Sunday, 17 April 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 14

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The picture above is the rather striking "Pentecost" stained glass window in St John's Church, Jersey

The New Synagogue in Jerusalem
By G.R. Balleine

Now for a time our story centres round Jerusalem. The city had scores of synagogues. Any ten Jews could start one. And a large room, perhaps the one used at the Last Supper, became the synagogue of the Nazarenes, the nickname given by outsiders to followers of the Prophet of Nazareth. They numbered at this time about a hundred and twenty. They were orthodox Jews, devout Temple-worshippers, but, like early Methodists, they supplemented the official services by meetings in their own room.

Every group needs a leader; and here the Church had a narrow escape. Family feeling is strong in the East. When Mohammed died, he was succeeded by his father-in-law, then by his nephew. Something like this nearly happened in the Church.

The family of Jesus stepped into unexpected prominence. Some regarded His brother James as His rightful successor. When James died, his nephew became leader of the Jerusalem Church. The next two leaders were James's grandnephews.

If hereditary rule had become established, the result would have been disastrous. James was intensely religious; but his outlook was totally unlike that of Jesus. He was a strict ascetic. Hegesippus says: `He drank no wine nor ate meat; no razor touched his head; he never anointed himself; his knees grew hard as a camel's through incessant prayer.' Religion to him meant rigid obedience to the Mosaic Law. But the new wine of the Gospel could not be bottled in stiff old Jewish wineskins. A leader was needed, who would gradually slough off outgrown regulations. And fortunately for about ten years the new synagogue found this in Peter.

His strong personality brought him to the front; and he knew the mind of Jesus better than the brother, who had not believed in Him till the Resurrection. Like everyone he had faults. One was impetuosity, acting with sudden energy without sufficient thought. Some think that his first step was an example of this. The Apostles had been known as the Twelve; but, now Judas had gone, this name was a constant reminder of the triumph of the enemy. Peter regarded every text in the Old Testament as a message from God, which could be torn from its context and applied to present problems. (Every Rabbi did the same.) Now he remembered words in a psalm, `His office let another take,' and he took this as a command that Judas's place should be filled. When other Apostles died, the Church did not replace them. But for the moment this was a fine gesture of faith. They would not let their Movement die.

Peter made two conditions. The new Apostle must have been with Jesus through all His ministry, and he must have seen the Risen Christ. Two names were proposed, Joseph Bar-Sabbas and Matthias. Behind the quiet words, `they put forward two', may lie an Oriental scene of arms gesticulating and voices shouting the claims of the rival candidates. A contested election must be avoided. So Peter fell back on a common form of divination.

Jonah's sailors settled by lot who should be thrown overboard. Haman fixed the day for his pogrom by casting lots. And Peter said, `Leave the choice to God.' He wrote each name on a white stone, and put these in a jar. He prayed, `O Lord, show which Thou hast chosen.' He shook the jar, till one stone flew out, and everyone read MATTHIAS; `and he was numbered with the Eleven'. Later the Church forbade lot-drawing. Many Church Councils decreed, `If any seek to know God's Will by lots, let him be anathema.'

Before going further we must ask, `Is our information trustworthy?' We now depend entirely on Acts, a book written long after Pentecost, by Luke, a Gentile convert, who had no first-hand knowledge of the early Jerusalem Church. He had to rely on documents, and behind his opening chapters critics detect two, which they call A and B.

A's sober, straightforward story raises few difficulties. B is later, and shows how reports grow by repetition. Luke adopted the curious plan of inserting both accounts, so that we get the impression that things happened twice.

We have two outpourings of the Spirit, two mass conversions, two arrests of the Apostles. We must disentangle the two documents, and follow A's order of events, even though by so doing we puzzle readers accustomed to the order in Acts. But we shall not ignore B, which often gives useful details.

At first the disciples attracted no attention. Jerusalem was accustomed to see provincials wandering round the city. But one afternoon Peter and John went to the Temple for the Evening Sacrifice. At the Gate Beautiful a lame beggar raised his whine for alms. The thought struck Peter, `Jesus would have healed him.' Then came another, `Cannot He still heal?' He grasped the man's hand, and pulled him to his feet, saying, `In the Name of Jesus-walk!'

If that gate was the beggar's daily pitch, he must often have seen Jesus. He would have heard that Jesus healed cripples. Peter's sudden grip left no time for doubt. When he stood on his feet, he found that he could not only stand but jump. `He went with them into the Temple, leaping and praising God.'

There is nothing incredible in this. Faith-healing centres can show dozens of similar cures. Many pilgrimage shrines, pagan and Christian, have sheaves of crutches on the walls left by excripples.

The man's exuberance drew a crowd to the cloister called Solomon's Porch; and here Peter spoke to them. We now meet another problem. Luke puts eight speeches on to Peter's lips. They are only brief resumes; but are they trustworthy? It was the custom of ancient historians to compose imaginary speeches to enable their heroes to explain their motives. Luke may have done the same. But his reports show so many traces of a primitive theology, which the Church had outgrown long before Acts was written, that probably he had seen some record of what was actually said.

The gist of Peter's speech, as Luke gives it, is: `We did not heal this man. God healed him to honour His servant' (R.V. and R.S.V.) `Jesus, Whom you rejected and killed. So repent, that you may be forgiven. Then God will send back Jesus as Messiah, Who is waiting in Heaven for the Great Restoration. He is the Prophet, Whom Moses foretold.'

The sermon was never finished. The resurgence of the Nazarene Movement startled the Priests. The two Apostles were arrested, and lodged in the Temple jail. Next morning the Sanhedrin met; Annas and Caiaphas were there and most of the judges who had condemned Jesus, a semi-circle of the highest and most honoured men in Israel. Before them stood the two fishermen, `uncultured and untrained', but unabashed by these scowling dignitaries.

`In whose name,' Peter was asked, `have you done this?' Sorcerers were supposed to work by the names of Demons; so Annas apparently hoped to charge the Apostles with sorcery. Peter replied: `If you ask about a kindness done to a cripple, I admit that he stands before you healed, because he trusted in the Name of Jesus, whom you crucified. In no other name can salvation be found.'

Some of the Council `were so enraged that they wanted to kill them'; but that silent witness for the defence, the healed cripple, embarrassed them. So the prisoners were removed. Then Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee, said: `Leave them alone. Fanatical movements like this always fizzle out.' They took his advice, recalled the Apostles, and `charged them to speak no more in the Name of Jesus'. But Peter replied: `Judge for yourselves whether we ought to obey you rather than God. We cannot help speaking of what we have heard and seen.' Further threats failed to frighten them, and at last they let them go.

According to A, our best authority, it was after this that the gift of the Spirit came. The cure of the cripple and the Apostles' release had thrilled the disciples. In their exultant mood they were ready for anything. God was with them! Annas was powerless! They were on the verge of victory! The Feast of Pentecost began.

After the Morning Sacrifice they flocked to their meeting-room to hear the prisoners' story. They prayed for boldness to proclaim their message. They prayed that more wonders might be worked in the Name of Jesus. The excitement grew, till a wave of emotion swept them out of their normal selves.

A tells the story briefly: `When they had prayed, the room rocked, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke God's message fearlessly.'

Jerusalem is subject to earthquakes. One might have been enough to jerk the disciples over the line that separates normal from abnormal. Or the tremor may have been wholly subjective. Fox notes in his Journal that at a Mansfield Prayer Meeting `the Lord's power was so great the house was shaken'.

B adds, `They all began to speak in other tongues.' Tongue-speaking (glossolalia it is technically called) is clearly historical.

We meet it at Caesarea and Ephesus; Paul describes it in I Corinthians; and it has recurred in modern revivalist meetings.' But Luke, who wrote after it had ceased, and had probably never seen it, misunderstood `other tongues' to mean foreign languages. Paul, however, makes it clear that the `tongues' were incoherent gabble: `He who speaks in a tongue speaks to God. No one understands him.'

There are moments when religion becomes deeply emotional. Bunyan wrote of such a moment, `I could have spoken of God's love to the very crows on the ploughed fields.' This was the mood that swept through the Nazarene synagogue. First, says B, they seemed to hear `a mighty blast of wind', and flashes of light like tongues of fire seemed to descend on them. (Trances are said to begin with a roaring in the ears and `seeing stars'.)

Then they could not keep silent. Perhaps someone shouted, `Hosanna'; someone else, `Hallelujah!' Others took it up, and, being Orientals, they did it at the top of their voices. When they could not find words quickly enough, they made up words of their own. Pandemonium broke out. The din was so deafening that a crowd collected in the street. The disciples thought they were `proclaiming the mighty works of God'. But passers-by thought they were drunk.

Peter saw and seized his opportunity. He stepped out on thel fat roof and preached his famous Pentecost sermon. We have no verbatim report of it. The resume in Acts can be read aloud in three minutes; but it very possibly indicates the arguments he used. He was a Jew pleading with Jews; so he based his case wholly on the Old Testament. After brushing aside the charge of drunkenness with the remark that at nine in the morning they were not likely to be drunk, he explained what had happened by Joel's prediction, that before the Day of the Lord there would come such an outpouring of God's Spirit that even slave-girls would prophesy.

The profoundly moving psychological experience through which they had passed clamoured for explanation and again Peter found the answer in an Old Testament text. The Spirit of God had swept down on them. The Power that had once inspired the Prophets would now be their Guide. The preliminary sign had been given. Soon the sun would turn black, and the moon blood-red. So let everyone call on the Lord before it was too late.

Then he told them about Jesus. Most of the crowd, who had come from abroad, had probably never heard of Him. He described some of His miracles. He spoke of His crucifixion and His triumph over death. He quoted more Old Testament texts: `Thou wilt not leave My soul in Sheol', as a prophecy of the Resurrection; `Sit Thou at My Right Hand', as a prophecy of the Ascension. To non-Jews this line of argument may not seem very convincing; but it exactly suited his audience. And in his case it was perfectly sincere. This was how he had learnt in the synagogue to argue. Every statement must be based on an Old Testament text.

The effect of his speech was startling. Voices cried, `What shall we do?' He answered, `Repent and be baptized in the Name of Jesus.' It is not clear to what extent baptism was used during the mission of Jesus. It is nowhere mentioned in the Synoptics except in the rather doubtful closing words of `Matthew'. But to Peter, an old disciple of the Baptist, this seemed the obvious way of enrolling new converts; and `that day', says B, `there were added to them about three thousand souls'.

The word `about' warns us not to take this number literally. The Bible often uses `three thousand' loosely for `a large number'. The Levites slew three thousand worshippers of the golden calf. Three thousand perished when the Temple of Dagon fell. Job had three thousand camels. Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs. But we need not doubt that a large number of converts was won at Pentecost.

There were several public pools in Jerusalem, like Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam. We do not know which Peter chose. But the march to the Pool and the sight of the Twelve, standing waist-deep in it and plunging hundreds of men and women under the water, must have set the city talking. Pentecost opened a new chapter in the Church's history. By no means all the converts became members of the Nazarene synagogue.

Most of them had to return home when the Feast was over, and, though their instruction must have been sketchy, they may have carried to distant lands news about Jesus, and laid the foundation of Churches, which later became famous. But many remained in Jerusalem, and the Church faced the tremendous task of absorbing and training a crowd of converts who outnumbered the original disciples. Strangers to Peter and strangers to one another, they brought with them problems by no means easy to solve.

No comments: