The great leveller

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings:- From Acts today (2:1-11) I was struck by the individuality of the giving of the Holy Spirit to each of the apostles. It wasn’t a ‘job-lot’ affair, but respected the individuality of each of them, as indeed was the effect on everyone who came into contact with them. At festival times Jerusalem was a hive of activity, its boundaries being extended temporarily to include places like Bethlehem, six miles away, in order to accommodate pilgrims, with foreign Jews and proselytes or converts and sympathisers from far and wide. Luke is at pains to stress that these people came both from inside the Roman Empire, citing those actually from Rome, and others from what we know as modern Turkey: Cappadocians, Pontians, also Arabian Jews and ones from North Africa – a reminder of Simon of Cyrene. It also including those from Parthia, Media and Elim, those whose ancestors remained behind in Babylonia when Cyrus the Persian allowed captive Jews to return to their homeland in the 6th century BC. They were part of a thriving and well educated Jewish community, which included great scholars. These latter were part of the great Parthian empire, constantly at war with Rome, and a source of enormous hostility and fear. Luke is reminding his hearers that the gospel of Christ has gone global, stretching to the end of the known earth!

In our reading from 1 Corinthians (12:3-7, 12-13)  St Paul also reminds us of the all encompassing grace of Christ, poured out by the Holy Spirit as he speaks of the ‘body of Christ’, the Church with its different ‘parts’- abilities – all working together for the spread of the faith. We tend to take this all rather for granted, but it is worth noting the revolution his teaching about Jesus caused. Jews were tolerated and given privileges in the Roman Empire because of the antiquity of their faith, and in the early days Christianity was simply a sect within Judaism. They did not worship the Emperor as everyone else did, but sacrificed bulls and goats daily in the temple for his well-being, and in consequence were protected by the state. Greeks, or rather Greek speakers from all over the empire – from the Greek mainland, from their ancient colonies all over the Mediterranean, and in some very old cities in Turkey – were often converts to Judaism or were God-Fearers. These were sympathisers with Judaism, for whom a special part of the temple was reserved, and to whom Christianity was very attractive since it did not demand full practice of the Jewish law or circumcision.

So far, so good. But the next bit of Paul was truly revolutionary in that he placed slave and citizen on the same footing! Full Roman citizenship was a prized possession, as we know from Paul’s proud boast to his Roman captors. Many, even Italians were granted ‘Latin rights’, a lesser form of legal status with protection under the law but less than full Roman citizenship. Many others would have been citizens of their many Greek cities, especially in the East, and were quite wealthy and acted as patrons of their cities, building public amenities and providing for the poor.  But there were also the millions of enslaved, some 2 million after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, and many others; and these were the property of their owners, to be bought and sold, traded along with their owners other commercial interests. They had no rights and no protection under the law. Some might have become valued and even loved family members, if they were very lucky as tutors to the family, or were literate scribes and business transactors for their owners; but many died in ignominy in mines, on huge farming estates, or in the galleys. Some who survived could hope to be freed by their owners after many years service, and such ‘freedmen and women’ frequently undertook business on behalf of their rich patrons but were of course still ‘tied’ to former owners. We know from the Bible as such people, like Lydia in Philippi in the purple dye trade, who must have been connected to the Imperial house as such an industry was highly restricted. We hear of men like Philemon and his slave Onesimus, ‘borrowed’ by Paul for work in the faith, a highly dangerous and risky move, which could have got both of them killed.

Yet the Church gave equality to all alike; all had the promise of the same inheritance under Christ, and indeed the Church even appointed ministers irrespective of social class and position. In the late first century, Clement an early pope was the freedman of the Flavian family and close to the throne. His martyrdom coincided with the execution of his patron and former master Flavius Clement, killed for treason by his nephew Domitian; and there is a possibility that Flavius and his family were converts to Christianity. Still later the slave Marcia was the mistress of an Emperor and used her charms to help free Christians under arrest!

So what precisely did it mean when in our Gospel (John 20:19-23) Jesus gives the disciples (apostles) power to forgive or retain sins? Clearly it is not about arbitrary judgment or power, for this would be wholly opposed to the entire tenor of John’s gospel; rather, under the guidance of the Spirit, it must be about the gift of discernment given to the disciples and the Church. It’s about those corporate and individual and specific gifts of the Spirit which enable the Church to function as it should, as icon or true image, of Jesus. For us heirs to such great gifts, this must be not just our loyalty and faithfulness to doctrine, but also seen in our individual exercise of our abilities, and discernment for the good of the community, and as I have tried to show above, that might take us into some very strange  situations indeed.

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