What does Pentecost have to do with the Church? Pentecost,
feast of the Holy Spirit, is also the feast of the Church. The
Spirit constitutes the Church because the Spirit is the bond of
unity among all those within the Church. The second chapter
of the Acts of the Apostles traces a direct trajectory from the
gift of the Spirit given to the apostles, in the form of “divided
tongues, as of fire” (Acts 2:3), to life in the Spirit as lived in
the Christian community. This trajectory passes from the gift
of the Spirit through the unity and harmony represented in
the great diversity of Jews from every nation, each speaking in
his own language yet understood in the native language of the
hearer, and through Peter’s admonition to repent and be baptized
in the name of Jesus Christ in order to receive the gift of
the Spirit. This trajectory culminates in the life of the Church
characterized by the apostles’ teaching, fellowship (namely, the
breaking of bread and the prayers), their life in common and
care for those in need.
The first gift of the Spirit is unity. That so many different languages
could be understood by all the people, as reported in
Acts, is the reversal of the tower of Babel in the Old Testament
(Genesis 11:1– 9). In the story of Babel, the whole earth had
one language and the same words. The people attempted to
build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, a symbol of
their attempt to overreach human limitations and attain fame
and security. God’s judgment scattered the people and confused
their language so that they could no longer understand one another’s speech. Disunity and mutual misunderstanding
become the wages and symbol of sin. Pentecost reverses this
reality and inaugurates life in the Spirit. Disunity is replaced by
unity, unintelligible speech by comprehension.
Peter, the first of the apostles, explains the meaning of
Pentecost in Acts. This life in the Spirit inaugurates the messianic
age foretold by the prophet Joel. The Spirit testifies to the
life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (verses 22 – 36),
who, having been raised up and exalted at the right hand of
God and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit (verses
32 – 33), pours out this same Spirit upon the people. In the
Spirit, Jesus is revealed as Lord and Messiah (verse 36).
This same Spirit will be poured out on all whom the
Lord calls to him (verse 39). We enter into this life in the Spirit
through repentance and Baptism in the same of Jesus Christ.
At the same time we gain entrance into the life of the Christian
community, the Church. The early Christian community
is characterized by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the
breaking of bread and the prayers, life in common, and care for
those in need.
Today, we also associate the Church with the work of the
Spirit each time we recite the Nicene Creed on Sunday. The
third section of the creed (“I believe in the Holy Spirit”) is
linked with the statement on the Church: “And in one Holy
Catholic and apostolic Church.” The fruit of the Spirit is unity,
that which makes the Church “one” in one of the four “marks”
of the Church in the Nicene Creed (the “marks” being one, holy,
Catholic, and apostolic). Today, we might translate the characteristics
of the early Christian community in Acts 2:41– 47
as those qualities essential to the life of the Church: apostolic
faith, community (koinonia), Eucharistic worship (leitourgia),
and service of the poor (diakonia).
Apostolic faith ensures that the faith professed today is essentially
the same faith in the Paschal Mystery proclaimed by the apostles.
If our faith today is not this same faith, we are a different Church
and have broken communion with our origins. The unity of our
community life in one body and one Spirit — even in the midst
of real diversity — witnesses to the “one Lord, one faith, and
one baptism, and one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4 – 6).
Our life in community mirrors our faith. This unity is both
manifested and constituted in our participation in the Eucharist
where by partaking of one bread we become one body (1
Corinthians 10:16 –17). Finally, as a community in Christ and
the Spirit, we care for all those in need, for in the Eucharist we
are sent to live what we have just celebrated sacramentally.
The apostolicity of the Church means that the Church
professes the same faith as the apostles. In Acts 2:14 – 40, Peter,
the first of the apostles, proclaims the faith of the Church in
his sermon. As in all good sermons, Peter begins by interpreting
the people’s experience of Pentecost through the scriptures
— in this case the prophecy of Joel, according to which
the gift of the Spirit, along with such manifestations as visions,
dreams, and prophecies, are signs of the “last days,” the messianic
times. He assures everyone that those filled with the Spirit
were not drunk, but that the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled. He
then connects the life of Jesus to this same Spirit event and the
fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy by referring to Jesus of Nazareth
as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders
and signs that God did through him.”
Peter is then able to get to the core of his message: This Jesus
of Nazareth was crucified, but God raised him up freeing him
from death. Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father
and, having received from the Father the promise of the Holy
Spirit, he now pours out this same Spirit that they now see
and hear. The conclusion and climax of his sermon is found in
Acts 2:36: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with
certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this
Jesus whom you crucified.” This is the fundamental apostolic
message. This is the apostolic faith of the Church.
Apostolicity became an important characteristic of the
Church in the conflict with Gnosticism in the second century.
Gnosticism was an early heresy that claimed certain Gnostic
teachers had received secret and privileged knowledge from the
apostles. This created a two-tiered structure, within which only
a few possessed the essential knowledge necessary for salvation.
This threatened the universality of the faith and the possibility
of salvation for all, as claimed in 1 Timothy 2:3 – 4.
John Burkhard identifies four expressions of apostolicity.1
First, a Church is apostolic by reason of its origin of being
founded by an apostle or by being founded by these primary
apostolic communities. Second, a Church is apostolic in doctrine
because it proclaims and teaches what the apostles taught.
Third, after the Second Vatican Council, more emphasis was
placed on the apostolicity of life and worship including such
things as sacramental practices, style of leadership, exercise of
charity, moral principles, and internal discipline, in addition
to doctrine and sacred writings. Finally, a Church is apostolic
through its ordained apostolic ministry. This is usually identified
as apostolic succession, referring to the succession of bishops
through the Church’s history.
Apostolic succession is more than an unbroken succession
of bishops. The structure of Church offices as we know
them today developed over time. Nevertheless, we can assert
that bishops, as successors to the apostles, have been charged
from the origins of the episcopal office with interpreting the
word of God for their own times and keeping the Church in
communion and continuity with apostolic faith. As indicated
in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “They were confirmed
in this mission on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-26)
in accordance with the Lord’s promise: ‘You shall receive power
when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses
for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and
even to the very ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8)” (#19). Just as the
apostles were witnesses to Christ, the bishops are witnesses to
the faith of the apostles, so that the faith that we profess today
is truly apostolic faith.
1. John J. Burkhard, Apostolicity Then and Now: An Ecumenical
Church in a Postmodern World (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press,
2004), pp. 26 – 41.
© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609
is a Sister of Charity of Leavenworth,
Kansas. She is professor of theology at Marquette University
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.