27 May 2020

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 31 May 2020

Acts 2:1-21
or Numbers 11:24-30
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
or John 7:37-39
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

The Collect

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

or this

O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Background: Ru’ach ha-kodesh

Variously translated as both “breath”, “wind”,  or “spirit”, this Hebrew term indicates the presence and influence of God as a force in creation. The term “holy spirit” is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the psalms (51) and later in Isaiah (11:2-3, and 61). The spirit of God we know in the first creation story (Genesis 1), also in I SamuelPsalm 143Isaiah 44:3, and in Joel 3:1. This spirit rests upon kings (David) and on the prophets as well. Sometimes the spirit is referred to as the Shekhinah, as a way of avoiding mention of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). The connection of wind, fire, breath, and noise is found often in the Hebrew Scriptures and then in the New Testament account of the Day of Pentecost.

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that 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;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

The Roman Catholic commentator whom I am using for this lesson describes the gathering in Jerusalem in the upper room as being comprised of “one hundred and twenty men and women.”[1] This is a note born of piety, for the text does not mention the number. We understand the number, however – The Twelve (including the Blessed Virgin Mary) x ten (epic magnification). It is good to believe that there were a lot of people there, both men and women, a nod to the prophecy of Joel that Peter will quote later on in his address to the crowd. The beginning sentence “When the day of Pentecost had come,” gives us the sense of time fulfilled. Luke uses this sense of time often in Luke/Acts – “when the time had come,” or “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled.” Something will be fulfilled on this particular Pentecost – a part of the Salvation History seen from the beginning of God’s plan. That it happens on Pentecost (50 days after Passover) a Hebrew harvest festival that later had an emphasis on the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, gives a new significance to the day – a new gift is given.

The wind, fire, and noise connects the event to Sinai, and to Elijah when he encounters God expecting the above but experiences God in utter silence. The disciples, both men and women, are anointed with flame – with the Spirit, as is to be expected with prophets. That they should speak and be understood by all of creation underscores their role as apostles, and the catholicity of their message. The crowd is “amazed,” Luke’s code word for “believing.” Peter, in his address, connects them with their own story through the words of the prophet Joel. In this reading we are at a nexus, a cusp in time. Something new is about to happen.


Numbers 11:24-30

Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them!" But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lordwould put his spirit on them!" And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

The catholicity or universality of God’s gift of the Spirit that is mentioned in the Acts reading is also present here in the prophetic speech and motions of Eldad and Medad. We have to remember all the aspects of “prophecy”, namely, ecstacy, dance, speaking to the future, and thrashing about. These abilities are shared by Moses with these men from the camp. Their actions are evidence of this shared responsibility. Two of them do not follow the others but exhibit their prophecy amongst the people. If there is a emerging note of universality in the Hebrews, perhaps it is here, where Moses speaks against limiting the activity of the two. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” This is a notion that Jeremiah will certainly expand upon. 

Psalm 104:25-35, 37 Benedic, anima mea

25    O Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26    Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27    There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28    All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29    You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30    You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31    You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32    May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33    He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34    I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35    May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37    Bless the Lord, O my soul. *

Robert Alter calls this psalm “an ecstatic celebration of God’s dominion over the vast panorama of creation.”[2] Such ecstasy relates to the alternate first reading from Numbers. Ecstasy is the evidence of God’s presence through the Spirit in all of life, and the psalm celebrates that. The celebration is not only physical things that can be touched, smelled, seen and sensed, but spiritual things as well. “in wisdom you have made them all.” For it was that Wisdom, ru’ah, and spirit that was present at the beginning of creation as well. The sea, not a welcome place in the Hebrew mindset, is filled with life, and it is mastered by ships who navigate Leviathan’s playground. 
God is the genius of creation. It is God’s face and presence that gives life – the poet here uses “breath.” This same breath or Spirit creates, and renews the earth. The final verses form a doxology of praise. Our breath then is used to sing to the Lord, to speak pleasing words, and to rejoice. The elided verse (36) speaks about evildoers and offenders, and may be an editorial insertion. It is not resonant with the other verses of the psalm.

Second Reading: I Corinthians 12:3b-13

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Paul’s comments to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts are connected to the story of Eldad and Medad in the alternate first reading. Here he speaks for the inclusion not only of persons with gifts but for all the gifts that they possess. He wants them to understand the provenance of these gifts, namely the Holy Spirit. All kinds of gifts are given by the Spirit “for the common good.” Then in good Pauline fashion he gives us a list of these gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation. Finally he uses the human body and all its parts that are assembled for the common good – “the members…though many, are one body.” Race and gender are to make no difference. A lesson we need to heed in our own time.


Acts 2:1-21
[See above]

The Gospel: St. John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I find this to be one of the most moving moments in the Gospels – the part where Jesus breathes on them. This moves beyond the recognition of him as the Risen One, and the peace that comes with him to a new age in which they will have agency in the Kingdom of God. I am moved by this as a priest, and yet everyone should be moved by it, as the Spirit resides in us. John moves us into the future of the church, the future of following and believing in Jesus. It is, however, deep in the midst of life. There will need to be both forgiveness, and a recognition that some sins are beyond hope. Life is about the discernment of these things. It is, as this reading clearly shows, an Easter responsibility.


St. John 7:37-39

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “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.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In my last parish, we received the gift of a new baptismal font. Once it had been consecrated by the bishop it was moved to the center aisle, at the entrance to the nave. The intention was that these waters, and that this font should confront any who would enter her, a reminder of their agency in the Kingdom of God. In the psalm for today there is a redemption of water. Once seen as a sign of death, the psalm rejoices in it as a sign of life. So does Jesus here as he shows us our thirst, and his refreshment as living water. This is language about the breath – the Spirit, the one who flew over the face of the deep, beginning and redeeming creation. This gift of the spirit is so much a part of us, that it flows out of our very hearts.

General Idea:              Taking in the breath of God

One:                             The Promise of the Presence of the Spirit (First Reading)

Two:                             The ubiquity of the breath, Spirit (Alternate First Reading)

Three:                          The breath and creation (Psalm)

Four:                            The breath as different gifts (Second Reading)

Five:                             The breath and a new mission (Gospel)

                                      The breath and living water (Alternate Gospel)

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Kurz, SJ, W (2013), Acts of the Apostles, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Kindle Edition, Location 732.
[2]    Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition Location 8121.

19 May 2020

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 24 May 2020

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

The Collect

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Background: Anticipation

As we look through the readings for today, and as we approach Pentecost, it might be good to look at the human emotion of anticipation. We know if often in the Church’s Year, especially in Advent, but also in the Triduum, the last Sundays of Easter, and then at the end of the year, as we approach Christ the King. Robin Skynner describes anticipation as one of “the mature ways of dealing with real stress…You reduce the stress of some difficult challenge by anticipating what it will be like and preparing for how you are going to deal with it.”[1] In the first reading we have the disciples anticipating a political end to the drama that they have had with Jesus. He, however, gives them something else to anticipate, to give them power to go on with their lives – the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the second reading, the author speaks to the Christians anticipating an end to their suffering, and in the Gospel, Jesus anticipates the culmination of his mission and a return to the Father. Anticipation is a reminder that religious life and faith is a part of life, mental life that recalls and anticipates. It is all related to the promises given throughout our relationship with God. 

First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

The nature of what Jesus says in response to the apostles, is beyond what they anticipated in their question. The political, the earthly is set aside, and instead they are promised the gift of the Spirit, and an expansion of all that their faith encompassed – “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (underlining mine). The mention of Samaria pushes us toward the Gentiles, and “the ends of the earth” unequivocally sends us there. There is another thing that was not anticipated, and that is absence. At the end of the speech by Jesus, he is taken up into heaven. I suspect that had not anticipated the role of being an apostle either – called to be witnesses to tell the story of the One who had just left them, again. 

What to do? What we understand is that they gathered, with the women, and that they devoted themselves to prayer. Perhaps that is the best attitude to have in a period of anticipation, to be in conversation with God, and others about what is to come.

Breaking open Acts:

1.     What are you expecting of Jesus?
2.     What do you expect of your faith?
3.     What do others expect of you?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 Exsurgat Deus

     Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered; *
let those who hate him flee before him.
     Let them vanish like smoke when the wind drives it away; *
as the wax melts at the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
     But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; *
let them also be merry and joyful.
     Sing to God, sing praises to his Name;
exalt him who rides upon the heavens; *
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!
     Father of orphans, defender of widows, *
God in his holy habitation!
     God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom; *
but the rebels shall live in dry places.
     O God, when you went forth before your people, *
when you marched through the wilderness,
     The earth shook, and the skies poured down rain,
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, *
at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
     You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance; *
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
10    Your people found their home in it; *
in your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
33    Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; *
sing praises to the Lord.
34    He rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; *
he sends forth his voice, his mighty voice.
35    Ascribe power to God; *
his majesty is over Israel;
his strength is in the skies.
36    How wonderful is God in his holy places! *
the God of Israel giving strength and power to his people!
Blessed be God!

Our psalm begins with a quotation from Numbers 10:35, “Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, may your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate you flee before you.’” In that quotation we have a glimpse of the context of this psalm which seems to be a pastiche of sections of other poems. Reading through the elided verses (11-32) can give you a greater vision of the military nature of this psalm, mixed with a liturgical procession in the latter verses. An aside: Robert Alter translates verse 12 as “the women who bear tidings are a great host,” and verse 13, “the mistress of the house share out the spoils.”[2] These are such great verses, although they are muted in other translations, for they speak to the proclamation of women, affirmed in the first reading, and readily known in the Easter accounts.

The psalm rejoices in God’s victory over enemies, and rejoices in God’s protection of the people. Verse five makes it quite clear, serving as an example to all people, Father of orphans, defender of widows, God in his holy habitation!” This is a quotation from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The psalm anticipates the responsibilities of both war and victory – a lesson for our time. 

The image of God riding the heavens in verse 34 may be a mimicking of Canaanite or Egyptian representations of the sky god. None-the-less it is the God of Israel who flourishes here, and perhaps the use of Canaanite or Egyptian images is a direct speech to those who would harass Israel. The final word is a praise hymn to God.

Breaking open Psalm 68:

1.     How is God a protector in your life?
2.     What does verse 5 encourage you to do?
3.     What might your hymn of praise contain?

Second Reading: I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

The author wants us to realize a relationship – the relationship of our suffering as Christians to the suffering of Jesus. In the psalm we saw the suffering of war dissolve into the rejoicing of victory – here the author anticipates the same evolution. A play of opposites is seen – “If you are reviled…you are blessed.” The operator here is the paraclete, the one who stands beside us, or as the text says, “the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

The second paragraph anticipates what should follow in our life in Christ. Again we can expect to be treated as Christ was treated, “Humble yourselves…so that (God) may exalt you.” The discipline of the time is to cast off anxiety, being alert, resisting Satan, and identifying with others in Christ who are suffering as well. Above it all, God continues to follow and protect and to call God’s own. 

Breaking open I Peter:

1.     What are the sufferings of your life?
2.     Where do you see Christ in them?
3.     How do you humble yourself?

The Gospel: St. John 17:1-11

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In the last of the Farewell Discourses, Jesus anticipates the coming of the Holy Spirit, and what will come after the trials ahead. This is prayer that Jesus offers to the Father – the “High Priestly Prayer” as he serves as the priest-intercessor for the disciples. There are three sections: 1) Verses 1-8, where Jesus prays for the disciples and their mission in the world, 2) Verses 9-19, a prayer for the unity of those who follow him, and 3) a prayer for all believers. Our reading contains all of the first section and a bit of the second. 

John describes for us Jesus’ prayer posture, “Jesus looked up to heaven and said.” It is a posture that we saw in the story about Stephen and his martyrdom. It is as if we are the proverbial fly on the wall, for we see and hear the intimacy of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Again, there is an exchange – “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” All of this is a witness to those hearing and observing, for it will give them the content of their own being martyrs – witnesses. But it is more fully defined – this relationship. It is about knowledge and knowing, and I think we can pull into it the intimacy that the idea that “knowing” carries with it. It is a shame that in our supposed knowing of Jesus and the Father, we have become divided. The unity that is hoped for in this prayer ought to be sought after earnestly and with grace.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1.     In what way are you a disciple of Jesus?
2.     What is you mission in that regard?
3.     How do you strive for unity in the Church?


General Idea:              Anticipating

1st Idea:                        Correcting our anticipations, (First Reading)

2nd Idea:                       Anticipating Victory and Protection for all (Psalm)

3rd Idea:                        Anticipating our Relationship with Christ (Second Reading)

4th Idea:                        Realizing Unity (Gospel)

[1]     Skynner, R. (1994), Life and How to Survive It, Norton, New York, page 55
[2]     Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 5422