Humanity transformed

Frances writes in preparation for Pentecost Sunday thus :-

Our first reading (Acts 2:1-11) makes very clear that far from being a quiet wafting, spiritual affair, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a noisy affair! Suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting. It sounds more like the description of a hurricane that something calm and innocuous. Our account then speaks of the far flung languages in which Jews of the diaspora and converts from paganism understood the ‘marvels of God’. Now, as Aramaic was and had been the universal language of the Near East for hundreds of years clearly they could communicate through its use along with some command of Greek. But Luke is specific in indicating that every person understood in his own native language; Why? I suspect it was to get all the listeners of this gospel to be fully aware of the universalism of the Christian message. Whereas the first Christians had largely been Jews and Jews from Syria-Palestine at that until the missionary work of Paul and his companions included gentiles as well, we can imagine the shock of this universalism. Jews would frequently have looked askance at foreigners and the idea that the Holy Spirit might reach out even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire would have been quite a surprise to everyone especially when we recognise that relations between the empire and the races of Mesopotamia had been and continued to be very poor; indeed, the Roman empire would be at war with the fabled Parthians, successors to Assyria and Babylon for centuries to come. Theophilus, the Roman provincial governor who was Luke’s patron somewhere in this area was being asked to see that something of colossal, universal dimension was afoot, something even greater than Rome, though never attempting to supplant or threaten the current imperial power.

The message was that God’s love and offer to the entire human race was through the Holy Spirit, giving each and every person an intimate knowledge and communication with God the Father and God the Son. We know from our gospels and from the work of St Paul that this ‘knowledge’ of God was not simply a Jew-based salvation dependent on fulfilment of the Law of Moses, but something of a quite different dimension. When we turn to Paul’s Letter to the Christians of Rome (Romans 8:8-17) we find his exegesis of what this new dimension that the Christian is called to spelled out.

From Romans we get Paul’s teaching on the utter inadequacy of the Jewish law to bring salvation; for, as Paul pointed out no one could possibly fulfil all the demands of the law, even the most upright Jew. Paul recognised as few of his fellow Jews had previously that a great defect lay at the very heart of the human condition, preventing us from achieving even our most ardent desire to live well and in accordance with the Commandments. This meant that our desire for God will always be doomed to failure because as he put it so eloquently in Rom 7 I do not do what I want but I do the very thing that I hate. In an insight remarkable both for ancient and modern man, he recognised that the flaws in our nature go beyond those which a judicious amount of tinkering on the part of the wise and well disposed could put to rights, Jew or Gentile. We are in the grip of something far greater, some inadequacy in our very make-up which prevents even the religious and well disposed from acting as we should. Paul then took that ancient teaching from Genesis 3 on the Fall and developed it in ways Judaism had never formerly applied it. At heart, ‘righteous’ Jews believed they could communicate perfectly with God. In Jesus, Paul had come to realise that their expectation and understanding of what God has in store for us was too limited and impossible to achieve on our own.

Jesus had declared that no man was righteous and Paul, with all his talk of the ‘unspiritual man’, leading an ‘unspiritual life’ was to take this up and develop it in his theology of grace; the grace of God himself whose power in the Holy Spirit both justifies us: making us holy where we were unspiritual or unclean and saves us, making us fitting companions of God. It is the action of God the Father in his beloved son Jesus whom he raised from the dead that God has forged a bond with the entire human race which far outstrips all the expectations of law righteousness.

The Law Paul concluded was unfit for purpose, inadequate for the job. At a much deeper level however Paul also concluded that Christ Jesus had in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection quite simply changed the ball game. The believer in Christ can no longer expect to be a distant admirer of God’s power and activity; he is destined for something far beyond the dreams of Judaism: we are sons of God, fitted in grace to become something unimaginably greater. The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.

This then was the belief of the Christians and this was the message which Theophilus and other Christians would be taught and come to understand; that all are spiritual beings, destined for an eternal relationship with God which far outstrips the expectations of Jew or gentile and which alters the entire face of humanity.

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