Pentecost

June 12, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Acts 2:1-21
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
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 three New Testament readings assigned for this day each reflect a slightly different understanding of the role and function of the Spirit in the world, but they converge around the theme that the work of the Holy Spirit in believers and in the cosmos is specifically manifested in the making of relationships and the unification of many into one.

The passage from 1 Corinthians was written earlier than either the Luke or the John selection, and reflects on the Spirit in the most immediate connection of life in the Christian community. Specifically, Paul here 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” (emphasis added). 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.

Of particular interest to process thinkers are the verses setting in apposition gifts of the Spirit, services rendered to the Lord, and activities activated by God. There is today a notable attention being paid to spiritual gifts, mostly among Evangelical Christians, but certainly in mainline churches as well. Often, it seems to me that these gifts are conceived in static terms, as more or less permanent endowments implanted by God in the substantial self. But thinking of spiritual gifts in too static terms can lead to a certain reification, to concern with gifts as attributes that one may or may not possess, and that can be compared to other people’s gifts and, perhaps, ranked in terms of desirability or importance. This can lead, I’ve observed, to much the same sorts of complications in the Christian community that Paul was trying to correct in Corinth. On the other hand, thinking of the Spirit’s work as activating activities, rather than bestowing gifts, can help us pay more attention to what gets done in the community and in the world through inspired action. The Spirit may activate different processes in different people for different purposes in different times and places; when human action and divine action come together in the Spirit’s activation, then human lives and circumstances come to better embody divine ideals. When a given purpose has been fulfilled, the Spirit may activate a new and different process in persons, specific to the new situation. Considering spiritual gifts as activities inspired for particular occasions can be much more flexible and engaging approach than conceiving them as permanent endowments of the self.

Luke in Acts and John in his Gospel provide their reflections on the work of the Spirit in narrative terms, rather than the more discursive style used by Paul. We should note that they narrate the coming of the Spirit to the disciples in very different terms. Luke’s is perhaps the more familiar, showing the Spirit coming on the disciples at Pentecost, fifty days after Easter; but John shows the Spirit being given to the disciples by Jesus himself, on the evening of Easter Day. Their different narrative presentations reflect their differing theologies of the Spirit.

For John, the main work of the Spirit is to reproduce in the disciples the very qualities exemplified in Jesus’ life and ministry, including the qualities of making life-giving relationships. This is why, for John, the Spirit cannot come until Jesus departs (7:39, 16:7), and must be mediated to the disciples by Jesus himself. In John’s account, the Risen Jesus 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 thus 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. This is the Spirit’s work of extending into the shared lives of believers the relational qualities of Jesus.

For Luke, on the other hand, the Spirit is not primarily about reproducing in believers the qualities of Jesus, but has a wider role. Luke sees the Spirit as active in creation (following the tradition long represented by Psalm 104, hence its inclusion in the lectionary on this day), as active in the prophets, as “overshadowing” Mary to effect the Incarnation, as inspiring Simeon and Anna to recognize the infant Jesus as the Messiah, as inspiring Jesus himself to great joy (10:21), and now, in the Pentecost event, as gathering the apostles into the ongoing work of God-in-Christ in the Christian community, which is itself the continuing work of salvation history. In his story of the Spirit’s manifestation at Pentecost, therefore, Luke portrays the Spirit as God’s power of relationality that is able to bridge differences with comprehension, to value diversity held in commonality, to extend Christly relations beyond the existing community in order to grow the community. The gift of languages given to Jesus’ followers is presented as a reversal of the confusion of languages 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. That step is made explicit in Peter’s sermon that follows and interprets the ecstatic burst of multilingualism: by showing Peter quoting the prophecy of Joel, 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 are today 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, an activity activated, 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.