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Thursday, May 24, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Some of you may have seen the TV commercials for Kaiser Permanente in which the punch line is “Thrive!” A recent addition to that series has us looking for something we seem to have lost. Where did we put it? Under the bed? Maybe the kids have it. We can find it, perhaps by looking in the mirror. Then the tag line: “Find your motivation.”

Maybe it could be a commercial for finding God’s Spirit. There are many definitions that cover the various ways in which we use “spirit” in everyday conversations—eight inches worth in my unadbridged dictionary. Motivation is a component of several of them. Spirit is expressed in an enthusiasm for life, courage and will to accomplish something and live fully into what life brings, even to shape life—to “thrive” as the Kaiser Permanente commercials remind us.

Certainly the people of Israel, battered and exiled, did not feel like they were thriving. This week’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel offers a parable of people who have lost hope. They are like dry bones lying in a valley.  (Ezekiel 37:1-2)  Notice that it is “the spirit of the Lord” that takes Ezekiel out to see the bones.  We are told in verse 11 that “these bones are the whole house of Israel” who say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

Do we ever feel that way?  The question is “Can these bones live?” (vs. 3)  The parable is extended and repetitive but the answer is, “Yes.”  How?  God “will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” (vs. 5) There’s a lot of rattling and connecting of bone to bone, until the meaning and promise of the parable is spoken by the Lord in verse fourteen. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

The Hebrew word translated as “Spirit” also means “wind” and “breath.”  God breathes the spirit into these dry bones.  It is a source of motivation and life.  With it they have hope that they may thrive again.  The Spirit is present from the very beginning.  In Genesis 1:2, in one of the stories of creation, it says “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  In another account, in Genesis 2:7, we are told that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  Wind and breath at work, the Spirit of God.

The Psalm also speaks of creation.  It’s a hymn of wonder upon observing that “the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24)  As the hymn continues, the singer sounds forth this lyric: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (vs. 30)  The Spirit gives life.  All creatures thrive under the Spirit’s influence.

The reading from Romans is also about creation—the unfinished creation which is still going on in us.  It’s a process in which we groan as if in labor, but we are not without hope. (Romans 8:22-25)  Along the way we see some of the results of the work of the Spirit—called “the first fruits of the Spirit.” (vs. 23)

We have to go to Galatians 5:22-23 to see what those fruits are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Considering the fruits of the Spirit got me to thinking about inner and external dimensions of motivation.  The Kaiser Permanente series of commercials sometimes seem to look to various activities as our source of motivation.  We thrive when we pursue activities that really engage us.  Yet there also seems to be an inner energy that drives us to that kind of external engagement.  When we talk about the fruits of the Spirit, we speak of both inner attitudes and outer actions and relationships.  Love may begin in the heart but it is expressed in service to and consideration of others. The same is true of all the others—peace, patience, gentleness, etc.  When we are thriving, it shows!  The Spirit is not just a mysterious inner feeling.  It is an expression of God’s creative power at work in us bringing purpose to life as a mother giving birth to a child.  In that process, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” keeping us in touch with inner feelings and motivations that “are too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26-27)

In the reading from the Gospel According to John the work of the Spirit is to guide us “into all the truth.” (John 16:13)  In fact, Jesus seems to use “the Spirit of Truth” almost as a name for the Holy Spirit. Truth is a major theme in this Gospel.  It is the Gospel in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)  In this Gospel Jesus describes himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)  True worship is something which is done “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)  In John 8:32 Jesus says, “ . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Truth is sometimes used in the New Testament as a verb. “Truthing” is something we do.  Whatever the form of the word, it is clear that truth is part of a relationship; it is a spirit within us, motivating and guiding us so that we thrive.  In John’s Gospel they don’t wait until the Day of Pentecost to realize the promise.  The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples where they are cowering in fear in a locked house, speaks words of peace to them, breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19-22)

God’s Spirit is active throughout scripture—throughout human history—and before—and after—always, in all times, at all places, forever and ever.  What we have in the early church is an attempt to describe the connection between that Spirit and their own experience that Jesus is somehow still with them.  The foundational story, sometimes described is this week’s lectionary reading from Acts.

It’s a story that has puzzled many and been abused by some.  Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:1), an old Jewish harvest festival (also a time to remember the receiving of the Ten Commandments).  “Pentecost” literally means “fiftieth day,” observed, by Jews, fifty days after Passover.  For Christians it comes fifty days after Easter.

While remembering that “wind” is a word which, in Hebrew, can be synonymous with “spirit,” how literally are we to take the violent wind and tongues of fire?  I always note that it says “like the rush of a violent wind” and “as of fire.” (Acts 2:2-3)  They’re trying to describe a shared moment of inspiration that is beyond words.

Acts 2:9-11 lists the many countries from which the people had come, each with a language of its own.  The amazing thing about this day is that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (vs.6)  “ . . . in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (vs. 11)  The miracle of the day is that these diverse people became one; they were unified; they developed what I like to call “esprit de corps.”  It is the realization of a motivating power that extended around the world the reach of the love preached by Jesus.

We thrive when we are joined one with another and everyone is part of the action.  It is no accident that Peter, in his interpretation of the event, beginning in verse 14, refers back to the prophet Joel.  God’s promise through Joel was that the Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh”—sons and daughters, young and old, slave, men and women, everyone.  Now that is thriving!

As a footnote (although not of lesser importance), we might want to note that, when it comes to inclusion, there is a concern for the poor in the original instructions to the Hebrew people for the observance of Pentecost.  In Leviticus 23:22, after guidelines for the festival are spelled out, it says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien . . .”  We cannot truly thrive unless all thrive!

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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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