Day of Pentecost, May 23rd, 2021


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For every year of the three year lectionary readings for the Day of Pentecost, the Gospel is taken from John, and those sections in chapters 14-16 dealing with the Holy Spirit. The Paraclete, Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, sent by the Father in the Son’s name, who will be present with them as he has been present thus far, but more so. They are not therefore to be sorrowful, now and as they witness his coming death and departure, because his going to the Father means simultaneously his sending of the Holy Spirit, to comfort them and confirm in them his active life. To send them forth in the resurrection power of forgiveness in his name, as we read at the end of John’s Gospel. Or in the language used here, to convict the world which does not know him but can come to know him as they do, through their testimony to all he has done, since they have been with him from the beginning, in accordance with the work of the Holy Spirit. The other consistent reading is of course the signal account in Acts of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the twelve, those with him from the beginning, including now Matthias, on the day of Pentecost. As noted, Pentecost is the Greek name used by Jews for the Hebrew Shavuoth, the Feast of Weeks, which at the time of Jesus had become a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, 7 times 7 days, or weeks, plus one, or Pentecost, 50 days, after Passover. It was a great pilgrimage festival. We can well imagine the Ethiopian official there, as one of the proselytes or God-fearers mentioned in our list today, alongside the Jewish inhabitants of all the regions circling the Mediterranean and beyond, each with their own native languages and mother tongues. The dynamic of Acts, its narrative inner nerve, is unleashed, as promised by Jesus before his ascension. Do not depart from Jerusalem. Wait for the promise of the Father. Before many days you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit, and by this power the witnessing will ensue, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The other consistent reading, for all three years, is the psalm chosen for the day, 11 verses from Psalm 104. The creating and sustaining and renewing power of God consists of his wisdom, his word, which creates and sustains every single thing in creation he has made. O Lord, how manifold are your works, in wisdom you have made them all. To withdraw this wisdom means a hiding of God’s face. “You send forth your Spirit,” by contrast, “and so you renew the face of the earth.” What the world does not know of the Father and the Son, in the language of John’s Gospel, is a distorting, obscuring, of God’s will in creating and renewing the whole face of the earth, down into the depths of the seas, where that rogue Leviathan lives, who cannot thwart God in spite of his power and seeming independence. God made him for sport, and for his own sheer enjoyment.

We have the option of returning to Old Testament readings on Pentecost Sunday, chosen from Numbers 11 – the marvelous story of the spirit falling on Eldad and Mehdad outside the camp (Year A), Ezekiel’s spirit renewing, death defying in the Valley of bones, (year B), and Genesis 11, the creation of a single language by all nations so as to construct a tower into heaven, rather than looking to, counting on the rainbow placed there to guarantee shalom in a language divided world of God’s good creating. The division into nations, languages and tongues such as we read in the preceding chapter 10, is a good thing, a part of God’s wisdom creating design. Seeking by human technology or craft to rise above it misunderstands how God means to connect us and communicate with us, in the calling of Abraham and the sending of the son, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Tower Story forms the obvious backdrop to our language-divided-but-fully-enlivened-in-that- state-of-affairs work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We all hear in our own languages and tongues and national identities the mighty works of God. It takes a bit of imagination to understand the account as Luke relates it in Acts 2. The 12 are obediently waiting and occupying themselves in the Upper Room prayer and fellowship “in one place” place. The wisdom obedient creation begins churning as the heavens release the mighty wind as at creation itself. As a wildfire noisily releases sparks and flames of fire into the atmosphere, in the shape of tongues, so the Holy Spirit descends and in this distributing form lands on the heads of each one of the twelve. Here we find the source of the otherwise strange haberdashery, the Bishop’s miter: a flame or tongue shaped hat sitting atop the head. Corresponding to this tongue-shaped crown are real tongues or languages, called forth at the Holy Spirit’s bidding, and spoken forth by the twelve so endowed. This odd manifestation is not for its own sake but comes as an act of clear and life-changing communication. By whatever common language we might expect the pilgrims from all these various regions to speak with one another at the feast, as they went about their common affairs, they had deep inside themselves a mother tongue, the language of their own day-to-day living and loving and toiling and praying. And the amazing feat to which they are treated is hearing the mighty works of God in the language most deeply identifying of who they are. All at the same time and in the same place, not an esperanza language tower they construct to go up, but a loving and life changing language of God come down into their deepest place of communication. A marker as well, as we saw last week in the house of Cornelius, of a unifying work of God, reaching out beyond the differences within the Jewish communities with their different tongues and homes, into the entire world of national, often hostile, pilgrimage-less divisions. They were unified in their pilgrimage worship and hope and now the unity and power of the Holy Spirit spills like wildfire into their lives and futures.

Paul speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit coming to address the groaning and longing of the creation, in labor pains to become all God would have in his fullest wisdom-driven renewing work. Full adoption, full redemption of our bodies, belongs to the world of sure and certain hoping. In that time of our earthly life the Spirit helps us, giving us the words necessary below our words, in the arena of our present sighing and longing, as God searches us out and as the Spirit intercedes for us in his name.

When John speaks of leading into all truth and of those things that are appropriate for our Christian walk after he has departed, he has in view just this kind of scenario. The Spirit interceding and helping as we await the redemption of our bodies. We can also think of the language we find in Acts, when the Holy Spirit goes about the work of bringing in the other sheep, the gentiles and God-fearers of his blessing, the sheep of another flock beyond the pilgrimage makers at Pentecost. “Then I remembered the word of the Lord,” Peter will say of the spirit’s guiding into truth in his decision to baptize Cornelius and his house, as he explains it in chapter 11. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how Jesus had said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In the language of Jesus in John’s Gospel for today. The Spirit takes what is mine and he declares it to you.

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