I received an email a couple of weeks ago; it claimed to be a summons to appear in court. The email was obviously fake; it probably contained some malicious code or a link to a website that would download viruses to my computer. This type of fraudulent email is perplexing; it is so unbelievable, and obviously deceitful, that one might wonder about the intellectual capacities of the person who composed it. How could anyone be so dim as to compose a scam that is so obviously a scam? As it happens, these types of scams are intentionally implausible.
There was a story in the news recently in which an internet security expert explained that email scammers choose to employ outlandish means to attract people in order to screen out those who are not gullible enough to be taken in by the scam. Preposterous scams discourage everyone but the most gullible – precisely the people who are likely to be most profitable to a scammer. The next time you get an email or phone call from someone who wants to share a huge inheritance with you, ask yourself whether you are gullible enough to provide sufficient income to that scammer.
The opposite value seems to have been at work at Pentecost. Rather than employing tactics to weed out unlikely candidates, the exercise of divine power on Pentecost was done in order to attract as many as possible, without regard to background or station in life. The Acts of the Apostles says, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem . . . they were gathered in a large crowd, but were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language.” (Acts 2:5-6)
The feast of Pentecost began as an ancient Hebrew agricultural celebration. During the lifetime of the apostles it was associated with the inauguration of the Sinai covenant. Jews from all over the world traveled great distances to Jerusalem in order to participate; their pilgrimage to the city took on the connotation of being their personal experience of sojourning in the desert as their ancestors had done. During this feast, when the greatest possible diversity of people would have been present in the city, the apostles began the world-wide mission to preach the Gospel.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that many language groups were able to understand the preaching of the apostles about “the mighty acts of God.” (Acts 2:11) This is the nature of God’s grace; it is an universal offer of salvation. The universality of the offer is signified by both the diversity of those to whom it was preached and the prophetic signs that accompanied the apostles’ preaching.
The Scripture depicts two common manifestations of power (in the ancient world), in order to portray these “mighty acts.” Acts says, “there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind” (Acts 2:2), and that “there appeared to them tongues as of fire.” (Acts 2:3) Wind and fire were the two primary sources of power in the ancient world. Before electrical generators and nuclear energy, there were available to people only the kinetic energy of the wind and the caloric energy of combustion. These two common energy sources were used as metaphors for God’s power at work in the world, and in particular, in the preaching of the apostles.
The impressive outpouring of power, signified by a strong wind and tongues of flame, had impressive results; the apostles began to make converts from outside the group of those who had previously heard of Jesus. The preaching of the Gospel faced resistance from those who opposed change, and believers were occasionally persecuted for their faith. Despite these challenges, God’s power was made manifest throughout the known world, and many came to faith.
The challenges facing the preaching of the Gospel today are vastly different from those that faced the apostles. The apostles preached to people who were, for the most part, willing to believe in revelation from God in the person of Jesus. Today, that proposition is considered nonsense by many. It is popular in our society to view Christianity, and its promises, as pipe dreams, fictions or outright frauds. A large portion of our society looks at the Gospel as being indistinguishable from an offer, delivered by email, of a fortune from an anonymous Nigerian prince.
I think there is great value in making conscious, informed choices. Today, a sensible person would want to be certain about where they place their trust. It makes a great deal of sense to be careful not to confuse trust with gullibility. You might want to ask yourself whether you’re sitting in church today because you are trusting or because you are gullible.
Gullibility is not just the willingness to believe what one is told; it is the willingness to believe what one has not been told. Preposterous scams continue to find victims because of some few people’s willingness to imagine facts and details not provided by the scammer; those folks are willing participants in their own deception. They imagine that they’ve found an easy, reliable means to wealth without risk.
Trust, on the other hand, is a conscious choice to accept the risks and consequences disclosed in the offer. This, I think, is what discourages people from faith in the One, True God: there is a cost, a very dear one, and it is fully disclosed in the initial offer. God offers a life of peace, and eternal salvation, to those who are willing to put their whole and undivided trust in Jesus. This offer discloses all of the entailed risks: it requires that we forfeit all allegiances, except to Jesus. The unpopularity of faith today derives from the demand for sole loyalty to the One, True God. Few are willing to do this; most prefer to hedge their bets by dividing their loyalty among several possible sources for lasting joy. Sadly for them, no created source of joy lasts forever.
The Christian Gospel says that it is possible to live as Jesus lived. He was faithful to God, even to the point of an ignominious death. He was faithful, too, to his friends – so much so that he entrusted his divine mission to them. The question of faith today is this: are you willing to believe in the possibility of a life with God that is characterized by mutual trust and fidelity? To those who are capable of trust, this is an offer too good to pass up and too good to keep to themselves.