Monday, May 23, 2011

The Day of Pentecost: Principal Service Year A

The Day of Pentecost: Principal Service A

Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:25-35,37; I Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
(Revised Common Lectionary Year A)

The Holy Spirit has made discrete, but critical, appearances in Luke's narrative to this point, but now takes center-stage.  According to Luke's Acts of the Apostles, the time is the Feast of Pentecost, the place is Jerusalem. In it's earliest practice, the Feast of Weeks was timed to give thanks for the Spring harvest. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD it had become a feast of thanksgiving for the Torah, the sacred texts, which now became the source of unity and identity for the Jews even in dispersion and desolation. By Luke's time, the festival would bring Jews from all over the world to the Holy City.  On this particular Pentecost, just after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the disciples of Jesus are "all in one place" when a "violent wind" filled the "house" where they were gathered.  "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them."  Each and all of them "were filled with the Holy Spirit...."  The work of the Holy Spirit on this occasion was to enable each one "to speak in other languages."  Crowds of the pilgrims filling the city from throughout the known world on this major Feast are "amazed and astonished" to hear "in our own languages...  them speaking about God's deeds of power."  When some question if these people are just drunk, Peter steps forward to announce that they are witnessing the fulfillment of the prophet Joel:  "In the last days. God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh"-- sons and daughters, young and old, slaves and free, women and men!  All this will be accompanied by all kinds of violent disruption as if all creation were coming apart. "before the company of the Lord's great an glorious day."  And all "who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

While the story of Moses' sharing his leadership with "the seventy" is a re-telling based on Genesis 8 and Exodus 24:1-11, this version from the Book of Numbers entails a unique twist.  Moses has just attempted to address the growing discontent among God's people when he gathers around him "seventy men" in a tent separate from the rest of the "camp."  "Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied."  Apparently, this was a one-time event for "the seventy men." because the text continues, "But they did so no more."  However, "two men," Eldad and Medad, who had remained in the camp and did not go into the tent with Moses and "the seventy men" also had the spirit "rest" upon them and they, too, began to prophecy among the people.  Someone ran to the tent where Moses was and told him what was happening out among the people.  Joshua, Moses' right-hand man and successor, asked Moses to stop them.  To which Moses replied: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."

The psalmist luxuriates in praise to God whose spirit sustains all creation. But when God "looks at the earth," it "trembles and the mountains smoke."

Paul tackles a paradox, the unity and diversity of the church. While acknowledging that there is the "same God" and the "same Spirit," he also acknowledges at least four groups included in the early church who would have had the most significant cultural, economic, political, legal and even religious differences-- Jews and Greeks and slaves and free.

In the first option from the gospel of John, it is the evening of the first resurrection appearances. The followers of Jesus are gathered in the room where they had shared with him a final dinner just before he was arrested. He appears among them, breathes on them and announces, " Receive the Holy Spirit." In this act, he continues, extends, and expands the work he had embodied.

In the second option, Jesus is at another important feast, this time the autumn harvest of Tabernacles or Booths. He uses the image of a stream. He is the main stream from which smaller streams flow throughout the villages, great cities, and fields of the whole earth enabling life and growth. He promises:"Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water."

Pentecost, with Christmas and Easter, are the heart and soul of the church's year, its story and, indeed,  its rasion d'etre. While Pentecost lacks the popular cultural and social customs surrounding the other two great feasts, it is organically joined to the full meaning of incarnation and resurrection. It is nothing less than the claim of God's continuing work in the world and the vital role ordained by God for those who chose to believe.

The appointed texts point in variety of distinct but complementary directions. Let's consider three.

First, by the time of Luke, Pentecost had become a celebration of the one gift from God that even the Roman Empire could not destroy (as they had flattened and desecrated the Temple)--
the sacred texts. Reading, studying, debating, memorizing, internalizing, interpreting privately and publicly proclaim the story of Jesus.

Another direction these readings inspire is the emphasis on the continuation and expansion of God's work in the world. Accompanied by the fire from above, as with the gift of the Torah, the same sign now signals a new and expanded venue and vehicle. As some of the ancient prophets had imagined, God's spirit would no longer be limited to certain places, times and people. Their dream was coming true! "Your sons and your daughter shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams." "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."

A third direction is as timely today as when Paul tackled it in the beginning: the unity and diversity of the location and vehicle of God's work in the world, the church. At the core of the church is its unified proclamation that God is indeed still at work in the world and the baptized are part of it. God's gifts of the sacred texts and God's spirit keep it linked to that promise forever. But the interpretations and practices of that unified proclamation are as diverse as the baptized themselves! Paul mentions four groups who represent segments that would have had the least in common in his time but insists all are valid, necessary, vital, mutually dependent, and valuable to the well-being of the whole body. (Which representative groups today would illustrate Paul's point in your situation?)  

At the conclusion of her highly original and increasingly influential study of the first account of creation in Genesis, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, Catherine Keller concludes that the role of God's Spirit "will not transcend or obliterate differences; rather differences are intensified precisely by being brought into relation." (p.232)  Then citing Isaiah's (42:1-4) crucial link between God's spirit and justice which Matthew places at a dramatic point in the dawning awareness of the power of Jesus (12:15ff) --"I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice"-- she emphasizes: "Justice is love under conditions of conflict."  (p.233)

In this theme of unity within diversity, perhaps these three distinct emphases are united in this idea from Jacques Derrida. In especially
On the Name, but in many other places, too, he describes the push/ pull in which we are caught between the universal and the particular, construct and deconstruct, settled and unsettled, the "Babel and anti-Babel," the religious and irreligious, the Christin West and non-Christian, as the dynamic that permanently opens up a "future messianicity." The things of God are always coming to pass, never settled, never captured in one place or time (or language). In short, the final word has not been said. That is our bane and our blessing.