Posts Tagged ‘Pentecost’

ACTS 2:1-21

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, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

When Peter raised his voice above the blend of voices giving praise to God, to address the skeptical few who were wanting to pass off the entire event as drunken disorder, he cited the prophet Joel who long ago had seen this day approaching.

Joel had lived in a time that was spiritual stagnant in many ways, with the institutional structures of religion effectively suppressing the deeper life and hope of the common people. In pure and challenging language, the prophet pictured a future day when God’s Spirit would no longer be domesticated by the bridal and harness of conventional religiosity, but would break out upon all people in wild and creative energy.

For the prophet Joel this was both good and bad news, depending on who was considering it. To those in power, especially the priests and other brokers of orthodoxy, this vision was a portent of disaster – “blood, fire, and smoky mist.” No more would blessing be distributed retail by a religious management, or forgiveness the reward for submission to due process. For the great majority, the coming day promised new release from old burdens and access to God that was both direct and personal.

What Peter and the rest were witnessing, they believed, was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic vision. God came through the cathedral ceiling to dwell among and within “the little people.”

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ACTS 2:1-21

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, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Although our symbolism of Pentecost centers on the images of wind and fire, a closer reading of the story reminds us that the experience came with the sound “like a rush of violent wind” and with divided tongues “as of fire.” In other words, the moment brought an experience that was inherently ineffable – beyond words and essentially strange, only like this and similar to that.

This acknowledgement of fundamental mystery is at the heart of authentic religion, arising as it does out of a sense or feeling or intuition of being supported in our very existence as humans by a reality outside the grasp of our understanding and control. When God revealed to Moses the Law, the blueprints for the tabernacle and its furniture, along with the conditions of the covenant, the text tells us that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” What was it, exactly? There’s no saying.

The sights and sounds of Pentecost are the signs and effects of a much deeper experience, something that touches and exhilarates the devotional center of our human spirit. That cosmopolitan congregation, speaking in the many tongues and dialects of the earth, was testifying as one voice to “God’s deeds of power.” When people move from argument to confession, a New Spirit is released in the world.

ACTS 2:1-21

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, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This picture of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” would have, for those deeply familiar with and formed by the great story of the Bible, evoked a contrasting image from the Book of Genesis. We are told in chapter 11 of Genesis that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” and that earth’s peoples conspired together to build a high tower whose top would invade the heavens.

When God observed what they were doing, however, He confounded their effort by fracturing their shared language into a multiplicity of confused tongues. Unable to communicate, and therefore no longer able to cooperate, the building project had to be abandoned. The vast community of earthlings subsequently fell into its familiar divisions of languages and nation-groups, alienated increasingly from each other by barriers of speech, thought, custom, and belief.

The author of Acts intends to set up a very deliberate contrast between the primordial fall of the human population into divisions and this latter-day event of world unification at Pentecost. From out of the wellspring of native tongues came a shared confession, of a truth-experience that transcended the diversity while at the same time celebrating it.

1 CORINTHIANS 12:3-17

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and 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, 10 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. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12 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. 13 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.

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

The influence of the Corinthian church plant on the subsequent history of Christianity cannot be overestimated. It was at once a highlight and a profound burden for the apostle Paul – almost from the day he began the mission. Family disputes, immorality, infighting among rival divisions in the congregation, negotiating tension between wealthy and poor, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, slaves and free citizens – the volatility of this group was at times almost more than Paul could manage.

And then this. Perhaps members were so eager to use their talents and resources for the cause of Christian outreach, that in their enthusiasm to plug in and make a difference the congregation began to divide according to the distribution of what Paul would come to call “spiritual gifts.” Whether a natural talent activated by the Spirit of God or more like a special ability endowed on an individual by the Spirit from outside, Paul at least was persuaded that spiritual gifts were how the Church does its work.

                                                                                                            

Whereas a primary role of God’s Spirit was associated with creativity, life, inspiration and wholeness, the upsetting consequence of all these purpose-driven charismatics contending for influence and recognition was the opposite. Elitism was motivating the like-minded and similarly equipped into competitively higher ranks, to the point where the very integrity of the congregation – not to mention the public image of the emerging Christian movement – was in jeopardy.

This is when Paul came to perhaps his most important insight. The Church, he said, is the resurrected body of Christ, the continuing voice and active work of Jesus in the world. Insofar as Christ lives in the individual believer, his or her spiritual gift will necessarily be used for good, be inspired by love, and build up the body rather than tear it apart. Each member has something to contribute, and the outcome will always be unity.

When members begin to grow possessive of their gifts, however, when they start comparing and competing for the stage, this is not of God.

It wasn’t long before the Christian movement fell apart along these dividing lines, of what each faction felt was most important. Today there are hundreds of separate denominations – some based on the gift of teaching, others on the gift of prophecy, others on healing, others on miracles, and still others on ecstatic utterance. Add to this the further disagreements over doctrines, sacraments, purity, and inclusion, and what you have is more like the dismembered cadaver of Christ.

PSALM 104:24-34, 35b

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
    to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
    and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Praise the Lord!

One of the great themes of Pentecost is represented in the dynamic metaphors of breath and wind – Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus. The thing about this force is that you can’t see it directly, but only its effects. It’s impossible to grab hold of it or pin it down, though you can “catch” the wind to harness its power. Spirit is elusive, unpredictable, and spontaneous. It might even be dangerous, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Our terms respiration, perspirationinspiration, expiration and aspiration all derive from this root-word spirit. In the ancient world, breath and wind were not understood scientifically as biological and climatic functions, but rather lent themselves intuitively to mythological representation. The wind on the water and in the trees was pictured as the breath of God moving and animating creation. This wind/breath wasn’t a function but a force in its own right, the creative force of God’s will and purpose.

In this passage, the poet contemplates this generative breath of God filling forms with life and returning to him upon their extinction. All of creation, then, moves according to the rhythm of divine respiration. The Genesis myth recounts the beginnings of humanity, when Adam (whose name is derived from earth or ground, adamah) was fashioned by God like a clay figurine and brought to life only when the Creator breathed his own spirit into the human form.

This metaphor of breathing existence into being is much more embodied than some later ideas in religion, which would separate cosmos and God into natural and supernatural realms. The challenge then would be to devise ways of getting the two together again. In the early traditions, on the other hand, the metaphor of creation and extinction as rhythms in the respiration of God acknowledged the organic connection between them.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

JOHN 20:19-31

19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

One advantage the Gospel writers had over the apostle Paul was access to early collections of Jesus’ teachings. The earthly life and ministry of Jesus weren’t as important to Paul as were his death, resurrection and intercession on behalf of believers. Largely through the influence of Paul’s focus on the atonement of the cross, some of the first storied accounts of Jesus’ life to emerge were passion narratives, featuring his redemptive suffering for our salvation.

The author of Mark’s Gospel may have been the first to expand this narrative treatment into a fuller “life of Jesus.” By composing an action plot and sprinkling in available teaching material where he saw fit, Mark produced what could be the earliest hero myth of Christianity. Incorporating the oral tradition of anecdotes and remembrances concerning Jesus, as well as borrowing from the wider stage of world mythology, Mark built out the contextual scenes that interpreted this teaching and further developed the messianic identity of Jesus himself.

As time went on and more “biographies” of Jesus emerged (Matthew, Luke and John, but many others that didn’t get included in the scriptural canon of the early Church) this teaching material was expanded, embellished, supplemented and refined. In the end it becomes very difficult to distinguish the First Voice of Jesus from that of the authors who tell his story. And when you add in the layer upon layer of translations, word studies, commentaries, creeds, and Sunday sermons, really hearing what Jesus had to say requires some serious pick-and-shovel work.

The Gospel of John is the last-written of our canonical four, which also means that its presentation of the life and teaching of Jesus has had the most time to develop – both into obscurity and clarification. His Jesus is a long leap from the earthy messianic conspirator of Mark’s story. Now (but only 25 or so years after Mark) Jesus has become the incarnate Word and divine Son of God whose mission is to reveal his Father’s great love for the world.

In this passage we have what amounts to John’s reworking of the Pentecost scene in Acts 2, but focused down from a large festival gathering to the private company of Jesus’ disciples. The Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit as wind and fire becomes Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his followers, and whereas the Spirit in Luke’s story inspires recipients to share the gospel in other languages (an evangelistic theme), the gift of the Spirit in John empowers the disciples with the authority to forgive sins (an emancipation theme).

This authority, by the way, had been the exclusive prerogative of God up to this point, so John is suggesting something remarkable here – and wildly controversial. “God’s power is yours now,” Jesus is saying. “Go out and set people free!”