Day of Pentecost
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Prayer of the Day: God our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In his recent book, An Unsettling God, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argues that through the pages of the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel gave witness to its encounter with “a profound and uncontrollable reality” experienced through her relationship with her surprising and ever innovative God. As Brueggemann sees it, God’s covenant with Israel, though constant and everlasting, is always changing shape and opening up new dimensions of hope, salvation and the call to faithfulness. God is forever unsettling Israel’s settled expectations and calling her to a larger understanding of her role as God’s covenant partner.
That is an “unsettling” notion for many of our Christian traditions that value sameness and stability. We sing of God as a “Mighty Fortress,” “Our Rock, our Help in ages past” and “The Church’s One Foundation.” While these metaphors are not necessarily inaccurate, Bruegggemann would have us know that they are far from complete and adequate for naming the God of the Bible. The Babylonian defeat of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and the exile that followed all demonstrate that God is prepared to breach the fortresses in which we take refuge, break the rocks on which we stand and shake the very foundations of our most deeply held beliefs if that is what it takes to keep us faithful.
I believe that this is precisely the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I am not sure the disciples were much comforted by Jesus’ promise in the Gospel of John that, after he had gone away, the Spirit of God would be sent to them. I think they probably would have preferred for Jesus to stay with them; for everything to go on the way it had for the years of his ministry among them. They were probably as resistant to change as we are. But change seems to be the nature of the beast we call church. Notice that throughout the farewell discourse in John (John 13-17) Jesus says repeatedly that the job of the Holy Spirit is “to teach you all things,” to “guide you into all the truth” and “declare to you the things that are to come.” John 14:26; John 16:13. The clear implication is that we do not yet know “all things,” that we have more of the “truth” yet to learn and must wait upon the Spirit to reveal to us “the things that are to come.” Jesus says to his disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you.” John 16:12. He is not through speaking to us yet. As my daughter Emily is fond of saying, “Don’t be putting periods where God has only put comas.”
It’s a good thing we have the Holy Spirit to push the church into change because we in the church don’t like change very much. Left to ourselves, we cling to the past, we follow the tried and true methods, sing the same beloved hymns and keep typing our bulletins on stencils. But the Holy Spirit won’t let us rest. From the time the church was born, it was confronted with the need to change. The original Twelve who came from the same region, spoke the same dialect and practiced the same worship customs suddenly had to figure out how to be a church of five thousand members made up of Jews from all over the world speaking a dozen different languages. Then Philip began to preach the gospel to Samaritans-hated enemies of the Jews. Next Peter baptized a whole family of Gentiles! The church in the Book of Acts appears to be in a race to keep up with what the Holy Spirit is doing.
Needless to say, there were some in the church who were none too pleased with the frantic pace of change. They wanted the church to go slower with the Gentile mission; set some conditions on membership to ensure that the church retained its true character. These folks were particularly critical of Paul and his mission to the ends of the earth. For them, there was just too much change too fast. I think we hear echoes of that complaint even today as we see the demographic of our church gradually tipping from predominantly northern European to a more diverse population. We are also experiencing a shift in moral and ethical outlooks between generations. The inclusion of gay and lesbian persons into the church has also shattered a lot of our settled ways and expectations.
To pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit is to invite growth. Growth always results in deep and life altering changes. As unsettling as that might be, it beats the alternative. Branches that do not grow and bear fruit, Jesus tells us, are cast forth to wither. John 15:6. Thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit has been sent to save us from that fate.
In the Book of Acts, Luke continues the story begun in his gospel. Recall from our discussion of the Transfiguration that Luke likens Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem to another “Exodus,” that is, a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. See Post for February 10, 2013. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning, takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke means to show us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the Empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed. Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.
The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciple’s preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.
Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses. Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost,” Beginnings of Christianity, 5:114-16.
Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”
One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the places in which they live, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, it can be said that the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.
This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as the sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4. The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.
This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.
While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of economic currents, military struggles and social expectations exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them. This psalm still testifies to the holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation, not the battlefield for warring national, commercial and tribal interests. Unlike the Babylonian vision, the world is not a house haunted by warring demons. Neither is it a dead and soulless planet governed by political, social and economic determinism or the currents of random historical accidents.
For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post of February 17, 2013. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.
In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.
There is a lot going on in these verses obscured by the fact that we are getting only a snippet of a much longer discourse. To highlight the essentials, Jesus responds to Philip’s request that Jesus “show us the Father” by telling him that he has already seen as much of the Father as ever will be seen. God is Jesus. But take care that while we can say that God is Jesus, we cannot use that statement interchangeably with the false statement, “Jesus is God.” The reason this latter statement is untrue follows from John’s declaration in the first chapter of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. To say that Jesus is God is to imply that we already know who God is and that we recognize the Godly characteristics we spot in Jesus. This makes of Jesus nothing more than a mask of God or a clever disguise. Jesus obscures rather than reveals God.
John would have us know that we know nothing of the Father apart from the Son. It is only because God becomes flesh (not disguises himself as flesh or pretends to be flesh) that people otherwise incapable of seeing God actually do see God. It is for that reason that the bulk of our creeds is devoted to articulating our faith in Jesus. We know nothing of the Father other than as the Father of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we know nothing of the Spirit apart from that which proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to the church. John 16:14-15.
It is not entirely clear what Philip’s expectations were when he asked that Jesus “show” him the Father. He might have had in mind the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder and fire. Or perhaps he was expecting some prophetic vision as experienced by Isaiah or Ezekiel. In either case, Jesus gives him more than he has requested. For truly seeing and knowing God involves more than witnessing marvels and seeing visions. Knowing God involves the sort of intimacy Jesus experiences with his disciples and the love he has consistently shown them-even “to the end.” John 13:1-17. Because God is Jesus and the Spirit of God proceeds from Jesus and the Father, Jesus’ “going away” does not constitute “abandonment.” Indeed, Jesus will henceforth be more intimately present to his disciples and their understanding of him clearer precisely because they will soon be indwelt by his Spirit. Jesus will be “in” them just as the Father is “in” him. John 17:20-21.
I will have more to say about the Holy Trinity next week. Suffice it to say, though, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a Trinitarian event that makes sense only as an act of the Triune God.