The Day of Pentecost (Whitsunday), 8 June 2014
Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
I Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
St. John 20:19-23 or St. John 7:37-39
Pentecost and the Sunday that follows it (Trinity) lie on either side of a cusp that divides The Easter Cycle from Ordinary Time. Pentecost has its roots in a Jewish feast day that celebrated the giving of the Law on Mr. Sinai, called Shavout. It is the reason so many were gathered in Jerusalem on the day that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is that fiftieth day following Easter (Ascension is the fortieth). It is oftentimes called “the Birthday of the Church”, a remembrance not only of the gift of the Holy Spirit, but also of Saint Peter’s sermon and its extraordinary results where many were baptized and received into the Church. In remembrance of Baptism, as is traditional on this day; it is good to observe the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.
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.' "
Just prior to the account of the Ascension in Luke’s gospel, Jesus make’s the following promise, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father* upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) and the promise is fulfilled in this pericope. What had been an agrarian festival had now become, by Jesus’ time, a recollection of the giving of the Law – the central theme that drew many from the diaspora back to Jerusalem. For Christians, the event was to have an even deeper and formative meaning. In some early sources the Day of Pentecost is deeply associated with the Ascension, both being celebrated on the fiftieth day. And if the Jewish celebration was indeed a remembrance and celebration of the giving of the Law (the Word, hence the Ru'ah – the Spirit) then the association makes even greater sense, as the Spirit remains to guide the new community in its life together. Unlike John and Matthew who saw the gift of the Spirit in the encounter of the believer with the Risen One, but rather a Spirit given for mission.
What follows then is the beginning of Peter’s sermon and its quotation of the prophet Joel. In Peter’s sermon we hear a recounting (although for the original readers/hearers an initial revelation) of the apostolic kerygma. Although not in this pericope, Peter goes on to recount exactly what the Good News was for Christians, and the quote from Joel underscores the Pentecost-Ascension-Pentecost connection. From Luke’s point of view, the ancient trajectory of Salvation History continues with this event (as Peter discloses in his sermon) which is indicated by the initial introduction: “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled.” The translation above is deficient in pointing out this aspect to the event. The quotation from Joel gives a sense of universality, not only among peoples, but also amongst ages and genders as well. This is grist for Luke’s mill as he, like the author of Genesis 1, sees the Spirit hovering over a nascent earth and Church.
Breaking open Acts:
- As you read the quotation from Joel what hopes spring up in you?
- Have you had a Pentecost moment? What was it like?
- What are your dreams?
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 LORD would put his spirit on them!" And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
In some sense this lesson has one great point to make, that being that it is God who decides who shall be invested with the Spirit, and the necessity of giving place to that Spirit. It is not as dazzling as the material from Joel or from Luke, and so this reading almost serves as a footnote to the one who is decoding the day and its meaning for us. The real dilemma is not one of “who has the spirit and who does not”, but rather one of seeing what really commands our attention – our bellies or the breath of the spirit that fills us. That conundrum really does speak to our time – perhaps both readings ought to be proclaimed and expounded upon.
Breaking open Numbers:
- Who are the spirit-filled in your congregation?
- Are you one of them or not?
- What do you have to say that comes from the heart of the Spirit?
Psalm 104:25-35, 37 Benedic, anima mea
O LORD, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
May the glory of the LORD endure for ever; *
may the LORD rejoice in all his works.
He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the LORD.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, *
In this hymn that celebrates God as creator, we once again get a glimpse of the Spirit as an actor as well. What our translation relates as, “you take away their breath, and they die and return to the dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created,” is perhaps better rendered as “You withdraw their breath and they perish and to the dust they return. When you send forth your breath, they are created.” Here there is the connection of Spirit, breath, and life. It is a connection that forms a necessary understanding of the elements of this day. The initial creation depends on the creator, and continues depend on the Spirit that hovered over the earth. I like the phrase, May these words of mine please God.” In a way, what God spoke to bring us into being now resides in our own mouths as well – a breath that returns the favor, if you will.
Breaking open Psalm 104:
- How is the Spirit like breath?
- How are your words (breath) to others like Spirit?
- How does God breathe new life into you?
1 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.
One of the commentators I read in preparing these materials saw the exercise of discrimination when observing the gifts of the Spirit as a contrast to the ecstatic nature of the mystery religions that surrounded the early Church. Odd, that this should be the point of comparison. One only has to delve into the reading from numbers to understand what was the sign of the Spirit upon the elders – ecstasy! The problem comes in seeing the difference. There is a certain pragmatism that underscores Paul’s approach. “Is there any usefulness in the gift for the whole church?” In one of his usual lists, Paul enumerates for us the variety that we ought to expect from the Spirit who offers these gifts: “wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation.” I wonder how much of this we apprehend in our own experience of the Church and its gifts? What Paul points out is the unity of the body that contains all of these possibilities, and what is even more exciting is that they are not limited to spiritual distinctions but to political or national aspects as well. “We were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Would that this habit and attitude described the Church.
Breaking open I Corinthians:
- What is the spirit of our time?
- Is it good or evil, how do you determine this?
- What gifts have you been given for others?
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."
There is a reality about Jesus’ greeting, “Peace be with you,” that goes beyond the idea of a wish or volition. It is rather a recognition of something that already exists. Stated literally it would be “Peace is with you.” What we have waited for we already have – the resurrection has altered the relationship of things. Into this condition, Jesus appears to the disciples and alters the condition. He breathes on them, and then gives them the ability to make a difference in creation by either forgiving or retaining sin. Such a powerful breath! Fr. Raymond Brown gives a remarkable example of the power that this image had for the early Church.
“The most famous example of this (practice) was the custom of filling a skin bag with the holy breath of the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, tying it up, and transporting it up river to Ethiopia where it was let loose on the one designated to be the Abuna or head of the Ethiopian Church.”
Fanciful as this example is, it is as compelling to me as is the intentions of John’s telling of Jesus’ gift. I think it ought to be awfully compelling to priests, and to those of us who minister without providing the gifts of Confession and Absolution other than the “fire hose” effects of a General Confession. Do we believe the power of these words? Guiding people into the Easter life needs to be accompanied by not only the discernment of the spirits (Second Reading) but by the discernment of individual lives, and the need for forgiveness.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- Have you sought forgiveness from another? When?
- Have your forgiven another? Have you not forgiven another?
- Why does Jesus breathe on the disciples?
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.
This pericope comes from several scenes that John depicts at The Feast of the Tabernacles, here on the last day of the feast. You may wish to take some time and consult the prophet Zechariah 9-14 (especially Zechariah 13:1) to see how the context of the ceremonial influences and guides the understanding of Jesus’ words. The image is of a spring that flows from Jerusalem to purify both land and nation. The immediate context is prayers in the fall of the year calling for rain, as a promise of a fruitful harvest in the coming year. (Perhaps we in California should observe the prayers of the Feast of Tabernacles) Into this context, Jesus makes his statements about living water. What comes to our minds as we hear these comments by Jesus? Numerous images abound in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in Christian Scriptures as well. There is the blood and water at the cross, the Spirit hovering over the deep, and there is Baptism. All of these probably obtain as we struggle to hear what Jesus is telling us. In these words we are both recipient and source, and the Spirit not only cleanses but also refreshes, as we end that same Spirit out to the world.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What kinds of things flow out of you?
- Which of them are gifts of the Spirit?
- What flows out of others, that you admire and need?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
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.
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.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller