June 8 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Day of Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
Theme: It picks itself really, doesn't it? Of course, there are a number of variations on the general theme that might tempt you. I seem to recall that early on in my ministry I went for "A Tale of Two Pentecosts" (one from Luke and one from John) which certainly got the (somewhat unloving) attention of the more charismatic members of the parish. With my inability to keep up with the speed of the Easter Season this year, I'm still about a week from being ready for Pentecost: I'm still on Christ's instruction to wait. So I'm going with "Life on Hold".
Introduction. We begin this week with Luke's classic account of that first Pentecost experience, and we end with John's very different account of the giving of the Holy Spirit. (More about that later.) Sandwiched in-between is part of St Paul's careful instruction to the Corinthians on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a teaching often misunderstood or even ignored in our churches today.
Background. We often hear people quoted in the media saying something like, "Until this is over my life's on hold". The "this" being referred to may take many forms. Think for instance of long-running court trials. In South Africa Oscar Pistorius, in London Rolf Harris and Rebecca Brook and her co-accused, and in New Zealand the directors of South Canterbury Finance may well feel that until the outcome of their trials their lives are on hold. (I was going to include Kim Dotcom in that list but it's hard to see any evidence that he has put his life on hold!)
People facing serious threats to their health – awaiting tests or treatment – may feel that until they know where they are – until the results are in, decisions made, chances assessed, and treatment undergone, their lives are on hold. Less traumatic but often equally dramatic are students awaiting the results of important exams. Have they passed – have they got the all-important qualification that would enable them to move on to the next stage of their lives?
Others may be stuck in the world of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones, like the families and friends of the passengers and crew of the missing aircraft; while others know only too well what happened but cannot move on until they know why it happened, who was responsible, and how those responsible are to be held to account.
And among all those who, for whatever reason, have put their lives on hold there will be some who are praying, waiting, hoping to receive power from above. Waiting for their own personal Pentecost experience that will bring them new life where none seems possible.
At least people facing awful circumstances like those know what it is they are waiting for, know why they have put their lives on hold. But as Harold Pinter, Ionesco, and other dramatists of a few decades ago so brilliantly illustrated, there is a sense in which we can all live our lives as if they are permanently on hold – as if we are waiting for our own "Godots". I have often commented on that fascinating word "pastimes", which are things we do to pass the time – between what and what, we don't always know. Those things we will do one day may simply grow old with us because we have never quite got around to doing them before it is too late. Someone said recently that there is one thing we can say for pessimists – they are far more likely to actually do the things on their bucket lists – optimists always believe there's plenty of time for all that!
As I have continued to reflect on Christ's instruction to wait until you have received power from above, it has struck me that there is a much broader sense in which we as a society (in fact, as a world) seem to be in a holding pattern on so many fronts. Individually and collectively we know what we should do but often seem powerless to do it. Just this week we had another contribution from Professor Jim Mann, a modern-day prophet if ever there was one, urging better eating habits for our own good; yet another group is pushing us to face up to the problems associated with the over-consumption of alcohol; and the ongoing issues surrounding environmental degradation and climate-change continue to be debated endlessly. We are aware of the problems we face; we agree that something needs to be done; yet as individuals we continue to eat the wrong stuff and in the wrong quantities, and we continue be too busy for exercise, let alone for such time-consuming practices as prayer and meditation; and as a society we continue with policies and practices that are contrary to our own long-term interests, and even threaten the lives of our grandchildren and succeeding generations.
Are we all on hold? Are we waiting for something? Could it be that the prophets and mystics of the past were right – that at base all our problems are rooted in our spiritual malaise and are curable only by the power of love – the power that we are instructed to wait for until we have received it from above?
Which is a very roundabout way that has led me to think about the nature of the "power" that Christ told his disciples to await. Perhaps that's where we need to start our Pentecost ponderings. Too often it seems that we focus on the "miraculous" manifestations of the Spirit, the things that the Spirit enables us to do, the spectacular and exciting things. I once had a doctor who was widely esteemed as a brilliant diagnostician, but with the worst 'bedside manner' imaginable. I mean, we are talking Doc Martin in real life here. One of his other patients said to me one day, 'I don't care if he hates me, as long as he gets me well'. Would we think the same about the Holy Spirit? So long as I'm healed, that's all I ask of God?
No! and for a very good reason, as St Paul's teaching makes clear. Healing is not contagious. The man born blind could not "pass on his healing" and cure others born blind. But what he could do is love others with the love he had himself received. And ultimately that power to love is the one we need to transform the world.
Here's a little example of this I heard on the radio last Sunday. A black South African man was responsible for ordering the bombing of a pub even though Nelson Mandela had been released and genuine elections had been announced, and a truce was supposed to be in force. The reason for ordering the attack was an attack on a house three days earlier by South African security police in which some schoolchildren had been killed. One day this black South African was speaking at a public meeting when he was challenged by a white woman whose daughter had been killed in the attack on the pub. He asked if she would meet with him after the meeting, and she agreed. She told him her story and he told her his. Since then they have campaigned together for peace and reconciliation. She said it was her Christian faith that enabled her to forgive him – not out of obedience to Christ's teaching but out of love that she had received from Christ and was now able to pass on to him.
Think of Syria, or the Holy Land, or of any other land devastated by war, ethnic violence, and a history of hatred. Is there are any other remedy? Don't they all need that power from on high?
Acts. For all those present the waiting was over – they received power from above. Verses 1-4 show the inadequacy of human language to describe the actual spiritual experience they had at that time. Nor should verses 5-11 be treated as an invitation to geography buffs to play smart games. The key idea is that of understanding: somehow those that never quite "got" Jesus when they travelled with him for three years are suddenly able, not only to understand what he was on about all that time, but also to explain it to others despite all possible language barriers. Unity is the first fruit of the Spirit – the unity that was at the heart of the last prayer Jesus prayed on the night before he died, according to St John.
And even Peter, who so often got things spectacularly wrong, is now able to explain from the Scriptures (the same Scriptures that the Risen Christ explained to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus) what exactly is going on. God is beginning to fulfil his promise to pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Taking It Personally.
· Is there any sense in which your life is on hold? What are you waiting for?
· Do you agree or disagree that the "power" of the Holy Spirit is the power to love others?
· Are you more likely to pray for the Holy Spirit to come down to heal you (or others), or to empower you to love others more?
· Would you like the Holy Spirit to come in power on your local faith community in some sort of spectacular manifestation? Have you prayed for that? What do you think might happen to your community in the wake of such a manifestation?
· Does the whole idea of the Holy Spirit make you rather nervous? Is the Holy Spirit scarier to you than the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity? Why?
Corinthians. It is clear that the church at Corinth has experienced all sorts of manifestations of the Spirit, so much so that the members of that church have lost sight of its all-embracing mandate to build them up in unity and mutual love into one body. For me there are three main points that we need to grasp clearly in this passage. First, it is through the Spirit that we know and proclaim authentically that Jesus is Lord. Secondly, that there are different gifts, and they are distributed to various members of the congregation as the Spirit determines. Any attempt to assert that all Christians should have this or that gift (a heresy most often associated for some reason with the gift of tongues) clearly contravenes this Scripture. Thirdly, all such gifts are given for the common good, so that within the local manifestation of the Body of Christ all such gifts may be present.
Taking It Personally.
- A passage to work through slowly. Start with verses 1-3. Make "Jesus is Lord" your mantra for the next 7 days. What does it mean for you? In what way is Jesus Lord of your life?
- Now move on to verses 4-11. Which gifts has the Spirit given you? How do you use them? What gifts do you discern in other members of your faith community?
- Meditate on verses 12-13. Do you experience their truth at a deep level? When you gather with others in your local faith community do you feel the unity of the Body of Christ?
John. It is good to have just these few verses today. So often we scuttle past them in our haste to renew our acquaintanceship with Thomas. Once again John shows his mastery, as he has Jesus breathe the Spirit into the disciples as God breathed that same Spirit into Adam. Without ever using the words, he tells us that the new creation, like the old one, is born through the life-giving breath of God. Notice, too, that the gift of the Spirit brings with it the power to forgive, as in the "South African parable", above. Talking of Thomas, did he miss out on receiving the Holy Spirit? Verse 28 (read in the light of 1 Corinthians 12:3) surely shows otherwise.
Taking It Personally.
- A good passage to pray with the imagination. Put yourself in this scene, and see what happens.
- Does it concern you that this seems to be an alternative, and even contradictory, account of the coming of the Holy Spirit?
- In what way have you been sent by Christ? How would you describe your mission? How is it going so far?
- Are you aware of Christ's peace in your life? Are you at peace with him? Are you at peace with the other members of your faith community?