5.07.2008

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23or John 7:37-39

This week’s readings afford us all sorts of opportunity for more exciting, compelling, interesting thought about the Trinity. Oooh. Dancing through scripture. Yippee!

First, these readings prepare us for Pentecost, technically the last Sunday of the Easter season and the gateway to something called “Ordinary Time”. It is a really important feast day - not just in the Christian tradition. The word Pentecost actually means 50 days, and Pentecost in the Jewish calendar is recognized as the day that the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and it is celebrated 50 days after Passover. In the context of Christianity, Pentecost celebrates the day that the Holy Spirit was received by early followers of Jesus and the forefathers of the Christian church. This is big stuff. It is important to hold on to the fact that the Pentecost that we acknowledge today, the gift of the Holy Spirit according to Jesus’ promise to the disciples at the Ascension, has deep roots and echoes a Hebrew tradition that acknowledges the receiving of a Gift as well.

Second, if you look at some common lectionary resources, you will see that there are several choices about what the readings actually are for Pentecost. Throughout Easter, readings out of the Hebrew scripture (the Old Testament) are kind of slim pickings, and this is sort of exciting (for us at least) that we are moving back in to the time of the lectionary year when we have a Hebrew bible reading option (other than the Psalm…there is always a Psalm!). It is exciting because we feel the Hebrew scriptures provide a lot of vitally important context for understanding the words found in the New Testament. Jesus was himself an advocate for Torah, a Jewish rabbi seeking a return to the base values of God’s law.

This week, one of the “optional” texts is from Numbers, recounting the Lord descending on the tribal elders and causing them to prophecy. But it’s not just the elders…this Gift is also received by two others, virtual nobodies, back at the camp. While Joshua is ready to be outraged because these aren’t tribal elders, Moses takes a more universal stance: “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!"

The Psalm acknowledges and praises the Lord’s presence and power in creation. Verse 30 is important here: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” The Psalmist spends several verses specifically naming some of the great Power and Love of God and then in this verse s/he sort of cuts to the bottom line of what s/he believes about God—without the Spirit of God, nothing exists. God’s Spirit is a creating force. This is an explicit recognition of the Spirit of God in the Jewish tradition.

So…was this Spirit of the Hebrew scriptures the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism and the same Spirit that descended on the disciples later on?

The passage from Acts tells a story familiar to those growing up in a Christian church setting, in part because it is the basis for celebrating our existence as “the body of Christ” – the church. The disciples, with the newest member Matthias (Judas’s Replacement…chosen by the disciples “casting lots” Acts 1:26), were gathered in a home (a synagogue was truly a house church – a small group that gathered in one person’s home) somewhere in Jerusalem observing Pentecost (as was the Jewish tradition) 50 days after the Passover. Out of nowhere, with a rush of wind, flames appear and they are all suddenly able to speak in many different languages. Hearing the noise and hoopla and excitement, a crowd gathers from all the corners of Jerusalem. It is a festival day, and a variety of visitors speaking a variety of languages have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival. In spite of the many different languages spoken by these onlookers, they were all able to hear in their own language. (What do you think they heard at this point?) As the crowd gathers, Peter addresses them, and references teachings of the prophet Joel that foretell of God’s Spirit poured out, and prophecies and visions among men and women, young and old.

Another alternate reading is from 1 Corinthians. Gifts of the Spirit make us unique and valuable in our community. There is differentiation of Gifts, but not a hierarchy of Gifts. One Gift is not superior to another. This is a beautiful picture of community. We know that there are people who are great at greeting, and people who are great at praying and some who create beautiful food or beautiful art. And there are some who are good organizers. And some who are good at taking care of buildings. Some have a way with children. Some have a way with the dying. Some know how to stay in touch with everyone. Many Gifts…one Spirit...making the community rich.

In both of the John passages, Jesus serves as an intermediary between believers and the Spirit. Now John has a pretty unique perspective on Jesus from the beginning. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The Greek word used in John’s gospel is “paraclete,” a word not found in the other texts. John wrote with a different understanding of the interrelated fabric of God and Jesus…and perhaps of the Spirit too. But is the Spirit only accessible through Jesus? All of the gospels include some mention of the Spirit descending at Jesus’ baptism. Was the Spirit present before Jesus? In Jesus? Through Jesus?

Ah, the Holy Spirit. One of the three-in-one. The paraclete. Descending doves, rushing winds, tongues of fire. All that. Gifts of the Spirit to each for the common good. That explains it, right? We can read all of this scripture and end up on the same page, can’t we?

The Holy Spirit is a mystery and for those of us struggling to discern any truth in our own lives, sometimes a difficult relationship to enter. Within these texts, the Spirit seems pretty universally accessible…everyone heard in their own tongue…to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit…but then John goes and complicates the message and implies the Spirit does not show up without Jesus….huh.

If you talk to people about their understanding of the Trinity and what the Spirit is and how it all fits together, chances are you’ll find a lot of different answers. It seems that all we can count on that we know is that on the celebration of Pentecost, all of these folks were taken over / filled / enlivened by the Spirit of God.

  • Do you have a relationship with the Spirit?
  • Is your experience of the Spirit different than your experience of God or Jesus? How?
  • It seems like Jesus put a lot of emphasis on the Spirit…should we put more emphasis on God’s Spirit in our own personal and corporate prayer lives? ­
  • Are there any particular ways you feel you are better able to connect with the Spirit than with Jesus or God “the Father”? Are these different relationships?

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offence, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

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