Pentecost and the ‘seceded’ church

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…all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1a).[i]

Yes, say the people today, back in those days [of Acts 2] it was truly Pentecost. Because then there was true unity!

But look at the situation today! The one attends this church, another a church some streets further along. They celebrate Pentecost as ‘seceded’ churches. They both refer to the Spirit, and both sing: Praise the Spirit! And both pray: Veni, Creator Spirit! But they don’t do it “with one accord in one place”!

Yet on that first Pentecost day weren’t the people united despite their differences? Weren’t the people then also very different in manner and character, personality and views? Yet they were broadminded enough to be able to gather together “with one accord”. Whereas with us every nuance leads to contention and every contention leads to a schism!

Isn’t it high time we begin to reflect the style of the first Pentecost congregation again?

Well, I believe that too. Indeed, it’s more than time. For doesn’t every celebration of Pentecost make the responsibility greater.

But then we must also do it the way that first church did it: together “with one accord”.

That means: we must stop making those favourite remarks about unity and about a ‘Pentecost command’ that promotes a Christianity that transcends differences in faith. And it means that we should stop extending the hand of brotherly fellowship across the walls of the church.

We should start by simply taking seriously the gospel as it is written here.

Literally the translated text says nothing about unity and harmony. It says: They were with one accord in one place.

People shouldn’t say that Luke puts it rather awkwardly by using two terms that say the same thing: that if you are together with one accord then you are in the one place, and vice versa. For that’s not necessarily so.

For example, if tomorrow a train heads for the city, then the travellers may all get off in the city, “in the one place”. But they’re not there “with one accord”. The one goes there for business, another to see relatives, another to visit the museum. Each has a different purpose.

Yet that’s not what we read here: they all were there together, that is, as a group with one accord in the same place.

The “all”, that is those hundred and twenty disciples of Acts 1, were together somewhere in a house, or perhaps in a separate area in the temple. The spot is not important. What’s important is that on this day of Pentecost they came together as a separate group. If they happened to meet in the temple area, they did not mix with the other Jews in celebration but formed a separate group in Israel.

That had never happened before. Up till now Jesus and his disciples had gone up to all the great feasts. And they mixed with the travellers going to the feasts. And in the temple, they had mixed with the others.

But today, now that all Israel was again in the temple, and as one people of the Lord had gathered to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, there happened to be a hundred and twenty people who formed a separate group under the leadership of its own church council.

Here a second church institution places itself next to and over against the first group, the old one, and says: we are celebrating the feast apart from you. For we say: here, with Peter, this is the address of God’s people!

So, let’s frankly ask the question: wasn’t that being schismatic? This little group may have concerns about the Sanhedrin having unjustly declared that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, and of having caused Jesus to go to the cross. But did that mean these few believers could walk away, separate themselves, present themselves as a separate group and have the gall to say: we, here, are the lawful gathering of the church?

It’s because of this that they were continually branded as a sect by the people in the ‘old’ church. Their actions were said to be revolutionary; their preaching had to stop; their deed was not reformation but unlawfully breaking with the church! Were they allowed to leave the others and say: we’re not going to participate in your services anymore? And weren’t there still believers in the ‘old’ church with the Sanhedrin?

Those questions are crucial for everyone who seeks unity. And for everyone who prepares to celebrate the feast of Pentecost.

For all of Jerusalem was faced with the question: Where is the true church, and what is her address? There with Caiaphas, or with Peter?

Where is the true church? No one who takes the gospel of Pentecost seriously and wants to celebrate the feast in truth can bypass that question!

Where is the true church? Oh no, that is not: Where are believers? There were believers with Peter, but there were also believers in the large circle around Caiaphas. Nor is the question: Where is the perfect order? For in the church with Caiaphas there was indeed much sin; yet amongst those with Peter there could be hypocrites.

Instead, the crucial question is: To which gathering does God call Israel today?

Both gatherings claimed to be congregating in the name of the Lord and had His promises and His grace. But which one was right? Both, or perhaps neither?

Today we say in retrospect: they needed to be with Peter. That’s where the pure Word was. But did you think that with Caiaphas they proclaimed heresies?

Peter preached, that day, about Joel and a few Psalms. But did you think that those truths weren’t also proclaimed and confessed in the temple? That the people there wouldn’t hear good, orthodox preaching?

Acts 2 says: they – that is, that church of Peter – were all filled with the Spirit. That did not happen in that church of Caiaphas. There they had the old name, the old papers, the old buildings, all the church objects, the old orthodox doctrine. They also had, remaining there, the great mass of people. A mere hundred and twenty people went “over” to the sect of the Nazarenes, but the rest “remained faithful” to the church with Caiaphas.

But God bypasses Caiaphas and pours out His Spirit in those gathered around Peter! Caiaphas may have all his papers on the table, and a fine genealogy showing the succession of legitimate priests. But God says to Peter: ascend to the pulpit, for here with this hundred and twenty is the true church. Here I shall live, for this is what I desired. This is my rest to all eternity!

Therefore I say: Pentecost is church feast! But cut out that gushing enthusiasm about a unity in an invisible church, about unity over and above divided faith and church walls. Instead revere God, who places himself on the side of the “seceded sect”. Because there they confess Christ! Because there they don’t cling to the conventional teachings, but concretely believe the Scriptures, the proofs that Jesus is the Christ. Because there they hold on to the church order in accordance with Scripture and hence confess that Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross and killed by the hands of unrighteous men.

How much didn’t those few disciples have in common with the Sanhedrin. The same papers, the same Bible, the same feasts, the same offerings. Yet in accordance with Scriptures these disciples accepted Jesus as the Christ, whilst the Sanhedrin – in disobedience to Scripture – had killed him.

Old buildings, great numbers of people, – ah, it is all unimportant.

It is no misfortune to belong to a church that has separated and to be accused by everyone of being a sectarian. It is no misfortune to sit with that small group. The only thing that matters is to be justified in what you do by the Scriptures.

Church schism is a terrible thing. And a great sin. But people’s opinions don’t determine who is schismatic. Only the Scriptures determine that.

And no mortal will be able to say to God on Sunday [about the church he attends]: But the synod said…. God will answer: Have you not read?

No-one can say: We remain concerned, but we seek to maintain unity…. God will answer: speak no longer about unity, but join the true church and maintain fellowship with her. You know from the Word where people are faithful to Christ.

Must people be careful to speak of true and false church? And, consequently, leave the concrete question of where to attend church on Sunday in the mist? To do that is to allow the sheep to all wander astray.

Blessed are the small groups, the people who in accordance with God’s Word have joined the true church. Blessed are those who on Sunday morning are united together “with one accord”, maybe with just two or three, but in the name of Christ. There the feast of Pentecost will be celebrated. But all the other gatherings will grieve the Spirit!

 

[i] Prof B Holwerda, “Pinksterfeest en de ‘afgescheiden’ kerk”, De Reformatie, 4th June 1949, pp. 299-300 (translated).