sign not only to the scattered Jewish communities of the diaspora but also to the principalities and powers that governed the Greek-Roman world – a sign that God had defeated his enemies and had made Jesus Lord. By its very existence the church demonstrated that no power or authority could overcome or suppress the testimony of the people of the living God – not the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem, not the Roman governor, not the synagogues of the diaspora, not the local magistrates, not the mobs, not Caesar, not Satan, not even death. This constituted, I think, a second eschatological horizon, defined narratively as the moment when God in history defeats the powers that oppress his faithful people. Once we move beyond that, however, a third horizon begins to come into view and with it a rather different prophetic stance.
We need to go back to Abraham at this point and pick up a thread that runs right through scripture to the final pages but which gets somewhat eclipsed in the New Testament by a story about the salvation of Israel and the renewal of the community through Jesus. The theological significance of the family of Abraham is embedded in its calling: the first couple, Abraham and Sarah, will be blessed by God; he will make them and their descendants fruitful and multiply them; and they will fill the fertile land which God will give them (eg. Gen. 12:2-3; 13:15-16; 17:6; 28:3; 35:11). All this is a recapitulation of the original blessing of Adam and Eve. The family of Abraham will be a new creation, a creation in microcosm, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the earth, marked out from other peoples by their loyalty to his commandments and statutes (cf. Gen. 26:4-5).
Because Israel failed to live up to the standards of that microcosm, the imagery of new creation – new heavens and new earth – came to be used not for the actual but for the ideal, not for what Israel was but for what Israel would become when the people were restored in the aftermath of judgment (Is. 65:17; 66:22). The return from exile fell short of the poetic intensity of this hope, but it had now lodged itself firmly in the prophetic imagination of Israel to be reactivated in the New Testament as the early church reflected on the larger ‘cosmic’ significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
First, Jesus is seen not only as the pioneer of a community that will endure the birthpangs of eschatological transition; he is also the one through whom all things were created (eg. Jn. 1:1-3, 10; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; 2:10). Secondly, the believer dies with the crucified Christ in baptism as a sign of identification with the one who suffers and is vindicated, but she is raised to become new humanity, new creation (cf. Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). Thirdly, although the immediate hope of the early church was vindication against its enemies (cf. Lk. 18:1-8), victory over the forces that violently opposed it, we also glimpse beyond this a final hope that all creation will be made new, that wickedness and death will ultimately be destroyed, and that God will live as he always should have done in the midst of things (cf. Rev. 21:1-22:5).
The imagination of the prophetic community
Now let’s go back to our basic template: a prophetic community with a shared eschatological horizon. How do we develop this? How do we begin to speak about the church as a prophetic sign of new creation? In his Old Testament Theology Brueggemann makes four general observations about the individual prophets who functioned as ‘channels of communication between Yahweh and Israel’ (623). We should not regard it as a simple exercise to transfer these criteria to the corporate witness of the church, even allowing for the argument from Acts that the church is always potentially prophetic by virtue of its concrete existence. Nevertheless, I think we can reasonably make use of these four characteristics to begin explore the likely dynamics of a prophetic community.
1. Because the prophets are ‘compelled by an inexplicable force that is taken to be the summons of Yahweh’ (623), Brueggemann argues, they maintain an openness to God outside the structures of establishment authority. ‘In their appearance, Yahweh is taken to be directly and palpably present in Israel.’ If the church is now prophetic, it is because it is similarly positioned outside the mainstream of social and cultural life, similarly ‘compelled by an inexplicable force’, to preserve an openness to the voice of the creator God. Inasmuch as this prophetic witness is embodied in marginalized or disaffected parts of the church, it is also a challenge to the renewal of the people of God.
2. The prophetic stance is grounded in a tradition. The prophets ‘have learned over time to perceive and experience the world through a particular prism of memory and interpretation’ (623). So, for example, Amos is understood to represent ‘international wisdom thought’; Isaiah ‘reflects the royal ideology of the Zion establishment’; and so on (624). What this suggests is that we should expect the witness of the prophetic community to be contextualized with respect both to the social-cultural environment and to ecclesiastic tradition, which may have some interesting implications for an emerging ecumenism.
3. The prophetic stance either is a response to a crisis or it evokes a crisis. For the early prophetic community this was the crisis of suffering and vindication that marked the transition from second temple Judaism to the church. In a more limited and contingent sense this was a transition from a national to a transnational or imperial paradigm for the creational microcosm – in effect, from nationalistic second temple Judaism to imperialistic Christendom. But this eschatological crisis of transition is situated inside a larger crisis of the failure of the created order, and it is to this state of affairs that the church must respond. The church both in its actual praxis and in its more idealized forms of address is called to keep before the eyes of the world the concrete possibility of an alternative humanity centred around an authentic worship of the creator God.
4. The prophetic stance brings into play the power of the imagination. Brueggemann makes the important point that although the biblical prophets ‘are characteristically immersed in public crises, they are not primarily political agents in any direct sense and rarely urge specific policy. Nor are they, against popular liberal opinion, social activists’. They are essentially poetic ‘utterers’; they ‘speak most often with all of the elusiveness and imaginative power of poetry’ (625).
This suggests that the prophetic community must likewise be ‘immersed in public crises’ but must seek to articulate its witness primarily through poetic and symbolic means. Understanding how immersion and expression relate to each other will be crucial for the development of this thought. Immersion implies at least the dynamic presence of the community in the midst of the manifold crises of human existence, out of which the community gives prophetic expression in the form of ‘Yahweh’s own utterance’ to ‘distress’ and ‘new possibility’ (625-627). But the Old Testament prophets were as much actors as ‘utterers’, which suggests that more active forms of immersion, including perhaps political agency and social engagement, may find their primary significance as symbolic dramas through which the distinctive prophetic message of judgment and renewal is heard.