Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Day of Pentecost:Principal Service Year C

The Day of Pentecost C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Acts 2:1-21 (also see Year A); OR Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:25-35,37; Romans 8:14-17; OR Acts 2:1-21 (see below and Year A); John 14:8-17, (25-27)

In the Jewish liturgical calendar, Pentecost was celebrated fifty days after Passover as a feast of thanksgiving for the covenant given by God to God's people.  Luke's narrative, the Acts of the Apostles, places Jesus' friends and followers in Jerusalem in the heady days after his resurrection and return to the Father.  As in the past, the tell-tale signs of God at work appear-- rushing, violent winds, and "tongues as of fire...." Luke makes clear that this is the sign that it is the Holy Spirit who has empowered them to speak in every known human language, addressing directly devout Jews gathered from the world-wide diaspora in the Holy City.  The crowds are stunned that these hick "Galilean" folk are fluent in so many languages.  "All are amazed and perplexed," some are dismissive.  But Peter steps forward from the eleven to speak.  He announces that they are witnessing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel:  "I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh."  And to radicalize that word "all," he specifically mentions "slaves" and women as well as men!

"Now the whole earth had one language and the same words."  This uniformity gave humankind a sense of control, which resulted in a project-- to build a tower with its "top in the heavens."  This project "will make a name for ourselves."  The Lord intervenes directly.  The Lord "came down," saw the tower and concluded "this is only the beginning of what they will do."  "So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth...."  The project was abandoned and it came to be called "Babel, because [there] the Lord confused the languages of the earth...."

Robert Alter notes of psalm 104, specifically starting at verse 25: "this poem reads distinctly like a poetic free improvisation on themes from the creation story of the beginning of Genesis...," but now from the human perspective, not God's.  (The Book of Psalms, p. 367)  The same spirit that moved over creation at the very beginning sustains every creature.  "Let me sing to the Lord while I live/let me hymn to my God while I breathe."

In his forceful but sometimes disjointed letter to the church in Rome, Paul expounds on the radical habit of Christians' addressing God as "Abba," as Jesus had taught.  "All who are led by the Spirit are children of God," he writes unequivocally.  That same "Spirit bearing witness with our spirit" affirms for us that we are "children of God," which automatically makes us "heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ-- in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

John's narrative packs so many crucial claims into this long monologue by Jesus (13:31-16:33)  at a last meal with his disciples.  A response to an inquiry from Philip is the opportunity for Jesus to  make some of his most unforgettable claims.  "Lord, show us the Father," Philip asks.  Jesus responds, "the words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works."  "[T]he works themselves" speak for themselves.  Unexpectedly Jesus focuses on all who follow him and says, "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these..."  Without pausing for the hearer/reader to catch her breath in response to that astounding claim, Jesus goes further in John's narrative.  He will guarantee that anything they ask in his name, "I will do it."  A major theme in this long monologue returns when Jesus assures them that "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."  Going still further, Jesus says he will request the Father to send the "Paraclete" as a steady "Advocate" "to be with you forever."  Do not be surprised when others do not recognize the Spirit at work, as you will.  "You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you."  This Spirit/Advocate will become your teacher by constantly reminding you of everything I have taught you.  This assurance should give you a "peace" that keeps fear at bay.

Human languages accomplish more and less than once was believed.  The work of Ferdiand de Saussure, especially in his posthumously published Course in General Linguistics (1916), insisted each human language was a "social contract" that was operative due to conventional usage; Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his utterly unique ways explored the true power of human language to get things done; Jacques Derrida, over a brilliant, life-time scholarly career, elaborated his notion of "deconstruction" in which he showed the limits and the limitless possibilities of languages.  Citing several times  writings Derrida referred to the biblical story of the tower of Babel directly or indirectly, John Caputo summarizes Derrida's discovery this way:  "Deconstruction throws a scare into our discourse , questions too tall prestige towers of the towers of reference, of all the self-importance of 'meaning,' but without simply destroying meaning and reference themselves.  Deconstruction creates a salutary distrust in the power of language to do what it says it is doing, along with providing an account of how language accomplishes what it does manage to do.  But all of this, it cannot be repeated too often, takes place with the idea of keeping things open to something new."  (The Prayer and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 15)

The readings and gospel on this climatic Sunday of the Great Fifty Days of Easter (year C) include a cautionary tale of human vanity with God's direct intervention to prohibit forever any human attempt to organize/conquer creation by human language and the promissory reassurance of Jesus that the words he left behind are from the Father and, with the continuing assistance of the Holy Spirit, will teach and accomplish through us even more than he did!  Jesus exact words in John's narrative are: "the words that I say to you I do not speak on my own, but the Father who dwells in me does his works;"  "the one who believes in me will do the [same] works that I do;"  "and , in fact, will do greater works."  In Luke's Acts of the Apostles we are given an illustration of the impact of this claim when the unexceptional followers of Jesus dare to use "the eloquent words" they had heard from him in ways universally understood.  The authenticity of these eloquent words is demonstrated in the deeds of love, justice and mercy they induce in potentially anyone and everyone.

The church has a "song" to sing.  They are from and about Jesus who bore witness to the love of the Father.  They give the church with the aid of the Holy Spirit the only genuine eloquence she has. When performed in song and deeds they are universally understood.  We are authorized by Jesus himself to create our own improvisation, to always keep "things open to something new," and, thereby, accomplish even more than he did!