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Thursday, June 09, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21 OR Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, I Corinthians 12:3b-13 OR Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23 OR John 7:27-39

Pentecost, celebrated this Sunday, is an old Jewish harvest festival celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “pentecost” itself simply means fifty days. The pivotal events of our faith traditions were, at least symbolically, followed fifty days later with empowerment. In the Jewish celebration, it is the receiving of the Law on Mt. Sinai that empowers and in the Christian tradition it is the receiving of the Holy Spirit (50 days after the Resurrection) that empowers.

Although it is sometimes today called “The Birthday of the Church,” the story in Acts is not about a group of people who held a convocation to found a new movement. They gathered as they always did to celebrate the harvest and to remember the Law given to Moses and passed on to them as the life-giving center of their identity. Then, something strange happened, something almost magical, mystical, a little “crazy,” and astonishing in its consequences. The followers of Jesus among them had been told about a “power” which would come upon them. “ . . . stay . . . in the city until you have been clothed in power from on high,” Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 24:49. And again, in Acts 1:8, “ . . . you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Whatever they thought that meant, I doubt that anyone quite imagined a day like that day.

Some traditions approach Pentecost almost as if this were the first time people were empowered by the Spirit of God, as if there were no Holy Spirit before Pentecost. Read the story in Acts 2:1-21. You’ll not find any such description. It is likely that it was the first public manifestation of the Spirit in this form after Jesus’ resurrection, but the fact that they “were filled with the Holy Spirit” (vs. 4) is not reported as if it, per se, was remarkable. What is remarkable is what happens as a result.

We have to admit that there is a puzzling statement in John 7:39. The context is another occasion of the celebration of the Jewish Pentecost. “On the last day of the festival,” we read, Jesus spoke these words: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38) He is speaking, we are told, about the “Spirit, which believers in him were to receive,” and then this blockbuster statement: “ . . . for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (vs. 39)

I’m not going to try to work that one out, other than to suggest that the distinction here is between the living Jesus and his continuing “spiritual” presence. We need to note also that in the Gospel According to John the giving of the Spirit happens in quite a different way than the drama of the usual story read on Pentecost Sunday. In John 20, the resurrected Jesus appears among the disciples who are behind locked doors. (vs. 19) He shows them his hands and side and greets them with words of peace. (vss. 20-21) Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 22) The New Testament does not offer a unified story of how these early believers were empowered. It is unified in the declaration that they (and we) are empowered and that our empowerment comes from God’s active, living, spiritual presence in our midst.

This week’s readings from the Hebrew scriptures demonstrate what any person who has read widely in those scriptures can tell you: God’s Spirit (the Holy Spirit?) was active long before that Pentecost event recorded in the book of Acts. One could even argue that the Spirit is an active force in creation as recorded in Genesis 1:2. It speaks of “a wind from God” sweeping “over the face of the waters,” wind, breath, and spirit being somewhat interchangeable in the Hebrew language. (Remember the wind was blowing up a gale there at that post-Resurrection Pentecost too.) Note also in this week’s Psalm (my only reference to it) that the Spirit is a creative force. “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:30)

The reading from the book of Numbers is parallel to another version of the story in Exodus, chapter 18. There it is a story about developing an administrative structure of shared leadership to take some of the burden off Moses. I like the version in Numbers better. It is about shared spiritual power which knows no bounds. Moses is instructed to take seventy people to the worship tent where God is presumed to reside. (Numbers 11:24) There God will take some of the spirit he has given Moses and place upon the seventy others. It seems to be less about administrative responsibility and more about their ability to prophesy. We’ll not get into whether that means to preach, to speak unknown ecstatic languages, or see into God’s future. In this particular case, whatever it is doesn’t last long. “They did not do so again,” it says. (vs. 25)

The power (pun intended) of the story is that a couple people who weren’t up there with Moses, who had remained back in the camp, also get the spirit. (vs. 26) This causes quite a stir. It makes us uncomfortable when the Spirit gets out of control and moves beyond the bounds—and the people—we set for it. They want Moses to stop this thing. (vss. 27-28) Moses instead catches a glimpse of the all-encompassing nature of God’s Spirit. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (vs. 29) Where is the Spirit? Everywhere, available to everyone. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” we are told in John 3:8.

So—we have images of the Spirit: wind, fire, flowing water to quench one’s thirst. Reflect on each, if you wish, and see what insight comes to you about who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does. We see some of the things the Spirit does—enables prophesying, is active in creation, accompanies an announcement (in the reading from John 20) of peace, is somehow associated with receiving and giving forgiveness (John 20:23)

And there’s more. The reading from I Corinthians describes the Spirit as the giver of gifts (talents, abilities), unique in each individual. It offers the image of a body with many parts. If the body is to function properly, each part must do its job. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (I Corinthians 12:7) We may not be able to give a “physical” description of the Holy Spirit, but we can demonstrate that power at work as we join with one another to express Jesus’ “resurrected” presence in the “body” which is his people. (Notice also that this reading ends with a reference to “drinking” the Spirit. “ . . . we are all made to drink of one Spirit.”) (vs. 13)

And what happens at that gathering of people from many nations at that post-resurrection Pentecost? When the Spirit comes upon them they all “speak in other languages.” (Acts 2:4) They hear one another “speaking in the native language of each.” (vs. 6) It’s not so much about speaking in mysterious divine languages. It’s about communication. Symbolically it’s a reversal of the chaos at Babel when languages became confused, making communication impossible. In John, Jesus announces peace and breathes the Spirit on his disciples. Here the Spirit comes and creates a miraculous unity, a unity that reaches beyond the boundaries between nations, beyond the walls of our churches and mosques and synagogues. Peter, standing to preach, reminds the crowd of the words of God has spoken through the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit . . .” (Acts 2:17-18, quoted from Joel 2:28-29)

Whatever the place of that Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts in the larger history of the movement of God’s Spirit, I’m content to celebrate it as a sign of the power of new creation in our midst. On any given day, in any given place, surprise can overtake us as we realize that the most astounding things are possible, even peace, and that we can be instruments of that power. That kind of “birth” calls for a great celebration. Although it was later in Antioch “that the disciples were first called ‘Christians,’” it was at this festival gathering that they began to breathe in and realize the possibilities before them. The same Spirit which had been active among them since creation now came to them assuring them of the power of the resurrected presence of their Lord.

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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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