Pentecost

June 8, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Numbers 11:24-30
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35v
Reading 3: 
Acts 2:1-21
Reading 4: 
John 20:19-23 or 7:37-39
Alt Reading 2: 
1 Cor 12:3-13
Alt Reading 1: 
Acts 2:1-21
By Ron Allen

On the Sundays after Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary turns its back on the Torah, Prophets and Writings by replacing that reading with one from Acts. This displacement is regrettable as it reinforces anti-Jewish instincts buried deep within the church. Consequently, in my view, on Pentecost Day the church should read from Numbers when the lectionary gives the choice between Numbers and Acts.

The Priestly theologians gave Numbers its present shape after the people had returned from exile and were struggling to reorganize community life as a colony of Persia. This reorganization included rebuilding their institutions, such as the temple. While the Priestly thinkers envision Israel having a special mission, they also understand God’s purposes to transcend Yehud (as the postexilic community was known). From this perspective Numbers 11:24-30 opens a provocative path for preaching.

At God’s behest, Moses gathers seventy elders at the tent of meeting. They will serve as associates in leadership. God inspirited the elders so they prophesied, that is, they manifest ecstatic behavior. In this context, the ecstatic phenomenon authenticates these seventy as leaders. The community needs recognized leaders and institutions for reconstructing its new phase of life.

At the same time, two elders who remained in the camp, Eldad and Medad, also prophesied. When Joshua asked Moses to stop them, Moses replied with the now famous remark, “Would that all [God’s] people were prophets.” The re-energizing Spirit cannot be contained in the tent, i.e. in institutions.

In these two groups we see a tension that persists. At one level, the divine lure, represented here by the spirit, offers structures and institutions (the seventy). At another level, the lure transcends established channels (per Eldad and Medad).

Where does the preacher see today’s seventy in the tent responding positively to divine purposes? Where does the preacher see latter day Eldads and Medads doing so outside the tent, that is, outside our typical patterns, institutions and structures? And, of course, who today is like Joshua—suspicious of those who operate outside established circles?

Psalm 104 is a hymn praising God as creator. Bernhard Anderson calls attention to an aspect vv. 27-30 that is of particular importance today in view of contemporary ecological concerns: this part of the psalm pictures equality among human beings and the natural world. “There is no superiority: all creatures belong to God’s good and glorious creation.” [B.W Anderson, Out of the Depths (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) 142].

From this perspective, all elements of creation are inter-related. Pentecost Day gives the preacher an opportunity to explore how the Spirit no only sustains creation (per v. 30), but also how it seeks to prompt humankind and nature to live together in mutual support. Preaching and worship on Pentecost could thus have a natural ecological focus.

Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23 each tell their own story of Jesus giving the Spirit to the disciples. The church sometimes refers to the latter as “the Johannine Pentecost,” but this designation subtly imposes Luke’s category (Pentecost) on the Fourth gospel. Indeed, by adopting the name “Pentecost” for this day, the church gives Luke’s theology of the Spirit an elevated status. Per below, I think the church needs to come to its own clearly articulated notion of the Spirit in conversation with voices in the Bible and in other theological resources.

The preacher could focus on one of these passages and how conversation with it helps the congregation to recognize and respond to the movement of the Spirit. Or the preacher might point the congregation towards seeing that John and Acts not only tell two different stories, but also that the gospel writers have different understandings of the nature and work of the Spirit.

For Luke, the coming of the Spirit has multiple dimensions. It is a sign that the last days are underway. At the same time, Luke believed that Jesus’ return (and the final and full manifestation of the Realm of God) would be delayed, so God poured the Spirit into the church to sustain the community through the wait and to empower the community to witness to the Realm through preaching, giving testimony before legal authorities, living together in eschatological community, working miracles, and doing other things that demonstrate the presence and future of the Realm. On Pentecost Day itself the ability of people from different languages and cultures to understand and support one another was a foreshadowing of the great reunion of the human family that would be part of the final eschatological world.

For John, the Spirit is the continuing presence of Jesus with the Johannine synagogue. The Spirit will enable the Johannine community not only to continue the ministry of Jesus but to extend that ministry (John 14:8-14). Just as the world opposed Jesus and harassed him, so the world will oppose the Johannine congregation, but the Spirit will sustain the congregation (John 14:18-24). The Spirit will continue to teach the community as Jesus taught them when he was incarnate (John 14:25-31).

The pictures of the Spirit in Acts and John are not fundamentally contradictory, but they are different enough that they cannot simply be melded together. The differences (along with many other distinctive pictures of the Spirit in the Bible) suggest that the congregation cannot simplyadopt the biblical (or the Christian) understanding of the Spirit, but instead that the preacher needs to help the community come to its own perception of the presence and work of the Spirit, and how to respond appropriately.

The readings from Numbers, Acts and John share a theological problem. These passages assume that the Spirit is a commodity (rather like water, only non-material) that God can pour into people in much the same way that a person pours iced tea from a pitcher into an empty glass on a June afternoon. Luke, for instance, says they were filled with the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:4)

As I see it, however, the Spirit is always present in life-animating ways. We respond to the Spirit in different ways and to different degrees at different times. Today’s readings use the language of being “filled” with the Spirit to speak of moments when people are more aware of, and responsive to, the Spirit than at other times. A preacher who thinks along these lines might encourage the congregation to try to deepen its receptivity to the presence and movement of the Spirit.

 

Ron Allen is Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis. With Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm and Dale and Andrews he is one of the editors of Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice (Westminster John Knox Press) (available for reduced rate here).