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To offer oneself completely to God

Frances writes on next Sundays’ Readings :- These days of the Trump administration in the USA raise questions on the meaning of personal integrity and moral probity in a way they were not so clearly raised before. If there are ‘alternative truths’ rather than ‘the’ truth; or if one can clearly state something one day and its apparent direct opposite tomorrow, where does the truth lie, where can moral value rest? Is there any such thing? These are in fact very old issues, which the advent of a corrupt and unworthy regime in the US is merely highlighting for the modern thinker, and something which should exercise our hearts and minds continually.

Jeremiah the prophet (20:10-13) also lived and wrote in such a time of turmoil. He was a prophet of the 6th century BCE and had seen the just and reforming king Josiah die unexpectedly in 609BCE. His successor sons returned the country to paganism and were witnesses to the defeat and decline of Egypt in its bid for power in Mesopotamia at the Battle of Carchemish in 605. The rise of Babylon to the political superpower of the area was swift and overwhelming, and Jeremiah saw their rise as due punishment on Israel for its unfaithfulness to Yahweh, as one of the sons of Josiah was deported to Babylon with his court. He believed that the ensuing struggles and deportations were God’s path to renewal for his people. Yet in all this political upheaval, Jeremiah stood alone against the court, the priests and the aristocracy, who persuaded the weak Zedekiah, vassal of Babylon to rebel. In a time when Jews did not have any belief in eternal life post mortem with God, but only saw their continual relationship with him via their progeny, Jeremiah stood resolute in his conviction that he could trust the God of Israel and be vindicated in his beliefs, however terrible the outcome of his faith might be – and that included undergoing the devastating siege of Jerusalem and his own torture and starvation. His would be the task of writing letters of reassurance to the deportees, and ultimately he too was taken to Babylon, one more prize of the country’s collapse and ignominy.

In writing to the Christians of Rome (Romans 5:12-15) St Paul pondered long and hard on the question of human sin, its falling away from God, from what it was always meant to be. Clearly, some at least of the Christians there were Jews, since he spent some time in the Letter pondering on the purpose and value of the Jewish law; and of course, Paul himself was a Jew and came from the Pharisaic strand of Judaism which held that perfect observance of the law made one right with God. The upshot of his thought is that this law is however merely provisional, there only to point out faults to the Jews and therefore of no salvific value. What gets to him even more is the all pervasiveness of human sin since the dawn of humanity, resulting in the inevitable death of everyone, Jew or Gentile and earlier, of course, he had argued (Rom 1) that Gentiles could, by reason come to a full knowledge of God. It appears then that he thought that human beings, however equipped to know God, turned away from him and chose badly, chose to go their own way and, falling away from God, died. Yet he is utterly convicted that this is not God the Creator’s intention for his creation; but rather, that it is meant for glory with God, and so every human being’s story must be one of redemption in the one man, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate.

We have to remember that this Letter, written to the Christians and their hangers-on in Rome, was to a very corrupt city and regime, almost certainly that of Nero, a man who successively moved to destroy his thoughtful advisers and members of the senate who opposed him, and ultimately murdered his own mother. Nero probably epitomised what bad kingship was about in a period desperate for good rule and careful shepherding. Paul however places all his hope on divine grace, in the promised relationship God grants to human beings and, most significantly, refers to this as “an abundant free gift”. As this passage continues we see that the promise of God is that we shall ‘reign in righteousness with Christ’, justified, made one with him.

In similar mode we find Jesus (Matthew 10:26-33) reassuring the disciples as he sends them out to tell the Good News of salvation to the peoples. Previously he had warned them to expect persecution, and had sent them out with no provision for their mission, totally dependant on those they were sent to, giving them a kind of equality and not superiority on this journey as they place themselves at the mercy of the world, just as Jesus himself did.  Jesus knows the price of such missionary endeavour, for he warns them ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’, here, in Greek the word for body is ‘soma’, the entirety of the human person, as they may and indeed ultimately did face being entirely wiped out in the service of the Gospel. Their immortality lies instead in their fidelity to him, to his message and his faithfulness to God the Father, and the eternal life which takes the human being absolutely beyond this mortal life, and into the realms of the divine. Clearly in this invitation and call any hanging on to family, posterity, status or sense of identity, must be thrown away, precisely as it was thrown aside by Jesus in becoming human for our redemption. That level of altruism, of conviction, may be hard to find, but it must be our aim.

What does Corpus Christi celebrate?

Last week I wrote of the three wonderful ways in which God is present for us. In the beauty of the Universe – Yes. In Jesus alive in a new way for us – Yes. In the depths of our being giving us love and courage as the Holy Spirit – yes. But Jesus in his wisdom gives us one very special yet simple way in which God is present, but which also brings us together as a people. What is it? We take bread and wine, because he told us to, for he said that in some mysterious way he would be present as we do this in memory of him. This is what we celebrate in the great feast of Corpus Christi which simply means “The Body of Christ”.

Our Readings today explain why Jesus chose bread. There were other foods on the table. He could well have chosen Lamb, because he is the sacrificial Lamb of God who died for us, but he chose bread. I guess one reason for that was practical. He clearly wanted us to do this regularly as his disciples did right from the beginning, as we hear in Acts (2:42)  “They devoted themselves to the teaching and..  to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” You can’t roast lamb and serve it every day, but you can eat bread; and that is why every Catholic priest like me, aims to do this every day, just as the apostles did, hoping that some people will gather with him, (as they usually do) but still doing it even if no-one comes, doing it for God.

This is why we think that every Christian should be present for this great celebration every Sunday if that is possible. In some places (as in a prison) Sunday has to be on another day! At Campsfield we do this on a Monday. Indeed that is why I say to people, that if they really cannot get to Mass on Sunday, perhaps because of their work, then they should find a weekday Mass that suits them, and make that their Sunday Mass.

But our Readings point to another more important reason why Jesus chose bread. Deep in the history of his people is their experience of leaving their slavery in Egypt and travelling to the Promised Land. That journey was one of many years of struggle, trying to survive with their sheep and goats in the desert lands of that part of the world. They had first had a narrow escape from Egypt, when death passed over them and they ran for their lives. But as they did so they carried with them bread for the journey, and then when that ran out, they manged to find a different kind of bread that they called “manna”

This is what we hear about in our First Reading. (Deut 8:2-3.14-16) The writer is telling them never to forget how God supported them through this tough time; a time when they were often in despair, with no idea where they were going, or whether they would ever find a settled home again.  The manna, the bread they had to eat, should be for them a reminder now they have plenty, that everything that gives them life comes from God, and that without God, they are nothing.

We Christians believe that this is what life is like now. It is a journey towards heaven, towards the promised land, towards eternal life. It is for this reason that Jesus deliberately chooses bread as the way he would be present for us, as the way he would support us on our journey, however hard that journey may be. Thus we heard him say in the Gospel (John 6:51-58)  ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever” and then a little further on, “This is the bread come down from heaven; not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead. But anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”

We do not need to ask how God can be present for us in a small piece of bread. We simply trust what Jesus said, that as we do this in memory of him, he is present. God is present within. But we should note that the word “memory” or “Memorial” actually does not mean what we mean by it. We think of it as a way we remember the past, a past loved one perhaps, but in the Bible, it means the way the past is brought into the present. So as we take the bread and break it, all that Jesus did for us, in his life, in his teaching, and finally in his sacrificial suffering and death, is made present. We do not simply remember the past, but know that the powerful loving action of God in Jesus is present for us now, to support us on our Christian journey, whatever that may be, and bring us eventually to eternal life with him.

As the Hymn says, so we pray “Guide me O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land.. Bread of heaven…. Feed me till I want no more.”

 

 

Through this Sacrament we live a changed reality

Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of Corpus Christi :- My guess is that right from very early on the developing Church had difficulty conveying the significance of the Blessed Sacrament to its members. The fact that all the way through our history so many, from the Fathers of the Early Church to Medieval writers like Aquinas, and then those around the time of the Reformation and beyond, have written on this subject suggests that there was a continual need to focus on this most significant of sacraments. This is a need for all of us for. How often do we hear the plaintiff refrain ‘I don’t get anything out of the Mass?’ Despite all that the Church teaches, all those First Holy Communion preparations and Confirmation classes, reception of the greatest of all the Sacraments can so easily become merely a perfunctory thing: something we do without thought or understanding.

Our Readings set for today attempt to trace the meaning of the sacrament, helping us to develop our appreciation of it, not merely at an intellectual level, but spiritually and psychologically, so that it penetrates our very being and engages us totally in this greatest event of our redemption and salvation.

We meet the beginning of this process with a Reading from Deuteronomy (8:2-3.14-16). Now you might think this odd, as Deuteronomy was the revamping of earlier works, and was brought to its final form in the 7th century BCE under a set of reformers and King Josiah before the country fell to the Babylonians. It predated Jesus by 700 years, and had no sense of any resurrection or eternal life with God. It recounts the Exodus story and the ‘making’ of Israel. In fact, like the entire Old Testament as well as the Exodus story, it is all about God’s love for his chosen people; his compassion, tenderness and provision for them, time and time again, despite their rejection of him and his ways. It is presented as God’s exploration of human nature and his recognition of Israel’s needs, when fallen nature could not recognise them themselves, a story of dependency and grace, God’s love for his creation. Its constant recital recalled a recalcitrant people to reality time and time again. Accepting this status was to prove the most difficult thing for Israel, especially once they focussed on temple, land and law as the defining features of their faith, and worshipped God through them instead.

When Paul wrote his Letters to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 10:16-17) we know that he frequently addressed their gross failings in Christian love and charity as met in their actual behaviour to fellow members. At the heart of all his ranting was Paul’s unfailing belief in the Incarnation and saving death of Christ expressed in the Eucharist. Paul laboured so long and so hard with the Corinthians, not to make them a bit nicer or more caring; his was not a policy of social reform, but a mission to incorporate them into God’s love, God’s life as met in Jesus. The way he went about this was to focus on the Eucharist, which, he reminds them is what he himself received from earlier converts and passed on to them – the details of the Last Supper and what it signified. (1 Cor 11:23-34) It is this continually repeated action, and one we too 2,000 years on continue, which incorporates us all into the eternal life of Christ. In our Reading, Paul reminds us of precisely what the Eucharist does, it makes us One. The Jerusalem Bible translates this as a ‘communion’, but more accurately, in Greek, a ‘koinonia’ is a unity, an undivided wholeness in which we and Christ are all one. Paul insisted that the words of blessing, the actions of the ministers in ‘breaking’ the bread in following the actions of Jesus, are not simply a blind following of empty actions, such as they had met regularly in their former pagan sacrifices, but something which took each and every one of them into the life of the risen and glorified Jesus, God the Son. In Greek this is expressed by his use of ‘soma’ for the word ‘body’, which expresses not simply the fleshly mortal life of the now, but what we are in our entire personalities, and that of us which is immortal and shall endure beyond physical death. For Paul and for the Corinthian Christians then, the Eucharist signified, and entered them into, a great mystery, a different form of being and a being that was godlike.

When John wrote his Bread of Life sermon, (Jn 6:51-58) we meet Jesus on the cusp of the greatest of disclosures. The fact that some Jews rejected this for the security of their existing practices shows us the problems which would arise from this teaching and still affect us today. Either we allow ourselves to enter into the mystery or not. For if we simply stand outside the events of the Mass as observers, we shall not be drawn into their meaning and the encounter with the divine they give. Jesus insists that we stand on the knife edge of a great transition, one which will plummet the believer into contact with divinity, and where rejection will deny us such access. Jesus instructs his disciples to allow the words and actions of the sacrament their full potential, as he speaks of his saving ‘flesh’, here ‘sarx’ in Greek, insisting thereby of the reality of his human life and death, and taking his followers with him on that great journey of vindication by the Father whereby he is glorified, having fulfilled the Father’s will. Something of the distinction between watching a drama and entering into it is required here, as we travel Israel’s great story of redemption, reaching its final and finest point in the death and risen life of Jesus; whose battle with failure and death over countless generations secures our relationship in and with God eternally. We, through Christ, through this sacrament, are now those who live a changed reality. Children of the Real Presence, we meet God, become partakers of His life, and take his life in our lives out to the world, and live as God lives. How we make that shift from sarx to soma, on a daily basis in the world, is up to us; but it is his gift and his invitation. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever”.

 

 

On how the Trinity can help our faith

When I first became a Christian, as a teenager, I certainly believed in Jesus, and wanted to follow him, but I’m not sure that I believed that Jesus was God, and I wasn’t at all sure that the God I thought Christians believed in actually existed. Given the words at the end of the Gospel today (John 3:16-18) was I therefore “condemned”? Well the answer is No, and for two good reasons.

First, the Christian/Catholic faith is not based on quoting this or that text from the Bible. In another place (Acts 17:22-24) St Paul tells non-Christians in Athens that they are already worshiping the one true God, even though they do not know Jesus. It is precisely because the Bible expresses all sorts of views within its pages in different ways, that we must rely on how Church teaches the Christian faith, based on the Bible as a whole, rather than on this or that Biblical text. And the Church teaches, that although the best way, the most assured way, to reach salvation, to reach heaven, is by believing in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and being a member of his Church, it also teaches that those who do not have this full belief are not necessarily excluded from the love of God. (Catechism Para 847)

People may think they have rejected Christianity for all sorts of mistaken reasons. Many years ago I went to visit a man in hospital, and as soon as he saw a priest coming towards him he told me with very strong language to “Beep beep off”. For some reason, guided by God I now think, I said that I was beep beep going to visit him whether he liked it or not. It worked! He was, I suppose, so astonished that he stopped rejecting God and the Church and asked me to take his funeral! We must never assume that those who say they have rejected Jesus, or think they have rejected God, actually mean what they say, or even understand what it is that they think they have rejected.

And this gets us on to God as Trinity, the great truth about God that we celebrate today. People quite often have said to me “I don’t believe in God, I believe in the power of love and goodness in me and between me and others.”Ah” I say “We call that God the Holy Spirit.”  Or they say, “I don’t feel close to God in Church, I meet God when I look at the trees and the sky on a beautiful day.” Ah yes,” I say “That is what we mean by God the Father, not an old man sitting on a cloud, but the power that we sense in the trees and the sky.”

So, as a teenager, when I began by following Jesus, even though I wasn’t quite sure that I believed in God, I was meeting God in Trinity whether I believed or not. Jesus said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9), or as the great St Augustine said “Walk in the man  and you will arrive at God.” The idea that we have to have our belief in our heads all sorted out in order to be a faithful Christian is just plain rubbish. The wonder of the doctrine that God can be met in three distinct ways – as the power underlying the Universe – that we call God the Father – as God in a wonderful man called Jesus – whom we call God the Son – and as a presence of love and strength in and around us – that we call God the Holy Spirit – that doctrine – God as Trinity – actually takes us beyond our individual approach to God, whatever that may be. It shows us that God is greater than any image or thought of him that we can conjure up in our brain. Thus it gives us a freedom to meet and to understand God in many different ways. To me that is just wonderful!

I must add however, that whatever our way of coming close to God is, our duty is to share it, to bring our relationship with God with us to Church/to Mass so that our presence supports others, as hopefully their presence supports us. Those who say “I don’t need Church, because I meet God in nature, or in my friends”, are actually missing the point. We do not come to Church/ to Mass for ourselves, we come so that together we are the family, the people of God ; and that God is God in Trinity who is always greater than any one individual’s understanding.

 

 

 

 

 

God gives himself to his Creation

Frances writes on the Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday :- One of the pitfalls besetting those who rarely read their Bibles, except at Mass on Sundays, lies in the wrong impression they leave of the actual situation and the point the scriptures are trying to make. Our Reading from Exodus is one such. (Ex 34:4-6.8-9) Here everything seems to be lovely, God and humanity are getting on fine and all is well. But this is actually far from the case, for just prior to our Reading Moses had received the first of the sets of the Ten Commandments and found, when he returned to the people of Israel, that they had deserted God for the deities of Egypt, made the Golden Calf out of metals, and worshipped it. In fact things were very far from good, they were the pits! Moses in fury smashed the tablets and expected God to destroy the Israelites. Yet God, being a God of compassion and faithfulness relents, gives Moses his servant a second set of the Commandments, and sends him back to carry on his difficult task with recalcitrant Israel, God’s ‘chosen’, which he ratifies with a Covenant at Sinai. I suppose therefore that the first element of the Trinity that we learn about, from this rather strange choice of Readings for Trinity Sunday, is fundamentally about the kindness, the graciousness, of Almighty God towards an undeserving humanity. One who holds such power chooses to exercise it with creative mercy and compassion. Old Testament writers frequently resort to a presentation of God as all powerful, even willing to punish and command; yet here we meet a different element of the All Mighty, one willing to nourish, restore and tutor, one who recognises the failings and imperfections of his people, and be with them on their great Exodus journey, which was actually about a discovery of their relationship with the divine, and not simply about a land grab in Palestine, however significant that might come to be.

The last part of Paul’s Letters to Corinth (2 Cor 13:11-13) might be said to be ‘more of the same’. For in our Reading it appears that everything in the Corinthian garden is peace and harmony, as Paul sends them his final, and Trinitarian commendation. However anyone reading the Corinthian Letters would surely blench at this point, for we know that the Christians in Corinth were a source of unrivalled disquiet to Paul. The Christian movement there was divided, as people followed different ‘important’ figures; their grasp of the faith appears to have been sadly array as members commit incest, profane the Eucharist, treat their fellow members of the Churches with contempt, and generally seem to have a lamentable lack of appreciation of what life in Jesus Christ was all about. In comparison to Thessalonians, Philippians or Ephesians these Christians seem to have totally lost the plot, if indeed they ever had it. Yet clearly Paul loved them, and saw them not just as a challenge, but as the very stuff of redemption, surely so much in need of grace. No doubt this is why he commends them to ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. Surely the united power of the Trinity was needed there, and that abiding sense of the ongoing work of all three, manifested in the Spirit, was never more needed. Perhaps we too identify with the Corinthian Christians, rather than others who seem to have had a greater understanding of things, precisely because we too discover our faith in the rough and tumble of daily life, in which much of the time we perform rather badly. Grace, love and fellowship are surely what we needs must cultivate too, above all other graces.

This theme of the love and kindness of God in Trinity is also something which our Gospel focuses upon. (John 3:16-18) Clearly, in discussing the nature of God in Trinity, there is so much one could say; and yet none of our selection of Readings even attempts to tackle that mysterious and massive subject, focussing instead on God as love, here in Greek as ‘agape’ that sense of care and solicitude for the other. For John, known to history as ‘the Beloved Disciple’, and the one we assume to have been closest to Jesus, there is that greater realisation of the meaning of Jesus, of his relationship to God the Father, and of theirs to the Spirit, and always one gets the sense that their shared relationship is one of total devotion, concern and solicitude for the other. ‘Love’, or agape, for them is not an emotion to be turned off or on at will, or lost through pique; it is about their ‘being’ what they are, given-over to the other.

As Jesus instructs Nicodemus, his secret convert from the Sanhedrin, we see him reaching out to stretch Nicodemus’ horizons, to enable his vision of God to grow and embrace the world and every human. We have to remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a devout man who lived strictly by the rules, and believed that by so doing he would become perfect in relation to God, and qualify for eternal life. Distinction, separation, was the name of the game for Judaism; and Pharisees separated themselves, the ‘pure’ or ‘holy’, even from fellow Jews who did not keep the purity rules, let alone foreigners. Perhaps the very fact that he was in dialogue with Jesus suggests that for all his perfectionism he knew there was something lacking – something this renegade Jew, this extraordinary man Jesus had – and it formed a bond between them. At his death, Nicodemus buried Jesus with 100 pounds of spices – the burial of a king in the Old Testament – something of that great love had got through. God in Trinity ‘gives’ himself – all that he is – to his creation, and in that flinging away of self which we witness so abundantly in Jesus the Son, and find continually echoed in the life of the Spirit, we find like Nicodemus what divinity and our lives too are finally about.

 

 

How the Holy Spirit works within us

Those of you who know the story of Harry Potter will know that it is about someone discovering the power that lies within. In that sense, it is a very Christian message, for although we sometimes pray “Come Holy Spirit”, as if the Holy Spirit is outside us, the truth is quite the opposite. St John makes this clear in the Gospel today (John 20:19-23) where he shows that when the Day of Pentecost arrived, as described in our 1st Reading, (Acts 2:1-11) the Holy Spirit was already within them. Why? Because the risen Lord Jesus had already breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Jesus knows that what he is giving them is something they already have deep within.

How do we know this? Well the answer is that wherever there is life, the Holy Spirit is present. That is why Christians call God the Holy Spirit the Giver of Life, (as in the Creed) pointing back to the very beginning of the Bible where God says that his Spirit lives in all of us whilst we are alive. (Genesis 6:3) Later on, we are taught that all that we do to construct useful or beautiful things, can only be done by those who have the Holy Spirit within them. (Exodus 31:2-4)

The problem for us, as for the disciples of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, is that the fact that the power of God’s Holy Spirit is there deep within us, is not easy to realise, even for people who are Christians.  There the disciples were, having met the risen Jesus a number of times, but still frightened to go out and risk their lives by sharing his message with the world. Yes, they were meeting and praying together; and taking and breaking and blessing the bread together, just as Jesus had told them to.  They also knew that at some point they had to get out there and start talking, for the risen Jesus had said to them as we heard in last week’s “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20) Yet they still had not yet found the courage to do this.

Often it is when we know we have a special task to do, that the Holy Spirit suddenly wells up in us, to give us the courage and strength to do it. Maybe you know the story of the mother who was looking out the window at her son mending his car when the jack gave way and the car came down on him. She was out of that door and grabbing hold of that car and lifting it, so he could slide out, almost before she realised that she was not strong enough to lift it alone. Yet she did. And there are many other stories of people doing impossible things when faced with a crisis ; and in each case we know that they can only do such things because the Holy Spirit was working within them.

But the disciples of Jesus were more like us. There was no immediate crisis to trigger the power they needed. It appears to have happened to them simply because they were faithful, and God needed to use them. So there is no Harry Potter spell to make the Holy Spirit work in us. We just have to be faithful and believe that God is within us. This is why we often speak of the Holy Spirit as the breath of life, or the breath of God. Most of the time we breathe in and out without even noticing it, and it’s only when we have to make some extreme physical effort, and end up breathing hard, that we realise how important breath is. Yet the breath is there supporting us whether we feel it or not, and it is the same with the Holy Spirit.

Some of the Christians in Corinth (as in our 2nd Reading : 1 Cor 12) were trying to show off, and say that they could do marvellous and dramatic things because they had the Holy Spirit, whilst others didn’t. St Paul is very firm with them. The Holy Spirit, he says, works in all sorts of ways. Some people may be used in powerful ways, but they must know that this power must always be used for the common good, not just to show off.  They must also know that those who are weaker members of the Church are just as important and spirit-filled as they are. (1 Cor 12:23)  And he goes on to say in a famous text from the Bible, “If you speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, then you are nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1)

The message is clear. God’s Holy Spirit is available to all of us, and will work in us in all sorts of different ways. What we need to do is pray that we will be guided in life to do what we have to do, however special or however ordinary that is, and know that whatever these things are, God will be around us as God the Father, alongside us as God the Son, and within us as God the Holy Spirit.

 

The Holy Spirit comes to all in our diversity

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.