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Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 AND Psalm 45:10-17 OR Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Zechariah 9:9-12 AND Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-23a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Why do we human beings dwell so much on family stories? I would suggest it is, in large part, because how we feel and how we express ourselves are deeply tied up with our experience of family. We have strong feelings, positive and negative, about what has happened to us in family. We tell the stories in an attempt to understand, build upon, and perhaps heal from, those experiences. Family stories help define who we are.

In Genesis, among other places, family stories predominate for the same reasons, but are also part of the telling of the story of God’s covenant with God’s people. God tells Abraham to “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) In Deuteronomy 7:9, God’s covenant is unto “a thousand generations.” These stories of marriages and births are signs that God is being faithful to the covenant. “The generations are still going on. The promise is being fulfilled.”

As we look at the various lectionary texts before us, let me suggest another reason family stories are important.. Family relationships, love in the family (at its best), give us insight into the nature of God, the loving relationships in the divine family. Biblically, marriage and the relationship between lovers is often seen as a metaphor. We are married to God. We are God’s spouse, a deep and passionate love binding us.

The reading from Genesis is a touching human story. It may be difficult for us to get beyond some of the customs of the day which we now have difficulty understanding and even reject: arranged marriages, finding a spouse among relatives, paying a price for the bride, patriarchal dominance, etc. Beyond those things, it is a timeless story of two people falling in love.

In the story, Abraham’s servant goes to Abraham’s “kindred” to “get a wife for my son.” (Genesis 24:34-38) The son is Isaac. By prearranged sign the servant meets a young woman (Rebekah) at the well. (vss. 43-47) Instead of a ring on her finger, he puts one “on her nose” and “bracelets on her arms,” and is led off in “the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son.” (vss. 47-48) Strange as those customs seem, notice that Rebekah is not without voice. “Will you go with this man?” she is asked, and she responds, “I will.” (vs. 58) We are told elsewhere that the servant took “all kinds of choice gifts from his master.” (vs. 10) In verse 53, it says, “ . . . the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments.”

Meanwhile Isaac is awaiting the results of all this. (vs. 62) Finally he looks up and sees camels coming. (vs. 63) From afar, Rebekah sees him, slips “quickly from the camel, and asks who it is." (vss. 64-65) Despite all the following of custom which doesn’t seem particularly romantic to us, it appears almost to be love at first sight. Isaac takes Rebekah home, she becomes his wife, and, it says, “he loved her.” (vs. 67) We could get into an extended discussion of what love meant here. We could puzzle over the addendum, “So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” A wife to replace a mother?

The overall point is that this is more than a property exchange. Rebekah is no more Isaac’s property than we are God’s property. She gave willing assent, as we are invited to do in response to God’s love. Whatever the process Rebekah became Isaac’s beloved. It is love that is to define relationships that count.

Psalm 45 pictures a daughter “decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes” being “led to the king . . . with joy and gladness.” (vss. 10-15) Again, it is a celebration of the covenant, of sons being born, of the extension of the family “in all generations.” (vss. 16-17)

Song of Solomon is a passionate poem with two lovers trysting and declaring their love for one another. “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-10, with the call repeated in verse 13)

Interpreters over the years, unable to face the overt eroticism of the Song of Solomon (sometimes just called “The Song of Songs”), have suggested it is in scripture simply as a metaphor for our relationship with God. An erotic relationship with God is somehow more acceptable than one between two human beings?

I believe it is sufficient to read this and other stories of passionate human love as a simple lifting up of an important dimension of human experience. We don’t need to resort to metaphor to justify the inclusion of such stories. Today, however, I am calling us to consider the possibility that God intends our relationship with the divine, with the living and loving cosmos, to be as passionate and celebrative as these portrayals of human love and passion.

We note in passing that the reading from Zechariah also includes a “daughter,” this time the entire people of God, names here are “Zion” or “Jerusalem,” meeting her king who is coming. (Zechariah 9:9) Whether or not this is another wedding procession is unclear. It is used in the New Testament as a prophecy about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. (vs. 10) Whatever the occasions, it is again a celebration of covenant and liberation (vs. 11), as is the second Psalm reading (Psalm 145:8-14).

The reading from Romans reminds us that spontaneous passionate living as the people of God runs into obstacles. Paul speaks as a human being who falls short, who fights his demons. The reality is that the love and passion we want to express doesn’t always make it. Paul says, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” and “I do not understand my own actions.” (Romans 7:15) Do any of us live up to the full potential for good that we know is within us? Do we sometimes do hurtful things? Remember the old saying about hurting most the ones we love?

Paul attributes this shortcoming to sin (vss. 17 & 20) and sees Jesus as the way out (vs. 25a). The context is his discussion of law and grace. One could easily despair when burdened with the feelings Paul describes. What a weight of judgment one might feel. Instead, Paul looks to Jesus and sees that he is loved unconditionally. It doesn’t change the fact that he is human and falls short. It doesn’t make him perfect. It does free him to keep on paying attention to the power of the love that is at work within him. Jesus is working with him to release it, to make him more spontaneous in the expression of the good that is within. May it be so for us as well!

Finally, the Gospel lesson speaks to a lightness as we walk with our lover/Jesus/God. Jesus notes that people were critical of John, the baptizer, when he came with a sober, austere, approach to religion (Matthew 11:18). Now they are critical of him (Jesus) when he comes “eating and drinking.” “Look,” they say, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (vs. 19) Jesus compares them with children arguing pettily, refusing to respond to the mood of the moment. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” (vs. 17) The tone I read into all this is, “Lighten up. Don’t be so uptight and critical. Let your feelings show when you’re playing with those you love, when you’re in the presence of the one who embodies Love.” That tone is underlined, I believe, in the familar words from vss. 28-30 that have comforted us on more than one occasion: “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We often focus on the first part—about heavy burdens—and place less emphasis and importance on the last part. Jesus—this one who draws us into a passionate relationship of love-is “gentle and humble in heart.” Whatever burdens we are carrying, when we walk in the presence of this kind of love, it is a time of ease and lightness. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In all circumstances, unconditional love has the power to draw out of us spontaneous passion and celebration and service.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13:1-6, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 16:12-13, Matthew 10:40-42

This week’s readings call us to consider the kind of God we worship. The “Hanging in There” title assumes that we and God are in some kind of relationship. For those who have difficulty with the human descriptions we sometimes use to get at the deeper mysteries of God’s being, may I suggest that we are also dealing with a question about the kind of universe/cosmos with which we are in relationship. Is the “being” in which we live and move and exist friendly, supportive, and nurturing or threatening, challenging, dangerous, foreboding? Or, perhaps a mix of both?

So what about this “hanging in there”? The Bible calls it “covenant,” an agreement initiated by God in which God declares his unrelenting love for us and calls us to live as a beloved community. The Hebrew scriptures speak of God’s “steadfast love,” i.e., covenant-love. First, there is love behind the covenant that gives rise to the creation of the relationship. Then, there is the love which is faithful to the covenant. “I will love you because I said so, and I’m faithful to my word.”

That’s the “steadfast love” of the this week’s readings from the Psalms. “But I trusted in your steadfast love . . .” (Psalm 13:5) “I will sing of you steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one . . .” (Psalm 89:1-3)

Covenants set up a dynamic, however, that can lead to suspicion and accusation. If it seems like one party or the other is not living up to the contract, complaining is apt to begin. We see it in marriages, in business deals, in political campaigns, etc. Before the reference to the covenant in Psalm 13, we have the cries of an individual (or nation?) feeling abandoned. Where is that love you promised? “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me. How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2) We get that way sometimes when things are not going well, don’t we?

Moving on in the consideration of “hanging in there,” we might ask is, “Is love about keeping score of wrongs?” That’s the phrasing The Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) uses in the last part of verse five in I Corinthians 13, the great love poem. “ . . . love does not keep a record of wrongs.” Some of us have been deeply affected by Paul’s discussion of Law and Grace. (“ . . . you are not under law but under grace.” - Romans 6:14) Unfortunately for some things took a turn which made the Old Covenant (and Old Testament) all about “law” without grace and the New Covenant (and New Testament) all about grace without “law,” so that two different ages of God’s activity were defined as “law” and “grace.”

Grace, for Paul, is that unconditional love that gives rise to the covenant. God loves us not because we obey a set of laws but because it is God’s nature. The love is free, unearned. While I don’t see these understandings of God as exclusive to either testament, i.e., both are present in both testaments, they call us to another way of examining God’s hanging in with us and our hanging in with God. As is often the case, Paul uses images we may find confusing and dated—in this case “slavery.” He’s using this human analogy he says, “because of you natural limitations.” (Romans 6:19) On the surface, it sounds as if following Christ is simply exchanging one slavery for another. We were once “slaves” of sin” (vs. 17) but are now “slaves of righteousness” (vs. 18). I don’t find the analogy very useful in interpreting my experience. I do find it useful to make a comparison between experiencing right living as a heavy burden in response to rigid laws and expectations, and experiencing right living as a response to unconditional acceptance and love which encourages and enables and empowers the best in me.

Paul (playfully?) asks if being under grace means we should go ahead sinning since it seems to make no difference. (vs. 14) At the beginning of the chapter he has asked it more sharply. “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (vs. 1) In both cases the answer is “No. (Paul’s words: “By no means!”) It’s easy to let Paul’s logic and analogy set our heads spinning. I’m content to believe that I live and move and have my being in a loving reality which affirms and calls forth the gifts which have been implanted in me and enables me to commit myself to right living (although I always do so imperfectly and am even, at times, rebellious). I refuse to believe that the universe wants to beat me over the head with a set of rules until I cringe in fear, obeying reluctantly and resentfully. However he expresses it, I believed that is the God whom Paul would point us toward as well, and the God whose Way is demonstrated by Jesus and known in following him.

If Paul can be complex, we have two texts this week that simplify God’s agenda for us. The reading from Jeremiah talks about prophets who “preceded you and me from ancient times” prophesying “war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.” (Jeremiah 28:8) They are prophets who arouse a spirit of fear. In the next verse, Jeremiah speaks of another kind of prophet, one “who prophesies peace.” “ . . . when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (vs. 9) The spirit of the Lord is not a spirit of fear but a spirit of peace.

The brief gospel lesson from Matthew defines our hanging in with God as a matter of welcoming him and his prophets and giving a cup of cold water to one of the little ones. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40) We do not need to live in constant fear of falling short. “ . . . whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (vs. 42) I’m not sure I can hang in there with a God who constantly showers me with hellfire and damnation. I’m pretty sure I can’t, but this God of peace, with a welcoming spirit, who notices when I give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty, I kind of enjoy hanging out with that God.

Now the God in the Genesis reading is another matter! God appears to put Abraham to the test, asking him offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-2) I can remember from the earliest times I heard this story that I found it offensive—and scary. Was I in danger of being offered as a sacrifice? In fact, the whole “sacrifice” theology used to interpret God’s giving of his only son has, in recent years, come under attack as making God into a child-abuser. The parallels between that theology and this story seem evident.

The purpose of the story is just the opposite of what it might seem on the surface. In the end, good provides a ram for sacrifice. (vs. 13) It is a declaration (if, in the opinion of some, a fairly poor one) that, in contrast to some other religions of the day, our God is not a God who requires child sacrifice. God provides what is needed. It is a step ahead, if somewhat stumbling, in understanding what it means to hang in with this God. I don’t like what comes across as God toying with Abraham. If you’re not going to require child sacrifice, why go through this charade? The punch line of the story comes when Abraham names the place, “The Lord will provide;” the verse continuing with this observation: “ . . . as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (vs. 14) They are words of comfort for those facing all kinds of challenges and disappointments, words to encourage those Jews who were in exile, even, perhaps, to those who see their children being wasted in war. I do not worship a God who metes out torture in any form. The provision is not always immediate and evident, but I can entrust myself only to a God who promises to provide.

So why such a clumsy story? A reason which struck me this time around (not necessarily primary in the writer’s mind) is the power of father and son relationships. Last Sunday’s celebration of Father’s Day is a reminder of those ties. Stories that test father and son ties touch the human heart deeply. That’s why we react to this story so strongly. The biblical writers know that if you want to pluck the strings of the human heart you dig into his (or her) commitments to family (both for good or ill). These are relationships which can be abused or can nurture great goodness. They are relationships in which our deepest humanity is called forth. “Father” (or “Daddy”) even becomes a way of addressing God. A story like this is a reminder that the intensity of the relationship God wants to have with us rivals that of family. Even Jesus took note of that fact. I hang in with God because God is family and one hangs in with family even when the going gets rough.

So, this week let us ask ourselves what understandings have been shaped in our experience of God. What does it mean for us to hang in with God? My hope is that we hang in there not out of cringing legalism and fear but out of the compelling attractive acceptance and inclusion of grace.
And again, if you have trouble using such graphic human imagery, just ask why it is that we hang in there at all. What is the nature of this cosmos that has conceived and sustains us? With all the bumps along the way, I’ve learned to trust it.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Genesis 1:1-2:4a AND Psalm 8:1-9, II Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday celebrates a hard-fought doctrine of the church, a doctrine which can be deduced from scripture, but rarely (if ever) appears in any fully developed or stated form. The formula that appears in Matthew 28:19 and in II Corinthians 13:13 was in use early in the life of the church and made its way into a few verses probably as later additions or amendments. (Note that in some translations, including the familiar King James Version, older numbering makes it verse 14 in II Corinthians.) In Matthew 28:19 Jesus, at the end of his earthly ministry, instructs his disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The epistle of II Corinthians ends with a benediction which is a trinitarian formula which is still used in many liturgies, a benediction we have heard often: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (II Corinthians 13:13)

I like what Floyd Filson says as he writes in the Interpreter’s Bible: “This is the most elaborate benediction found in Paul’s letters . . . This verse is not a formal statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, but it reflects the aspects of divine redemption and Christian experience which led the church later to formulate this doctrine as the best expression it could give to the Christian understanding of God.” Eventually, in the 4th century, the church fathers agonized over one letter in one word to make the distinction between “likeness” and “similarity,” “likeness” winning out. The three “persons” of the Trinity were of “like substance.”

For most of us, it is sufficient to affirm the many different ways in which we experience God—broadly and roughly speaking as transcendent and powerful creator, in human form and personality and action, and as energizing power that moves around and within us as wind and fire.

In recent years some of our hymnbooks have included hymns and worship materials celebrating this diversity of the experience of God—and our inability to capture it in any one name or description. Consider the following:

God of Many Names, a hymn from 1985 by Brian Wren

God of many names, gathered into One, God of hovering wings, womb and birth of time, in your glory come and meet us, moving, endlessly becoming; joyfully we sing you praises, breath of life in every people.

God of Jewish faith, exodus and law, God of Jesus Christ, rabbi of the poor, in your glory come and meet us, joy of Miriam and Moses; joyfully we sing your praises, crucified, alive forever.

God of wounded hands, web and loom of love, God of many names, gathered into One, in your glory come and meet us, carpenter of new creation; joyfully we sing your praises, moving endlessly becoming.

Bring Many Names, another Brian Wren hymn (from 1987) speaks of “strong mother God, warm father God, old, aching God, young, growing god” and ends with “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home.”

A “Names of God Litany” used at a national meeting of the United Church of Christ Women, prays, “Confident that you will hear, we call upon you with all the names that make you real to us, the names that create an image in our minds and hearts, an image that our souls can understand and touch. And yet, we know that you are more than all of these.”

So, what do we do with the other two readings for this Sunday, both with a focus on creation? We can take them as pointing toward the first person of creation—the creator God. We can note that Genesis 1:2 speaks of “the Spirit of God” (the third person of creation?) as “moving over the face of the waters.” Or, we can just take them as encouragement to look for the many manifestations of God in the world around us.

The Green Team is leading worship this Sunday with a focus on the ways in which we care for the earth, so the readings are timely. Here are some comments for our further reflection.

The reading from Genesis, chapter one, is the first of two stories of creation, the second one beginning in Genesis 2:4b. The first is more poetic and philosophical while the second is more earthy. The first follows, in general, the order we associate with evolution (if we take the days to be ages) while the second begins with the Lord God forming “man from the dust of the ground” and breathing “into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) There was as yet “no plant of the field . . . in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up.” (vs. 5) Creation is reversed
with the animals and eventually woman created to provide the man with companionship. (Notice that in our reading from the first chapter (in verse 27) male and female appear to be created simultaneously.)

The details of the story in chapter one are rich. I highlight only a few to stimulate those who wish to reflect further:

1. The refrain of the poem is “And God saw that it was good,” (vss. 4, 10, 18, 21, 25) with the ecstatic declaration at the end of creation, in verse 31, that “God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” As we celebrate Green Sunday we need always remember the story begins with a “good” earth. We haven’t always done a good job keeping it that way. How can we do better?

2. Humankind is given “dominion” over all creation, all the earth, instructed to “subdue” it. (vss. 26 -28) Here I like the tone of the second creation story better. Adam is told to “till and keep” the garden. Some versions say, “Take care of it.” Perhaps that meaning can be read back into “dominion,” but too often humanity has taken the course of “subduing” the earth, running roughshod over it.

3. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I find it interesting that, when God speaks to the human beings about the plants, God says, “ . . . you shall have them for food,” while the animals are not named as food. (See vss. 29-30)

4. This is the creation story in which God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (vss. 26-27) It’s always worth considering how we are like God, how we reflect and sometimes abuse that likeness.

Finally, Psalm 8, continues the creation theme with some of the same poetic heights and questions. The “heavens” are seen as the work of God’s “fingers. Again, humanity has a very high place. “ . . . you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (vss. 4-5) Human beings are again given “dominion over the works of your hands.” (vs. 5) Has the care of creation been left up to us? Are we God’s hands in the environmental challenge before us?

All those reflections—on both creation and the trinity—call us to think deeply about how we fit into the divine order of things. Do we see the many faces of God as we live out our lives together here on this earth?
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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