Anticipating Pentecost

     We are now less than two weeks from the Day of Pentecost.  For Christians, this is the historic day on the Christian calendar when God began to pour his Spirit out upon all people.  It was the day when Jesus of Nazareth began to be proclaimed as the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord and Messiah.  Of course it was on this first Day of Pentecost when three-thousand people joined themselves as disciples to Jesus through repentance and baptism.  Indeed it was an “eschatological and, above all prophetic event.”[1] That is to say, on that day the goal of all history was unveiled.  The verdict has been rendered: God’s reign has begun and salvation has been brought down and is for all people.  The result is a group of three-thousand who now call Jesus their Lord and Messiah. 

     One of the interesting observations is the fact that in AD 25 there is no existence of Christian community but by AD 125, Christianity has not only spread throughout the entire Roman world (which is no simple feat) to the point of being regarded as its own human race but also it has made such a subversive impact that it requires an official policy made by the Roman emperor.[2]  What are we to make of that?  Why such a quick spread of the gospel?  While there are a variety of factors that may have contributed to this rapid spread, any speculation that being a Christian was easy or augmented to the surrounding culture must be rejected.[3]  One of the clearest reasons was the belief of early Christianity:

The motivating force behind the early Christian mission, as revealed in the stories that fan out across the spectrum of first-generation Christianity, is found in the central belief and hope of Judaism interpreted in the light of Jesus.  …The widespread early Christian impetus towards what was often a risky and costly mission can only be explained in terms of the belief that Israel had now been redeemed, and that the time for the Gentiles had therefore come.[4]

Such belief is the result of those first three-thousand converts hearing the Apostle Peter recall for them the words of the prophet Joel and David while boldly declaring “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.  Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2.32-33, NRSV).  This was the changing moment when the original three-thousand realized that Jesus was the Messiah for which Israel had longed for.  It was a climactic moment of history in which they realized that in this crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jesus who now is Lord, God is reigning.  No longer did the powers at hand have the upper hand.  Jesus is now Lord and Messiah.  God is victorious!

     The result of this belief was a radical loyalty to Jesus which gave shape to the way they lived (discipleship) and the story (gospel) they told.  It is telling that “Christians” was a term given later to the growing community of disciples (Acts 11.26) as a result of their fidelity to Jesus, the Messiah (which means “Christ” in Greek).  There are two other early documents which help us understand just how radically loyal these disciples were to Jesus as well as amplifying not only the depth of fidelity the but also the way this took practical shape.  The first document is Pliney’s letter to the emperor Trajan.  Written in AD 111, Pliney speaks of Christians who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus in the face of inquisition and persecution.[5]  Secondly, we have the Apology made by the pagan Aristides whereby we learn of the church’s love for God and neighbor:

…they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour [sic] father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others…  ……Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God.  … And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them.[6]

What is clear from the New Testament writings and other early Christian literature is the overall radical loyalty rendered to Jesus regardless of circumstances. 

     The question that remains is what does the church of the twenty-first century do with this knowledge?  Do we remember it simply for admiration?  Or do we take this as a serious challenge to actually believe as they believed – that the course of history has been unveiled: God is victorious and so are his people.  I fear that too often the effects of Pentecost are trivialized…that was then, this is now.  Whether it is the lack of faith, blindness produced by our “enlightened” place in history, dismissal from too much theologizing, or plain apathy, it has become too easy to reduce the unfolding Pentecost story to principles and morals and never be a real participant of Pentecost – never believe that such radical fidelity fueled by the Holy Spirit can result in God acting the same now as he did then.[7]

     What transpired on Pentecost was more than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, more than the preaching of Jesus as Lord and Messiah.  What transpired was the reception of the Spirit by those who accepted Jesus as Lord and Messiah through repentance and baptism as Peter instructed (Acts 2.38).  The result was the continuation of a new community who sought to emulate the life of Jesus in whatever circumstance they were to be found in.  Throughout Jesus’ life he chose “…the hard road into the kingdom: the road of humble service, self-giving love, and sacrificial suffering.”[8]  This was Jesus’ way of life, a cruciform or self-sacrificial-servant way of life and now it was the way of life for this new community of disciples who had received the power of the Holy Spirit.  Sure, there were some misunderstandings and glitches along the way.  There were certainly some along the way who abandoned ship for their former way of life.  Nevertheless, what transpired on Pentecost continued on and was witnessed by the world in the preaching and living of these disciples because they believed. 

     These new “Christians” believed what the scriptures spoke of, they believed what Peter preached to them in regards to Jesus, and they believed the promises offered to them on this climatic day we now call the Day of Pentecost.  Because they believed, what God began on Pentecost in them continued on as a missional movement in history.  So as we approach and anticipate Pentecost, we might ask ourselves again: what do we believe?

_________________________________


     [1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 54.

     [2] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 359.  Christians were regarded as one of four races along with Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews, see Aristides, Apology, 2; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1012.htm.

     [3] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 445.

     [4] Ibid.

     [5] Pliney the Younger, Pliney to Emperor Trajan; see http://www.tyrannus.com/pliny_let.html.

     [6] Aristides, Apology, 15; see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1012.htm.

     [7] Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 9 (page citations are to the reprint edition); who observes how “…it is significant that it is the younger churches with no pretensions to western ‘sophistication’ who look at the Acts, learn from it, and go out in the power of the same Lord expecting him to do equally mighty things though them.”

     [8] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 134.

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