May 19 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Day of Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, & 16:4b-15
[Note that the reading from the Book of Acts is "compulsory", but, in effect, there is a choice between the reading from Genesis and a brief one from Romans 8. I have gone with Genesis, but there is a risk that the choice of that reading can suggest that all Pentecost is about is a sort of reversal of the linguistic equivalent of the Adamic curse. If only it were that simple!]
Theme: Obviously something to do with the Holy Spirit, but beyond that it's a matter for personal taste, perhaps. This is one of the great joyful feasts so I think I would go with "That's the Spirit", and I might even allow myself to add an exclamation mark. For a more sober congregation something traditional like "The Outpouring of the Spirit". [It's just occurred to me that it might be worth exploring the idea of the "Out-sourcing", of the Holy Spirit. Just a thought – and may well be unhelpful.
Introduction. St Luke is THE apostle of the Holy Spirit: Pentecost without his story is inconceivable. For all the excitement and drama of this narrative, the basic truth remains simple: our faith is born out of experience followed by reflection guided by the Scriptures. Thus we can divide this reading very obviously into two parts: verses 1-13 tell us what happened, and verses 14 to the end provide the "theological explanation", rooted in Scripture. As stated above there is a common idea that Pentecost reverses the "curse of confusion" inflicted by God on the builders of the Tower of Babel. That's not quite right, of course; at Pentecost the diversity of language continues, but the language barrier is overcome through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables the apostles (the Church) to speak the language(s) of the non-Church people. (Now there's a thought – more about that in a moment.) In our gospel reading the focus is on the work of the Holy Spirit, which is essentially cast in terms of continuing Jesus' teaching ministry.
Background. In Luke 12:51 Jesus shocked his hearers (and his modern-day followers) by saying: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! As any survivors of the last charismatic renewal can testify, much the same could be said about the coming of the Holy Spirit! And I'm not sure that we have all managed to move on since then. Has the Holy Spirit brought peace, harmony and unity to a church near you?
The linguistic issue is just one part of that particular challenge. Whenever I hear someone in the Church extolling the virtue of linguistic diversity I have great difficulty in resisting the temptation to scream, "What about Genesis 11:1-9?" The clear purport of that story is that, in the beginning, humanity had "one language and the same words"; but God was so outraged by our hubris that he decided, in language very similar to that used in the creation narrative, to "go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech". In short, he cursed us with linguistic diversity. Now, of course, we can argue that this story is an etiological myth intended to "explain" why there are so many languages in the world; but that is very different from pretending that linguistic diversity is a particular blessing from God.
What, if anything, does Luke's account of the coming of the Spirit add to this particular issue? A careful reading suggests that it supports neither extreme: what it does seem to encourage is the translation of the Scriptures into the different languages of the world, regardless of how those languages came into existence. It is a pragmatic solution to the actual circumstances of the time. The gospel is for everybody, so it needs to be expressed in words each and every person can understand. (WE need to speak the language of the people!) And that's what happened among the crowds present on that first Day of Pentecost.
Changing the subject from one difficulty to another, what are we to make of the fact that Luke is very much the Apostle of Pentecost? Matthew and Mark know nothing of it; and John has his own, very simple, "private", and understated version in 20:22. If the apostles had already "received the Holy Spirit" on Easter Evening, why would the Lord tell them to wait until they had received power from above? No, I don't know either. Perhaps the most helpful approach I have come across is to suggest that these two approaches are types of "conversion" experiences, what we might call the introverted and extroverted approaches. For some of us the process is gradual and unspectacular, for others it is a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming experience. The important truth is that the Holy Spirit "comes" to those who believe in Christ; how he comes is less important.
A third divisive issue concerns the "role" of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand the more charismatic Christians lay great stress on specific actions, "miracles", or for followers of John Wimber, "signs and wonders", of which there are many examples throughout the Book of Acts. But if we look at the Holy Spirit's job description in today's gospel passage (and similar passages in this gospel) we will find very little hint of such ministry. First, John's account suggests that the Holy Spirit works with the body of believers, far more than with individuals; and secondly, as stated above, the main ministry of the Holy Spirit seems to be a continuation of the Lord's teaching ministry – it is essentially revelatory (rather than demonstrative), leading us deeper and deeper into the divine truth revealed in and through Jesus Christ.
I have struggled with all these issues throughout the years of my ministry. That is one of the many reasons why I am so thankful for the insights of Teilhard de Chardin in his little masterpiece, The Divine Milieu. For Teilhard the starting-point is always the Incarnation, and his understanding of that is very much wider than the strict meaning of the word itself. Jesus didn't just enter into our flesh through his birth to Mary; he entered into all created matter through his baptism; and the work of the Holy Spirit is to "extend" or give effect to that Incarnation everywhere. This is far too big a topic to go into here, but, for me, it is helpful to think of this in sacramental terms. In baptism, the water remains tap water until we invoke the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist the elements remain bread and wine until we invoke the Holy Spirit. And in ordination, the Bishop's hands remain just that until we invoke the Holy Spirit. But in each case, when we do invoke the Holy Spirit, all is changed: all becomes "incarnated" by God. If that were not so those sacred rituals would remain empty gestures, of no more significance than any other human habits.
In baptism we pray: Through your Holy Spirit, fulfil once more your promises in this water of rebirth, set apart in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Great Thanksgiving we pray: Send your Holy Spirit that these gifts of bread and wine which we receive may be to us the body and blood of Christ, and that we, filled with the spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom.
In ordination we pray: Like the first disciples waiting for your coming, empowering Spirit, we watch and pray...Holy Spirit of God, meet us in this moment as you met the apostles of old. Be with us, Holy Spirit...bring faith and hope, we pray...Come Holy Spirit,...be present in you power....God of grace, through your Holy spirit, gentle as a dove, living, burning as fire, empower your servant, N, for the office and work of a priest.
And here's a wonderful Pentecost prayer from Celebrating Common Prayer/Night Prayer":
Be present, Spirit of God, within us, your dwelling place and home, that this place may be one where all darkness is penetrated by your light, all troubles calmed by your peace, all evil redeemed by your love, all pain transformed in your suffering and all dying glorified in the risen life or our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
That's a wonderful summary of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, surely!
Genesis. Before we moderns get too dismissive of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis we should keep one eye and one ear open to the discoveries of modern science. Much of this is helpfully summarised by Nicholas Wade in his book, Before the Dawn. Of particular interest in the context of this reading is the increasing consensus among linguistic scholars that our earliest talking ancestors did indeed have only one language. There is also much here about the tension, seen in many passages throughout the Scriptures, between gathering (good) and scattering (bad); and perhaps between permanent settlements (bricks and mortar) and a more nomadic lifestyle.
Taking It Personally.
- How do you react to the statement that linguistic diversity is shown in this passage to be a curse and not a blessing?
- What is the essential nature of the "offence" of which the people are guilty? Do you agree that it is something about trying to make a name for ourselves, or trying to find our own way to heaven? Something about human hubris? Are you guilty of that?
- What might this story have to tell us about our own commitment to "bricks and mortar"? Would you be willing to let your local church building go without a fight?
- What might this story have to tell us about settling down and becoming comfortable spiritually? Are you open to spreading your spiritual wings?
Acts. It may be helpful to compare this story with the story of Easter morning. One great difference for us is found in the response of the Apostles. Clearly, the resurrection took them by surprise, so that they were the bewildered ones wondering what on earth was going on. Here they seem to have caught on right away, and Peter (who has already emerged as the leading spokesperson, by the way) is ready with his explanation. The other point, perhaps, to focus on is the reference in verse 5 to the identity of the crowd: they were "Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem". In other words, we shouldn't get too carried away with the idea of the Spirit breaking down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles right away. At this point in the narrative this is about the gospel within the Jewish community.
Taking It Personally.
- How do you honestly feel about the Holy Spirit?
- Would you like the Holy Spirit to come in power to your local church in this sort of way?
- What do you think of the "Sacramental" view of the Holy Spirit's ministry? Is that helpful or not?
- How might you use the "prayer of invocation" model in your daily life to remind yourself constantly of the presence of God?
- Ponder prayerfully the Pentecost night prayer given above.
John. As we near the end of these "Farewell Discourses" this passage sounds like the speech of an outgoing leader preparing the ground for his successor. In effect, Jesus seems to be saying I am going away; my successor will be the Holy Spirit; follow him as you followed me; learn from him as you have learnt from me.
Taking It Personally.
- What do you want the Holy Spirit to do for you, with you, or in you today?
- Pray for the Reverend Jo Fielding as she is ordained to the priesthood on Sunday.