Frances writes on the Readings for Pentecost:- As we approach yet another General Election, in a Britain traumatised by a recent spate of terror attacks, I find the message of Pentecost both challenging and heart-warming. The Romans had many faults, they were appallingly sexist, classist and status conscious to a fault, and lovers of violence, but racist they never were. The simple reason for this was that they had built, by the time of the late Republic, a powerful and widespread empire, made up of men and women from all over their state and beyond, and once one became a citizen of this huge landmass you were an equal of your fellows regardless of colour, racial group and origins. Indeed, Rome sucked in foreigners from the remotest parts. There were those of Far Eastern origin in Italy, and even a woman with Far Eastern origins in Britain. Traders on the Wall in Northern Britain even hailed from Palmyra and the landscape was literally stuffed with foreigners.
When Luke wrote Acts (2:1-11) he reflects this multi-cultural and diverse society, as he records the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and as he recites the power of the communication of the Good News of Salvation to the many gathered ostensibly in Jerusalem. Writing as he did from either Antioch in Northern Syria or Ephesus, both great seaports, he would undoubtedly have rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with the many foreigners and peoples of the empire. He would have known of the great empires to the East, Parthia that formidable and ancient enemy of Rome and the source of so many disasters for its armies. He would have known of the Medes and Elamites just to the Northeast, and the territories in what we now know of as Turkey and North Africa and, most likely due to the trade routes, he would have seen their rich potential as converts to Christianity.
Enemies of Rome many of these might once have been, yet there was always a lively interchange of gods and ideas between these diverse nations, and some of Rome’s newest major gods came from the East, Cybele from Asia Minor, Mithras from Mesopotamia, Isis from Egypt; and all of these deities found a home in the Empire and in Rome itself, and made a major contribution to its religious life. I am quite sure that Luke and the rest of the Church understood the power of this system, and exploited it for the benefit of Christianity.
What is significant is his description of the coming of the Spirit in very bodily terms. Just as the Church insisted that Jesus the Son of God became a real human being for our redemption, so too the Spirit takes on a real and powerful identity, affecting the daily lives of men and women. Ancient religions were all rooted in the myths of the gods who were not fundamentally concerned with human beings at all. Christianity, as demonstrated by Jesus, was totally given-over to helping suffering humanity and incorporating them into God’s life, and this is surely why the first action of the very physical Spirit is to enable all these disparate peoples to receive the Gospel by being able to understand it in their own languages, thereby showing a respect for the person previously unknown.
When we meet the Church in Corinth, (1 Cor 12:3-7.12-13) we meet a situation in which all this diversity needs to be controlled. Corinth was a city of two ports and international outreach to the Mediterranean, so a melting pot for foreign interaction. It was also a nouveau-riche city, only a hundred years or so old, and lacking aristocrats – a community of freed, slaves and ex army. There was fierce competition between the members, for power, for status and for being thought the top of the tree. We know that the divisions there amongst the Christians drove Paul to distraction, as they cheated, killed, seduced and ripped each other off in the climb up the social scale. This is why he appeals to their unity in the faith, comparing it to the very different parts of the human body with its many and varied purposes, pointing out that some bits of us are not superior to others, but form and shape the whole, making us a unity, capable of functioning properly. With this in mind he appeals to their mutual respect and co operation for the good thriving of the whole. “In the one Spirit we were all baptised, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink”. This was very unusual in Roman society in which ideas of equality and social concern were not writ large. Becoming a Christian in Corinth demanded radical rethinking of one’s entire life and thought patterns.
So it is significant that in John’s Gospel (Jn 20:19-23) the risen Lord Jesus – who has defied and beaten death, that ultimate evil – stands before the disciples and “showed them his hands and his side”. This victor over death retains his wounded body, being vulnerable is part of what he is a sign of, his glory, and not to be forgotten. It is this man, with this body ‘marred beyond human semblance’ who gives over the Holy Spirit and with it to the apostles the power of forgiving or retaining sins, a living demonstration of what belonging to Christ, of what community in the Spirit, is all about. Once again there is physicality here, as he ‘breathes’ the Spirit upon them, his own breath, pushed into their lungs and being for their outreach to all, the physical presence of the risen Lord in the Spirit.
As we all deliberate on which political party to vote for on the 8th June, I suggest that the issues raised by the Pentecost accounts can truly help each of us to consider what is really at stake in our society today, and help us choose who to vote for. Pentecost is about human solidarity in Christ. It is a responsibility we cannot shirk, for it is of the essence of our belonging to Jesus who has left us under the power of his Holy Spirit to deal with the sin of the world, and to share his life with all the millions his love has redeemed.