Frances writes on this coming weekends Readings :- Our gospel (John 14:15-21) and the reading from Acts (8:5-8,14-17) were both written from a perspective which presupposes that the presence of Jesus and that of the Holy Spirit are two separate events. This is very odd to us who are all baptised in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. It would appear therefore that the readings we have originate from a very early time in the life of the Church in which this unity, this developed understanding of God the Trinity was not taken for granted. Acts speaks of a time very close to the resurrection where the believers were still heavily indebted to the bodily Lord Jesus and were still coming to terms with what a post Ascension Church might look like. Our portion from John’s gospel indeed was remembering the very words of Jesus before his Passion and death, recording his provision for the Church in the future which stretched millennia beyond his earthly life.
In each case what becomes clear is that the vibrant, living presence of Jesus will be present in the Holy Spirit, informing it and drawing it into the divine life just as Jesus had done in his bodily, earthly life. The whole point is that we are not ‘prisoners’ of the resurrection as would have happened had Jesus remained bodily with humanity for ever. No, we are the Church of the Holy Spirit, gifted with the presence of Father, Son and Spirit and commissioned to live out our mortal lives in the image of God. As Justin Martyr was to write in his Apologies to the emperors C 155-160, Christians live in the world to all intent and purpose just like other ordinary people; there are things they abstain from doing – immoral things, and there are things which we do do and he went on to describe the pattern of Christian worship and the Mass. On the whole we do not dress distinctively nor work at particular occupations, nor are we confined to separate areas, but we are expected to be recognised, even marked by the choiced conduct of our lives, tribute to the presence of the Spirit alive in each of us.
John’s gospel, written probably in the 80’s AD and Acts and the Letters of Peter which may come from about 20 years later speak eloquently of what that Christian world looked like. In Acts we get a picture of inclusiveness with the bringing of the Samaritans into the Church, which originally was strictly a Jewish affair. Relations between Jews and Samaritans were a by-word for hostility as we know from the gospels, yet immediately here we see the growth of an outreach which would span the world. With 1st Peter we see the blossoming of Christian values and faith as the letter begins by addressing the exiles in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. It is a veritable Cook’s tour of modernTurkey and shows the fostering of Christianity in the myriad of Hellenistic towns which littered this large mainland and had been the home of Greeks for neigh-on a millennia. Pliny’s Letter to Trajan, his emperor, written C 110 speaks of thriving Christian communities in the cities, towns and countryside and of his determined campaign against this ‘atheism’. What was it which so marked Christian belief and belonging that it would meet such hostility?
Our reading from 1 Peter (3:15-18) gives us an insight to this. Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have. What this suggests is that people did not blindly belong to the Christian body but had a real knowledge of the faith and expected to be able to expound it to others. In the seething melting pot that was the life of cities and towns of the ancient world, alive with many different cults to the ancient gods Christianity had to be equipped to answer for itself and argue cogently enough to be the living, Spirit inspired faith able to evangelise and gain members sufficient to shake the likes of Imperial Governors like Pliny. What this part of the letter also insists upon, rather as Justin’s Apology would half a century later was the ‘courtesy and respect’ accorded to the non believers among whom they lived and worked and made converts.
But what was it that they believed which offered pagans something so different from their former paganism that they were encouraged to convert despite the threat of severe punishment from the civil authorities? Clearly, along with the story of the life, death and resurrection of Christ it was a message of personal gain for the believer which would have been most attractive, along with an admiral moral code based in Judaism. Ancient paganism was neither concerned with the individual nor with morality, it was more about the social glue which kept the society, the Empire ticking over and whose loss might spell the end of the security and wealth which membership of that empire gave. In a world prone to war, riot, famine and disease such security was well worth a few grains of incense at a temple and in a world palpably full of evil spirits such ‘insurance’ was essential. Christianity however offered something of an entirely different nature, and to each and everyone, regardless of class, social standing or race, it offered an intimate relationship with God himself through Jesus Christ, a relationship of love; of the love of Father and Son; an eternal relationship of love granted to each individual who lives according to God’s commandments; the transcending of death itself. If we can for a moment place ourselves alongside our ancient forebears in the faith we too may like them become inspired by the Spirit to become active agents for the spread of the faith in an age equally full of fear and suspicion and open to the good news of Jesus Christ.