Fr Dale Launderville recounts the dramatic birth of the Church some 2,000 years ago.
ON THE first Christian Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit in the year of Jesus’ crucifixion transformed this traditional Jewish feast of the wheat harvest for people gathered in Jerusalem from the various parts of the known world.
These peoples were both awed and confused when they heard the Twelve Apostles proclaiming the Gospel as if they were simultaneously speaking in multiple languages (Acts 2:1-13).
This miraculous occurrence caught the attention even of the scoffers; however, they claimed that the apostles were drunk.
At this point, Peter stood up to deliver the first sermon of the newly born Church (Acts 2:14-36). Peter began his defence of the ecstatic behaviour of the apostles by claiming it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy that sons and daughters and male and female servants would prophesy by the power of the Spirit (Jl 3:1-5).
When the storm wind shook the house of the apostles and took the form of tongues of fire above them, God was fulfilling the words spoken by Joel that there would be signs in the heavens and on the earth announcing the coming of the Lord.
Thus Peter appealed to this prophet from the fifth century BC to build bridges to the Jewish community of which he was a part. He explained how the Lord is intervening “in the last days” to save His people (Acts 2:17).
Peter stated the core message of the early apostolic preaching: Jesus of Nazareth, known for His mighty deeds and miraculous works, was handed over according to God’s saving plan to be crucified and then raised from the dead. Jesus underwent this experience of total self-surrender to death so as to be raised and exalted to God’s right hand.
Peter grounded his claim that Jesus has been raised in the words of Psalms 16:8-11; 132:11; and 110:2. The Jewish community regarded these psalms as composed by David. The quotations from these psalms emphasise God’s promise to be with David’s descendants and not to allow the power of death to bring his dynastic line to an end.
Peter argued that the enduring promise extended to David is not fulfilled by God’s raising David himself from the dead, for those assembled know that David’s tomb was still intact in Jerusalem. Rather, Peter proclaimed that the Davidic descendant who is freed from Hades and raised to God’s right hand is Jesus.
With this grounding in the prophetic tradition, Peter then drove home his main point concerning the alleged drunkenness of the apostles: They are filled with the Spirit that God had promised to Jesus. When Jesus is exalted to God’s right hand, he pours out this Spirit on the apostles, which empowers the apostles to manifest the presence of the resurrected Jesus (Acts 2:33).
Peter concluded his speech by proclaiming that God made Jesus both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Jesus’ sovereignty is not merely that of a Davidic monarch but much more so that of God himself.
This identification of the resurrected Christ as Lord (“Kyrios”) is the core of the apostolic proclamation, which distinguishes the followers of Jesus from the rest of the Jewish community.
When this core message that Jesus is Lord and Messiah is proclaimed, it has a profound impact on those who hear it. Peter exhorted those who have been touched by this message to “repent”, to centre their lives on Jesus Christ.
And upon making this decision, they are to be baptised in the name of Jesus, “plunged” into the reality of the resurrected Christ. Through this ritual action, they receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, the presence of the resurrected Christ that the Jewish audience perceived in the apostles is a reality in which the newly baptised are invited to share. On that first Pentecost almost 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41). - CNS
Benedictine Fr Launderville is a Scripture scholar at St John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.