Frances writes on the readings for next Sunday :- Large organizations, and even more so, strong states tend to rigid uniformity in matters of operation, belief and ways of performing duties. One thinks for instance of the reforms of Stalin which cost Russia dear in human terms, and the same can be said for modern Zimbabwe or places like Iran. What was distinctive about the early Christian communities scattered all over the Mediterranean and Near Eastwas the way in which individual national and linguistic needs were catered for. Justin Martyr (died 165), wrote that Christians conformed in dress, diet, habits and much of their behaviour to that of the country in which they lived. Certainly all Christians held common beliefs in the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, and seem early to have been taught and to have eagerly grasped the significance of the Christ event. ‘He became human that we might become divine’. It was the care and individual respect accorded to each and every Christian which was so significant, as our reading from 1 Corinthians (12:3-7, 12-13), points out. “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.” What formerly divided disparate groups and made them estranged was put aside in a community in which each and every individual was accorded mutual respect and significance. The eucharist was the occasion when differences of class, power and status were put aside; indeed St Clement, an early bishop of Rome, and one time slave of the imperial family was made Pope. What otherwise rigidly divided people in terms of access to legal rights or social mobility and access to political power was of no avail at the very heart of the Christian community, even though in other ways these things mattered a great deal.
We see the workings of this wonderfully laid out in our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It is well worth looking at an atlas of the ancient world to appreciate precisely just the size of the huge swathe of territory Luke included in his great sweep of the peoples now included in the Christian dispensation; literally covering thousands of miles. The story of the devout in Jerusalem who heard the Good News of Christianity; Jews and others open to the message of Christ, included those within the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and those far out to the east, in the empire of Parthia, ancient Mesopotamia and Iran. The Elamites were those who reached right over to the Afghan border. It included ancient and formidable enemies of Romenever incorporated into its territory as well as conquered nations like Pontusin northern Turkeywith a proud history of resistance which had cost Romethousands of lives in the first century BC. Our passage from Acts insists that the visitors claimed that “We hear (the apostles) preaching in our own language about the marvels of God.” Far from insisting that everyone conform, it appears that Christian missionaries made immense efforts to speak to these foreigners in their own languages, according them a reverence and respect which was not ordinarily the case. In the ancient world Aramaic had been the diplomatic language for the inhabitants of the east and we know that by the first century AD Greek was widely spoken and understood throughout the Roman empire with Latin taking over as the legal and military language. Those who served in the Roman army had to learn Latin so that orders could successfully be given to all. Christianity however was different, in that it made tangible efforts to go out to peoples in the use of their own native tongues. The story of this early work has been lost to history but we do hear of St Augustine using Punic, the language of the native North Africans, in his arguments against Donatist heretics (who denied the sufferings of Christ and therefore his true humanity). We know of the great efforts of Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century to translate the scriptures into the Slavic language which have inherited from them the Cyrillic alphabet. This work of translation of the scriptures into local dialects and languages still goes on, indeed my father helped with such work inAfrica in the 1930’s.
As our gospel from John (20:19-23) shows such work was and is essential for the gospel outreach and the fulfilling of Our Lord’s commands. We must never consider that the work of the gospel is finished and that there is no more to be done; for the work of the Spirit is continuous and enduring from every age, and its presentation in attractive and understandable form is still essential. If we stop for a moment to consider the ignorance of the real gospel message in our own country, where the faith is under constant attack and many fail to understand what it is really about, we will appreciate the need of each and every Christian in every age to respond to Jesus’ commission. The gift of the Holy Spirit was not a one-off event very long ago, but is ever present to each new generation of Christians and we are all its recipients, every Christian is ‘sent-out’ to take the gospel to others.