The Right Impulses, Carefully CuratedBecoming the Great Us, Columns, Essays — By David Zimmerman on June 19, 2012 at 10:14 am
In the beginning was an impulse.
Forget what it’s become for a minute. Think about that impulse. We should be together. It was spontaneous and collective—at least that’s how we think of it. The Bible tells us simply “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”
That’s what we know, but when we think about it, we make some informed speculations. Maybe one of them was the first to say it out loud, but we reasonably assume that they were all thinking it. We should be together. Where else would they be? Who else would they be with?
They were still reeling from the course of events that had brought them together in the first place, events that had left them with no one but each other. It was a feast day for faithful Jews; feasts are meant to be taken together, and that common understanding of time and faithfulness would lead inevitably to a common impulse: We should be together.
This wasn’t the first time such an impulse overtook the earliest followers of Jesus. After his execution they huddled together for fear that the persecution of their rabbi would extend to them. Maybe they felt they could only trust each other; maybe they felt some responsibility to look after each other. Maybe they felt that they had to keep an eye on each other—after all, one of their own had betrayed not just Jesus but all of them. Whatever their motives, their impulse was the same, and they followed their impulse.
This is not to say that the earliest followers of Jesus were brain-addled group-thinkers; we see plenty of occasions where one acts independently of the others. Sometimes the outcome is good, as when Peter impulsively walks on water or confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Sometimes the outcome is bad, as when that same Peter lies to religious authorities about Jesus paying the temple tax, or when Peter lies three times about knowing Jesus in the first place. The earliest followers of Jesus certainly had their own minds about things. But they also had these impulses, and sometimes their impulses aligned with each other’s. And sometimes their impulses led to remarkable things.
If you think about it, the beginning of everything is an impulse. We have an unprecedented thought to ask someone out; a few years later we’re married. We have a moment of vocational clarity that we want to somehow heal people’s hurts; eight years of education later we’re a physician. We see an old friend online and spontaneously think, We should get together. Shortly thereafter, we do.
Impulses get us nowhere by themselves, of course. To bear fruit an impulse must be married to intention, must persevere through the hard labor of actualization, must come to peace with the side effects and unintended consequences. Without that Pentecostal impulse to get together there would be no Constantinian compromise, no Great Schism, no Reformation-era internecine violence, no clergy abuse scandals, none of that stuff. But there would also be no cultural memory of Jesus on the cross, dying for our sins, reconciling the world to himself. There would be no words of restoration, no articulation of good news, no missionary impulse to mitigate (albeit imperfectly, and not without its own shortcomings) the imperial impulse. Without that original Pentecostal impulse, and the resolute intention and perseverance and occasional repentance that came in its wake, there would be no church, calling us all to be greater than the sum of our individualisms. Without that original impulse, itself the latest in a series of inspired impulses dating back to “Let there be light,” one wonders where we would all be.
Not all impulses are good. And no impulse in and of itself leads to anything. But the right impulses, carefully curated, get used by God to change things for the better.