Pentecost and Imperium

Today is Pentecost, the Sunday within the Church’s calendar when Christians remember and celebrate the arrival of the Spirit and therefore the founding of the Church. Historically, of course, Pentecost is a highly ambiguous Feast Day. And Pentecost continues to raise many troubling questions for Christians. For example, should contemporary Christians continue to view the Church as the successor to the Jewish Temple? Moreover, if Pentecost entails the appearance of a single institution, the Church, speaking the same message, the Gospel, in several languages, then in what why does this institution simply reproduce the same logic that led to the destruction of the Temple and in what way does it challenge that logic?


English: Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from ...
English: Roman Triumphal arch panel copy from Beth Hatefutsoth, showing spoils of Jerusalem temple. עברית: העתק של שער הניצחון של טיטוס (מוצב במוזיאון התפוצות) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke-Acts, from which we draw our Old Testament reading – itself a potentially explosive assertion of imperium – was written sometime after Rome‘s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Rome’s attempt to cleanse Jerusalem of its Jewish population, probably in the late 70s. It was also written well after the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul. This in itself is significant since Luke-Acts tells the story of a reconciliation between Paul’s and Peter’s respective communities that neither Paul nor Peter personally experienced. If we want to experience Luke-Acts through the ears of its original audience, we must therefore consider how difficult it must have been for Peter’s community, composed primarily of Jerusalem Jews to be deprived of the Temple, which had been the center of their ritual life, and to be banished to communities scattered along the northern Mediterranean whose ritual life was largely Pharisaic. But we must also imagine how difficult it must have been for Paul’s largely Pharisaic community, composed of Jews and converts who long ago had adjusted to life in the absence of the Temple, to now be called upon to welcome Jewish exiles, survivors of the Temple’s destruction, who had questioned the authenticity and legitimacy of their synagogue- and Torah-centered variety of Judaism.

Finally, since Luke-Acts is told from the vantage-point of Paul’s community – not Peter’s – it also is told from a perspective that, unlike Peter’s, is less openly apocalyptic. This is because for Peter’s community in Jerusalem it was widely held that God was coming soon to expel the Roman’s from Jerusalem and there establish the Divine Community, the Kingdom, on earth. Indeed, although written well after the destruction of the Temple, this is still the conceit that runs through the Revelation of Saint John.


Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not so Paul’s predominantly diaspora and therefore predominantly Pharisaic community, which well before their conversion to Christianity had made their peace with Rome, To be sure, Paul’s communities shared the Petrine belief that God would judge the Roman’s and that God was about the mission of creating a New Heaven and New Earth (First Corinthians 1-3). Yet, consistent with their Pharisaism and therefore their more flexible reading of Torah, Paul’s communities were inclined to view the appearance of God’s Kingdom less in apocalyptic-militaristic terms than in the terms Paul sets out, for example, in his letters to the Roman or Corinthian communities; that is to say, Paul’s communities are inclined to believe that they themselves, through the radical obedience to the Gospel – their clothing the naked, their feeding the hungry, their caring for the widom and the orphan – are the beachhead of God’s radical emancipatory intentions.

Read in this light, Pentecosts many tongues can be seen not as an imperialist occupation of the languages of the Mediterranean basin, but rather as an invitation to hear the Gospel in these other languages too. In this sense, it invites the formerly insular Petrine community to venture out from its self-imposed doctrinal and ritualistic prison and embrace the freedom that had always been there in the diaspora-synaguge communities of the northern Mediterranean.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why we would be mistaken to view the coming of the Spirit and the creation of the Church as a successor to the Synagogue. In fact, the Synagogue had already pointed the way beyond the narrow Jerusalem Temple-based cult.

But it is also an invitation to Paul’s synagogue-based diaspora communities to welcome the exiles from Jerusalem’s destruction. Here we are invited to hear the Gospel each our own language, not however so that we can reproduce the imperial logic that led to the Temple’s destruction in the first place, but so that we can spread the emancipatory message also beyond the synagogue-based diaspora community.

Indeed, if we listen to Saint Augustine three centuries later speaking to the spread of this emancipatory message, it would be difficult for us to avoid the conclusion that it was Rome’s imperial practices, its militarism and its social and cultural insularity that led to its decay and collapse, from within. But it is also difficult to avoid the attendant conclusion that the Gospel survives because its Spirit welcomes, embraces, invites, and listens to the voices of all the oppressed.

If this is the Spirit of the Church, the Spirit of Pentecost, then clearly the texts we read today come with an invitation to us as well, to the current diaspora community, which we indeed are; an invitation to continue to listen to the Gospel in those languages that are not yet our own but which, like the Gospel in our own language, anticipates the defeat of those empires that oppress and the advent of those communities that nurture us all.

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