May 27 NOTES FOR REFLECTION The Day of Pentecost
Texts:Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Theme:Not much thought required here this week: perhaps a choice between "The Spirit Poured Out", emphasising the Divine initiative, or "The Coming of the Spirit", seeing it in terms of the human experience.
Introduction.Similarly, this is one of those wonderful Sundays when we do not need to spend time working out the relationship between the three readings. They are all about the Holy Spirit. The famous Valley of the Dry Bones prophecy from Ezekiel enables us to see the contrast between the activity of the Spirit in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In general, in the former we see the Spirit coming upon particular individuals (usually identified as prophets) for a particular function on a particular occasion or series of occasions. Today, although Ezekiel is already a prophet of great standing, the Spirit comes upon him again to show him something (the vision) and to give him a particular message to preach to the people (drawn from the vision). In the New Testament, again as a generalisation the experience of receiving the Spirit is much more communal. While preserving the individuality of members of the faith community the Spirit comes to all members. [It's just dawned on me that the episode in Numbers 11, where the Spirit came upon all 72 elders, even the two who hadn't bothered to show up, rather contradicts my thesis, but I did say I was talking in general terms!] The gospel again sets out the principal role and ministry of the Holy Spirit. The emphasis is on teaching and guiding the community of faith, continuing the ministry of Jesus, whom they called Rabbi.
Background.This is one of those days when I am nearly able to feel sorry for all those who do not believe in the supernatural/spiritual nature of our faith, particularly those who are called to preach on this Day of Pentecost. In fact, the whole Easter Season must be one long torment for them. Even if they take refuge in psycho-babble to "explain" (away) the resurrection appearances, what on earth are they to say about the events of Pentecost? The fact is, the whole Easter Season is about religious/spiritual experiences, and those experiences reach their wonderful conclusion with the Coming of the Spirit on this day. Can there be a non-spiritual (that is, non-supernatural) understanding of Pentecost?
One of the leading biblical historians and teachers writing today is an American scholar named (rather wonderfully) Timothy Luke Johnson. He has written a large number of New Testament commentaries; but recently I discovered a wonderful book by him entitled Religious Experience in the Earliest Christianity, with the very telling sub-title A Missing Dimension in New Testament Study. Briefly, his contention is this. The primary cause of the early explosive growth in the membership of the Christian Church was not its teaching (important though that was), nor its wonderful pastoral care and outreach (impressive though that was), but the undeniable experience among members of the coming of the Spirit. Luke may be constructing his Easter-Ascension-Pentecost timetable as a story-teller more than a strict reporter or historian, but the basic inescapable fact seems to be that SOMETHING HAPPENED to the believers that transformed them inside and out, and the New Testament witness, through its many individual writers, is unanimous in terming that Something "The Holy Spirit".
It's particularly important to me that St Luke is one of the primary authorities for this, along with Paul and John. Look again at Luke's seemingly unimportant words to his patron, Theophilus, at the beginning of his first volume, known to us as The Gospel of Luke:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account...
He makes no claim to have been with Jesus from the beginning: he himself must have been a convert. He makes no claim to originality in the story he has written: he is passing on what he has received from others, going back to the accounts of eye-witnesses. He is the careful scholar, interviewing, sifting, and recording. And he sets a similar tone in the opening few lines of his second volume, The Book of Acts:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to them and gave many convincing proofs he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised...
We can suppose, therefore, that his so-called timetable arose like this. The information to hand was that the Risen Christ had appeared to a number of people (Paul says over 500 in 1 Corinthians 15) over a short period of time, a matter of a few weeks, and then these appearances ceased. When did they cease? A few days before the Feast of Pentecost when the Spirit came upon us, reported the witnesses. So, 40 being of great symbolic importance in the biblical tradition, Luke made it 40 days to the Ascension, and a few days, 10, to Pentecost.
Of far greater importance is his account of what happened on that day, and over subsequent weeks, months and years, as recorded throughout the Book of Acts. We cannot make any sense of much of the Book of Acts if we exclude all accounts of the experience of the believers described in various ways as receiving the Holy Spirit.
Timothy Luke Johnson refers particularly to three manifestations of this in the early church, two of which are well-known to us, and the third frightens us into avoidance techniques. The three are baptism, the Eucharist, and Glossolalia ( better known as Speaking in Tongues). And so to today's readings.
Ezekiel.As with Pentecost, so with this event. What sense can we make of it if we are not allowed to accept any supernatural activity? The language of religious/spiritual experience is all here. The prophet has an experience of being transported to another place. (We talk of being "transported" or "carried away".) He has a vision and hears a voice. The classic description of ecstatic experience is there, too: He is "brought out" by the Spirit. The vision is not one of aesthetic pleasure; he is shown a valley but no description of the valley is given. There is a mantra-like repetition of the word "bones". The meaning and importance of the vision is explained to him, and he is commissioned by the Spirit to proclaim a specific message to the people.
Taking It Personally.
Can you recall a time when you have been so absorbed by something (reading, listening to music, jigsaw puzzle, Sudoku or crossword, etc) that you have lost all sense of time? Has that ever happened to you while in prayer or at a worship service?
Recall a particularly pleasant visit to a place you enjoy. Picture it as clearly as you can in your mind. In what way would a recollected vision of this kind differ from the sort of vision described by Ezekiel?
Have you ever had a vision of the kind described by Ezekiel? Do you want to have such a vision?
Have you ever heard God speak to you in such a direct way?
Sir Alister Hardy, founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, posed this question: Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self? What is your answer to that question?
Acts.Notice immediately the slightly different language used here compared to the language of the resurrection appearances. In the latter case we are told what the disciples saw and heard, although they often had difficulties of recognition. Now straight descriptions have given way to analogies. They did not hear the wind; they heard "a sound like the blowing of a violent wind". Similarly, they did not see flames coming down on their heads: they saw "what seemed to be tongues of fire". The language has become more "visionary" or "spiritual". But however they understood or described the experience in auditory or visual terms, something happened to them. Verse 4 is crucial; it has two elements, that which happened (they "began to speak in other tongues") and Luke's editorial comments "all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit", and, "as the Spirit enabled them". Notice that, as we have the text, being filled with the Holy Spirit is a separate event, which is then made manifest in the speaking of other tongues.
Luke stresses that this is both a communal and an individual experience: they were all together...they saw...tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them...all of them were filled...and began to speak..."
And this is what draws the crowds – not their teaching or social outreach, but this strange spiritual experience and phenomenon. Not surprisingly the crowd is split: some are bewildered, amazed and questioning, wanting to know what to make of it all. Others scoff. Then Peter, who has already emerged as the de facto leader (or at least spokesman) for the group gives the theological/biblical explanation. This follows the pattern we see frequently in the immediate aftermath of Easterof religious event or experience, reflected upon and ultimately explained in terms of the Scriptures. Compare Luke's story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Taking It Personally.
Have you ever spoken in tongues, or been present when someone else has done so? What did you make of it? If not, would you like to? How do you feel about the prominence given to the phenomenon in this case and elsewhere in the Book of Acts?
What other signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit might we look for in ourselves, in others, or in our local congregation?
John.Many scholars believe that the Farewell Discourses (chapters 13-17) were written after the original gospel, in which case they seem to have been intended as an update, recording the subsequent experiences of this particular community of faith. If so, it provides the strongest possible support for the view that spiritual experiences (more properly, in this context, experiences of the Holy Spirit) were at the very heart of this faith community. John's understanding about the work of the Holy Spirit can be summarised in three words, "presence", "truth", and "power". Through the Holy Spirit believers experience the presence of Christ with and within us. Through the Holy Spirit we gain in understanding and acceptance of the teaching of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit we are empowered to do things we would not ordinarily be able to achieve, either because of the inherent difficulty of the task in question, or because of our own weakness of will. Without Jesus we can do nothing, etc. Thus, the coming of the Spirit is a gift of God, real and complete in itself, but the proof of that gift in ourselves is proven by the way in which we live out our lives of faith. By our fruits shall we be known.
Taking It Personally.
Remind yourself that in baptism you received the gift of the Holy Spirit. In what ways has that gift been manifested in your life so far?