July 12, 2019
Old Records & Sacred History
We can look back at thehistory of the Church from two perspectives, one of them spiritually sound, but perhaps counterintuitive, and the other worldly, but more humanly natural.
Take Pentecost. Churches in the West following lectionaries used to designate Sundays in the summer and fall as such-and-such (e.g., 8th) Sunday "after Pentecost" or, sometimes, "after Trinity Sunday" (the Sunday after Pentecost).
In a sense, all Sundays now are "after Pentecost," for we live in the time after that singular event that occurred after the Apostles and the whole company of disciples obeyed Jesus' command to wait and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, sent by Jesus.
So Pentecost is the "birthday" of the Church, and Church history then follows one day at a time thereafter. But we can look back at Pentecost in two different ways. We can view it as the start of the ministry of the Church, which then went out, and continues to go out, into all the world, empowered with the gifts of the Spirit, in preaching and sacrament, with Pentecost in our rearview mirror.
But there seems to be something missing here. I call this approach the rearview mirror view approach to Sacred History, in which we have the singular events of the New Testament in our rearview mirror, keeping them in mind as we drive forward into the future, carrying out the mission of the Church.
Why is this deficient? Because I think we should always put not only Pentecost, but also our Lord's Ascension, Resurrection, Passion, Transfiguration, Baptism, and Incarnation always in front of us, as eternal mysteries, revealed in the fullness of time but always standing above time and thus present. They are the spiritual realities in which we now stand, rather than merely past events. The Lamb is "slain from the foundation of the world," and the Cross on Golgotha is ever-present, even if there is nothing to be seen there in 2019.
The Eternal Son pours out the Spirit on Pentecost on the One Body of Christ, the same Body of which we are members today. Being in Christ now, we were there--or are there. Was the Church ever more full of the Holy Spirit in its history than on the day of Pentecost?
The Lord's gift and the empowerment of the disciples was full-and not just to preach or work miracles but also in the power of holiness and "the fruits of the Spirit." We live post-Pentecost, and while the Spirit is yet with the Church now, we know the Church to be full of the Spirit at the time of its "Birth," and as members of the One Body today we have access to that event when we gather in worship.
We should always have before us the full revelation of the events we confess in the Creed, not merely as if in a rearview mirror, while we drive into the future and try to figure out how to speak to a world that seems so removed from that of the Apostles. We're not orphans on a long lonely trail facing the world, the flesh and the devil. We repeatedly come to the heavenly Jerusalem, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.
Without this "backward" perspective--which is looking up at where heaven enters history and forever changes the world--the church will only see what's in front of it, trying to figure out how to present Jesus in a way that will reach the current set of unbelievers. (That's mostly what those early Gnostics tried to do, it has been argued.)
Jesus speaks in the Gospels and the Acts, in the lives of the martyrs and saints. The sound of his Voice is not sitting on an old recording. It is living and active, and its volume will increase to "the sound of many waters," while out of his mouth will come "a sharped-edged sword," and whose face is "like the sun shining in full strength," as it was at the Transfiguration. Peter writes of that shining scene, "pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."
So, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost--put them all front and center, in 2019, not in a Sacred Scrapbook on the shelf to be admired as past events. They light the world.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.