Project Canterbury


What We Believe and Why

No. 5.

The True Beginning



Published by
Trinity Parish

New York


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The True Beginning of Christianity

They continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine, and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers—Acts ii, 42.

The Gospel period, that is, the period of our Lord's life covered by the Gospel records, was a period of religious preparation. It heralded the coming of a new spiritual birth: of a new personal and dynamic relationship to God. It did not initiate a new religion. To speak in parables, it was like the building and equipping of a power-house, with everything set up, everything in readiness, but with actual operation, that is, the distribution of the current, not yet begun.

Our Lord, by the mystery and fascination of His person, by overt act, and word, quickened religious desires, raised religious hopes, stirred religious expectations. That is what the Gospel records make quite clear. But there they stop. They end abruptly on the note of expectation. They have nothing [1/2] to say (except for a few parenthetical notes, chiefly in the Fourth Gospel) about fulfilment.

To find the fulfilment of the Gospel promise we must leave the Evangelists and go to the Acts and the Epistles. We must pass from the Gospel story to Church history. We must go to Pentecost and what followed after Pentecost.

But as we thus pass from Gospel story to Church history we must be careful to realize what we are doing. We are going back to the beginning: back behind the Gospels: back to the real Christian origins. Most unfortunately, in our New Testaments, we have the books bound in the wrong order. Part I, which now contains the Gospels, ought to be Part II: ought, that is, to follow, not precede. And this uncritical arrangement, this anachronism, is of far greater importance than it seems. For it creates an erroneous mental habit; it gives, unconsciously, and therefore almost irretrievably, a false historical perspective. [2/3] And it is this false historical perspective, hardened into an unconscious habit of the mind, which puts us off the track: which indeed vitiates so large a part of modern criticism of the New Testament and makes it quite unhistorical and therefore worthless. For it is surely obvious, even at a glance, that, as a baby cannot cry unless it first succeeds in being born, so the Christian religion must have come first: its monuments and records afterwards. The Christian religion, in its full power and potency, was in operation before it had, before it could have, any monuments or records of any sort whatever.

Now the four Gospels, whatever else they are, are certainly among the monuments and records of the Christian religion. If you like you may call them, with entire accuracy, the utterances or outcries of the infant Church, remembering however that the Church was rather far advanced in infancy, was indeed a good deal of a man [3/4] (or woman), before it wrote its Gospels, and then certified and authorized them. The Gospels, that is to say, with many other things as well, came out of the religion. The religion did not come out of the Gospels. There never would have been any Gospels, certainly not the four Gospels which we have, except for an antecedent Christianity: except for an already living, believing, worshipping and teaching Church which knew itself to be the Spirit-bearing Body of the Lord.

The Spirit in the Church bore many fruits: set itself to many tasks: among them being the writing of the Gospels. Dig down deep anywhere you please into the soil of the New Testament: whether it be into the most primitive of all the primitive versions of S. Mark or into the imaginative Apocalypse of John: get down to the root, the cause, the motive, which produced each writing: yes, each verse, each word, each syllable, and you will find, you cannot help finding, the Christian religion in the [4/5] Christian Church. There is nothing else for you to find.

In passing then from the Gospel story to Church history we are getting at the origins. When we come to Pentecost we come to the very fountain head of Christianity: to the productive cause of each several record, monument and institution which from the beginning, and through all the centuries, has the right to be called truly and typically Christian.

What then took place at Pentecost? In answer any one of three things may be truly said. First, that the Spirit came from Christ: Second, that the Church was born: Third, that the Christian religion came into existence. These three summary accounts of Pentecost are not really to be distinguished each from the others. All three are as identical as they were simultaneous. Each is to be noted separately only that we may not fail to apprehend the fullness of the truth, the greatness of the gift, of Pentecost.

[6] First then recall the scene. Consider the waiting company gathered in the Upper room. Those hundred and twenty men and women, [*Cf. Acts i: 15; ii: 1 ff.] with the Apostles at their centre, probably included all who could be rightly called followers or disciples of the Lord. In the past they had been something more than casual hearers or spectators. They had been drawn to Him and they were drawn to Him still. They were not satisfied that all was over: some word had come that they were to tarry in Jerusalem for some new sign. [*Cf. S. Luke xxiv: 49.] So there they were, brought together, not simply by the common memory of a lost Leader, but rather by a moving hope of some new contact with Him. That seems to have been the reason for their meeting.

And on this waiting company the Spirit came. We read that fire and wind came with Him. But the Spirit was not in the fire, nor in the wind. [*Cf. 1 Kings xix: 11, 12.] At least the fire and [6/7] wind must not draw our thought away from the "still small voice" in which He spoke to those on whom He came: away from the essential inwardness of the new gift. For it is the inwardness of Pentecost which is its very essence. It is the inwardness of the new gift which marks the vital contrast between the Gospel days and the days which followed Pentecost.

The Lord in the days of His flesh, had visible and outward form. He was incarnate. He had a body. It was in and through His body that He brought His influence to bear on men. He depended on His outward influence. It was the instrument He worked with. He called men to come to Him, to gather round Him, to follow Him, to keep close to Him. In Gospel days everything depended on being in the place where Jesus was; or being within reach of His voice, His touch, His look. You remember how they tore away the roof in order to give the paralytic a chance of being [7/8] healed. [*S. Mark ii: 3, 4.] The whole Apostolic band was thrown into panic by a thunder storm while Jesus slept. [*S. Mark iv: 37, 38.] Lazarus died because Jesus was not there. [*S. John xi: 21.] Peter was like to drown till the Lord's hand grasped his and held him up. [*S. Matt. xiv: 28-31.] And, later on, it was the Lord's look lighting on Peter that brought the tears. [*S. Luke xxii: 61, 62.]

Now this outwardness was both the strength and weakness of the old relationship. It was its strength, because His outward presence was palpable and tangible: it was in flesh and blood. It was real manhood that they saw and heard and handled. By bodily presence in their midst He captured them, and held them: fascinated them, stirred them to the depths. Blessed were their eyes that saw: their ears that heard. Prophets and kings had desired to see and hear what they had seen and heard: [*Cf. S. Matt. xiii: 16, 17.] the open, [8/9] manifest presence of God with men: the signs and proofs that God had visited His people: that redemption long expected had appeared: that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.

But if it were to be only and altogether outward: if eyes and ears were to be the only means of contact: if His presence in Samaria meant His absence from Jerusalem: if one had to go to Bethany to talk with Him, or to Capernaum to hear Him preach: why then it was not all, nor altogether, blessedness: not blessedness at least for everybody, or indeed for anybody all the time. There were hindrances, obstacles, limitations.

And there was one limitation which was increasingly depressing and disheartening. To be with the Lord, even for a moment, was indeed, an unforgettable experience. His voice, His look, His presence thrilled and took possession. But what when He was gone, and they were left alone without Him, just with themselves? He was altogether perfect, [9/10] a miracle of love and wisdom, purity and goodness. They could see the Spirit filling Him: could see the Godhead in the manhood—yes, in His manhood. But how about their manhood? He was unique. No man ever spoke like this man: never had there been, never could there be, any one like Him. His power over them came from His uniqueness; from His unlikeness to any one save God. That is why, as Jesus went before them, "they were amazed" (more literally were astounded or stricken dumb) "and as they followed they were afraid." [*S. Mark x: 32.] That is why the very rumor of Him held them in thrall. But when He was gone: when His place was empty: what then? Why, nothing but the piercing knowledge that His perfectness was His, not theirs: that His inner light revealed their inner darkness: His strength, their weakness: His holiness, their sin. So they had thought and felt in Gospel days. How could they help it? So they had spoken: [10/11] "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." [*S. Luke v: 8.] What else was there for them to say?

So the merely outward failed: failed at the crucial point: failed when the strain of the soul's awakened need came on it: failed as it must always fail: failed as it was meant to fail. And God, by a divine necessity; God being wise and faithful, as well as good and loving, by His Pentecostal gift, completes, sustains, fulfills the outward by the inward. That is the very point and power of Pentecost.

The Spirit came, not to take Christ's place, but to make a new place for Christ within: not to compensate Christ's absence but to accomplish Christ's Presence with them, in them always and everywhere. "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." [*Gal. ii: 20.] That is S. Paul's comment upon Pentecost.

Here doubtless is a mystery: but it is a most familiar mystery. For it is the mystery of life, [11/12] of every living thing. It is the mystery of protoplasm as it is the mystery of the Spirit-bearing Body of the Lord, which is the Church. All life is of God and life is always inward and invisible. The life by which grass grows and flowers bloom is of the Spirit, Who is the giver of all life. And even the life of grass and flowers is inward and invisible. How much more shall life at its fullest, at its highest, of necessity, by its divine nature, be inward and invisible? The real miracle of Pentecost takes place within.

But what of the fire and the wind which accompanied the Spirit? What shall we say? At least this: that as symbols they dramatize for us the very heart of the great mystery as mere words could never do. Fire and air are elemental. So is the Spirit elemental, the primary condition of all life. Fire and air bring breath, light, vision, purity, heat, zeal, ardor. So does the Spirit. Fire and air are the storehouses of God's energy in nature; subtle, pervasive, consuming, irresistible. [12/13] So is the Holy Spirit the source of the creative energy of God in men through Jesus Christ. Symbols then at least; speaking, vivid symbols. But were they "miracles" as well: were they outward signs in nature of the Spirit's work in grace?

Stop just long enough to see how entirely reasonable it is so to regard them: to take the story literally. Remember how momentous the occasion: how it made history: how it remade the world: how it recreated men. For Pentecost is in a true sense a greater day than Christmas, or Good Friday or even Easter. Pentecost alone brings home the meaning of these days of birth, of death, of resurrection. Without Pentecost these other days would be nothing to us: nothing, save events in far gone history: events in Another's life, not in our own: events, which in all human probability, would have found no chronicler: would have been utterly forgotten. It is only because of Pentecost, only because the Holy Spirit came, [13/14] that Christmas means our regeneration, Good Friday our redemption, Easter our resurrection. God as man—(that is, the Incarnation)— comes to mean God in men and women—(that is, the Church)—only through the operation of the Holy Ghost Who came at Pentecost.

Now in any case, if we believe that God is free, we must make room for "miracles". The possibility of miracles is the necessary, the inevitable, consequence of Divine freedom. If God is really free, really Creator, then "miracles" may happen as God wills. Take the following words as a good summary of this essential point. They are somewhat formal but they are impressive and concise and are worth quoting. "The occasional breach in the causal nexus in nature by a Being Who Himself instituted it and must therefore be Master of it—this theory is as massively rational as it is possible to be." [*Otto, The Idea of the Holy, (English translation), p. 3. Oxf. Univ. Press, 1923.]  "Massively rational" is a good phrase [14/15] by which to describe and to defend the Christian philosophy of miracles as a corollary of Christian faith in God. If it be "massively rational" that there be miracles, since God is free, then it would seem extraordinarily reasonable to expect them on the day of Pentecost: it would seem that any really reasonable faith, any faith, that is, really intelligent and well informed, really aware of what was happening, would anticipate a Pentecostal miracle even if the narrative were silent.

That then is the first thing to be said of Pentecost. It was the day on which the Holy Ghost came from Jesus Christ to dwell inwardly with men. But equally and simultaneously it was the day on which the Church was born. These are but two names for the same thing, two ways of describing one identical event. Each has distinct value only because each helps in telling the whole story.

What then is the Church? How came it? How was it created by the Spirit? [15/16] We cannot see the Spirit at His work but we can recognize His work and we can read its record. And in the record this is what took place.

There in the upper room were gathered a hundred and twenty individuals: so many men and women. They were met together within the same four walls, and they had a common motive, a common hope, vague and indefinite no doubt, in meeting there.

That was all they had in common. The Spirit by His coming took these individuals and made of them one Body: made of them a Body far more closely knit, in spite of what sin did and has done to rend and separate it, than any other society or fellowship the world has seen or ever will see. At Pentecost, and after Pentecost, they were mastered and controlled by the dynamic power and reality of their new found, Spirit-given unity. From that day forward they had everything in common, everything that really mattered. They had one Lord, and that one Lord had sent one Spirit, [16/17] and by the Spirit's operation they had one faith: [* Cf. Eph. iv: 4-6.] one faith in Him Who sent, in Him Who came. Out of that common faith, taught by the Spirit, came many other things which marked their common life. Out of their common faith came a common worship, common sacraments, a common ministry, a common creed, and, gradually as time went on, a common book, or, more accurately, a common collection of selected writings, the canonical New Testament. And note in passing that the Church produced its creed long before it wrote its Bible. The impulse of their common faith ruled and controlled them in great things and in little things: in inward things and outward things. Their unity was the keynote of their lives.

The point to be noted in all this is that this exaltation of their common life, this surrender to its claims, was wholly free and voluntary. There is no trace of compulsion, of outward pressure: no sense of strain or [17/18] limitation. Membership was not felt to be a fetter, checking liberty, suppressing and narrowing individual endowment or expression. Just the reverse. The greatest gift which the Spirit had given to each one was the grace by which the Spirit bound them all together. It was out of what belonged to all of them together that each one drew his own abundant share. Their common grace was their unfailing common treasury, meeting each special need, supplying each individual requirement. It was the common life, the common grace, which secured and guaranteed to each his rights and privileges: set him his tasks, ordered his life, gave him, and sustained him in, his freedom. Christ had come to each, had sent His Spirit upon each, when they were all together. Therefore they would keep together that He might come again and keep on coming. Every common prayer, every act of common worship, opened a new door for a new coming of the Spirit into the life of each. The assembly of the [18/19] Church was the sacred place of meeting, not only of meeting one another but of meeting Him. So the conviction grew, not gained by argument or inference, but born of intuition and wrought by experience into the habit and fibre of their faith, that to come to Christ, to share in the Pentecostal gift, meant to be "added to the Church." [*Acts ii: 47.] The two ideas were interchangeable. One received the Holy Spirit through the Holy Society in which the Spirit dwelt. The fellowship or communion of the Holy Ghost meant membership in the Holy Church. The words "I believe in the Holy Ghost" inevitably required that the words immediately following them in the Creed should be: "and in the Holy Church."

"They continued steadfastly in the teaching of the Apostles and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers." [*Acts ii :42.] So the first Church historian sums up, in one pregnant sentence, the days [19/20] that followed Pentecost: so he quite simply, almost unconsciously, elucidates the significance of Pentecost. They continued in the fellowship: they held the common Creed: they came to their communions: they said their common prayers: they did all, they continued to do all, not for the Apostles' sake, but for the Church's sake, for the Spirit's sake, for their Lord's sake: because in the Church they found the Spirit and in the Spirit they found the power, the life, the grace, the redemption and salvation of their Lord.

To sum all up, the Church in giving us the Gospels tells us what preceded Pentecost: what led up to Pentecost: what prepared for it: what made it possible and necessary if the promise made in God's name by Jesus in the Gospels period was to be fulfilled. But Pentecost is the originating moment: the vital and vitalizing revelation of the love of God for man, of the life of God in man, through Jesus Christ. At Pentecost the Spirit came. [20/21] At Pentecost the Church was born. At Pentecost the Christian religion came into existence. For the only definition of a Christian which really answers to the Christian faith, which really meets the test of Scripture, the only really Christian definition of a Christian is, one who, through the Church, that is, in the communion of the Assembly of the Upper Room, has received the Holy Ghost.

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