By The Revd Preb Julian Ould
On the day of Pentecost the followers of Jesus were transformed and with confidence they went out and set the world ablaze with the good news of the Gospel. And so the Church was founded and began to grow. Initially this growing caused opposition or to be more exact serious persecution: firstly from the established Jewish leaders, from whom Christianity had evolved; and then from the Roman Empire which sought to crush anything that might pose a threat, however slight.
For three hundred years, followers of Christ practised their faith in the face of persecution and yet it was in this period that the Church grew faster than at any other time.
With the advent of the reign of Emperor Constantine in AD 323 (and to the surprise of many), he claimed to be a Christian and declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire. In the period that followed the Church radically changed. From this point, attempts were made to give clear structure, to introduce universal teaching and understanding, and to provide purpose-built meeting places.
It was also the point at which things began to slide. The established leaders of the Church found themselves in positions of power, under the Empire’s protection, and worldly temptations and corruption followed.
Miraculously, in spite of the Empire’s collapse, combined with division within the Church, the true thread of Christianity carried on. In the face of continued division and the corrupt and misguided paths pursued by some, the Christian Gospel survived and now, in our own time, with many failings, the Church stills stands firm. Over a third of the world is Christian.
In the face of such unlikely odds, it is not unreasonable to wonder what sort of super human people those first disciples must have been and indeed to question how the Church ever survived at all.
The truth is that the disciples who, having been commissioned by Jesus, became apostles (which literally means ‘those commissioned’), were not super human. In fact, by worldly standards they were totally inadequate nobodies. The Pentecost experience didn’t change them into great champions, rather it enlightened them. When they went out into the world, yes, they were confident: not because they had suddenly become brave and equipped with the right words to say, but because they had grasped something that made everything else pale into insignificance, including their material and physical lives. They had grasped what it meant to really share the love of God and this literally seemed to radiate from them and people responded.
With regards to survival of the Church, credit must be given to the power of the Holy Spirit. For our evangelical brethren this seems obvious. For others perhaps a difficult concept to grasp but, in reality, all I am saying is that God is ever present. God has always been present, but material concerns cloud the vision. Out of love, God came to us that our vision might become clearer. In the Pentecost experience the disciples gained crystal clear clarity which shone out to those around them and drew them. A clarity that would not go away in spite of human frailty and corruption, a clarity that through the centuries kept on touching the hearts of so many. But then what of today?
Well, God is still present and the clarity of his love is there before us if only we would look, it being found in all manner of wonderful things that go on around us. These things are not necessarily of a spectacular nature, they’re just good. They collectively impact on our world and our Church remains firm.
However, what of the disciples?
From those first apostles, others stepped into their shoes and have continued to do so. There are a vast number of clearly identifiable saints right to our current day. But whilst these are important and stand as figures of inspiration, the real discipleship comes down to us. Each and every one of us.
A clergy friend recently shared with me the details of a job they had applied for and after reading what was seen as the desired qualities of applicants, I remarked that they were obviously looking for another Jesus and we laughed. Unfortunately, we do tend to focus on material gifts and qualities, which might be valuable but in the life of the Church are not the prime requisites. Certainly, none of the apostles would have been able to apply for that job, which surely means we are missing something.
To be a disciple of Jesus requires all of us, in the most ordinary of ways, to learn to love as Jesus/God loves us and in the power of the Holy Spirit, of God being with us and ever present, to live good, honest, straight-forward lives. It is that simple, and yet is it? But with God ever present we can keep striving.