Sunday, June 8, 2014

Three Gifts: A Pentecost Rumination

Today is the mighty Feast of Pentecost, on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, that they might go forth and teach the Gospel to all nations, as Christ commanded them to do. The Bible tells us of their removal from the “upper room,” where they’d sheltered from the wrath of the Jerusalem crowds, to the streets of the city, where they commenced to preach. And though all the Apostles were Galileans, each passer-by who stopped to listen heard them speak in the tongue of his birth.

The gift of tongues – the talent for being heard in the native language of the hearer – is the one most clearly narrated by the Biblical story. Yet it was only one of three gifts the Paraclete bestowed upon them in that momentous event. The other two, though seldom (if ever) spoken of, were at least as important...perhaps more so.

Jerusalem in the early first century A.D. was the greatest city of the eastern Mediterranean region, and by far the most diverse. It was a major trading hub and way station for travelers headed thence in any direction. Thus, there was a constant flow of “foreigners” through the city. As a locus from which to disseminate the Gospel and Christ’s New Covenant, it could not have been improved upon.

Many languages were heard in the streets of first-century Jerusalem: Greek, Latin, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, and others of which little survives to our time. Traders probably spoke Greek or Phoenician. Roman administrators and legionaries, of course, spoke Latin by preference. The language of Judean commoners was Aramaic, though the “better sort,” much of whose time was consumed by commerce, might default to Greek, while Judaic clerics spoke and wrote in Hebrew. Travelers to or from the surrounding lands brought their own tongues to the conversation, though in most cases such persons had at least enough Greek or Phoenician to “get by” for a night or two in the city.

Even a true polyglot, however, was more likely to prefer to hear an important argument in his birth language. Among other things, it would charm him by its implication of intimacy. For others, whose command of pidgin Greek or Phoenician was barely adequate to dockside trade, it was essential that a preacher address him in his native tongue.

Thus, the gift of tongues was critical to the inception of Christian proselytization. But it wasn’t the only critical factor.

The Apostles themselves were drawn from the community that earned its living fishing from the Sea of Galilee. They were as lowborn, and as crudely educated, as any individual of the time. Their devotion to Christ and His New Covenant, therefore, ought not to be taken as implying understanding thereof.

The centrality of this matter to the Apostles’ post-Ascension effectiveness as preachers must not be overlooked.

Among the under-discussed aspects of the day was the separation developing between the Jewish common people and the priestly caste. The Sanhedrin had allied itself with the Roman occupiers – the temporal power of the time – as the price for official tolerance of clerical perquisites. The commoners understood this all too well. More, the priests had steadily tightened their grip on the center of Judaic worship, the Temple in Jerusalem, and put it to use as a source of material profit. The common people chafed at that source of cost and resented it inversely to their own stations in life.

But no preacher will be successful if all he can say about his dispensation is “It’s this way because I say so.” He must be able to make his exhortations not merely inspiring, but comprehensible as well – and that requires that he understand them himself. Jesus’s preachments, overwhelmingly more often than not, were couched in parables – stories intended to dramatize a moral or ethical point – and often drew puzzlement even from those closest to him. Before they could undertake the Great Commission willingly and worthily, the Apostles had to be made to understand all that Christ had taught them: the second of the gifts of the Pentecost.

Remember that Christ was executed by the Roman authorities, but at the behest of the Judaic Sanhedrin. The Redeemer’s “crime?” Preaching without the Sanhedrin’s approval.

Given that the religious authorities had succeeded in contriving that event, the Apostles entered the period following the Ascension in a great deal of fear. They spent nine solid days sealed up in that “upper room,” praying for guidance, and for protection from a mob all too likely to deliver them to be killed just as Jesus had been. Despite Christ’s unambiguous instruction that they were to “Go and teach all nations,” they initially felt themselves not merely unworthy, but unequal to the task by reason of all-consuming fear.

Yes, for three years they had done “deeds of power”...while Jesus was among them. They had healed the sick and lame, comforted the afflicted, and driven out demons from the possessed...with divine power lent to them as Christ walked beside them. They couldn’t do those things any more. It was sufficient reason to fear that when they next showed their faces in public, they would be traduced as frauds and nailed to crosses of their own.

Until the Holy Spirit descended upon them with the most essential of the three gifts: courage.

Without the spark of courage the Paraclete bestowed upon them, the Gospels might have died in their breasts. Christ’s New Covenant might never have been mentioned in public again. They might have hidden themselves from the classical world until the last of them should die of old age.

The majority of the Apostles were eventually seized and executed by the powers of the time. They knew it to be a possibility no matter where they might venture. Yet not one of them agreed to deny Christ or denounce his teachings even to save his life.

In this, too, they taught as Jesus would have them teach: by personal example.

It should be clear that Pentecost is not just another Sunday. It marks the transition from the Easter season, in which we celebrate the Resurrection and the Ascension, to “ordinary time” in the liturgical lexicon. Yet the years that followed the Pentecost were not a time of “ordinary deeds.” The Apostles showed the world the glories of the New Covenant through fearless devotion and tireless exposition: the work of men in whom God’s grace, made undeniable by the Three Gifts, was full and strong. The Gospels and those gifts took a bare four centuries to sweep all the classical world before them, and to make Europe into a thing unexampled in history before or since: Christendom.

May God bless and keep you all.

John said unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. [Luke 3:16]


Guy S said...

This reminds me of a story told by the late Dr. Gene Scott. (One of the only tele-evangilists I could stand to watch.) He noted one of the primary things which brought him back to the faith, and indeed was part of his doctoral thesis at Stanford, was, not a single Apostle renounced Christ or turned away from their faith when faced with immediate torture and or death.

He said you have to understand something here...these folks didn't have any sort of immediate mass communication. They didn't have any way of checking out what happened to their fellows. So in most if not all cases, any one of them could have renounced their faith, perhaps giving themselves a chance to live as ... at the very least slaves...rather than signing their death warrant....and none of the others would have least not for quite some time...if at all.

Yet to a man they stuck to their their belief in Christ as God made the Messiah.

He said allowing for human nature being what it is...and knowing what they is most certainly against the odds that they all would have done this...and yet they did.

So either they were all crazy....and had hallucinated exactly the same things while traveling with Christ.....the odds of that being higher or as high as all of them standing fast to their faith.

Or everything they believed and professed to any who would listen ... was TRUE

In other words ... no sane man willingly dies for what is honestly known to him (or her) to be false...a lie. Especially when the opportunity is there for them to "cop a plea" and get away with it....with out their (distant) fellow travelers being any the wiser.

In my mind this alone is perhaps one...if not the, single strongest argument one could present to those who profess there is no God...and or that Christ is not whom he said he was. The logic would seem to dictate otherwise.

Sorry for the long windedness. But this particular event (Pentecost) ... if I were Pope (dodging lightning even as I typo that), this would be promoted throughout the Church and Catholic communities as strongly as Christmas and Easter.

doubletrouble said...

Good one Francis... the better of the two sermons I heard for this day.