Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

Discomforting Ecstasy

Week of Sunday May 19 - Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17

In Year 10, I was 15. I was solitary, lonely, and depressive—not that we knew that language then. Life was hard; I had little sense of who I was, what life was about, or where I was going. And then Mr. Fauser arrived.

He was my Year 10 class teacher, and my science teacher. He was larger than life; funny, loud, irreverent, and tuned in to kids. He coached the school hockey team. He introduced a group of us to bushwalking, and took us all over the state. Suddenly, I had a community, and a hero. Life began to come together.

At the last assembly of the year we gathered under the white cedars, waiting to be dismissed for holidays. I was almost in tears. I did not know how to tell him what he had meant to me. He was going back to Adelaide, to another school. "Don't worry," he said kindly. "You'll make it. You'll be alright. You've got what it takes." He understood.

We saw him a couple of times; post Easter experiences. Some of us went out to tea with him one night, during our first year at Uni, and life went on.

I saw him years later, by chance, in a suburban shopping centre, and went up eager to say hullo. He didn't recognise me. When I introduced myself, I was not sure he really remembered who I was.

---

What happens when Jesus goes back to the Father? What happens when this larger than life figure, who suddenly pulled it all together for them, leaves the disciples behind? A few post Easter appearances won't cut it! When he's gone, he's gone.

When Phillip says, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,’ (John 14:8) it reflects a deep cry within us all. We want the certainty, and the companionship of a hero who will guide us. We want togetherness, a relationship that brings life together.

But all the relationships we have seem ephemeral. Like Mr. Fauser, they leave, and we often find we were a bit incidental anyway. He was not really a Jesus at all.

John claims Jesus is the Way to God and to Life. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." (14:9) Except that Phillip, and every other Christian who has ever lived, knows that Jesus is going. So Jesus says

15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Bill Loader says

We are being told that it was a good thing that Jesus was going away (to death) because it would mean his return to the Father. Why? As John pictures it, it is because Jesus will do what heroes of the Old Testament, though of much lower status than Jesus, had already done. Moses and Elijah were praying for the people.

But we will not be left alone. He will pray for another paraclete. The word has the sense of counsellor, helper, encourager, advocate, and comforter. Jesus has already been this for them; hence another paraclete. But this time, Mr. Fauser, who brought our world together, will not leave us alone.

17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you His prayer is that God is still with us.  (8:17)

John's understanding of eternity permeates this passage.  He says, when answering Phillip, that the Spirit is already with us; he abides in you. (You is plural.)  In the realm of God, where our perception of time and space does not apply, the Spirit already abides with Phillip, and with us. The Spirit is not something we need to get. The Spirit is with us, always. How else would the breath be in us?

Of course, if we do not keep His commandments we remove ourselves somewhat from the presence of God. We tie ourselves tightly into a time space world [which] cannot receive [the Spirit], because it neither sees him nor knows him. (8:15)

I have begun with the reading from John because his telling of the giving of the Spirit is much at odds with that of the author of The Acts of the Apostles. Bill Loader says of the Acts story that

The scheme of events also clearly reflects symbolic interests. We celebrate the Day of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Spirit because of Luke's symbolic history. In John's gospel the Spirit is a gift of the risen Jesus on the day of resurrection when he appears after having risen and ascended to the Father - all back to front, when compared with Luke's scheme. No other New Testament writer reflects Luke's timetable of events. Even Luke, himself, in his gospel, has the ascension much earlier according to some early manuscripts (24:51).

I remember my suprise that John also has a Pentecost event. (John 20:21-23)  It seemed a pale thing alongside the flamboyant symbolism of the Acts account. I'm sure the Methodist preachers of my childhood and youth spoke of the John event, but they were inaudible alongside Acts and the clamour of the local Pentecostal assemblies. In my growing up, these—let me be honest—competitors in the faith were also key to the story of Acts gaining a kind of hegemony over the nature and meaning of Pentecost.

My colleague Greg Crawford describes the church of my youth in a recent mailing list post.

Next Sunday (May 19) is Pentecost Sunday on which we celebrate the gift of the eschatological Spirit. It seems to me the notion of the Holy Spirit is one which many people feel uneasy about. ....

I cannot help but think that people live in fear of the whole area and [that on Pentecost Sunday] our congregations are being controlled, not by what is said, but by what is not said. So I ask myself, what is “the elephant in the room” when it comes to the Holy Spirit? Deep down is there a fear amongst some that they will lose control if the Spirit gets hold of them. Or is it that we fear that truth will be lost in a sea of subjectivity?

Luke presents a powerful image of Pentecost.  It thrusts our ambivalence about relationship with God right under our collective nose. We want to be one, and yet the thought of being one terrifies us at a very deep level; whether it be one in congregation, or individually one with God. It's not surprising that we are uneasy. The thought that God might burst among us like a violent wind is not altogether comforting.

In a short reply to Greg I said "I think we have a lot of fear/jealousy of the Pentecostals down the road... especially a fear we might be missing out...."

How do I "hear the text" and filter out all those emotions of longing, of unease, and of a certain envy which is mixed with scepticism about some of the more dopey claims of my neighbours in the Faith? Bill offers me a way in. He says of Acts 2, "these rich embellishments may hide a historical event....  Luke is hardly likely to have dreamt up the occasion..." He continues

It is entirely credible that the first great pilgrim festival after Jesus' execution at Passover and his disciples' acclamation of his resurrection would have been a special occasion for the fledgling Christian community. Perhaps there was some event amid the crowd. Perhaps there was some experience which those who believed saw as an outpouring of the Spirit.

Acts Chapter two is (most likely) an historical event which Luke uses as an exemplar of the action of the Spirit of God.  Luke might say today, "This is the sort of thing which happens when we allow the Paraclete Jesus speaks of in John, to be an active presence among us because we are keeping his commandments."

We will go astray if we take what Bill calls the "embellishment" of symbolism and reify it; that is,  make it into literal fact rather than the interpretive devices of an ecstatic experience. We go even more astray if we make one example of God's action into a prescription. Theologies which disparage the spirituality of others who allegedly lack a certain experience of God, are deeply idolatrous. Not only do they claim an unwarranted superiority, but they seek to 'put God in a box.'  They seek to define the way God will act, on the basis of how they think God acted at some other time. They put themselves above God, which is the very definition of idolatry.

Pentecost in Acts.

  • Pentecost was the Harvest Festival of Israel.
  • It was one of the Pilgrimage festivals when devout Jews wished to be in Jerusalem 'on the day.'
  • It was also the celebration of the Giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, which was believed to have happened fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt. There was a tradition that when the Law was given to Moses..."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." (Loader op. Cit.)
  • An experience that involves the transcendence of language barriers cries to be contrasted to the story of Babel, where those barriers begin. (Genesis 11:1-9)

Here, when all the nations have come together, God comes as it has always been promised and hoped. God comes in wind and fire, life and holiness, overwhelming the senses, even exceeding what was expected.

 To meditate upon an ecstatic experience through these interpretive lenses is to be swept up by some of its echo.  These later lenses give the original experience meaning and enduring potency after the event.  They bring it to those of us who were not there. The lenses are NOT the experience, which is always something of itself and not tameable or able to be neatly packaged. If it were, how much would it really be of God?

There is more.

  • they were all together in one place. Here is a broad hint about how to be church. It is not, by nature,  a solitary affair.
  • The experience was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues as if of fire. The narrative carefully steers us away from literalising. We experience ecstasy; we cannot control it by defining its content.
  • It filled the entire house; that is the whole church. I'm not sure what to make of the sitting; it is not an argument for the primacy of the pew.
  • All of them were filled; the point is being reinforced.
  • They were filled. There is nothing restrained here.
  • every nation under heaven has overtones from the Old Testament; all those hopes of the nations coming (back) to God in Jerusalem; eg, Micah 4, Zech 8, Isa 2.
  • Each one.... in the native language of each. Again we have the language of wholeness; of everybody. There is inclusion.
  • Not any old list of nations. For many of us the main concern about the list of nations is whether we can pronounce it all properly during the Bible Reading! How did it sound to the first readers?
    Haenchen (The Acts of the Apostles pp 170-171) notes that scholars think the Judeans, and also the Cretans and Arabians, are later additions to the list of nations. There were originally 12 nations listed; 12 new tribes of a new Israel, perhaps.  At Working Preacher, Jacob Myers says "scholars are at a loss to make sense of Luke's wonky list of Pentecost... the Medes had been extinct for over five-hundred years!... " He asks if "the absurdity of the list [is] theologically significant. .... What if Luke's intention in today's lection is to break apart a theology that is wrapped up in ethnic identity? What if he has crafted this "table of nations" to weaken the prevailing ethnic infrastructure so that a new foundation might burst forth according to Luke's theological vision, a vision that transcends facile ethnic divisions without forsaking the importance of ethnic identity?" The Roman rulers of the world are there; the Parthian barbarians are there, the list sweeps across most of the known world.
  • But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ Of course, they are!  But the comment also relates back to John 14: this is "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him." Those who are sneering are, presumably, also devout Jews.
  • the last days...  It is happening now! God's definitive action for the world is now, for everybody.
  • Everybody: all flesh, sons, daughters, young men, old men, even slaves, both men and women
  • I will pour out my Spirit and they shall prophesy.  People will know God. God will be with them.
    33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer 31)  
  • everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

From its birth in despair, through scarcely believing days of resurrection, and the riotous chaos of the pentecostal ecstasy, the Spirit has not left the church. And so God is with us still. In our more settled state the Spirit still discomforts us, and leaves us most uneasy, with moments of ecstasy full of threatening promise.

The Spirit is not defined by that signal event. It is an example of what can happen when the Paraclete is allowed to move among us, and sometimes even starts without us. We cannot remove our unease; ecstasy is, in a sense, other. We can follow the example. Is this spirit the spirit of Jesus and the Father? Does it include all, and transcend that which separates us? Or is it merely cheap wine?


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