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- May 24, 2015 - The Day of Pentecost
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This Week's Commentary
The Day of Pentecost
May 24, 2015Acts 2:1-21 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | Romans 8:22-27 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
The Day of Pentecost
24 May 2015
David Grant Smith
“When the day of Pentecost had come…” It’s important to remember that the day of Pentecost was already an established festival of the Jewish calendar, occurring 50 days after Passover. Pentecost in a Christian context is often labeled as the “birthday of the Church” as a means of identifying when the Christian religion was born. However, it couldn’t be farther from the truth — or that is, at the least, a gross misunderstanding of the significance of the day. The Christian Church wasn’t “born” until much later. Jesus was a devout Jew. Jesus’ disciples were devout Jews. And the faith that they practiced was the faith of Judaism. The movement of spiritual renewal and reform which Jesus called for was never intended to be a separate religion. But it eventually came to be (for too many reasons to expound here) a separate faith movement from Judaism.
Given that the disciples of Jesus, after his earthly life and ministry were over, had such a significant mystical experience on an already established festival of their Jewish heritage, many Christian Churches choose to celebrate the day by celebrating the rich diversity of all religions as being avenues by which humanity encounters the Divine. Honoring the diversity of the various faiths of the world was something in which Alfred North Whitehead was engaged; and religious pluralism has been a crucial component of nearly every stream of process theology articulated since. The rich tapestry of the world’s many religions is yet another way having many “languages” by which all the peoples of the earth from all its many regions are able to hear in their own way “about God’s deeds of power.”
If a celebration of religious diversity isn’t a theme for a congregation, another approach to this reading might be to explore the interplay between “speaking” and “hearing.” In a process understanding, both the individual and the community gathered can experience the lure of the Spirit to new creativity, new understandings, and new ways of transforming the world. One can’t help but wonder whether the Spirit was luring the disciples to speak of their experience of faith in new ways, or luring the crowd passing by to hear and understand things in new ways, or whether it was some of each.
However the experience may have been for those described in the story recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that people were able to both hear each other and speak to each other clearly and with understanding. The idea that God is calling, leading, and luring us to do the same thing in our own day — to hear others clearly, and to speak to others clearly, so that there is mutual understanding — is not far-fetched at all. If humanity were to be devoted to the discipline of hearing others for better understanding (rather than trying to decide how to respond), and if humanity were devoted to the discipline of speaking clearly with better understanding as the goal (rather than trying to one-up the other as in a debate), one can only imagine how the world would be transformed. How might the disciplines of hearing and listening apply to our daily lives? Or to situations like Ferguson and Baltimore? Or to the ongoing tensions in the Middle East? Or to the ongoing discord over things like healthcare, minimum wage, or marriage equality? How might the Spirit be luring us — individually or collectively — to listen or to speak in new ways? And how will we respond to the Spirit’s lure in our lives? These questions lie at the heart of what we celebrate on Pentecost.
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Just as today’s first reading could lay the groundwork for a celebration of religious pluralism, the response to that reading could easily be the cornerstone of a day celebrating the creative impulse of the Spirit. Psalm 104 (especially the verses selected for this week’s lectionary reading) celebrates the diversity of the creatures of creation — “living things too many to number, creatures both small and great” — as well as the fragility of life itself — “you take away their breath, and they die and return to their dust.” Yet the psalmist doesn’t dwell on that fragility, but moves on to the idea that every creature experiences interdependence, not only with each other, but with the very Spirit by which they were created — “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” Keeping in mind that the Hebrew word for Spirit (Ruach) can also mean both wind and/or breath, this psalm is a great one for playing with the interchangeable images of those three meanings.
This psalm harkens back to the beginning of Genesis in which the Spirit, who is also both wind and breath, moved over the chaos of the deep and began to create the cosmos out of that chaos. This could be a good day to preach on the fragility of ecosystems, our need to be stewards of all that has been created, and to be mindful that we, too, are part of the created order of things. This could easily be a day given over to celebrating and praising the Spirit who sparks all that is into being.
To give praise to the Spirit for bringing forth the diversity of created beings would be a fitting way to celebrate Pentecost, indeed. But the Spirit didn’t stop creating after six days of bringing forth things and beings from the primordial ooze; as is attested to in the other readings today, the psalmist’s voice continues the refrain that the Spirit is still renewing the face of the earth — still creating, still in relationship with all created beings, and still very much wanting all created beings to be co-creators with the Spirit in continuing to bring forth renewal and transformation.
In this reading, Paul is inviting us to contemplate the experience of pregnancy and labor. From what my mother, my sister, and many of my women friends tell me, there is no pain which can be likened to the labor pains of childbirth. In the context of Paul’s day, labor pains were not only understood to be horrific, but they were often equated with the risk of death, given the number of women and/or babies who died during the process of childbirth. In our day, there still is that risk (more so in some places than others, of course), but it is much lower than it was then; therefore we don’t hear Paul’s words with the ears of fear and terror that his original audience may have. To have the experience of labor pains applied to the whole of creation must have been jarring to those who first heard it! The image he used could be seen as saying that the whole of creation is given over to bringing about something new — even at the risk of death, and with the guarantee of great pain. Paul goes and says “not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly.” We, too — both male and female — experience labor pains as we work with the Spirit to give birth to new and transforming ways of living in the world. But, like pregnancy before the invention of ultrasound, what it is that will be born — the sex, gifts, skills, and interests of the child — is an unknown. And so we work blindly, we wait, and we hope with the Spirit, to bring to life this New Thing.
This passage from Romans is, perhaps, an early model for exploring what Whitehead describes as being the lure toward concrescence. We are called, empowered, and lured by God towards a new experience, a new idea, a new understanding; we don’t have a clue as to how things will turn out, but we somehow know that this is what we are to do. And so we begin to work in that direction. The fulfillment of that work is often unpredictable, but (as Paul states) “we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” In terms of preaching, these metaphoric labor pains which describe our working relationship with the Spirit can be described as something we experience as individuals, as well as something we experience collectively as the Church. Just as the Spirit harbors new potential and possibilities within each of us individually, so the Spirit is constantly calling new life out of our collective life together as the Body of Christ.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Most of the Gospel of John is given over to mysticism and theologizing. But every now and again, the author of the Fourth Gospel dives into a more formulaic way of writing. In today’s Gospel reading, the author of John places words on the lips of Jesus which are reminiscent of a legal contract — the party to the first part is beholding to the party of the second part; and as the party of the second part is beholding to the party of the third part, so also shall the party of the first part… etc.
This formulaic section of John is essentially about how God and Jesus are so intimately interdependent, and how Jesus is saying that we, too, have a relationship with God in which we are also intimately and interdependently part of God, who is part of us. And Jesus is asserting that this interdependence which we experience won’t take place until after he has gone and he can send “the Advocate” (John’s name for the Spirit). Jesus doesn’t spell it out as to why it will be good for him to be gone exactly; he just says that it is to our “advantage” that he leaves. Perhaps it is because we see in Jesus such a pure embodiment and human manifestation of the primordial nature of God, that we would never strive to have that come to fruition in ourselves. After all — who can compete with that? But whatever his rationale, Jesus knew that his presence with his disciples wouldn’t last forever. At some point he needed to trust that they would be able to carry on his work after he was gone. The Spirit (or Advocate) will lead them in how to carry on that work.
The interdependence which we experience with the Spirit is something which is still growing. Jesus said that he hadn’t finished telling everything that he had to teach them, and he indicated that we will continue to be taught by the Spirit’s leading in the years to come. This is very heartening to many, as it supports the notion that the message of the Gospel is still being “written” and taking shape. There are those who believe that the “Word of the Lord” can only be what is contained on the printed pages between Genesis and Revelation. A truly Good News take on this reading is to offer the idea that, as our United Church of Christ sisters and brothers put it, “God is still speaking.” And since God is still speaking, guiding, teaching, luring, and inspiring us, we can celebrate Pentecost as being a festival for listening, following, learning, responding, and co-creating with the Spirit.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is a priest in the Episcopal Church, and is currently doing a residency in Clinical Pastoral Education at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Delaware, where he is the Chaplain Resident for Palliative Care. From early 2008 until July of 2014 he had been the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY (where he was ordained), in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, where he is still canonically resident as a priest. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology in and through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and spending time with family & friends.