What Happened at Pentecost?

Eberhard Arnold

Excerpted from Fire and Spirit, the fourth volume in Inner Land: A Guide into the Heart of the Gospel.

The Pentecostal spring of the first Christian church contrasts sharply with the icy rigidity of our Christianity today. Everyone senses that at that time a fresher wind blew and purer water flowed, a stronger power and a more fiery warmth ruled than is the case today among all those who call themselves Christians. We all know that in spite of the different churches, in spite of all the various religious alliances and societies for moral edification, the community life of faith and love represented by the early church is almost not to be found today.

What has Christianity in general lost? What was the all-important event that took place in Jerusalem? The word of Jesus, and even more, his Iife and deeds from the manger to the cross, were alive and present in that first circle of the Christ-movement. What the apostles had to say and do was drawn directly from the same reality that comes to meet us today in the four Gospels. This community of faith and community of life in the first love was marked by the presence of Christ – the Christ who had said, “I am with you always.”

Jesus devoted himself to people’s outer need just as much as to their inner need, demonstrating the cleansing and healing power of the kingdom of God wherever he went. It was the same in the early church. It is not true that Jesus’ Christianity is exclusively concerned with souls, despising our bodies as our lot in life and as a purely outward matter. When Jesus cast out all the demonic spirits through the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God came to us. When one of the finest of men sent and asked Jesus whether it was he who would bring in the future state of justice, or whether they should wait for another, he answered by referring to his deeds: in his presence sick bodies were healed and the dead brought to life. Tidings of joy were brought to the poor. “Come! See!” was his summons.

In Jesus’ presence, the invisible kingdom of God had become visible reality; the Word had taken shape, and the meaning of love had become real. His word and life had proved that love knows no bounds. Love halts at no barrier and can never be stopped, no matter where or under what circumstances it seems impossible to practice love. Nothing is impossible for the faith that springs from love. For this reason, the call of Jesus did not stop at property. When he felt a love for the young man who was rich in possessions, he looked into his heart and said the word of perfect love, “One thing is still lacking: sell everything you have; give it to the poor and come follow me.”

Yet what gave his friends strength to put into practice the will to love, as he himself had instilled it into them, was the experience of the Spirit. When this Spirit was given by the Risen One to the new church-to-be, he overturned everything and set it on fire. Then they were able to become a life-sharing community, and only then did their love as unity in the Holy Spirit overflow. They were all on fire with the same burning love, which drew them irresistibly and for always together. Love had become in them a holy “thou must.” Just as Jesus had always wanted round him his nearest friends and pupils, whom we call disciples, so his Spirit drew the early Christians close to one another. Together they felt compelled to live the life of Jesus, and together, in complete community, they had to do the same as he had done. Because they felt this absolute, inner must, all questions concerned with living together found an answer that accorded completely with the perfect unity and purity of love.

Jesus summoned each individual to leave everything and be with him wherever he went. He traveled from village to village with the band he had called together, and whatever their daily experiences were, they shared them in common. In accordance with the will of the leader, a common purse was kept. Yet his mission was never meant to be limited to a narrow circle. The band of itinerant followers of Jesus became his embassy. The twelve apostles expected and represented his kingdom of justice as the approaching brotherhood in God. The resurrection confirmed the power of this mission. As soon as the Spirit of Jesus flooded so unhindered over his first church, its first outward form was bound to take shape according to the way of Jesus and the commission entrusted to his embassy. The early Christians held absolutely everything in common. Whoever had possessions was filled with the urge to share them. No one had anything that did not belong to the community. By this time, through the exuberant and united life of the Holy Spirit, a bigger group had grown together to unity in God on the way of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus’ presence, the invisible kingdom of God had become visible reality; the Word had taken shape, and the meaning of love had become real.

This could not be an exclusive unity: all living things grow. Life begets life and spreads. Perfect love never remains exclusive. Open doors and open hearts were significant characteristics of the early Christians, who therefore had access to everyone and gained the love of whole peoples. They were a light that shone for all. The fiery Spirit who filled them wanted to pour himself out over all flesh as God’s will for his empire: the Spirit of God’s kingdom wants to be victorious over all peoples to draw them together as one. In this Spirit, the early church was burning and alive, all heart and all soul; only in this could so many become one heart and one soul. Not the hard light of cold intellectual knowledge was to be found here but the illuminating Spirit, who sets the heart aglow and quickens the soul with burning, fiery love.

Only in this way could the ice-cold existence of isolation be overcome. Communal life with its white-hot love began. In its heat, property was melted away to the very foundations. The icy substructures of age-old glaciers melt before God’s sun. The only way to abolish private property and personal assets is through the radiant power of the life-creating Spirit. All ownership feeds on stifling self-interest. When deadly selfishness is killed by love, and only then, ownership comes to an end. Yet it was so in the early church: under the influence of the Spirit of community, no one thought his goods were his own. Private property was an impossibility; here the Spirit of love and unity ruled.

Love overlooks no need or suffering. In such a life-sharing community no one could suffer a lack of clothing, food, or any other necessity of life. Whoever wants to keep goods and valuables for himself in spite of the need around him must have done violence to his own heart. God’s heart is never limited in its sphere of action. Those who held their goods in common at Jerusalem gave generous hospitality to thousands of pilgrims. Through the Spirit poured out upon them, they were able to care wisely for many, for very many, with the slenderest means; soon the early church experienced the dutiful support of her apostolic daughter churches in this enormous service.

The early church had an immeasurable effect far and wide. It shook whole worlds; it established a completely different and undreamed-of new world. But the Spirit burning with love is more delicate than the hard edifices of calculating reason and its coldly organizing social structure; more delicate also than the powers of the soul and the blood, which so many extended families and national communities try to use as a foundation. Because the Holy Spirit is supremely noble and supremely divine, he is more sensitive than all other forms of life when he is confronted with anything coarse or gross. Free from all connection with other elements, he drives them all away, or he withdraws before they can offend him.

The only way to abolish private property and personal assets is through the radiant power of the life-creating Spirit.

The Spirit alone is inviolable. He is the most delicate element of all. The all-pervading celestial ether never forces itself on crude, earthy matter. On earth what lasts longest belongs to the realm of the crudest. The finer the organs, the more endangered is their life. The kingdom Jesus brought, which has to do with the pure Spirit, is not of this gross world. Unless this world is smelted and remolded, his Spirit cannot touch it. The Spirit of Jesus broke into a world grown alien to him and overcame all other powers as the mightier one, who is and always will be inviolably pure. He cannot deny his nature. He never becomes part of any mixture. He cannot and will not let himself be changed by anything alien to him.

The Spirit is alive as the power of love at work without violence, as an inner voice of the utmost delicacy. He is perceived with the inner eye of pure faith alone. He retreats when the inner vision is not concentrated on him alone, when other spirits are given room beside him. He would rather see a Spirit-filled witness murdered than allow alien and violent spirits to gain room beside him. What if this earthly life is taken from those who confess him? What does it matter? He himself cannot be killed; he is invincible. He rules forever, but he does not impose his rule on any opponent: he seems to flee from a gross and violent world. His church must suffer the same fate as Christ on the cross. Like Jesus himself, the early church could light up the new way only as a short flash of eternal clarity.

It almost seemed as if the form of life brought about by the Spirit of Pentecost fled forever from this world with its extermination at the second destruction of Jerusalem. Yet throughout the centuries, we see the same perfect form given by the same Spirit again and again like a very rare gift of God. In fact it never has fled from this earth. But just as each individual filled with the Spirit has only a limited span of life in this time-bound world, so the pure form in which the church took shape has been wiped out again and again by violent enemies. Individual churches were brought to a bloody end. Witnesses were slain. Yet the Spirit remained alive. Like Jesus and like the apostles, the early church and the subsequent churches of the Reformation were also allotted a very limited time on this blood-drenched earth.

Yet new children are continually being born to the Spirit. The gaps made by death are filled by newly engendered life. As more are murdered, more follow on. The blood of martyrs is always the seed of the church. The living seed grain is always the mystery of the church and the kingdom. It would be entirely wrong to force an imitation of the form of life this mystery takes; such efforts can only lead to a lifeless caricature without the one essential element: the freely moving Spirit, the life born of God! One thing alone matters: to become open to the living God, to the life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ, so that he – and he alone – can bring into being the same life he gave the early Christians. Then new life-units will constantly arise, in which the love that comes to expression in full community encompasses and penetrates everything. Full community is a question of rebirth and resurrection. It has been given even in our times by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, in the power of eternal birth and continual resurrection.