Pentecost Sunday

May 30, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Reading 3: 
Acts 2:1-21 or Romans 8:14-17
Reading 4: 
John 14:8-17, (25-27)
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Acts 2:1-21
In his story of the first Christian Pentecost, Luke portrays the Holy Spirit as a unifying force, a “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 (a contrast underlined by the alternate choice for first lesson, Genesis 11:1-9), 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. In this Luke differs from John, whose understanding is that the Spirit cannot come until Jesus departs (see comment below). 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 that final culmination.

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.

Romans 8:14-17
With the Romans passage, we turn from the more “outward” and cosmic aspects of the Spirit to the more “inward” and personal. In this short passage, Paul speaks volumes about the Spirit’s work in the individual human spirit, creating relationships with God, Jesus, and the Christian community. Paul presents here the most elemental, stripped-down form of Christian prayer: to cry “Abba! Father!” is to claim the same relationship with God that Jesus himself experienced; quite apart from all content of petition, intercession, thanksgiving, or praise, simply to ask to stand in relationship with God as Jesus does, is the essential Christian prayer. And, Paul says, we do not pray that prayer on our own: our very praying is the work of the Spirit in us, the Spirit praying with our spirits, and creating the relationships we seek: “that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Furthermore, if we are “joint heirs,” then our relationship with God in Christ also puts us in relationship with each other. These ever-expanding circles of relationship comprehend all the “suffering” and all the “glory” possible to human life, the whole range of human becoming—and all are centered on the relationship of Spirit to spirit. For Paul here, the Spirit is the power of relationality that activates all human relationships as potential channels of God’s grace.

John 14:8-17, (25-27)
The Gospel lesson picks up many of the same themes as the Epistle, rendered now with characteristically Johannine motifs and images. Where Paul uses the language of adoption, John prefers the language of “interpenetration”: Jesus is in God, and God in Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth will be in those who believe in Jesus, and the believer will do the things that Jesus does. Here again, emphasis is placed on how the Spirit empowers believers to have the same relationship to God that Jesus has. When Philip asks to see God, Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”: because Jesus does what only God can do, and in process thought “a thing is what it does,” therefore Jesus is God in human life; that is why Jesus admonishes Philip, “the Father who dwells in me does his works… believe me because of the works themselves.” Furthermore, because the Holy Spirit will come in Jesus’ name, and “will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you,” therefore it is through the Spirit that Jesus will be “in” the believers, and the believers will share the same relationship with God that Jesus has, and the believers “will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” The Spirit is the matrix and active medium of these “interpenetrating” relationships by which the works of God come to be done by Jesus’ followers. That is why for John, unlike Luke, the Spirit cannot come until Jesus has departed: because Jesus is the principle and pattern of human life in the divine and the divine in human life, the Spirit who reproduces that interpenetrating relationship can only be manifest after the relationship is established in Jesus. Jesus is the originating occasion, as it were, which the Spirit then reenacts in subsequent believers; the Spirit can only “remind” believers of what Jesus has said after Jesus has said it. Whereas for Luke the Spirit provides the harboring environment in which the Jesus-event can happen, for John the Jesus-event is the origin of the defining characteristic which the Spirit then carries forward into new instantiations.

For both John and Luke, however—as, indeed, for Paul and the Psalmist—the most important point is that the Holy Spirit is the power of relationality by which God’s aims at intense harmony and harmonious intensity become active in the world. Whether we look for that power of relationality in history, nature, individual life, or mystical inspiration, it is one and the same Spirit we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

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.