Week of Sunday June 8 – Pentecost
The Readings: Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23
As a youngfella I met two descriptions of Pentecost.
One was historical; it happened then, but stuff like that doesn't happen now. What happened was important; it was the beginning of the church, but don't ask too much about what Spirit is because... well, really, we don't know.
The other description came from the Pentecostals, who were very sure stuff like that did happen now, that you were not fully Christian until it happened to you, and that it could happen to you. This sounded far more promising, but failed to deliver and at the same time as inviting me to fake the experience of God, directed me into a repressive social and biblical conservatism.
I think my problem was that I still felt obliged to interpret the texts about Pentecost as words from God long after I was looking at the rest of Scripture as, first of all, words that are our response to our experience of God. I clung to a "theology from above" in this one area of my life. Everywhere else I was doing "theology from below," reading Scripture as our response to God, and finding for the first time a truly satisfying understanding of the Faith, and then, to my surprise... a satisfying theology from above! That is; my talking about God was much more reasonable, and involved far less "in house" special pleading and ad hoc argument. It was not something for which I had to apologise at the University. And the God I was meeting had a new reality. This was not the compromise with the world which my old fundamentalism claimed. It drew me to far greater disagreement with the world. And the God I was meeting asked a far greater trust than the neat belief systems of my past.
So from below...
In the charismatic meetings of my youth, 1 Corinthians 12:3 promised discernment and protection from the evil spirits around us. 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.
It soon became clear that plenty of us who said Jesus is Lord were quite capable of being most un-Jesus-like; indeed folk who repeated this formula frequently were often, in my locale, anyway, the proof that Paul was wrong here. I added the verse to my bin of bits of Paul to ignore.
But then there is this.
This passage suggests that there are two forms of cultural life at work. In one of these, people are moved by spirits which incline us to dumb idols, and which issue forth in someone being cursed. This is the cultural world in which social belonging and religion lead people to maintain their group unity by fixing on someone or some group who can be thrown out, anathematized, cursed. (James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 147ff)
Alison goes on to say
Paul is suggesting that there are some people who have been trapped into understanding Christ’s death and resurrection from within [that sort of] cultural mentality, making of Jesus the “cursed one” which the group needs to maintain its unity and its sense of goodness.
All the bastardized Anselmian substitution theories which tend to underlie seemingly attractive presentations of the Christian faith in fact [depend] on God cursing Jesus so that we can be “saved.” Jesus as cursed comes to be the necessary bit of the formula which allows the sleight of hand by which salvation is proclaimed without having any difference to the social and moral enclosure within which we live. Cursed Jesus is simply the guarantor of an independent and pre-understood definition of good and evil into which we are required to fit as best we may. (Quoted by Nuechterlein)
Jesus is Lord, the other world view, or "cultural life" is this.
The other form of cultural life, which moves beyond being trapped, knows that no form of social and cultic belonging can survive the perception that our victim was in fact God himself, present in Jesus.
When our expulsion of him was revealed for what it was, at the resurrection, far from our being given a superior crutch by which to keep our world of moral and social order intact, what we received turned out to be the explosion of our cultural order, a major question mark over any of our attempts to shore up social unity, and the beginning of an entirely new way of human being-together, gradually constructed without the need for a sacrificial victim.
This means that the one spirit of 1 Corinthians 12, the same spirit who bestows varieties of gifts, is a spirit that builds us up without the expense of a victim, and without the ever present enemy against us that so many of our churches seem to need. There is a radically different way of being human based around forgiveness and giving, not winning and controlling. It requires a radical honesty from us. The desire to win and to be better, which was what the Corinthian arguments about who had the more important gifts were about, is the beginning of the rivalry that eventually tears a community apart and seeks a victim.
This shocked me: "All the bastardized Anselmian substitution theories which tend to underlie seemingly attractive presentations of the Christian faith ... [allow] the sleight of hand by which salvation is proclaimed without having any difference to the social and moral enclosure within which we live."
Alison describes my experience of church with appalling accuracy. It always seemed that those who most loudly claimed power by virtue of their alleged insight and spiritual knowledge were playing some kind of dishonest trick. It showed up in the ad hoc arguments, the refusal to engage legitimate scholarship, the emotional blackmail and the wilful self-deception around our emotions which was too easily called the presence of God. It also showed up in the failure to address, if not outright hostility towards, the aboriginal land rights, and the humanity of women and of gays and lesbians which the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels called me towards.
I have always thought of our failures in these and other areas as failures to live up to "Jesus is Lord." It is worse than this. The gospels themselves (if you are not for me you are against me) suggest that the binary opposition Alison finds in Paul is correct. Not to live with Jesus as Lord is to have a spirit which says Jesus is cursed. We don't need Girardian theory to say that a life which does not mirror Jesus' love and forgiveness re-crucifies Christ, (Hebrews 6:6) but Girardian theology also shows the utter opposition of that spirit to the spirit of Jesus. I apologise to Paul, who as usual, was more inspired than I thought.
The New Creation
John begins his gospel with the echo of Genesis 1:1: In the beginning... The story of Jesus is the story of God's new beginning. Therefore Jesus, crucified and risen, appears to the disciples on the first day of the week. The Light of the World comes to them then, like the newly created light of the first day of the week of creation. And those who trust him will have rivers of living water flow from their heart. (John 7:38) How apt that in Genesis 2:6, before there was rain, a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground, and 7then the Lord God formed ha'adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the ha'adam became a living being.
Pentecost for John is becoming a new living being, a new creation. In the risen Jesus the same God who breathed life into ha'adam breathes life into us. It is new life enabled by the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not mere resurrection that is the good news. ... he showed them his hands and his side. Suffering is integral to the work of Christ.
This suffering is not the work of Christ alone; it is true that the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord, but he says, as the Father has sent me, so I send you. We are called to this suffering too.
And yet everything is different. When you kill the Son of God and he comes back... do you rejoice because death was not the end, after all? Perhaps for a second, but then there is a flood of despair and terror in which mere fear of the Judeans is forgotten because now you face the vengeful Son of God. "Death evokes a spirit," says Michael Hardin, "... the spirit of retaliation, revenge, the spirit in need of a scapegoat. It is the spirit of violence, the spirit of the cycle of perpetual vengeance." But he said, Peace be with you.... Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. The Lord— not just Jesus, but the Lord, a title— forgives them, sends them, inspires them. The resurrection is indeed a new kind of life! And it is this suffering forgiving death and resurrection that lets them see not only Jesus (20:19) who came among them, but the Lord. (20:20)
They can forgive the sins of any; they are free of the old system of sacrifice. It is not only a freedom from the authority of an old religious system. It is a freedom from the need for vengeance, for someone to blame. Loader says, "It authorises the disciples to create an ordered community which faces up to itself, dealing with its own sin." It is that spirit of being community, that way of being community in which they will recognise Spirit.
... aletheia means literally to "stop forgetting." The reason the accusatory system lives on is because we always forget the truth. We carry around a myth, which the Spirit will no longer let us do. The world has to exclude the Paraclete in order to carry on in its ordinary way. Conventional culture exists by periodically re-convening its social consensus at the expense of its victim.
The Spirit of Truth also re-minds us of Jesus. (John 14:26) We are unable, in good conscience, to exclude or victimise because he would not do that, and neither can we, knowing and feeling his presence continue to do it. It would be like kicking Mary Magdalene out, and not taking Zacchaeus into dinner when were going out to a restaurant with Jesus physically present as our guest. To use Bailie's words, the presence of the Spirit turns certain accusations back on us, too! The Spirit stops us forgetting, too. (Prior)
As we commit to living as newly inspired lives in the new creation, the Spirit comes alive to us. We, the guilty but forgiven community are not easily able to forget. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26) If we do "forget"; if we will not forgive and turn away from vengeance and blame, our sin; that is, the consequences of living under the old spirit which says Jesus is accursed, stays with us. Our sins are retained.
Bringing it all together
Jesus chose twelve disciples as a symbolic reestablishment of Israel. Judas' defection breaks this, so Matthias is chosen to restore the twelve. (Acts 1) Jesus is with them for 40 days after the resurrection, which is the number for preparation in the wilderness before a new beginning. Then, after 50 days (Jesus has now gone) the Day of Pentecost comes.
The symbolism is rich. They were all together in one place. The scattering and the loss of community that happens with the development of separate languages in the story of Babel is about to be reversed. If we will not be a part of this community of Christ, we will cause the scatter of humanity. 23Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Luke 11:23) (This is not a claim to Christian exclusivism, for Jesus also said whoever is not against you is for you... Luke 9:50 It is not the use of the name Jesus that matters, but whether we are of the same spirit that forgives instead of blaming and scapegoating.)
We should note that the Pentecost experience was not for the twelve disciples alone. Acts 1:15 tells us there were 120 people. This is ten times twelve. All the church is included; the Spirit is not for the chosen few. Ten is the perfect number. It is also the number of the Commandments.
This is not accidental, not merely a "ten times twelve is an order of magnitude better than twelve" kind of symbol. Pentecost had two primary associations for people. Firstly it was Harvest Festival. The story tells us that in Pentecost they experienced the beginning of the new harvest: 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. (Luke 10:2-3)
By Jesus' time Pentecost was also the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Sinai. So Luke's people are telling us they experienced something that was like a new giving of the Law. Along with the imagery of fire and wind and cloud at Mt Sinai, people are likely to have known Philo, or imagery similar to his. God...
... at that time wrought a most conspicuous and evidently holy miracle, commanding an invisible sound to be created in the air, more marvellous than all the instruments that ever existed, attuned to perfect harmonies; and that not an inanimate one, nor yet, on the other hand, one that at all resembled any nature composed of soul and body; but rather it was a rational soul filled with clearness and distinctness, which fashioned the air and stretched it out and changed it into a kind of flaming fire, and so sounded forth so loud and articulate a voice like a breath passing through a trumpet, so that those who were at a great distance appeared to hear equally with those who were nearest to it. (Decalogue 1X)
11:46 And a voice sounded forth from out of the midst of the fire which had flowed from heaven, a most marvellous and awful voice, the flame being endowed with articulate speech in a language familiar to the hearers, which expressed its words with such clearness and distinctness that the people seemed rather to be seeing than hearing it. (Decalogue X1)
Loader adds to this the
legend ... that ... 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.
"What happened to us can only be compared with what happened at the foot of Mt. Sinai!" says Luke. This is a new giving of the Law of God that causes the gift of speaking in other languages, yes, but also means we hear them speak in our own languages! Babel is reversed, in the bringing together of people and in the removal of that most fundamental division, which is to be restricted to a different language. And it is not merely the new church which is together in one place. The devout from every nation under heaven gather.
There is a kind of unhinging going on for the people in the house. The doors are being taken off the strictures around their lives. They are being opened to God. But it is not the outpouring of drunkenness, which is too often the dulling of our inhibitions and a loss of what civility we have. This pouring out on all flesh is not the removal of inhibitions and the dulling of civility. It is the removal of a spirit that curses. There is a new civility, a new community! A new way of being human is given. And it is for all flesh— we see the barriers which are removed, male female, slave free, young old.
In the Lucan account of Pentecost we have an account of how the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified and risen Lord began the dynamic of forging a new unity of the whole of humanity from out of every race and tribe and nation and tongue.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. Acts 2:18
... being a prophet means to take the perspective of the victim, if not to actually become a victim yourself. It is to speak to one's community from the only standpoint which has the true power to unify, the position of the victim... Only when the voice of the prophet is heard from the position of the victim can the Holy Spirit work to build a true unity, a Holy Communion. (Paul Nuechterlein)
I have always found the most compelling theology, the stuff that was "real," was written by the underdogs and the oppressed; that is, the victims, or by those who have been among them. Other authors have impressed me, even lifted my heart, with their elegance and insights, but the ones whose words have "stuck" and have changed me, have been the prophetic victims. Nuechterlein went on to say, "Such prophecy manifests the Holy Spirit that was poured out on Pentecost when the potential victims, the disciples of Jesus, came out from hiding and preached to the people of the one whom they crucified but whom God raised." The spirit of their community— this new way of being human— opened them to Spirit, the presence of God.
It still does. John says blessed are those who have not seen; that is, they have only heard, and yet have come to trust. (John 20:29) Blessed indeed. When I have trusted people's stories of Jesus— that's what the Bible is— then it has all become real. The spirit of those stories becomes Living Spirit to me.
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!
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