The Space Between Acts 2 and Acts 10: An Ecclesiology of Text, Time, and the Holy Spirit




Presented to the Second Ecclesiological Colloquium

Convened by Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA), Neal Presa

Princeton, NJ


Frank M. Yamada

Jake: Oh yeah? Well me and the Lord. We got an understanding.
Elwood: We’re on a mission from God.

                                    ~The Blues Brothers

Of Conversions and Interruptions

The quote above comes from an iconic Chicago-based movie, The Blues Brothers, starring Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. They are bearing witness to a calling that the two brothers’ received after their journey through the penitentiary system lands them eventually at Triple Rock Baptist Church, the Reverend Cleophus James presiding (played by James Brown). Jake and Elwood are in crisis. The orphanage where they grew up will be closed if they can’t come up with $5000. So they go to get “churched up” and cleaned up. During the gospel frenzy that ensues, they are interrupted by a literal light from heaven, from which they receive the revelation that will guide them on their calling—a calling that is summed up in two words: “THE BAND.” They must get the band back together. God interrupts. Their calling and mission become clear. Their lives and the clubs of Chicago are never quite the same.

As a Presbyterian, I understand that this type of scene, while comedic, would never have happened at First Presbyterian Church of the Midwest. Not only is the hand-clapping, dancing, shouting, and improvising that characterized this church scene inconsistent with what most deem good Reformed worship, there was also obviously no worship committee planning for this service, which was, therefore, hardly decent and in good order.

My biblical reflections on ecclesiology focus on interruptions, more precisely on the interplay between continuity and discontinuity in the narrative and life of the church—on the recovering of tradition, which is held together at the same time with disruptions from the Holy Spirit. I will argue that in our current crisis, we have privileged continuity in our current understandings of the church, and have failed to embrace the confrontational and often disruptive moments that may actually open us up to the missio Dei. Such confrontations are not mere digressions or differences of opinion regarding tradition. I would argue that these holy interruptions both challenge us to think radically different thoughts about the nature and makeup of the church, i.e., who is in and who is out, and enliven mission in the process.

Before I unpack the texts under discussion, some background will be useful. I am no theologian, nor a theologian’s son. I like many Gen-Xer’s did not grow up in a Christian church. I did not have a pedigree that would lead me naturally to be Presbyterian in general, forget about being a PCUSA teaching elder, biblical scholar, and seminary president.

As a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American, growing up in Southern California in the 70’s and 80’s, I was an even less likely to be part of mainline Protestantism. I was barely religious, if at all. The only “church” I attended was the Buddhist church.[1] I would describe my family as “twice-a-year” Buddhists, which meant that we went to temple when someone died or when someone was getting married. The Buddhist church, in ways very similar to Christian churches in Asian American communities, functioned as a way to gather Japanese American families in order to rehearse and maintain idealized cultural values from the homeland. However, for my particular family, religion played a minimal role.

Religious awakening, when it happened—and it happened for millions of people living in Southern California during the 70’s and 80’s—was usually narrated as an abrupt divine intervention into one’s lifestyle, a holy discontinuity, a conversion. Though it is not necessarily good Reformed theology to use this terminology, I converted or was converted to Christianity when I was nineteen. I won’t go into details; but my conversion included a tract with the question, “Are you going to heaven?” on it, two whacked-out for Jesus, young Christian men, and my eventual refusal months later of a “ritual of spiritual circumcision.” I’m not kidding.

My journey within Christian communities includes: being recruited into high-school ministry at a charismatic megachurch of about 10,000 members in Southern California only three months after my conversion; being on the leadership team of a church plant just up the street from the aforementioned megachurch, which emphasized teaching and discipleship; getting my undergraduate degree in religion and Bible from an Assemblies of God liberal arts college; going to this PCUSA seminary in order to be better prepared for full-time ministry; joining a Presbyterian congregation while attending Princeton, where I also first joined a PCUSA congregation; and serving as a high-school, English-ministries pastor at a Korean immigrant church with about 25 first-generation members and a 1.5 to 2nd generation youth group of about half that size. Of course, in the past 14 years of my ministry, I have had the privilege of working in theological education as both a professor in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, as a director for an Asian American ministries center, and now as a senior administrator.

I am starting my paper on this contextual, even personal note, for at least two reasons First, I believe that all of theology and biblical interpretation, and therefore by consequence all ecclesiologies (note the plural), are necessarily situational and culturally contextual. My thoughts on an ecclesiology, grounded in Scripture and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, emerge from my various experiences as an Asian American, as a West-Coast Asian American, as a former evangelical charismatic and current mainline progressive Christian, who is facing into the changes and challenges that confront the church and theological education in the 21st century. This practice of identifying my own social location is part of our educational model at a cross-cultural, urban, and ecumenical seminary like McCormick.[2] Part of the problem in both the church and academy is that we tend to universalize our own experiences, social location, and theology, while imposing these perspectives on other peoples. Foregrounding our own social and theological situated-ness helps us remember that we see from a particular place in society, time, and history, from a particular cultural location. My second reason for this contextualizing exercise lies in the very different expressions of congregation represented in my faith journey, which call into question for me oppositions that exist in our current public discourse about Christianity, the PCUSA, and religion in general. The differences between conservative/liberal, mainline/evangelical, Christian/Buddhist, Christian/non-Christian become more difficult to navigate cleanly when one thinks of the many intersecting complexities of 21st C. North American religious experience.

As you might guess, I am not a fan of polarizing binaries. In one of my first essays articulating a later-generational Asian American approach to biblical interpretation, I argued that cultural binaries, which characterize much of Christian theology and biblical interpretation, including immigrant Asian American theology, does represent meaningful categories of experience for these groups, and have found particular traction among early generation Asian American theologians and communities. Therefore, notions such as marginality and liminality, which require the maintenance of binaries such as center/margin, dominant culture/minority culture, have been prominent in early-generation Asian and Asian American theologies. These themes have helped to give voice to the theological witness of communities that have been marginalized from dominant American culture.

However, I argue that such categories assume a certain amount of stability in these cultural categories—East vs. West, Asian vs. American—that when pressed often do not hold up to scrutiny. For later generations of Asian Americans, notions such as hybridity or heterogeneity provide a better way of understanding both the identities of Asians living in the North American context and the theologies that emerge from these communities. In fact, the high degree of interracial intermarriage among later generation Asian Americans suggests that hybridity is represented in the very bodies of fourth, fifth, and sixth generation Asian Americans. The notion of hybridity, made prominent by theorists such as Homi Bhabha, refuses oversimplified dichotomies of God/human, colonizer/colonized, black/white, male/female, or Asian/American, preferring to speak of the complicated and often conflicted space “in-between,” what Bhabha has called the Third Space, where identity and meaning are constructed and negotiated in often messy ways. The Chinese concept of yin-yang provides a useful metaphor for understanding the non-binary nature of hybridity. Contrary forces, for example light and dark, are viewed not simply as oppositional or polarized. They are interdependent, each containing a part of the other, and the whole relying on the interaction and mutuality of the constituent parts.

For our current topic, I would argue that our present ecclesiologies, at least as they are expressed on the ground, rely too heavily on a narrative of the church that seeks unity over diversity, continuity over discontinuity. While this impulse is understandable, it also makes us inattentive to the ways that God interrupts our particular narrative or tradition, which often causes us to retreat into overly romanticized projections of the “church as we see it,” whether those projections are from an idealized past or a hoped-for future. I would argue that taking seriously the conflicted and yet interdependent nature of church and its constituent parts requires us to pay just as much attention to the disruptions in the church’s story as much as the dominant plot lines that have shaped Christian identity through the centuries. Hybridizing contradictions is nothing new for Christian theology. It helps us to make sense of a Christology that thinks of life emerging from death, and death giving birth to resurrection. The way of Christ would not have these separated. For ecclesiology, hybridity would recommend that notions and dynamics that punctuate our current discussion in the PCUSA regarding the future of the church—church/world, life/death, conservative/liberal, contemporary/traditional, past/future, hope/fear—are intimately connected to our common destination, which will reach its completion and full maturity in Christ, even while it refuses the temptation to read one’s own narrative as the metanarrative for the whole church.

This framework of hybridity and heterogeneity, which emerges from my social location as a later-generation Asian American Christian, punctuates my interpretation of the biblical texts, including my reading of the Book of Acts and the role of the Holy Spirit. It is to this interpretation that I now turn.

Continuity and Discontinuity in the Book of Acts

The Book of Acts, which most scholars read as a narrative unity with the Gospel of Luke, recounts the continuation of the work of the risen Jesus as it is carried out through the apostles.[3] This unity, however, is punctuated with two contradicting theses. First, the author seeks to answer the question, “Did God keep God’s promises to Israel given the people of God’s rejection of Jesus?” To this question, the author responds affirmatively. Thus, the Book of Acts seeks to build a continuous tradition from Israel to the first Christians, from the prophets to the apostles and disciples. Like the prophets of Israel, the Spirit of the Lord falls upon the followers of Jesus, enabling ecstatic speech acts that proclaim the divine intention to the people. In a similar way, the apostles, like Jesus before them, perform mighty works of God—healings, the casting out of demons, and raising the dead—in the same way that the prophets did. Thus, the early Christians, as depicted in the Book of Acts, show the efficacy of God’s word in both speech and sign, word and deed. The author of the book of Acts makes a compelling case that the early church is, indeed, a continuation of God’s promises made to Israel, and in this way, demonstrates God’s hesed, covenantal faithfulness, to a new generation.[4]

The second thesis, however, represents a departure from tradition, at least as it was received in most segments of early Judaism, including among the first Christians. Following the spirit of certain traditions like those found in Deuteronomy 7, interactions with the nations (ethnoi) or Gentiles was forbidden and represented a threat of impurity:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Deut 7:1–6, all translations from the NRSV).

The Book of Acts, however, makes the incongruous case that the mission of God extends to the Gentiles, to the nations. While one could certainly argue that this theme is present within Israel’s scriptures (e.g., Abram/Abraham being a blessing to the nations in Genesis 12:3 or the Lord’s Abrahamic-like promises to Hagar in Genesis 16:10), the author of Acts clearly characterizes Peter’s vision sequence in Chapter 10 as being discontinuous with tradition. Peter’s vision conflates the inclusion of the Gentiles, which occurs later in the chapter, with prohibitions in Jewish dietary law, an issue of no small consequence as the later council of Jerusalem makes clear (Acts 15).

In short, the author of Acts holds together two seemingly incongruent theses: 1) the Holy Spirit falling on the apostles/disciples at Pentecost connects the early Christians to the legacy of Israel’s prophets, showing God to be faithful to God’s promises to Israel through the church’s witness of the risen Christ; and 2) the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles opens up the faithful community to those who are, by definition, outside of Israel. Thus, the narrative underlying this author’s ecclesiology is simultaneously congruent and incongruent with Israel’s salvation history. The Holy Spirit both animates the continuity of God’s mission from the prophets through the apostles at Pentecost while disrupting the same received tradition by falling on the Gentiles, those believed to be “unclean” or “profane.”

There is another theme, which scholars identify in the book of Acts, namely, that the word of the Lord will accomplish its purpose. Isaiah 55:11 reads: “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Put another way, the gospel cannot be stopped. Neither resistance, persecution, conflict from within or from without can prevent the apostles from witnessing to the risen Jesus. In fact, as I will argue below, not even the church itself or its lead apostle can get in the way. In order to more fully unpack the spaces in-between Acts 2 and Acts 10 I will briefly explore the function of the Holy Spirit and its effects on the mission of God within these two narratives that hold together the author’s incongruous continuity.

Acts 2 and Continuity

Acts 2 recounts the Holy Spirit falling on the disciples in Jerusalem. The author utilizes tropes that are familiar to the Israelite ear, drawing from the Deuteronomistic prophetic traditions. This history recounted from Joshua to 2 Kings uses a prophecy/fulfillment formula. In this way, the faithfulness of the lord is enacted in history as the word of the lord comes to pass just as the prophets had spoken. Jesus instructs his disciples in Acts 1: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Deuteronomistic traditions also privilege the prophetic speech act. These speeches provide the critical moments of decision that carry the plot forward in God’s salvation history. Jesus like the prophets of old instructs his disciples about how God will carry forward the prophetic tradition through them. They will be God’s witnesses first in Jerusalem and then will move outward into greater areas of influence to the surrounding regions to the ends of the earth. The author of Acts uses this prophetic speech formula to demonstrate the continuity of the early church to the legacy of the prophets of Israel. In fact, the deliberation of the disciples that results in the selecting of Mathias as the twelfth apostle makes the more general connection of continuity to Israel itself, each apostle representing the twelve tribes.

Jesus’ prophetic speech reaches fulfillment in Acts 2, when the ruach ’elohim blows through house, filling the disciples with the Holy Spirit. Note that the author evokes language reminiscent of Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel story, by describing that the followers of Jesus were “all together in one place” before they disperse to speak in different languages. Acts 2 does not represent a reversal of Babel, but the former evokes the latter in order to provide continuity from the creation of languages and cultures in Genesis to the understanding of many languages among those gathered from the nations in Acts.[5] If anything is “redeemed” in this passage, it is the resulting lack of understanding among the nations in Genesis 11. In Acts 2, the disciples are bearing witness to God’s deeds of power in the languages of the gathered crowd so that all understand the words being spoken even if the people struggle to interpret what this display of tongues means.

Ted Hiebert, an Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholar from McCormick Seminary at the PCUSA’s National Multicultural Church Conference in 2010, drew a more significant point of connection between Genesis 11 and Acts 2, arguing that in both texts, God prefers diversity to unity, many cultures to “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1).[6] This preference for diversity is echoed in Jesus’ words from Acts 1, declaring that the disciples will be his witnesses not just in Jerusalem but indeed to the ends of the earth. Peter’s speech in Acts 2, which interprets the events of Pentecost through the prophet Joel, echoes this same theme:

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy… Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:17–21).

Similarly, on the back end in Acts 10, the same Spirit falls on the Gentiles, which creates the possibility that God has opened up the boundaries that construct the faithful community through the democratizing work of the Spirit.

In all of this, the author of Acts is making a strong case for the continuity between the early church and Israel, between the work of the apostles and the prophets of old. Note, however, that this argument for continuity contains within it a discontinuous idea, namely that the work of the Holy Spirit, the same creative and empowering wind of God that enables the prophetic speech, also has the ability to disrupt social categories and boundaries, even those that are reinforced within the traditions of Israel. Thus, though the Holy Spirit is a sign of God’s ongoing work in salvation history for the people of God, and is the empowering agent that propels that history forward, it also has the ability to disrupt the very nature of the faithful community, who is in and who is out (cf. Numbers 11:16–30). This idea is developed more fully in the tenth chapter of Acts.

Acts 10 and a Discontinuous Continuity

Acts 10 recounts two visions, one given to Cornelius the centurion and the other given to Peter. Ironically, Cornelius’ vision hearkens back to Peter’s quotation of the prophet Joel in Acts 2:17, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Of course the passage in Joel understands “all flesh” to mean “all Israel”—sons, daughters, young and old, slaves and free, etc. The disruptive moment in Acts 10 is that this vision, a line of sight usually reserved, though not exclusively, to the prophets, is first given to Cornelius, a Gentile, and then to Peter, the apostle. And the word of the lord came to Cornelius saying, “Thus says the lord…”

Peter’s vision is instructive of the disruptive work of the Holy Spirit in this passage. Peter is hungry and goes into a trance. He sees a vision of a sheet with all kinds of unclean animals. The word of the lord is clear, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” (v. 13). As a faithful Jew, Peter refuses on grounds consistent with the laws of kashrut. He will not eat anything unclean. God’s correction is equally clear: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 15). In this way, the word of the lord directly challenges the received tradition, not just in terms of what food is proper to eat, but with whom you may properly eat such food. This implication is made clear as the chapter proceeds to describe the eventual encounter between Cornelius and Peter.

Peter’s initial refusal echoes a theme within the Hebrew Bible in which the prophets initially resist the word of the lord. Of course, this happens in many call narratives (e.g., Moses and Jeremiah). A particularly compelling echo for Acts 10, however, exists in the book of Jonah, in which the prophet literally runs from the word of the lord. There are also deeper echoes to the current chapter in Acts in the repentance of the wicked Ninevites, an event which is very disturbing to Jonah. In fact, as the reader later understands, Jonah’s resistance is motivated by the prophet’s displeasure of God’s anticipated compassion for the inhabitants (and cattle) of Nineveh.

As Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles, and they begin to speak in tongues and extol God, echoing the Pentecost event in Acts 2. The response from the circumcised believers is one of great surprise. Eventually Peter and those gathered respond to this disruption by baptizing the new Gentile converts. In Acts 10, like the story of Jonah, the world has turned upside down, the unfaithful have now repented and are among the faithful. The prophet is the one who requires conversion.

The genius of the book of Acts is, therefore, not simply in the way that the author draws a congruent narrative of salvation from Israel and the prophets to the early church and the apostles, but is also found in the reorientation, I would argue a hybridization, of this Heilsgeschichte through the recovery of the discontinuous theme of God’s work among the nations—a theme, that disrupts the stream of tradition, especially as it relates to the composition and identity of the people of God. This theme weaves irony into the fabric of the story of Israel and the church. The faithful in this disruption are “those people” who are typically identified as outside of the covenant circle. The covenanting God shows signs of God’s hesed through the falling of the Holy Spirit on those who are labelled as unclean and profane. Again, ironically, it is Peter, the holy apostle, who is converted in the process.

This theme of discontinuity also creates a wrinkle in the idea that the word of God will not return void. In Acts 10, however, it is not Saul, the persecutor of the Way, or Rome, or the religious leaders, who pose a threat to the forward movement of the message. It is now the apostles, first Peter and then those in Jerusalem, who struggle to understand this new development in the history of salvation. Eventually, the church gets it right, but only after much discernment. In other words, even the church cannot get in the way of the word of the lord and its fulfillment.

Implications and Conclusions

So what does this reading of Acts mean for us in the 21st century, who are facing enormous challenges in the church, threats from within and without? How does a hybridous ecclesiology of a discontinuous continuity or a theology of disruption speak to the church today? Let me posit a few provisional conclusions.

First, while we tend to emphasize Acts 2 in our liturgical year as the birth of the church, we need to reclaim the disruptive work of the Holy Spirit as found in texts like Acts 10, as way to claim the ongoing repentance of the church from idolatry, especially an overly rigid understanding of who is inside and outside among the faithful, stressing instead ways in which the church is converted anew to the surprising mission of God. This disruption can often challenge the very nature of how we understand the church and who are members of the beloved community.

Second, being open to the disruptive potential of the Holy Spirit’s work is one of the only ways that true innovation can happen in the lived realities of the church on the ground, and God knows our churches and, therefore our ecclesiology are in need of a healthy dose of disruptive innovation.[7] In an age where innovation is the buzz word in business, social organization, and in our denomination, it would be wise to recover both in scripture and in our understanding of the history of the church those moments where the movement of the spirit overturned the apple cart of our ecclesiological status quo in ways that, ironically, give life and vitality to those very traditions. Disruption and innovation go hand in hand. This is not only good business; I believe it is also good ecclesiology.

Finally, holding together both the continuity with our past with the sometimes disruptive work of the Spirit will allow for us, when we encounter something that seems on the surface to be absurd, even unclean or profane, to discern and hold in mystery the powerful deeds of the lord. The Spirit’s disruptive work is hardly finished. The Spirit hovers over chaos before the lord’s utterance brings forth light and order to creation (Gen 1:2). I pray that we the church might be converted afresh and anew as we accept the continuous discontinuity of God’s life within us in the Spirit, hoping for the possibility that Moses envisioned when the Spirit exceeded the boundaries of Israel’s camp in the book of Numbers, saying: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29).

[1] The phrase, “Buddhist church,” represents an Americanization of the practice of Buddhism among East-Asian groups. In the Japanese American community, this change of name came about shortly after World War II and the internment of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, mostly on the West Coast. The effects of war galvanized this process of making Buddhist temples more Western in their appeal.

[2] This practice of identifying one’s own social location in interpretation was a requirement for contributors in the Peoples’ Bible, a cross-cultural study bible from Fortress Press (Minneapolis, 2008).

[3] See Luke Timothy Johnson, “Luke-Acts, Book of,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 403–19, and Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992).

[4] For a good treatment of hesed, which she translates as covenantal loyalty, see Katharine D. Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002).

[5] Ted Hiebert makes the case that Genesis 11:1–9 is not a story of judgment and punishment but about is an etiology about the creation of the world’s cultures. See Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” The Journal of Biblical Literature 126:1 (2007), 29–58.

[6] As presented at “H20:  Deepening our Faith, Widening our Culture,” the National Multicultural Church Conference of the PC(USA), May 27–30, 2010 , Chicago, IL.

[7] Clayton Christensen differentiates between sustaining and disruptive innovation. The former describes ways to substantially improve core business, the latter challenges the status quo of a business by beginning as a small component within the business, but which later moves up market leading eventually to a dominant position within it (e.g., online bookstores like Amazon vs. traditional bookstores like Borders). See Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003).


About frankyamada

President, McCormick Theological Seminary
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