Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Day of Pentecost Year B

The Day of Pentecost Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21; OR Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104; 25-37; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15; 26-27, 16: 4b-15

The Jewish Feast of Pentecost would have drawn pilgrims from all over the world to Jerusalem fifty days after Passover to give thanks to God for the Mt. Sinai event, when God spoke and called the Hebrews into covenant. Luke's account is presumably the first Pentecost just fifty days after Jesus' execution and resurrection. Gathered together in their customary meeting place, the disciples of Jesus are engulfed by a powerful storm that fills the room and "Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them." This spectacular occasion, with all its reminders of the original event on Mt. Sinai, precedes a revelation that must have startled the disciples as well as those attracted to the spectacle: these working-class followers of Jesus with no apparent preparation "began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability," recalling the Mt. Sinai event when, according to Philo, angels took God's words and carried them to all the people on tongues. Peter addresses the crowds attracted to the spectacle of hearing their native tongue spoken by these Galileans. Citing the prophet Joel, Peter depicts current events, including the death and resurrection of Jesus, as signs of a new outpouring of God's spirit. This new movement will reach those traditionally not included-- slaves--women and men!-- the young and the elderly. In short, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved...." [Also see Day of Pentecost Year A]

[Ezekiel 37: 1-14, see Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A]

Robert Alter understands Psalm 104 to be a poetic riff on the (Priestly) creation story in Genesis. He reminds us that in Hebrew the term( v.29) equally means 'spirit' or 'breath', as when God's breath brings life into being. (The Book of Psalms, p. 367)

In his powerful letter to a church in Rome who did not know him, Paul offers encouragement and interpretation. Like "the whole creation," we also "groan" as we wait for "adoption." In this painful and awkward time, we rely on hope, "For in hope we are saved." And, we pray, aided by God's Spirit who "intercedes with sighs too deep for words," and learn how to express ourselves.

In John's gospel narrative, the last supper Jesus has with his disciples becomes the occasion for him to prepare them for the time when he will no longer be with them. In a long discourse, Jesus provides specific assurances and then surprises them all with hints that even more is to come! Of this appointed excerpt (and a few verses before and after), Raymond Brown writes: "Here we touch on a major emphasis in the Johananine presentation of the Paraclete: the likeness of the Spirit to Jesus enables the Spirit to substitute for Jesus." "Both come form the Father; both are given by the Father, or sent by the Father; both are rejected by the world." "When Jesus has gone to the Father, whoever listens to the Paraclete will be listening to Jesus." "In one extraordinary passage (16:7) Jesus says that it is better that he go away, for otherwise the Paraclete will not come. In what possible sense can the presence of the Paraclete be better than the presence of Jesus? Perhaps the solution lies in one major distinction between the presence of Jesus and that of the Paraclete. In Jesus the Word became flesh; the Paraclete is not incarnate. In the one human life of Jesus, visibly, at a definite time and a definite place, God's presence was uniquely in the world; and then corporeally Jesus left this world and went to the Father. The Paraclete's presence is not visible, not confined to any one time or place. Rather the Paraclete dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments, and so his presence is not limited by time (14: 15-17)." Not only is Jesus' departure necessary, it enables more of God's work in the world! Brown continues, " The Johanine Jesus had many things to say that his disciples could never understand in his lifetime (16:12); but then the Paraclete comes and takes those things and declares them (16:15). In other words, the Paraclete solves the problem of new insights into a past revelation." (Once and Coming Spirit at Pentecost, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994, pp 73-74)

These appointed passages for Pentecost are too often underestimated. They make breathtaking assertions! They promise that God's greatest work in the world was not in the past, but in the future! They insist that not only those best prepared, but those not usually regarded as good enough for God's work in the world will be the enabled and authorized to speak and act effectively and successfully in God's name! They relieve the customary anxieties about who or what is "authoritative" now that Jesus is gone and offer instead a community of followers-- the church-- in which not one person has all the answers but together all have adequate answers to not just speak but to act with success in God's name!

The Call and the Response, Jean-Louis Chretien draws out of the Sinai event and then its twin event, the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, a meaningful insight. These occasions, he says, show us that "what is supremely invisible manifests itself by giving speech to the apostles...." (p..41) Those who had nothing to say except the usual banalities people exchange in daily life now become articulate in a new language that is not esoteric, but gets things done, specifically things that are seen by all to be the kinds of things God wants done in the world and which Jesus did personally in his short time in the world. Speech remains a mystery, but there is no longer any mystery about its possible uses and impact.

The meme of God's spirit plays a crucial role in biblical narratives. She/he spreads over the creation. God bends over and breaths spirit into humankind at inception. She/he initiates covenant and then establishes a community of followers without any restrictions of time or place who are given the the specific speech that re-creates the fruits of the spirit among all who accept the gift and share it.

The Way of Love, Luce Irigaray meditates on air this way: "Air is what is indispensable to live, to grow, to speak.-- to each one, man or woman, and to a relation between two not dominated by the one or the other. Air allows modulating sounds, speaking with different tones, and also singing, crying or whispering, shouting what seems already evident or keeping the breath for a future manifestation.." Respecting the air between us and drawing from it in the present a part of the flesh of our words grants an approach that nourishes the existence of each one, that allows each to be and to become." "Air is the medium of our natural and our spiritual life, of our relation to ourselves, to speaking, to the other." And just before she has observed: the space, the air between us is a "transcendence" "which is fecund in graces and words...." (pp 66-67)

The spectacle of Pentecost is not that Something from outside the world interrupted/penetrated human experience, but that the miracle of the mundane was shown to us-- each speaks in her or his native/authentic/personal voice. In the community of the church, the conversation is about God, us and all others. The resulting transformation is to see ourselves and all others in a new light, that is as Jesus did in his day, but here and now, by us in our day!