Pentecost Sunday

May 15, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-23
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Pentecost serves in many respects as the “Feast of the Holy Spirit” in Christian traditions. The work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in believers is often specifically tied to relationships and the unification of many into one. John Macquarrie calls the Spirit “unitive Being”; Peter Hodgson thinks of the Spirit as the “synthesis” in the divine dialectic. For a process-relational view, it is especially suggestive to look at the Spirit as God’s power of relationality at work in the world.

Acts 2:1-21
In his story of the first Christian Pentecost, Luke portrays the Holy Spirit as God’s power of relationality that is able to bridge differences with comprehension, to value diversity held in commonality. The gift of tongues given to Jesus’ followers is presented as a reversal of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a punishment for human arrogance at Babel, and, in Luke’s scheme of salvation history, it marks a decisive shift to a new age and a step closer to the fulfillment and sanctification of all things in God’s work of salvation.

In Luke’s understanding of salvation history, it is important to know that the gift of tongues at Pentecost is not the first time the Holy Spirit has acted in the story, but the Spirit has been present and active throughout. Luke understands the Spirit to be active before, during, and after the earthly ministry of Jesus: before, in the prophets; during, in Jesus’ conception, in Simeon and Anna’s recognition of the infant Jesus as Messiah, in Jesus himself (Luke 10:21 ); after, at Pentecost and in the subsequent ministries of the apostles. The Spirit is, as it were, the overarching agent of salvation history, unifying many acts and occasions into a single stream of salvific influence. By showing Peter quoting the prophecy of Joel in his Pentecost sermon, Luke indicates that this outpouring of the Spirit in the gift of tongues is specifically the signal of the beginning of “the last days,” the age of the cosmos that will culminate in “portents” and “darkness” and, finally, glory and salvation. The Pentecost event marks the Spirit’s coming, not just to a few prophets or a handful of visionaries, but to all peoples, to prepare the way for epoch when God will be all in all.

According to Luke’s historical scheme, we today are still living in “the last days,” we are today in that epoch of the cosmos marked by the Spirit’s activity of building relationships of diversity-in-unity and comprehension-of-distinctions. We can look for the Spirit in the world as that power by which “the many become one” in the realization and activation of aims and ideals derived from God. While we may not expect linguistic miracles, the work of translating the Gospel Good News into images, idioms, analogies, languages, and actions that can move and inspire all sorts and conditions of people is still one of the most important elements of the life of the churches—and it is still a work inspired by the Spirit. For us, too, the Spirit is a power of relationality that can empower us to bridge gaps and comprehend differences and create commonalities through which God’s saving grace can become active in our worlds.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
The Psalm for the day also stresses the cosmic aspect of the Spirit; but here the emphasis is less on history and more on nature. The Spirit’s power of relationality is not limited to human communities, but is active in the turn of seasons, the growth and consumption of food, the lifecycles of creatures, the rise and fall of mountains. The Spirit is the motive power behind all the activities of life, from the creeping things of the sea, to the mysterious monsters of the deep, to human shipping and trade and commerce. All this life depends on the Spirit: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and so you renew the face of the ground.” The Spirit is portrayed as the matrix in which all these individual creatures are comprehended, held together, in cycles of growth and death and life. The Psalm is a rich resource for contemporary ecological preaching, prayer, and spirituality.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
In the Epistle reading, Paul thinks of the Spirit as the power of relationality that activates and unifies varieties of gifts in those who follow the Way of Jesus. Over against the Corinthian church’s enthusiasm for spiritual manifestations which highlight individual attainments, Paul emphasizes that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” While some individuals may excel in wisdom, some demonstrate knowledge, some be remarkable for their visions or spontaneous ecstatic utterances, and so on, it is the way these individual gifts are woven together for the life of the entire community that Paul lifts up as the more important work of the Spirit. God gives particular aims to each person, God calls forth the actualization of potentials in each person, and God weaves those aims together with aims for other persons and for the community as a whole, so that each one of us contributes to a larger life that encompasses and enlivens all. This is reflected in Paul’s metaphor of the body, in which there are many members, but the body itself is one. The relationship-making power of the Spirit cuts across social and economic lines—“Jews or Greeks, slaves or free”—to empower new communities of justice and peace, right relationship for mutual well-being, that are not bound by divisions and rivalries of the past.  Our own communities today are manifestations of the Spirit to the extent that we also participate in such relationship-making for the common good.

John 20:19-23
Where Luke shows the Spirit being given to the disciples on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection, John shows the gift of the Spirit bestowed on the evening of the Resurrection day. John’s account also makes much clearer the connection between the Spirit and Jesus: it is the Risen Jesus himself who breathes on the disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit”—or, as the phrase might also be translated, “Receive a holy breath.” John shows Jesus giving to the disciples the same “breath of life” that animates and enlivens him in the Resurrection. The relational power of the Spirit is first and foremost manifested in a new and life-giving relationship with Jesus: the disciples are now to be empowered to do as Jesus does, and love as Jesus loves, and carry on the “works” of the One who sent Jesus, even as Jesus now sends them. The constellation of eternal objects and accomplished occasions that make up the life and work of Jesus are now to be inherited and re-enacted in moments of experience in his disciples. But the relational power of the Spirit is not limited to the Jesus-relationship alone: Jesus says to his disciples that, in consequence of their receiving the Spirit, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” By virtue of the Spirit, the disciples are now empowered to enter into relationships with others that will bring them liberation from bondage to sin and destructiveness, and will provide the social environment to harbor new experiences of compassion, justice, and love. The relational power of the Spirit in us, likewise, both connects us to the life-giving Christ-event, and empowers us to create new relational patterns of forgiveness and liberation.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.