Exuberance for the Spirit

Acts 2 from a Brazilian perspective

Those who have visited Brazil come across a word that describes our culture better than any other: jeitinho – a clever bypass, or a way to dodge the system. There are no rules that cannot be reinterpreted for personal advantage. Following the example of Portuguese colonizers, who took riches such as gold, sugar cane, and redwood from Brazil to pay for the industrial products imported from England, Brazilians try to take personal advantage of every situation. Although not an exclusive Brazilian cultural trait, this is strongly imprinted on our culture. Accordingly, Brazilian evangelicals try to attract people to our churches by offering them a  “good deal.”

All people read Scripture through their own cultural lenses, and Brazilians are no different. From our melting pot of many cultural influences, we bring our own perspective to the Pentecost text in Acts 2, where the early church experienced the first taste of the Holy Spirit and of the gathering of nations. For most Brazilian evangelicals, Pentecost is not a one-time event of the past. There is a clear awareness of the Spirit in daily life. Although not all presuppositions are biblically based, we live a dynamic experience with the Spirit.

There are both lessons and warnings for Canadian Mennonite Brethren in the way Brazilians read the story of Pentecost.

Influences on a reading of Acts 2

Brazil was not allowed to have a university until about a century ago, so we don’t have a tradition of critical thinking. Since we were not allowed to think, we expect someone else to take responsibility for changes in our personal circumstances, in our country, even in our spiritual lives. We live with the expectation that fate will change for our benefit – we wish to be cured from cancer without chemotherapy; we expect the government to change our situation – but we do not feel responsible to change society. God is supposed to change my life through a miracle, a wonderful work of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced through the first outpouring at Pentecost. Today or tomorrow will be my lucky day.

Another factor that influences how we read Acts 2 is Spiritism. At a Spiritist session, such as Umbanda, the leader is controlled by a spirit, resulting in “supernatural manifestations” like a changed voice, predictions, contact with the dead. With this background we read about the outpouring of the Spirit. The Spirit does something extraordinary, and we see or experience it now. When any supernatural manifestation occurs, Brazilians tend to shut off our minds: God is doing something and we simply accept what is going on without questioning or discerning if we are dealing with the Holy Spirit or other spirits.

We often read Acts 2 without historical awareness; there is no connection with the Old Testament. Chronology only matters as much as it shows what the Spirit did to the scared disciples who went from behind locked doors to suddenly proclaiming the wonderful acts of God to all, without concern for opposing authorities.

That the outpouring of the Spirit is a one-time event simply is out of the ball game. What God did in the past, he can and will do again to us. About 70 percent of evangelical churches in Brazil are Pentecostal and the others are influenced by the Pentecostal movement. For these reasons, the reading of Acts 2 leads us immediately to the supernatural manifestations in the text. We skip past the wind and the proclamation aspect: the “real thing” is tongues – proof that God is at work and that we are his special people. If it happened in those days, it could and should happen again to us today (Mark 16:17–18). When we hear reports of supernatural manifestations in a church, we want to see it with our own eyes to experience what God is doing today.

This perception is so strong that those who are not of the Pentecostal camp feel they are missing something. Often, as some ask themselves why these supernatural manifestations do not occur to them or in their church today, they blame themselves for not being open for the Spirit. Others become defensive, asking if the manifestations (tongues, healing, prophecy) really change the lives of those who claim to have these gifts.

However, neither response helps us to understand what Luke was trying to tell us. Our reading then becomes not a search for the meaning in the text, but a meaning “for me.”

When we talk about the Holy Spirit, we are often not really concerned with the Holy Spirit, but what the Spirit can give us: power. The same worldview dominates our reading of the Gospels. There is no concern with the crucial question the Gospel writers try to get across: “Who in the world is this Jesus?” Our reading is: “What can this Jesus do for me?” What scares us is that this question already appears in the Gospels when Jewish leaders wanted Jesus to perform a miracle before them (Matthew 12:39), or Herod, when he wished to be entertained with a miracle (Luke 23:8–9). The answer Jesus gave the Jewish leaders was the sign of Jonah, and to Herod, Jesus did not speak a word.

In our pragmatic search for the power of the Spirit, we look for personal benefits from the Spirit instead of authentic worship. In this sense, we need to hear the words of A.W. Tozer: “Whoever seeks God as a means toward desired ends will not find God.” This raises an intimidating question: If these people don’t find God, whom or what are they finding? Are they just finding their own reflection in the water?

The work of the Spirit as transformation

Nevertheless, God’s grace is beyond our shortcomings. Even though we all read the Bible with our presuppositions, God reaches out and changes lives. Those who are open to the work of the Spirit, through the Word, personal conversations, daily situations, even supernatural manifestations, and try to discern what God is doing are being transformed. Often, we would hope this growing in faith would be much faster, however the maturing process is slow.

Folk religion in which we are immersed teaches us that we are the centre, that God is at our disposal to satisfy our needs. This view is not changed easily. We need to learn what the Bible teaches about the Christian life, and this needs to be accompanied by people who relate to us and model this lifestyle. We don’t need heroes; we need everyday Christians who defy the success models of the media and have Jesus as their model.

Having painted a rather dark picture of our reading of the outpouring of the Spirit, I rejoice at the fact that as my fellow Brazilians open themselves to the work of the Spirit in their lives, they are convinced of their sins (John 16:8) and guided by the Spirit to all truth (John 16:13).

We know that the work of the Spirit is far from finished in our own lives and pray that the transformation process may go on till “we become in every way like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, New Living Translation). This might take more than a generation. We are called to model our lives according to Jesus and influence those around us. Only God can change the world.

–Arthur Duck is director of Faculdade Fidelis, a Mennonite Brethren-affiliated Bible school in Curitiba, Brazil.

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