DAY OF PENTECOST
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13.
Not long ago I ran into a friend from a congregation to which I once belonged and served. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, she unloaded upon me her frustrations with the “new” direction taken by our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Of particular concern was our 2009 churchwide decision to permit the blessing of same sex relationships and to accept for ordination persons living faithfully in such relationships. “The Bible has taught us that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman from the beginning of time,” she remarked. “Why change it now?”
How to answer? There was so much wrong with the question itself that I hardly knew where to begin answering. My friend’s assertion about the Bible’s teaching on marriage is dead wrong. In addition to monogamy, the Bible recognizes polygamy, concubinage and sexual slavery as legitimate arrangements. When it comes to the sheer number of Bible passages available on the subject of marriage, there are far more verses one could use to undermine the monogamous relationships we have now come to call “traditional” than there are to be used against same sex marriages. The church adopted the rule of monogamy largely because it was the dominant trend both in 1st Century Judaism and throughout Mediterranean culture generally. Of course, there were theological reasons as well. Paul’s assertion that there is in Christ neither male nor female undermined the cultural assumption of patriarchy and the treatment of women as property. The comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church in the letter to the Ephesians leaves no more room for polygamy than does the First Commandment for polytheism. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that societal trends played a large part in driving the church’s recognition of monogamy as normative for marriage. It was not that way from the beginning of time or throughout the scriptures.
If the church had all the truth, it would not need the Holy Spirit to guide it. I don’t believe the church has ever claimed that it possessed all the truth even in its worst moments of triumphalistic arrogance. I do believe, however, that we frequently claim possession of more truth than we actually have. The church has also been flat out wrong about some things-and we usually don’t take kindly to folks who point that out to us. It took us centuries to get over Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei informing us that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The rich irony here is that, even as the Vatican was bringing Galileo up on charges of heresy, its ships were using navigational maps based on his heretical theory because maps based on the orthodox, Bible based Ptolemaic understanding of the universe reliably ran them into the rocks. At some point, denying the obvious in order to preserve “what we have always believed and taught” is just silly.
Even as the church is not always right; so too, societal trends are not always wrong. Clearly, Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. The church would have done well to take their work seriously and think more deeply about what the Bible actually has to say about creation and our abilities to understand it. Had we done that, it is entirely possible that we would have spared ourselves the embarrassment of Galileo’s heresy trial, the Scopes Monkey trial centuries later and the present day humiliating spectacle of multi-million dollar museums featuring T-rex’s cavorting with Adam and Eve.
So, too, it has long been the scientific consensus (since at least the early 1970s) that homosexual orientation is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a psychiatric disorder. It has also become painfully and tragically evident that pseudo-scientific methods employed to “cure” people of their sexual orientations are not only ineffectual, but harmful. I am not suggesting that one cannot assert good faith arguments against the blessing/marriage of same sex couples or that theological concerns about so doing should be dismissed out of hand. But let me say emphatically that no argument should be entertained based on junk science, literalistic readings of cherry picked scripture passages or irrational fear and hatred toward gay and lesbian people.
Thankfully, the church’s long history demonstrates that it is capable of adaptation. Marriage has evolved within the church from an arrangement between men by which women were transferred as property to a relationship of mutuality mirroring that of Christ to the church. That, in my view, is a much bigger leap than merely opening up our current understanding of mutual covenant love and faithfulness to same sex couples. We cannot pretend that the church is guided strictly by doctrines, morals and practices that remain unaltered in their pristine form dating from biblical times. That is not what the Bible tells us.
The church has changed throughout the ages and will no doubt change in ways we cannot predict throughout the coming century. But that should not trouble us. Jesus promises to be present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit can be trusted to correct our missteps and guide us into all truth. I only pray that my friend and all others who share her concerns find comfort and peace in that promise.
For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, see my post of September 7, 2014. For my reflections on this text in particular, see my post of April 6, 2014.
This familiar story of the prophet and the valley of dead bones takes on a new meaning when played in the major key of Pentecost rather than the minor key of Lent. The focus now is less on the hopeless circumstances of the people and more on the life giving power of the “the breath,” or “ruach” as the Hebrew has it. As I have mentioned before, ruach may be translated either as “spirit” or as “breath.” As our psalm points out, it is the breath of God that gives life to inanimate clay. Psalm 104: 29-30; Genesis 2:7. It is this same breath that is summoned by the words of the prophet to inspire hope among an exiled people on the verge of extinction. Vss. 11-14. The interplay between God’s word that goes forth from God finding expression in the words of the prophet and God’s Spirit/Breath that gives life is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of the prophets. Torah is not dead letter. It is the place where God seizes the heart and imagination even as the believer wrestles with Torah in prayer and reflection. Psalm 119 in particular testifies to this lively and dynamic relationship between word and spirit, hearing and prayer, meditation and daily life.
So, too, Spirit is not an ethereal inwardness. The Spirit of God is always tied in some way to God’s word. The Hebrew God is the one who speaks. God speaks creation into being, speaks through the gift of Torah and speaks through the mouths of the prophets. God’s Spirit is given through speech. The God of the Bible is not the deity of philosophers whose nature and identity is discovered through reflection upon his necessary attributes. The God of the Bible reveals God’s self through acts of salvation on behalf of a particular people. God’s Spirit is given through the narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through the story of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings, Settling of Canaan, the Davidic Monarchy, Exile and Return from Exile. To receive the Spirit is to locate yourself in these grand narratives.
It is easy enough to find ourselves in this narrative. We are the dead bones, a people in decline. We inhabit a landscape of museums, office buildings and theaters that once were thriving places of worship. For those sanctuaries that still function as such, there is often a huge disconnect between the small, aging and fragile band of worshipers and the triumphal architecture housing them. We are the dead bones, but can we recognize ourselves as the bones upon which the breath of God’ blows? Are we able to recognize those places where God’s Spirit is creating life in our midst? Where is the Spirit moving in the church today?
For my extensive comments on this psalm, I invite you to revisit last year’s Pentecost post of June 8, 2014. I am struck this time around by the dependence of our earth upon the animating word and Spirit of God. The cosmology of Genesis places the habitable world under a great dome creating a bubble within the chaotic waters that were before time. Should the windows of heaven crack allowing the waters above the earth to cascade down and the waters beneath the earth erupt over the land, the creation would soon degenerate into chaos. Indeed, this is precisely what almost occurred during the great flood in Noah’s time. Genesis 7:11. Obviously, our 21st Century cosmology is a good deal more sophisticated than the biblical understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, whether one is reading this psalm or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one cannot help but be impressed with how vulnerable our little planet is. When you stop and think about how our earth runs its course around the sun through a gauntlet of asteroids that could inflict (and in the past have inflicted) catastrophic destruction on our planet, it is amazing that we all have the presence of mind to go about our daily business. The psalmist reminds us that we are, after all, a frail and vulnerable island of relative peace within a violent universe every bit as terrifying as the monster infested waters of creation. Yet the psalmist goes on to assure us that the universe is not a billiard table. It is not merely cosmos. It is creation, a creation that was made by a God who loves it, watches tenderly over it and animates it with God’s own Spirit.
The good news here is that even the sea monsters and seemingly destructive forces are God’s creatures in which God takes delight. The world is neither a haunted house animated by warring demons as the ancient near eastern religions often asserted, nor is it a dead and soulless chamber of ricocheting rocks subject only to randomness. The Spirit of God is at work, as I have said, bending each subatomic particle toward the creation of a new heaven and earth. That is an affirmation of faith that cannot finally be verified empirically. It is discovered by a people living in covenant with their gracious and merciful God. Finally, thanks again to the makers of the lectionary for sparing us poor, simple minded sheep from scriptural expressions not strictly in accord with American middleclass protestant, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite sensitivities. I refer, of course, to verse 35a which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”
A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, this is a payer expressed to God. It is one thing to ask God to rid the world of the wickedness we perceive. It is quite another to take that task on oneself whether it be through the more direct means of genocide or the softer methods of punitive legislation against perceived vice. Jesus did not commission his disciples to create a moral society, much less to “take back America” for him. Judgment there surely will be, but that’s God’s business.
Second, we do ourselves no favors by “softening” the scriptures. Of course it would be nice if the kingdom could come on earth as in heaven without changing anything (at least the things I don’t want changed). But in reality, the greatest impediment to the kingdom is sin, not merely or even primarily personal vices, but the systemic violence, oppression and abuse inherent in the powers that be. As much as it goes against the grain, we need to pray for sinners to be consumed from the earth and for the wicked to be no more. Of course, we must also recognize that we are praying against ourselves. We are, after all, complicit in systemic evil in ways that we do not even recognize. So we need to be mindful of what we are asking God to do. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Thus, if God were to execute judgment in military fashion, most of us would end up casualties of war. The earth and its creatures would be collateral damage. Obviously, that is not the outcome God seeks. Eradicating evil from creation is a slow, painful and exacting operation. As we will learn in the next reading from Romans, it is a process under which not only humanity, but all of creation groans. Liberation from evil comes about only through repentance-a radical reorientation of the heart. Hearts seldom turn on a dime. Generally speaking, they turn more like aircraft carriers. They move in increments so small that they are hardly visible. Only after traveling a great distance is it possible to see just how profound that fraction of a degree change actually was.
“The expression… ‘the whole creation’ includes the entire range of animate and inanimate objects on earth and in the heavens.” Jewett, Robert, Romans: a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 516. The groaning of creation as it awaits liberation stands in stark relief to the Roman hymns and poems declaring the rejoicing of creation at the rise of Augustus Caesar and his successors. Ibid. The Pax Romana imposed by Rome was no true peace according to St. Paul. He sees right though Rome’s nationalist propaganda. Rome’s “peace” was nothing other than institutionalized war against the masses of humanity at the bottom of the societal pyramid. The consequences of nation state institutionalized violence and enslavement on the non-human world are even clearer in our own time as we witness the mass extinction of animal species, destruction of forests and pollution of our rivers, lakes and oceans. Yet Paul points out that the creation is subjected to futility “in hope.” Vs. 20-21. Its endurance is not for the sake of pointless misery. The creation longs for the liberation it already recognizes in the children of God. Vs. 21. For Paul, the church is not merely the future of humanity, but the destiny of all creation. The agony experienced by creation and shared by the children of God is not raw, pointless suffering. It is the birth pangs of the new creation. It can therefore be borne in “hope.” Again, like the psalmist, Paul asserts that the universe is “creation” and not merely cosmos. It has a beginning in the creative act of God and an end toward which God is bringing it-an end not simply in terms of completion but as goal or purpose.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Vs. 26) or, as one commentator puts it, “Nor are we alone in our struggles. The Holy Spirit supports us in our helplessness.” The Epistle to the Romans, Sanday, W., Headlam, A.C., (c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark Ltd.) p. 212. God shares the agony of a creation in bondage to human exploitation and cruelty. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God can offer prayer for what we most need but cannot yet fully comprehend. The Spirit alone knows what it truly means for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Spirit alone is able to transform us into persons capable of living in God’s kingdom, a people who will recognize the coming of that kingdom with joy rather than with dread. Our own prayers are often bent toward our selfish interests and distorted by our myopic perspectives. But the “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Vs. 27. This lesson gives us the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of transformative hope.
It seems that we are transformed by that for which we hope and long for. Hope for success, recognition and wealth are powerful motivators. They drive our capitalist economy, but are they worthy of hope? Success is an elusive goal, always one step ahead of us. Recognition is often not worth the envy and ill will that frequently comes with it. As for wealth, it is an addictive substance. The more one has, the more one wants and the less it satisfies. Much energy and talk (mostly talk) has gone into increasing economic opportunities for more people in our society. While there is nothing wrong with that, opportunities do nothing for people incapable of using them wisely and well. For those whose hopes are misdirected, more opportunity means only more rope with which to hang oneself. The hope for a new heaven and a new earth is cosmic in scope. It is a hope for the wellbeing of all creation transcending personal interests. Because sin turns us in upon ourselves, we are incapable of hoping for and naturally will not pray “that God’s will” rather than our own “be done.” The Spirit is needed to draw us out of ourselves, raise our gaze beyond our own selfish interests and focus us on the higher vision of God’s glorious intent for all creation.
This reading is hard to follow without having read the entire Farewell Discourse at John 13-17. You might want to do that before proceeding further. Comprehension is made all the more difficult by the lectionary peoples’ decision to excise the first four verses of chapter 16. You should read John 16:1-4 at the very least. There you will learn that the whole point of this discussion about the coming of the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” is to prepare the disciples for the hostility and violence they will encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion. As pointed out in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015, this warning might well reflect the rejection of the Jesus movement by the reconstituted Sanhedrin at the close of the 1st Century. Yet I think that it reflects as much the general hostility toward Jesus throughout the world at large of which the Jewish community was merely a microcosm.
Of particular importance are verses 8-11 which describe the role of the Spirit. The Spirit convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Vs. 8. It is important to recall that for John, sin is not the transgression of any particular law, rule or statute. Sin is revealed through the way in which the Son who was sent by the Father is received. Sin is revealed in the desertion of Jesus by disciples who can not endure his “hard” teachings. John 6:60-65. Sin is revealed in the cowardice of those who believe Jesus, but will not confess him for fear of persecution. John 12:42-43. Sin is revealed in the blindness of the religious rulers who refuse to acknowledge Jesus even in the face of irrefutable testimony to his marvelous works. John 9:13-34. Sin is revealed in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30); Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18:15-27); and Pilate’s placing his loyalty to Caesar over his recognition of Jesus’ innocence. John 19:12-16. We may have all kinds of notions about right and wrong. But it is impossible to identify, recognize and acknowledge sin apart from knowing Jesus.
Similarly, righteousness cannot rightly be understood apart from God’s verdict on Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel, various people render their own judgments on Jesus. But the final judgment, the court of last appeal belongs to God. God raises Jesus from death thereby rendering all other judgments null and void. Jesus is the Son sent by God for the life of the world. All who believe this and put their trust in the Son are righteous. So, too, the final judgment upon Jesus illuminates God’s verdict against the world. In crucifying Jesus, the world shows its true colors. It is the rebel creation that murders the most precious gift its Creator has to give-the gift of the Creator’s self. The world’s religious institutions, the world’s governmental structures and the world’s people all conspire in the murder of the Son. That is the truth about who and what we are. God sent the Son and, when he was murdered and rejected, raised the Son up and continues to offer the Son to the very world that murdered him. That is who and what God is.
Again, I will be accused of reading Augustinian Trinitarian thought into verses 12-15. Perhaps, but I truly believe Augustine got this right. So if I am guilty of anything it is plagiarism or at least I would be guilty if I claimed this reading as my own. Just as the Father has given “all” that he has to Jesus, so the Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to the disciples. Vss. 14-15. The Spirit glorifies Jesus as does the Father. Vs. 14; John 12:28. This describes the internal workings of the Trinity whose differentiation in three persons exists only in their relations to each other. The Trinity’s external works are necessarily the work of the whole Trinity in perfect unity. The Spirit, then, is the presence of the resurrected Christ among his disciples communicating to them “all” that is God the Father.