Week of Sunday May 24 - Pentecost 2015
Texts: Acts 2:1-21, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:22-27, Jn 15:26-27; 16:4b-15, 20:19-23
Maybe it was the Auntie who kept getting healed at the Pentecostal assembly, yet was so clearly not healed;
maybe it was the observer part of me keeping me honest when I went to church with the Pentecostals in Alice Springs: "You're faking it… and maybe they are too";
maybe it was the recognition that big worship experiences where I am told the "Spirit really flowed" are often as stage managed as a Nuremberg rally;
but something in me is deeply sceptical about our popular traditions surrounding Pentecost and God's Spirit. I keep thinking the emperor is wearing no clothes.
In my experience those who have spoken most loudly of the presence and guidance of the Spirit in their lives, have often been among those whose holiness seems shallow, divisive, and lacking in compassion. In my times of claimed certainty about the Spirit, I was among them.
When I am able to be compassionate about myself and others, I recognise this: I long for the experience of God, for some sense of reality beyond (or within) the words of the Faith. My default emotional inheritance is programmed to question everything to the edge of nihilism, and I live just across the border from a state of existential despair. The felt presence of God without the naysaying voices of doubt and scepticism amounts to a few hours of my sixty years. It is exhausting, and I often feel like lying down among the dry bones in the valley of the dead.
A friend who fights off the too real voices of mental illness might approach the desire for the reality of God's voice from a completely different direction, but I suspect we share the exhaustion and the temptation— or is it the desire— to just lie down and die.
Life is hard and lonely. We long for a God who cares. Idols are sometimes not a rejection of God; they are a grasping for some immediacy or reality about the Divine. Or are a temporary relief from the pain of living.
At its most basic, Pentecost is a statement that the Divine is real. It is saying that the reality of Jesus which was experienced by his first disciples is still here for us to experience. Pentecost is not— not at first— the events of nine o'clock one historical morning. It is the telling, the explaining, and the preserving to hand on, of the experience of the still present Divine. God is.
In Who is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan (pp 79) says
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. They knew what they were doing; we don't.
The pentecostalism I met as a young man was blind to this. It needed to make the events related in the Pentecost stories literal facts. This fettered the action of the Spirit of God, and people's ability to recognise it. This pentecostalism did not have the freedom to say
God’s spirit—please take it as fact, please take it as fiction, please take it as truth, please take it as myth—roared through a room crammed with Jesus’ followers. (Larry Patten)
How it happened, how it was felt, is not the key experience. The key experience, the basic Pentecostal experience is that God still is. God is not a superstition. God was not just for yesterday. God is now. So (reworking words from Bill Loader with a few of my own in between)
… in Acts 2 Luke paints panels of faith richly coloured with symbolism. He has Jesus appear after his resurrection for forty days before ascending. His hearers would have made the connections to the forty years in the wilderness.
He has 120 believers assembled in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost. His hearers would have recognised the numerical symbolism (12 x 10). Here was true Israel ready to expand.
Pentecost is the day of the Harvest festival, so then comes the Spirit and the harvest! The Spirit comes as wind. The Spirit comes also in tongues of fire. Wind and fire are the signs of the presence of God. None of this would be lost on those familiar with the word used for Spirit and stories told about Sinai— legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All could understand, but only one nation promised to keep the Law, Israel—
And some would hear the echoes of Babel. There, language separated the people. Here the separation of language is overcome. (Genesis 11)
So, whatever historical event lies beneath Luke's story in Acts 2:1-21 - and there probably is one - we have to recognise that he is writing a symbolic narrative which wants to tell us of something much more than a once-off historical event. He is celebrating the presence of the Spirit in the early Christian movement.
What experience of "God is" do the Pentecost readings hint at?
After the death of Jesus people began to understand that in the worship of the gathered believers their hearts burned within them. (Emmaus: Luke 24:13-18) There is a strong affirmation of corporate worship in these stories. Jesus appears as risen Lord, and the Spirit comes "in the house." (Acts 2, John 20:19, 26, the story of Acts 10 happens at Cornelius' house.) All this points to the preferred norm of a house church rather than solitary believers.
In the house of the upper room Jesus "breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'" (John 20:22) John begins with "In the beginning…" It is a deliberate paralleling with the creation stories of Genesis. In them, when the man is created, God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7) Something about the life of Jesus that continued beyond his death was experienced like the story of Ezekiel 34: although people felt like Israel and could say “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” (Ezekiel 34:11) they felt new life breathed into them.
There was clearly a common worship experience. Tongues are mentioned several time, although it is clear they were sometimes a problematic gift. (Acts 2, Acts 10:44, Ephesus 19:6 – vs 1 Cor 12-14, vs 1 John 4:1-3- Beloved, do not believe every spirit…)
The community life of this experience was astonishing. For example:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
Like our Uniting Church statements of the purpose of a Congregation, or of a Faith Community, these descriptions were as much aspirational statements as statements of historical fact.
There was an outbreak of courage. People preached boldly; remember these were often the poor and dispossessed. Bill Loader says of the John (15:26-27; 16:4b-15) reading that the use of the word Paraclete
was a way of describing the Spirit’s help when Christians were hauled before courts. In Mark 13:11 Jesus is reported as promising: ‘And when they put you under arrest, do not worry what you should say. For you are not the ones who are speaking, but the Holy Spirit.’ An apparently independent version of the same saying occurs in Luke 12:11-12 (Q material): ‘When they bring you before synagogues and rulers and authorities, do not worry how or what you should respond or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in the same hour what you must say.’
So what is this doubting and struggling person of faith to make of their witness?
Bruce Epperly outlines our Faith's understanding of the Spirit of God.
the God of scripture… [is not] present in a homogenous and passive manner in human life and the evolutionary process. God is an active, personal, intimate, and vision-oriented presence moving always and everywhere in the direction of Shalom. [We could say: in the direction of the Kingdom of God.] God’s spirit touches every life, aiming us toward communion, inspiration, and creation. Moreover, if God’s aim is, as Jesus proclaims, “abundant life,” then every expression of God’s presence lures us toward the personal and corporate wholeness appropriate to our context and the greater good of humans and non-humans alike. The Spirit may challenge and rebuke, but its intention is always the creation of wise, compassionate, and healthy people and communities….
The passage from Romans 8 proclaims the ubiquity of divine revelation. The groans of the spirit move through all creation – including the non-human world – and also human life.
This is a polar opposite to the siren nihilism that I find laid in the bedrock of my being, and for which life's arbitrary probabilities and injustice offers much evidence. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says nihilism,
is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. (Alan Pratt)
The crisis of life for some of us is that nihilism is not a belief so much as a threat which threatens to overrun us. It is the threat that all our doubts and questions about values and meaning and goodness, are correct. It is the threat that our fears are true: we are nothing, there is nothing to hope for. You can see why I struggle with anger— on this view all the goodness and beauty of the world is lie and deception.
Pentecost says, "No, God is. God is '…active, personal, intimate… moving always and everywhere in the direction of Shalom.' Life has value. Life is worth it."
Pentecost is a call to action. It is clear from John that the "I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly," is not a philosophical proposition which sits on a page—take it or leave it. (John 10:10) Rather, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." (John 14:10-11) And the commandments are to love one another and to love our neighbour as ourselves, even lay down our lives for our friends.
When we love our neighbour as ourselves, when we live as Jesus lived, we do Pentecost. We are put in the best place to see the reality of existence— sorrow to be sure, but also joy. When we actively learn to love we discover reality— harsh probabilities, and warm compassion.
Don't celebrate Pentecost by believing some someone's version of distant and hazy historical events. Celebrate Pentecost by doing it. Take Pentecost from hope and aspiration to reality.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!