The Liminal Spirit in Luke-Acts – by David J. McCollough

Luke’s presentation of Spirit reception involves liminality.  That is, he presents the Spirit as being given to initiates during a ritual process that takes a certain amount of time to be completed.  This is not to be understood as identical with Dunn’s concept of conversion-initiation, which is vertical in nature, i.e., God responds to human faith, and which occupies no more temporal space than is required by the split-second moment of belief.  Rather, Luke’s initiate undergoes several rituals before leaving the “betwixt and between” experience of liminality and entering the believing community.  These rituals are well known, namely, water baptism, prayer (both by the initiate and by ritual elders) and laying on of hands by ritual elders for Spirit reception.

While it is virtually a cliché to state that Luke knows no common ritual because he seems to vary the way the Spirit comes in his Spirit-reception scenes, a sequential, progressive reading of the Spirit reception scenes in Luke-Acts accumulates a well-rounded picture showing that Luke does, in fact, present a standard ritual procedure which allows for limited variation.  Luke begins with the wonderful Spirit experiences of Elizabeth, John, Zacharias, Mary, and Simeon.  Here, the reader associates Spirit experience with miraculous conception, loud prophecy, physical movement and guidance.  However, the nativity experiences, while certainly involving the Spirit, are not presented as taking place within an initiatory context, nor do they inaugurate a new nexus of ongoing Spirit activities within these particular characters.  Luke’s first initiatory Spirit-reception scene, Jesus’ baptism, does inaugurate the Spirit’s work upon Messiah.  It presents the Spirit coming after Jesus’ immersion and during his prayer, thus linking the coming of the Spirit with the prayer immediately following immersion, but not the act of immersion per se.  Later, in chapter eleven, Jesus will teach on shamelessly persistent prayer, and then encourage his followers to ask their Father for the Spirit, thus implying persistence in prayer for the Spirit.

Luke’s next Spirit reception scene is Pentecost, where the disciples are each filled with the Promise of the Father.  Not surprisingly, Luke tells us that they had been praying.  When the reader comes to Peter’s 2:38 promise that if the audience will repent and be baptized, they will receive the Spirit, the reader, having read about Jesus’ baptism and prayer, already has an expectation that prayer for the Spirit will follow immersion.  The reader will not expect the Spirit to come in the water, but in the prayer that immediately follows the water.  Both the water and the prayer for the Spirit are one liminal initiation process.  There is no “subsequence” from Christian initiation here.  Spirit experience belongs integrally to Christian initiation. Neither is there automatic reception of the Spirit at the moment of belief, for each of the 3,000 must wait their turn in line before they can be baptized and receive the Spirit.

In the programmatic teaching of the Apostle Peter (for Luke a normative spokesperson par excellence) neither automatic reception nor subsequence are the rule.  Rather, Luke gives us a brief ritual process – the 3,000 standing in line for baptism are experiencing the in-between state of liminality – they have believed Peter’s preaching, and acted upon it, but have not yet demonstrated with physical action the repentant state of their hearts (surely the reader is not expected to suppose that they only genuinely repented when they stepped into the water?  What if they stood in the queue for three hours; is the reader to believe they were they unrepentant until the moment of contact with the water?).  Luke does not show his reader the moment of Spirit reception for each of the 3,000.  Luke’s narrative camera fails to capture those thousands of individual experiences.  All Luke says is that 3,000 were baptized.  This was not a corporate experience, as with the 120, but a series of individual ritual experiences.  The reader knows, because Peter, the Spirit baptized apostle, promised it, that as they repented and were baptized, they would each receive the Spirit.  The reader also expects, based upon the previously read story of Jesus’ immersion, prayer and Spirit experience, that the 3,000 will pray at their baptisms and receive the Spirit in association with the prayer.  However, in not explicitly showing the Spirit reception experiences of the 3,000, Luke left for a narrative gap (cf. Meir Sternberg).  The reader wonders whether the gap will be filled in later.  Exactly how did the 3,000 receive the Spirit?

The next Lukan story in which new initiates receive the Spirit is Acts 8 (Acts 4 deals with initiated community members having a renewal of their liminal Spirit experience).  Here we find Luke explicitly stating that the apostles prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Spirit, and that the Spirit was given by the laying on of the hands of the apostles.  Simon’s observation is not qualified with some statement such as, “Simon, supposing the Spirit was given by the laying on of hands” or “Simon, incorrectly assuming the Spirit was given by the laying on of hands.”  Luke is perfectly willing to supply such a qualification if needed, e.g., “the sailors, supposing they had achieved their purpose,” or “the jailor, supposing the prisoners had fled.”  No, Luke presents the Spirit as actually given through apostolic prayer and handlaying.  In this way, Luke fills in the narrative gap from Acts 2.  Now the reader knows how the 3,000 received the Spirit.  They repented, were immersed, prayed, received prayer from apostles and had apostolic hands laid upon them.  Thus, the reader has added new information to her composite picture of Christian initiation:  in addition to personally praying for the Spirit, the initiate must allow the community leaders to pray and lay hands upon him/her to receive the Spirit.

We also find liminality in the story of Saul’s conversion.  In Saul’s second recounting of his experience, he explains that Jesus identified himself to him, and then he responded by asking, “what should I do, Lord?”  In this statement, Saul is submitting himself to obey the one he formerly had persecuted.  He knows Jesus is raised from the dead and he calls him Lord.  According to the story logic, Saul has become of follower of Jesus.  Of course, Ananias still goes through the initiatory rituals, water baptism and calling upon the name of the Lord and Spirit reception (which is not automatic, but mediated by Ananias, according to his own assertion, “Jesus sent me so that…”) but the reader knows that Saul has already submitted to Jesus as Lord.  Here Luke deftly identifies what is essential:  not the ritual form, but the experiential reality.  However, the ritual form is not to be dispensed with, it too is necessary for acceptance into, or perhaps better put, acceptance by, the community of Jesus’ followers.

But, where then is the liminality in the Cornelius story?  The Spirit comes precisely at the moment of belief!  This is true, but what follows?  Water baptism.  Luke does not neglect the necessary water ritual.  Both water baptism and Spirit reception are necessary for acceptance by the believing community.  And yes, Dunn is absolutely correct, according to the story logic, to see the gift of the Spirit as a purifying force (though, as Turner rightly observes, one not to be equated with forgiveness of sins).  As one progressively reads the story from beginning to end, one remembers that at Pentecost Luke presents the Spirit’s coming as associated with fire and fulfilling the purificatory role that John the Baptist prophesied of back in Luke 3.  So, when the reader arrives at the Cornelius episode, in the reader’s concept of the Spirit, the Spirit is already understood as purifying believers.  Consequently, the reader will understand God’s “purifying their hearts by faith” as precisely the work of the Spirit whom they received by faith.  In Luke’s order of salvation, forgiveness of sins takes place at the moment of faith and this allows for the Spirit to come and purify the heart.  Sanctification, though progressive (e.g., Simon the repentant sorcerer) belongs to Christian initiation.  Luke’s allusions to Malachi 3 and Messiah’s work of purification, which Luke understands to be accomplished through the Spirit, are also worth further study (cf. Andrew Perry).

Finally, then, the reader comes to the last Spirit reception scene in Luke-Acts, the story of the Ephesian disciples.  Regards of how one defines them (they were disciples of John) liminality in the ritual process is clear to see.  They believe Paul’s instructions about Jesus, then they are baptized, then Paul lays hands upon them and then they receive the Spirit.  All of this took time.  Paul did not baptize them all at once, nor did he lay hands upon them all at once, he had to do each ritual act separately for each individual.  To make the point clear, Luke does not present a non-individuated corporate experience of the Spirit, rather, he presents individual reception experiences.  Even in the Pentecost story, where 120 believers received the Spirit at the same time, Luke individualizes the Spirit experiences for he emphasizes that the fire rested upon “each one of them.”

In conclusion, we ask of the reader, who has progressed through Luke’s two volumes from beginning to end, what, then, is the accumulated picture of Spirit reception and Christian initiation with regards to liminality and ritual?  What concept has the reader amassed after reading the Spirit reception scenes sequentially, in the order of their occurrence?  First, prayer follows immersion and the Spirit is linked to the prayer, not the water.  Moreover, in apostolic teaching, repentance and immersion precede Spirit reception.  Also, receptivity to prayer and handlaying by powerful, especially gifted ritual elders is required of initiates.  The Spirit’s coming is specifically attached to the handlaying.  However, people other than apostles can function as ritual elders if they are gifted with the ability to impart the Spirit.  Also, the Spirit can come without the handlaying rite when a powerful ritual elder preaches.  Though this does not always occur, it is a possible variation of the ritual.  Finally, immersion and handlaying by a gifted ritual elder for reception of the Spirit are not to be separated by any length of time, but should be performed together during a short ritual process.

In future blogs, we will explore liminality and the Spirit in Paul and John.

David J. McCollough is the author of Ritual Water, Ritual Spirit (Paternoster 2017, ISBN: 9781780781792). He has a BA in Church Ministries at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, a Master of Divinity from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Middlesex University (supervised at The London School of Theology). Contact David on Twitter – @DavidMcCollough

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