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Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21, Genesis 11:1-9 or Romans 8:14-17, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Worship at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 23rd, will be led by guest musician Jim Scott, including the use of parts of the Missa Gaia, a mass for the earth he co-wrote. The service was not specifically planned as a celebration of Pentecost, which is also Sunday, May 23rd, although there are some possible connections (to be mentioned later).

Pentecost is an old Hebrew festival (originally a Spring harvest festival to celebrate the first fruits) held fifty days after Passover. (The word “Pentecost” means “fiftieth.”) The focus later became more upon the receiving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. In the Christian tradition it has become a celebration of the Holy Spirit held fifty days after Easter.

All of this week’s lectionary readings have elements that connect with this special occasion.

The verses from Psalm 104 celebrate the works God has done, beginning with the words in verse 24, “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” Verses 27 and following identify some of God’s actions and gifts and their consequences for all creatures both small and great (vs. 25), ending with these words in verse 30: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” It is a Pentecost of sorts and we are to sing and praise and rejoice as a result. (vss. 32-33)

Romans 8:14 declares the those “who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Our celebration of Pentecost includes singing and dancing because the same Spirit flows through and empowers us that gave life to Jesus.

The Gospel reading from John, chapter 14, again affirms the mystical union of Father and Son. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (vs. 11), suggesting that whose who come after will not only “do the works that I do,” but, “in fact, will do greater works.” (vs. 12) Now there’s something to think about! Jesus’ work is still going on, only now we’re doing it—with the guidance of the Spirit, he tells us in these verses. Called an Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Counselor in different translations, this Spirit will teach us and guide us in doing the things that express truth and make for peace. (vss. 16-27)

The readings from Genesis and Acts are often interpreted as companion stories—the confusion of communication and its restoration. In Genesis, chapter 11, human pride sets out to build a tower which reaches into the heavens. (vss. 3-4) God sends confusion so that they cannot understand one another. (vss. 5-7) And the place is called “Babel,” or “Babylon,” which means “gate of God.” Here, however, it is used as a play on an Aramaic word which means “to confuse,” conveniently similar to the English word, “babble.”

Most commonly the story is seen as a commentary on human beings attempting to make themselves into God. Whatever theological depth might be intended by the story, I see it as a very human comment on what happens to our communication and interaction when our entire energy is focused upon self-aggrandizement, climbing over one another to get to the top.

In contrast, in the Pentecost story from Acts, the focus is upon the Spirit shared by those gathered. They are from all over the known world and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (Acts 2:6) It is like a first United Nations assembly, each person with earphones hearing the simultaneous translation. Observers wonder if everyone’s drunk.

It’s one of those stories where one is tempted to ask, “I wonder what really happened?” What really happened is that there was genuine communication. I’m not going to quibble about wind and tongues of fire when a larger miracle is occurring. People really listening to and hearing one another! You don’t think that’s a miracle? It’s what can happen when people forget their own narrow selfish interests and find themselves swept along by the tides of God’s Spirit.

When they ask, “What does this mean?”, in verse 12, are they asking “What is happening?” or is it a question about the content of the message they hear? Verse 11, they note, “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” When Peter speaks out to interpret what is happening he quotes a passage from the prophet Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28 & following). In Joel God says that he will pour out his Spirit on everyone, male and female, young and old, and all will be drawn in as partners in his visions and dreams and work.

God’s Spirit has again and again refused to stay within set boundaries. It is always trying to break through to include everyone. When a complaint was lodged with Moses that the Spirit had taken possession of some men outside the walls, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Pentecost is a celebration that the mysterious truth of God, and God’s Spirit, transcends the limits of language. Remember that, in the Gospel lesson, the Spirit is called “the Spirit of truth.” When our attention is focused upon that Spirit, rather than the letter of the words, a new level of communication begins to take place. Paul wrote that God “has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Too often religious fanatics, and perhaps some who didn’t seem like fanatics, have tried to capture God’s Spirit in a particular set of words and formulas (occasionally even fighting to the death over one word or phrase). May Pentecost, for us, be a reminder that God’s reach is far greater than any language or culture.

I promised a comment on Pentecost and this Sunday’s musical service of worship. It’s this simple. Music, while it also can divide, is a medium that transcends and often unites people, helps them/us catch glimpses of something higher, something beyond. It can be like wind and fire in our midst. May it be so in our gathering Sunday as Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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