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.


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