Commentary on Acts 2:1-4; Galatians 4:1-7 and/or Galatians 5:16-26
In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (The English words wind, breath, and spirit can all translate pneuma in Greek.)
Where there is breath, there is life, and the breath that enlivens Christ in the resurrection is his gift to those he loves. His risen life becomes their life.
What was in John a gentle exhale, becomes in Acts the rush of a violent wind with tongues as of fire coming to rest on the assembled followers of Jesus. Those who witness to Christ are able to speak in as many languages as needed for everyone present to hear a testimony to Jesus Christ and his resurrection in one’s own language.
When Paul speaks of the coming of the Spirit in Galatians 4, the metaphor is not breath but family. Paul is writing to churches that have apparently come under the influence of those teaching a law-observant Christianity. Their argument goes like this: to be properly Christian, one must become properly Jewish, including for males, the rite of circumcision. The fact that the males in the churches of Galatia were apparently seriously considering this way of being Christian (in a time without modern anesthesia, sterile operating conditions, or antibiotics) is evidence of the teachers’ persuasive speech.
Part of the way Paul tries to convince his readers of the folly of this “other gospel” (see also, Galatians 1:8) is to argue that law observance was always intended to be an interim chapter in the long story of God’s interaction with humanity. He speaks of minors and adults, and the place in the household of sons. With Christ’s death and resurrection, a new chapter has begun.
When Galatians 4 begins, Paul is contrasting children and grownups. A child may be an heir, but until that child comes of age, the inheritance may as well belong to someone else. “Guardians and trustees” are responsible both for the inheritance and the heir. The main point of the analogy is the contrast between “before” and “after.” Before the inheriting child comes of age, an heir is indistinguishable from anyone else. After the child comes of age, they own and control all the property. This difference between “before” and “after” is dramatic. Similarly dramatic is the difference between the Galatians’ identity before God sent the Spirit of the Son into their hearts, and after.
Paul puts his readers’ relationship with God in exactly the same terms with which he describes the relationship of Jesus to God. Using terms related to family (e.g. adoption, heir, son), Paul tells those who are baptized that they are sons and daughters (that is, adult children) of God. The words translated in the NRSV as “children” and “child” in Galatians 3:26, and 4:6-7 are forms of the Greek, hios. (The translators’ references to child/children are helpfully gender neutral, but they obscure the close identification Paul makes of his hearers’ state with that of Christ.) Jesus was a Son. The Spirit of that Son is God’s gift to each of those to whom Paul writes.
All of the New Testament reports of the Spirit’s arrival have two things in common: (1) the identity of the Spirit is specific and specifically tied to the identity of the risen Christ, and (2) the Spirit’s work is to draw human beings into a relationship with God like that which the Father and Son share.
In popular culture, “spiritual” is a generic term that describes any mystical experience or ethereal sense. It is almost as if the more unknown or unknowable a thing is, the more the word “spiritual” applies to it. But in John, Acts, and Galatians, the Spirit that Jesus shares with his followers is his Spirit, his life. As such, it is known. Testimonies about its power for healing (in Acts) or its capacity for prayer (in Romans 8:26-27 or Galatians 4:6) make it clear that the Spirit is the risen Christ’s own living presence, available to his followers even while he is physically absent from them.
Both the identity of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work are specific. Christ’s living presence is knitting human community back together and bringing humanity back into a relationship of love and familial commitment with God. In John, Jesus breathes on his disciples the Spirit so that they may continue his work of forgiving sins and holding onto all whom he has drawn to himself.1
In Acts 2, the gift of tongues is not an ecstatic display that leaves the many excluded from the spiritual experience of the few; rather, the disciples speak in languages not their own precisely so native speakers of those languages may hear the good news of Jesus Christ addressed to them directly and come to be included in the number of those being saved.
In Galatians, God sends the Spirit so that those who receive it may address God in the most intimate of familial terms (“Abba, Father”) and know God as Jesus knows God. The abiding presence of the Spirit is the life of the risen Christ shared with the church for the sake of the world.
1. Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 1-29, argues that the second half of the verse Jesus speaks in John 20:23 are widely mistranslated. Schneiders makes the case that the words are not about the retention of sins but rather the retention of members within the community: “The meaning would seem to be ‘Those whom you are holding (embracing, including in the ongoing life of the community) are indeed held fast in the communion of reconciliation’” (p. 28).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
You have adopted us as heirs of your kingdom and we have inherited the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit. Through the fire of the Spirit make us generous givers of all that you have bestowed upon us, for the sake of the one whose fire brings light and life to all the world, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Listen, sweet dove, Grayston Ives