Frances writes on next Sundays’s Feast of Pentecost:- Pentecost was one of the great Jewish festivals, celebrating the wheat harvest, and therefore critical for life in a world where the majority lived on bread. It followed on 50 days after Passover, being the link between the Exodus and the great covenant with God at Sinai and the giving of the law. Jerusalem would once again have been full of pilgrims celebrating their commitment to a time of justice and righteousness, or obedience to God. We must therefore try to imagine the impact of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those early Jewish-Christians and their followers, as they became aware of God’s great final act of self-revelation through Jesus. (Acts 2:1-11). Read in Greek it becomes clearer that this divine revelation comes at the end of the festival, thereby definitively setting God’s seal on the whole series of events and, as Luke presents it.
Most people in the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Middle East at this time spoke and even wrote in some form of Aramaic, and had done for over a millennia. Those in the major cities spoke Greek. What is significant about the Spirit’s giving of the gift of languages to the apostles which enabled them to communicate with Jewish pilgrims from the many far flung parts of the Roman Empire and even beyond would appear to be the sense of courtesy, the graciousness of God’s method of communication. The individual language or dialect of a place serves to mark you off from others; indeed, there can be times when communications can be quite difficult. I guess that Jews from Mesopotamia, descendants of those taken into exile by the Babylonians in the 6th Century BCE may not have found any great fluidity in speaking to those of Italy or the uplands of Cappadocia though no doubt they all made efforts. Moreover, their different accents, dress and style might well have marked out some as inferior. Those of the Greco-Roman Empire were notoriously snobby to those considered ‘barbarian’. What this particular gift of the Spirit ensured, and made very clear, was the equality of all the recipients. None were marked out as different or inferior, and any traveller knows precisely the joy and relief when we meet up with someone with whom we can communicate effortlessly. Luke, who wrote his Gospel and Acts for his patron, a rich and powerful convert from paganism, who knew a thing or two about class division and status, would immediately have picked up the innuendoes here.
Certainly by the time Paul was writing to his convert Christian congregations in Corinth around 54CE, he too wanted to stress this sense of oneness, solidarity under Christ. (1Cor 12:3-7.12-13) Corinthians were notoriously divisive as Paul discovered. Some following his version of Jesus, others that of Peter, and yet others that of Apollos. He was horrified and with good reason, for it seemed as though the faith was to become divided and divisive, with different groups shaping Jesus after their own tastes and for their own needs. He reminds them of the wholeness of the human body, in which all the different parts working together form a whole, eyes, hands, feet etc, each playing their appropriate part for the benefit of the whole organism, and so it is with the Christian message.
No doubt this is why in our Gospel (Luke 20:19-23) Jesus is shown identifying himself by the marks of his wounds – a vivid even livid reminder of the central fact of the Christian faith. Jesus, God the Son, died by crucifixion to restore the entire humanity to its proper relationship with the Father. Once we forget this, we easily begin to make Christ after our own image, nicely domesticating him or reducing him to some supernatural figure, devoid of reality and incapable of suffering. It was something the early church had to work to press home, as we see in Paul’s correspondence. Only when he is identified in this way does Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit, his Spirit and abiding presence, upon the disciples with their power to forgive or retain sin. In other words, we all know precisely who we are worshipping and what his purposes for us are, we, like the apostles are not free to go off and do our own thing. Perhaps, if anything, Pentecost serves to remind us of the scandal of Christian disunity and what that implies. We cannot say we did not know or had not been told, and we modern Christians, like those of ancient Corinth live in the shadow of our constant failure to live out the message of Pentecost.