Golden Age?

A wise and mischievous lay leader once made the comment that if, as several church members proclaimed with great hyperbole, there had been a "golden age" in the life of his parish, he must have blinked and missed it.

The compilers of the biblical canon seem to agree with such a sentiment. The Hebrew Scriptures begin with the recounting of an idyllic time in humanity's story, a paradise on earth, the Garden of Eden. This golden age, however, occupies but a tiny space in the Old Testament canon, as contrasted with the multi-volume account of the wanderings in the wilderness, the subsequent struggles to claim the Promised Land, and the dreary era of the Babylonian exile.

Even so, the two-thousand-year-old history of the Church begins with a golden age of its own, a time when the gospel was proclaimed and mighty works of power were evident, when believers were all of one heart and soul in apostolic concord, and they shared all that they had with one another. Not surprisingly, this golden age--like all others--does not last long, but it stands forever as a Camelot and more than a Camelot, as a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.

And it all began with Pentecost.

We are so accustomed to thinking of Pentecost as a Christian feast that we can forget that it existed as a Jewish feast many centuries before the Church inherited it. Indeed, it is the second of the three great Jewish feasts, celebrated fifty days after the Passover and the offering of first-fruits. Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, is also appropriately known as the Harvest Festival. More than this, Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, at Mount Sinai, the Mosaic Law that would help form the basis of the community that had proceeded out of Egypt. Unlike Passover, this was not to be a quiet family commemoration, but a time when all the people would come together for a brief time to renew their connection to God and to one another, to recall the ties of both liberty and law that bound them as one. And, lastly, in an oft-overlooked aspect of the feast, the people of Israel were charged with leaving behind some of the gleanings of their harvest for the poor to be able to collect for their own sustenance. The community of the faithful was to give life and hope to outsiders as well.

In the centuries between the first celebration of that Jewish feast and the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus' followers, Israel's fortunes rose and fell many times. King David's great reign and Solomon's grand temple were long since gone. It was "Herod's Temple" that Jesus' apostles knew, far smaller and less impressive than its predecessor; and Herod was no David or Solomon, merely a puppet for the Roman occupiers. Is it any wonder that many of the people living in Palestine at the time of the apostles were longing for restoration of all that had been lost. They were looking for a new harvest of God's glory. Pilgrims and proselytes alike made their way to Jerusalem. They came with their frustrations about their present situation, they came with their anxieties about the unknown future, they came with their longings for past glories and a renewed golden age. That Pentecost, they came.

And so did the Spirit.

"Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where the disciples were sitting. And divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them." These images from Acts 2 are compelling images, provocative images, images that bring to mind the wind of God that "swept over the face of the waters" in creation, the breath of God that gave life to the first human being.

With rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostles experienced the presence of God. In power and in intimacy, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to heal aching souls, to bear witness to divine, incomparable love. People responded...thousands of people responded. And that Pentecost day ended quite differently than it had begun. With words that have come to form part of the Church's baptismal covenant, the remainder of Acts 2 offers a memorable summary of the communal life that resulted, with new believers devoting themselves "to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." The apostles displayed "signs and wonders" and their followers had "all things in common," selling their possessions and sharing with one another, and new members were added daily to their number. The Spirit had come. The fearful had found power. A new community was born. It was a very good beginning, a veritable golden age.

And this is where the problem lies.

It has been said that the greatest obstacle to future success is past success. From our failures and mistakes we can learn, but our successes...well, our successes can fool us into thinking that what worked then must be what will work always. We standardize, systematize, codify. Like Peter on the mount of transfiguration, we try to build tents and stay there; and when we are forced to come down from the mountain, we spend years pining for what we left behind. The golden age always appears to be back there, back then; and our past successes, our golden ages, all too often get in the way of God's new work before us.

Pentecost was a success, a great one, in fact. But the later introduction of newcomers who were somehow different from the insiders created a problematic situation. Tensions began to surface. Some newcomers, like Barnabas, somehow bridged the gap and were accepted into the group. Others, like the Hellenists in Acts 6, were not. These "newbies," these outsiders, were viewed with some suspicion. They had not been part of that golden age, they didn't know the inside jokes, they didn't fit in. They were intruders, interlopers.

And yet, it is the newcomers, then and now, who often are most open to new possibilities, even as the insiders long for times past. In Acts, following the success of Pentecost, the apostles actually held back, stayed in place, did good work and built up their own community...but always in the shadow of the temple, always within the limits of their comfort zone. For the movement to grow beyond its Jewish sectarian roots, new leaders were needed, and a new base established. In Antioch, "the queen of the east," believers from Jerusalem brought their message, some only to Jews, but others--usually recent newcomers themselves--spoke to others also, to Hellenists and to outsiders, proclaiming that salvation is for "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord." 

A great number became believers in Antioch but, more importantly, in Acts chapter 11, verse 26, we come to what may be one of the most important, yet also most underrated, verses of the New Testament: "And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians." Antioch, not Jerusalem. We may celebrate Pentecost as the "birthday of the Church," but it might be more accurate to speak of it as the beginning of a gestation period that came to fruition with something truly new in Antioch and beyond. Only then do we see a separately distinguished group altogether, where believers were willing to reach out to people beyond the normal synagogue membership. Antioch was about to become the base for a new set of missionary endeavors that would reach beyond boundaries both ethnic and geographic. And the apostles sent out from that base would not be from among the original twelve, but rather those former outsiders, Barnabas and Paul, who would serve as Christ's ambassadors and turn their world "upside down."

It began with Pentecost, but it could not stop there. Because the good news is that the golden age is not sometime back then, whenever then was. No, the golden age is NOW, and every now yet to come. Indeed, it is the journey itself, as we encounter the living Christ again and again in new and unexpected ways, in new and unexpected people we meet along the way.

Let us pray: Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.