Friday, June 02, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear Church

So, yes, Pentecost -- which takes place this Sunday -- is the birthday of the church. And in this week's edition of my paper, its meditation for the feast is provided by none other than our good friend, James Alison.
Luke’s tableau of Pentecost, sketched out for us in Acts 2, is an extraordinarily deft compilation of scriptural fulfilments. In such tableaux, the odder the detail, the better we remember it. So most people remember best the tongues of fire resting on each of the gathered. Yet there is scarcely a word in Luke’s description that does not bring with it a set of allusions from Scripture. The Lord promised to speak to his people by means of strange men and a new tongue (Isaiah 28.11) – and, as in Acts, there are even drunkards in that prophecy. The mighty wind (or breath) is the east wind which Yahweh used to divide the sea into seven streams so that the people could pass over dry shod (Isaiah 11.15, Exodus 14.21). The house that is filled with the Spirit is an allusion to the Temple (usually referred to as the “House”) being filled with the Presence during Solomon’s consecration of it (2 Chronicles 5.2 and 13; 1 Kings 8.10). Through the tongues, the fire, one of the true Temple furnishings hidden away at Josiah’s Reformation, and absent from the second Temple standing in Jesus’ time, is being returned to the New Temple which is being brought into being. This was in fulfilment of a messianic prophecy which saw that, when the Messiah came, all the Holy Things which had been lost to the Temple would be restored in the New Temple. The Ark is of course already there, in the person of Mary. She had been recognised as Ark when John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb, danced before her – Luke’s Greek word is the same as that used of David dancing before the Ark in the Septuagint. This is the Ark that bore the new and living covenant.

Furthermore, the tongues were divided out upon those gathered, an odd word in Greek, but the same as is used in Zechariah 14.1: “A day of the Lord is coming, when the spoil taken from you will be divided out in the midst of you”. So the sacrificial death of Jesus, the New Covenant who issued forth from the new Ark, is divided out, like portions, among those gathered in and as the New Temple. The Presence has the shape of the Passion. This is also the place where the Lord fulfilled his promise to Ezekiel to give a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36 and 37), which was the same as putting the law within them, as Jeremiah had promised (Jeremiah 31). Going back still further, this is the fulfilment of what Moses had prayed for in Numbers 11, but which had not happened at the time: there the Lord took some of the spirit that was in Moses and gave it to 70 elders, who prophesied for a short time and then no more. When trouble arose because some others who hadn’t been among the elders were also prophesying, Moses said: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.”
Of course, there's more....