May 26, 2009

Apokatastasis and the Birthday of the Church

by Jessie Larkins
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15 (Pentecost Sunday)

One of the first things that I remember learning as a seminary student in my introductory class on Church history was the word, apokatastasis. The word, which is Greek, most simply means “the end will be like the beginning” and is most commonly used to refer to the idea of a universal restoration of creation. At the time, we first year students cataloged this word away along with a long litany of other doctrines and heresies that comprised the first 1400 years of church history, ready to proudly (if not arrogantly) pull it out alongside other useful information such as the meaning of communicato idiomatum, why Augustine really stole those pears, and the gruesome tale of Abelard’s castration at the next party to show just how enlightened we were. I hardly think that any of us at the time assumed these words and stories would have any relevance for the day-in, day-out life of parish work in any church we’d ever serve. Yet as I read these lectionary texts for Pentecost Sunday, it seems to me like the word apokatastasis speaks directly to what is happening in Jerusalem some 50 days following the Resurrection. It is a word that the 21st century Church might do well to recover.

I fully recognize all of the baggage that accompanies the revival of such a term for the Church today. After all, several early Church fathers (Origen, for example) were condemned as heretics for their interpretation of the idea. Others may assume that I am suggesting a doctrine of universal salvation, a doctrine not well received among most Christians today. The difficulties of those interpretations aside, what I would like to suggest is happening at Pentecost is nothing less than that the possibility of apokatasatsis is born into the world through the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Pentecost, as the completion of the Resurrection event, is about re-birth and new creation becoming possible in the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. Pentecost is when God makes possible, through the empowerment of a small group of back-water Galileans, the shalom of the original creation.

The festival of Pentecost for which the community was gathered was indeed a harvest festival celebrating God’s abundance and provision. Yet it was also the festival at which Israel celebrated the renewal of the Covenant, a covenant that began when God promised to Abram that through his offspring, “all the families of the world would be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Moving backwards from there is the Pentecostal reversal of the events at Babel (Gen 11)—a reunification of all humanity symbolized by the re-unification of language across the nations that were scattered and confused. Though our modern ears hardly hear the list of nations in Acts 2:9-11 as a comprehensive list, for the first readers of this passage, that list would have symbolized the entirety of the known world listed from East to West (with Jerusalem at the center), a sign that the gospel would indeed reach the “ends of the earth” and this new creation was for all people in all places. At Pentecost, moreover, there is the celebration and acknowledgement of the goodness of diversity; a diversity that has, since the expulsion from Eden, caused division and strife, rather than praise for what is possible when diverse perspectives and gifts—all named good by God—are seen as gift.

The “So What?” of all of this for the contemporary Church is that through the Holy Spirit working in us and among us (and sometimes in spite of us) we are for the world a sign and foretaste of the possibility of apokatastasis. We are for those with no hope, a sign of hope—a sign that things don’t have to be the way they are now; a sign of peace and reconciliation among diverse nations, races, languages, and economic groups. We are those called to witness to the truth that God’s Spirit and the newness of life that comes with it is for “all flesh.” This hope is seen in little ways in the daily lives of each of our congregations—in our outreach and mission, in our hospitality, in our stewardship, and in our worship. In peace and praise, in loving our enemies, in our care of the natural world, in our giving and sharing, we represent for the world that God’s original intent for human community and for the world has been made possible once more through the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Apokatastasis.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Church this weekend, we give thanks for the newness of life that has been given to us through the power of the Holy Spirit among us. Yet we are challenged by this same celebration to ask ourselves if our congregational witness is to the possibility of apokatastasis—the hope that the new creation is not only possible in some great future, but that in us, that great future can be experienced today in the real and physical world in which we live. Pentecost is an opportunity to renew the vision and mission of a church. The question we must ask ourselves is if our vision is big enough to encompass the entirety of creation in God’s unending grace and peace.


Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks for this, Jessie--a fresh look at Pentecost that helps us set the historical event into its cosmic, ecclesial, eschatological framework. A good word for all to hear and act on!

RDGStout said...

It might be worth noting that while many of Origen's ideas were condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, his teaching on the apokatastasis was explicitly NOT forbidden. The Church ruled that every Christian has the right to hope and pray for the restoration of all things -- thank Christ!