Those who believe the true Church never changes
know nothing about first-century Christianity.
Rev. Karl Rahner, the scholar, often reminded
us that there have been only four basic changes in our Christian faith, and
two happened within 50 years of Jesus' death and resurrection.
The first was a switch from a short-term to a
long-term faith, from the equivalent of training for a 100-yard dash to
preparing for a marathon.
Not returning soon
As we know from St. Paul's earliest letters,
Jesus' first followers presumed He was going to return in the Parousia in a
relative brief period of time. Some in his Thessalonian community, for
instance, appear to have believed none of them would die before Jesus'
It's only when we read St. Luke's Gospel and
his Acts of the Apostles (written around the year 85) that we first
encounter the belief that Jesus won't return during the lifetime of any of
While this short/long concept of faith was
playing out, the second change was occurring: The Christian community
confronted the unforeseen switch from being a Jewish group to becoming a
The historical Jesus was a Jew, and all His
followers were Jews. It was against the background of early first-century
Judaism that this Galilean carpenter preached His reform. So how could a
100-percent Jewish community transform itself into an almost 100-percent
Gentile Church within three generations?
Though heroic figures like Peter and Paul were
on the cutting edge of both changes, our sacred authors tell us the real
guiding force in those days was the Holy Spirit.
That's why Sunday's Pentecost celebration
quickly came into existence. It was both a way to sing the praises of the
force behind change and a reminder to the community that no one can imitate
the faith of Jesus without giving himself or herself over to the Spirit of
With these two basic changes still creating
problems for some in his Church, Luke's description of the Spirit's
Pentecost arrival is very significant (Acts 2:1-11): "Suddenly, from up
in the sky, there came a noise like a strong, driving wind, which was heard
all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared,
which parted and came to rest on each of them."
There's no gentle dove here, hovering
peacefully over the community. The Spirit's arrival is accompanied by the
disturbing images of wind, noise and fire.
Luke is giving concrete forms to his own
experience of the Spirit. No one can live through such drastic,
Spirit-inspired changes without being disturbed.
On the other hand, the Spirit also has other
roles in the Church. Paul reminds his Corinthian community (I Corinthians
12:3-7,12-13), "To each person, the manifestation of the Spirit is
given for the common good." The same Spirit which creates havoc also is
a force of unity: "It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or
Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body."
In the Sunday Gospel (John 20:19-23), John
tells us on what this unity is built: "Jesus breathed on them and said,
'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive someone's sins, they are forgiven;
if you hold them bound, they are held bound.'"
We presume Jesus never wanted any of His
followers to withhold forgiveness. He is just reminding them of the power
they have over others for good or bad.
Jesus informs us that the most important daily
element of the Spirit's presence in our lives is forgiveness, the thing many
of us find the most difficult to offer. Yet no Christian community can exist
without that element, just as they can't exist without the Spirit.