Reading for Pentecost (8 June 2014)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they 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." (Acts 2:1-11 – NRSV)
1. Luke's Gospel begins and ends with the promise of "power from on high": "The angel said to (Mary), 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you'" (Luke 1:35) and "see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). Luke see sees in this story of Jesus and the disciples who gathered around him, an unfolding of God's plan given in the Covenant.
2. "Pentecost" (from the Greek word for "fifty") is the name given in the Septuagint to the Jewish feast of "Shavuoth" – the feast celebrated seven weeks after Passover. (See Exodus 34:22 – "You shall observe the festival of weeks ...." – and Leviticus 23:15-21, Numbers 28:26-31 and Deuteronomy 16:9-10.) It was originally a first-fruits festival. In the 2nd century before Jesus this feast had become a celebration of the giving of the Law on Sinai – see Deuteronomy 4:10 and 9:10. The people are gathered by the Law and form the qahal Yahew (the assembly of God).
a. Luke sees continuity and fulfilment in the event of Pentecost described here.
b. The "new Moses" – Jesus of Nazareth – gives the "new Law" and a new qahal Yahew – ekklesia (gathering) – is formed. There are also clear indications that Luke also sees Jesus as the "new Elijah" – Jesus ascends into heaven and sends his Spirit on his disciples as Elijah sent a double portion of his spirit on Elisha (2 Kings 2:9-15). Jesus is similarly linked with Moses and Elijah in the account of the transfiguration: "they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him" (Luke 9:30). Since Jesus is the fulfillment of God's plan, there is every reason to identify him with both Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the Prophets.)
c. The "Law" that is given now is the Law of the Spirit of God. This new Law generates a whole new way of being which includes the prophetic. The statement here – "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability" – is repeated in various ways in other similar instances in Acts:
i. 4:31: "When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness."
ii. 10:44-46: "While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out
even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God."
iii. 19:6-7: "When Paul had laid his hands on them (some disciples in Ephesus), the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them."
d. This new law of the Spirit is for everyone, healing the rift symbolized in the story of the tower of Babel where "the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:9). At the end of Acts we hear Paul speak to the community in Rome: "Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen" (28:28).
3. John the Baptist had prophesied: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16-17)
a. The image of winnowing – throwing the grain and chaff into the air so the wind can sort one from the other – invites us to see in Pentecost an event of "sorting out";
b. The Greek word for "wind" is pnoe (πνοή) and is closely related to pneuma (πνεῦμα), which, like the Hebrew word rūaḥ, can mean "wind" or "spirit".
c. I suggest the "sorting out" is actually a "restoration" – being the more specific "restoration of the remnant people" (see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Liturgical Press, 1992, 45) and also the more universal "restoration" of creature and creator.
i. The creative breath or spirit of God brought humanity into being in the beginning: "The LORD God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nâshamah) of life; and the man (adam) became a living being (nephesh)" (Genesis 2:7). (In Hebrew thought, there is no "body" distinct from "soul". Nephesh means literally "a being animated by the breath of life".)
ii. The creative breath of God also restores the people, as in Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones: "Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.' So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he aid to me, 'Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.' I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude." (Ezekiel 37:5-10)
d. Our understanding of wind/breath/spirit associating us with God the Creator of all adds particular impact to Luke's words in the passion narrative: "Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'. Having said this, he breathed his last" (Luke 23:46). Psalm 31:5, put on the lips of Jesus by Luke as his last words, reminds us of the union of Father and Son; through these words – "I commend my pneuma (πνεῦμα)" – Jesus is saying "All I am is yours!"
i. It may be of significance that, in this same Psalm – v 10 – we find a reference echoing the image of dry bones (see # 3.c.ii above): "For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away". Jesus has chosen to enter the dereliction of the people of Israel – and of humanity as such – and from there he brings the breath of life, restoring flesh to the dry bones of humanity?
4. Luke's expression "filled with the Holy Spirit" is repeated a number of times in his Gospel and in Acts, indicating the fulfilment of the promise of "the power from on high" (see #1 above):
a. Luke 1:15: "((John the Baptist) will be filled with the Holy Spirit"
b. Luke 1:41: "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit."
c. Luke 1:67: "Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy."
d. Acts 4:8: "When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, 'By what power or by what name did you do this?' Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them ...."
e. Acts 9:17: "So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be
filled with the Holy Spirit'."
f. Acts 13:9: "The magician Elymas (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, 'You son of the devil ...'"
What ultimately distinguishes the disciples of Jesus is the life of the Spirit – the Holy Spirit of God.
The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: "I am about to create new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17)
St Paul – whom Luke accompanied on some of his missionary journeys – proclaims: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17) This "new creation is everything!" (Galatians 6:15)
St Paul tells the Christians in Rome: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, Abba!
Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with
him" (Romans 8:14-17).
The law and life of the Spirit is focused primarily and firmly and who and what we are. Our life in Christ is first and last a matter of being. What we do – behaviours, values, rituals, customs, creedal formulae and so on – is not essentially an expression of our minds and wills but rather a manifestation of the life of the Spirit. When we forget this, we drift into religion-as-ideology and our distinguishing marks will be dogmatism, legalism and moralism.
If history is any judge, this is an extremely difficult truth for us to assimilate. We have repeatedly, down the ages, given precedence to doctrine, law and moral injunctions. Perhaps it is because they can be itemized and
measured and thus become instruments of control? Whatever the reason, they tend to recreate a valley of dry bones.
The life of the Spirit remains elusive, uncontrollable and always surprising. John's Gospel tells us of Jesus' words to Nicodemus: "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence
it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). The Greek word translated "wind" here is pneuma – the same word that is translated "Spirit" at the end of the sentence.
Lest anyone think that the emphasis on the life of the Spirit leads to immorality, Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another" Galatians 5:22-26).
"... like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
"Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole ompanies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained
where she was, immobile." (Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation" in Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 508-9. In a letter to Cecil Dawkins, June 19 1957, Flannery O'Connor wrote: "It's not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical culture series. It is the fact of the Word made flesh." (In Sally Fitzgerald, editor, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 227.)