INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - PENTECOST SUNDAY
ACTS 2:1-21. The Jews celebrated Pentecost long before the Christian Church adopted it as the anniversary of the gift the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel refers to it by its Jewish name, “the Festival of Weeks.” Originally a harvest festival, it also had a connection with the covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17). Later it became linked with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. For Christians, this passage tells how the Spirit came unexpectedly upon the apostles giving them a new mandate: to proclaim the sovereignty of God’s love through the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah/Christ.
GENESIS 11:1-9. (Alternate) This OT lesson tells the ancient myth of how there came to be so many languages spoken by the human race. It would seem obvious that the writer of the Pentecost story in Acts 2 had this myth in mind in describing the glossolalia of that event.
PSALM 104:24-35. Someone has said that nature is the language of the Bible. This psalm brings this characteristic to the fore by declaring the dependence of all nature, including humanity, on God.
ROMANS 8:14-17. Paul points out that the Spirit of God is the power by which Christians live their faith as the children of God. This dependent relationship in no way diminishes our status, but actually gives us a new standing as heirs, in fact, “joint heirs with Christ.” The term “children of God” is the equivalent of Jesus Christ being called “Son of God.” The gift of the Spirit is unconditional, but we must be prepared for its challenges to join Jesus in our holy status.
JOHN 14:8-17. We do not know how much of this excerpt from Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper contains actual words Jesus uttered. John, or possibly a group of disciples of the apostle John, may have created it from some remembered sayings of Jesus to summarize what he (or they) believed Jesus would have said about his special relationship to God. Here John addresses those who have a problem seeing Jesus as the full revelation of God. This issue which still generates fervent debate in our own denomination.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ACTS 2:1-21. The Jews celebrated Pentecost long before the Christian Church adopted it as the anniversary of the gift the Holy Spirit. John's Gospel refers to it by its Jewish name, "the Festival of Weeks." Originally a harvest festival, it also had a connection with the covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17). About 200 CE the Jewish rabbinical tradition linked with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
What then was the purpose behind the choice of this day to celebrate the gift of the Spirit to the apostolic church? Surely this was not the first time the disciples had felt the presence of the Spirit. There are at least two different traditions about the time and circumstances of the gift. John 20:22 reports that this occurred on the evening of the day of Jesus' resurrection when Jesus breathed on the assembled disciples. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, Paul also describes a resurrection appearance of Jesus to “five hundred brethren at one time.” Could this have been his understanding of the Pentecost experience?
This passage tells how the Spirit came unexpectedly upon the apostles fifty days after the resurrection to give them the mandate for a new mission: to proclaim the sovereignty of God’s love through the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah/Christ. The difference between the traditions is related to the results of the experience. Luke , the presumed author of Acts, makes it clear that on this occasion the disciples received the spiritual power to carry out their newly assigned mission.
Note also that in the ending of the Luke’s Gospel he does speak of the Spirit as a future gift (24:49). He also wrote of the mission of proclaiming the resurrection and the forgiveness of sins, and promises to empower them. Then, after blessing them, “he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” as described in a more complete version of the ascension in Acts 1:1-11.
The results of the infusion of the Spirit can be enumerated as follows: (1) Glossolalia: As described here this may have been more a symbol of the universality of the Christian proclamation than the charismaton of 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Luke's identification of the Diaspora communities represented in Jerusalem at that time (vss. 6-11) supports this view. (2) The courage to speak publicly of what they had seen and heard despite the dangers of imminent persecution by the same religious leaders who had arranged Jesus' crucifixion. (3) The earliest Christian apologia contained in Peter's sermon. C.H. Dodd called this the basic apostolic kerygma or preaching. (4) The immediate expansion of the disciple community as people responded to the preaching of the gospel (vss. 37-42).
The quotation from Joel places the event within the long-standing eschatological tradition of Israel. In the original Hebrew text of Joel, the prophecy carried a message of doom in which "the day of the Lord" meant "the terrible day" filled with threat and fear. The Greek version in the LXX had translated the Hebrew in such a way as to transform the day of judgment into something "notable" (KJV) or "splendid." Hence "the Lord's great and glorious day" (vs. 20 NRSV). In short, the Christian eschaton (end time) of Pentecost had completely transformed the "day of the Lord" into something to be celebrated with great rejoicing rather than feared for its dire threat.
There is another possible interpretation of the Pentecost event held by a minority of scholars. It is the Parousia - the second coming of Christ. In the early decades following the resurrection and ascension, the apostolic church held firmly to the belief that Jesus would return in glory at some later and totally unexpected date. This reflected their adoption of the influential Jewish eschatological texts in prophetic literature. Certain eschatological passages of the NT maintained this view and attributed parables and declarations of this kind to Jesus himself. It is quite probable that Jesus did hold such views of the Messiah. But did he continue to hold this view after he recognized his own messianic character? Careful examination of the teachings of Jesus indicate that these eschatological passages can be fairly interpreted as assurances of God’s purpose being accomplished rather than a descriptions of specific future events.
Toward the end of the lst century CE, however, the apostolic church began to realize that the anticipated second coming had been delayed and might never come as originally expected. It then became more important to describe the purpose of Christ’s coming as the proclamation of the sovereignty of divine love for all of creation. Furthermore, creation is being redeemed within the normal context of history. The promise of a second coming is the hope of the fulfillment of God’s continuing redemptive work. In this light, Pentecost becomes the empowerment of all who believe so that they may participate in the redemptive mission initiated by Christ. In this we too are involved right now as each day passes.
GENESIS 11:1-9. (Alternate) This OT lesson tells the ancient myth of how there came to be so many languages spoken by the human race. It would seem obvious that the writer of the Pentecost story in Acts 2 had this myth in mind in describing the glossolalia of that event.
In and of itself, the story bases the multiplicity of languages on human pride. By attempting to build a tower that reached to the heavens, the people sought to take control of their own destiny. The response of Yahweh blocked their efforts by causing them to speak in a confusion of languages and to spread “over the face of the earth.”
People living in the so-called Fertile Crescent stretching from the valley of the Nile in Egypt to the Tigris-Euphrates delta into the Persian Gulf were familiar with two elements of this story: a confusing number of languages and the ziggurat, towering temples that reached toward the heavens in cities like Babylon. As the tides of history moved back and forth along this crescent, many different languages and cultures came into almost constant conflict. Problems in communication had significant effects on the clash of cultures, as they still have in our time too. But this interaction also had permanent influence on the development of the Hebrew language. Like the English language today, ancient Hebrew included many words borrowed from several different cultural sources.
About fifty miles from Baghdad in the Tigris-Euphrates valley of modern Iraq, one can still see the ruins of the city of Babylon, named for this myth. The name of the city and the word Babel formed a play on the Hebrew word balel, which meant “confusion or mixing.” In the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus described a ziggurat or six staged tower crowned with a small chapel which served as the temple of the Babylonian deity, Marduk. Jews would have seen this architectural wonder of the ancient world during their exile in Babylon. Built of sun-dried brick and standing near the Euphrates River, the ziggurat would have been subject to erosion by wind, rain and floods. It would also have been a strategic target for invading armies. It has been suggested that the myth may have been inspired by a time when the tower was being reconstructed after suffering some such catastrophe. Does this story convey some biting sarcasm about the impermanence of the foreign deity whose followers had caused the Israelites such pain?
PSALM 104:24-35. "The universe is rationally transparent and God has written two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. We are creatures made in the image of the creation, made up, literally, of bits of carbon from far away stars." So said Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a past president of Queen's College, Cambridge, former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (he'd be Sir John if he weren't an ordained Anglican priest.) He was speaking at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle, WA where he kicked off a conference called "Cosmos and Creator: God of Physics, God of Astronomy." Polkinghorn was an avowed enthusiast for the concept of creation by intelligent design.
Someone else has said that nature is the language of the Bible. This psalm brings these two thoughts together by declaring the dependence of all nature on God. The poem shows remarkable similarity of this poem with others in the wider cultural setting of the ancient Middle East. In a recent book, The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, Canadian scholar and journalist Tom Harpur, claimed that all Middle Eastern mythology and religious texts, including Israel’s, should be seen as revisions of the basic religious myths and texts of ancient Egypt.
In The Interpreter's Bible, (iv. 550) W. Stewart McCullough commented that the psalmist appeared to have been familiar with other creation stories known to Israel. He shares the viewpoint of the P document. However, the theme of creation and control of nature by a supernatural power inspired writers in various cultures, especially the Egyptian "Hymn to the Aton" which dates from the time of Akhenaton (1380-1362 BC), a ruler with distinct monotheistic interests. McCullough believed that the resemblances could be accounted for by a common monotheistic approach to the world of nature. The differences between the poems were notable in that the Egyptian hymn the sun is the creator, whereas in the Hebrew psalm the sun is but a part of the handiwork of the Yahweh.
A parallel to vss. 24-26 may be found in Gen.1:20-23 where Yahweh's is said to worked on the fifth day of creation. Vss. 27-30 correspond to Gen. 1:29-30. The doxology in vss. 31-35 contains two elements of note. The psalmist called on Yahweh to rejoice in his handiwork while raising his own voice in similar rejoicing. The final verse offers a solution to the problem of evil frequently found in other psalms. This may not satisfy modern minds, but did express the traditional Hebrew faith that good would ultimately triumph. Indeed, it seems so out of character with the rest of the passage that it may have been added by someone with a more intense moralistic intent than that of the original poet.
ROMANS 8:14-17. One could certainly claim that this is a Spirit-filled passage, perhaps the most Spirit-filled in all of the Pauline corpus. In vss. 1-13 preceding this reading the Spirit is named twelve times and in these four verses, three more. Paul is saying forcefully as he can that the Spirit of God is the power by which Christians live their faith as the children of God.
The very assertion that we are the children of God is something far beyond anything that Israel's religious leaders had ever claimed. In the OT the term “sons of God” was limited to supernatural beings. Nonetheless, association of Spirit with the messianic king (Isa. 11:2; 42:1), true prophecy and the expectation of manifestations of the Spirit in the messianic age (Joel 2:28-29) contributed to the intertestamental conviction that the Spirit would be silent until the new age dawned. This was what Peter said in his sermon at Pentecost, and was evidenced again in the coming of the Spirit to the congregation in the home of the Gentile Cornelius at Caesarea (Acts 10:44-48).
On the other hand, every male Jew was regarded as a "b'nai b'rith," a son of the covenant. Israel was “the chosen people” solely by Yahweh’s election. This designated a special relationship, but led to the exclusionary belief in the spiritual superiority of the Jews whether by birth or by choice. In the singular form “the son of God” referred to the royal representative of chosen people.
Paul made no less claim for himself. In this passage, however, he introduced a startling new metaphor - adoption. Christians are the adopted off-spring of God. William Barclay brings forward an even more surprising interpretation of this metaphor. Paul was not only a Jew, but a Roman citizen. He undoubtedly had in the forefront of his mind the Roman practice of legal adoption. In his Daily Bible Study - The Letter to the Romans, Barclay outlines the way in which this took place. (See p.110-111) In summary, a child to be adopted had to pass from the patria potestas (absolute power of the father) of his natural father into that of his adoptive father. The adopted son lost all rights to his former family and gained all the rights of a fully legitimate child of his new family. He could then inherit his adoptive father's estate, even if other sons were afterwards born as real blood relations. In the eyes of the law, the former life of the adopted person completely disappeared. The adopted person literally and absolutely had a new father.
Barclay adds the ironic twist in citing a very famous adoption: In order that Nero might succeed him on the throne, Emperor Claudius adopted Nero. They had no known blood relationship. Claudius already had a daughter, Octavia. When Nero wished to cement the alliance he chose to marry Octavia. The Roman senate had to pass special legislation to enable Nero to marry her, his sister by adoption.
Nero became emperor in 54 when Paul's missionary work was at its height. It was during the middle years of Nero's reign that he wrote The Letter to the Romans. Tradition has it that Paul was executed in Rome 62 when Nero was far advanced in his murderous paranoia. Having already executed his step-brother, Britannicus, whom he displaced as heir of Claudius, and his own mother, Nero divorced and then arranged the execution of Octavia in that same year in which Paul also died.
Is it too far-fetched to imagine that Paul's execution had some connection with these words in Romans 8? If Paul wrote this in a letter to the Roman Christians before he arrived in Rome, is it not likely that he also preached this same message when he was there, a Roman prisoner? Would this not be evidence used against him when he appeared before Nero? After all, the theme of the passage is the true nature of spiritual inheritance. And Nero believed that he was God, but unlike the implication of moral responsibility that came with the gift of the Spirit of God in Paul’s teaching, Nero’s amoral lifestyle denied everything godlike in his character.
As in legal Roman adoption, the new relationship into which our spiritual adoption brings us in no way diminishes our status. Actually it gives us a new standing as heirs, in fact "joint heirs with Christ." The term "children of God" is the equivalent of Jesus Christ being called "Son of God." But in his last sentence of this reading, however, does Paul introduce a conditional qualification? Not likely, since Paul firmly believed in the unconditional grace of God mediated by Jesus Christ. More probably Paul was saying with these concluding words that as a result of inheriting this holy status, we must also certainly accept its challenges, possibly at times to the point of suffering for it as Christ did.
JOHN 14:8-17. As much as we love John 13-17 and especially this chapter 14, this excerpt from Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper may contain only a few actual words that Jesus uttered. John, or quite possibly one or more of a group of disciples of the apostle John, created the whole discourse from some of Jesus' remembered sayings. They gave it this longer form to summarize what he (or they) believed Jesus would have said about on the occasion of his departure.
However we may interpret its origin, this passage has a very theological tone. The issue under discussion is the special relationship of Jesus to God. It addresses those who were having a problem regarding Jesus as the full revelation of God. This issue still generates fervent debate in our own time. So what is John saying in these words attributed to Jesus?
In response to Philip's longing, "Show us the Father and we will be satisfied," Jesus gave an indirect, somewhat rhetorical answer designed to elicit Philip's (and our) faith. Then he unequivocally declared his total identity with God: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." He follows this with a further declaration as to the validity of the words he has spoken and the deeds he has done. Then he makes an absolutely astonishing claim: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father."
This assertion can only be understood in the light of Pentecost. We must remember too that this passage was written some sixty or more years after that unique event. This powerless troop of Galileans could no more imagine than we can how God could redeem the world through their witness of words and deeds. It was so at the end of the 1st century when John wrote the Fourth Gospel. It is still so at the beginning of the 21st century as we sit in our now uncomfortable pews in trembling fear as the cataclysmic upheavals of our own time swirl like flowing lava around us.
Yet, to change the metaphor, there is a key which will unlock and swing wide the gates of history in every age: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever....He abides with you and will be in you." (vss. 15-17) With faith in Jesus, the Messiah/Christ, Son of God, comes the gift of the Spirit and the moral responsibility. The Spirit blesses us with the spiritual grace to live in love for God and neighbour as did Jesus himself.
In this passage Pentecost is a promise. In John's time and in ours, it was and is a reality. As we read our daily newspapers or watch the news reports on our television screens, it may be incredibly difficult to see the hand of God in the turbulent affairs of our time. But as the creed of The United Church of Canada reminds us: “We are not alone. We live in God’s world, who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.... In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us” - Father, Son and Spirit.
Additional Preaching Points.
(This essay is intended to supplement the comments on the lessons for The Day of Pentecost above.)
Pentecost raises in some minds the question of the nature of spirit.. This is usually discussed in two different ways: the metaphysical and the metaphorical. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit) In recent years, psychologists, neurologists, philosophers, even economic historians as well as religious leaders have been turning their attention to mutli-disciplinary inquiry into the nature of the much maligned phenomena and human experience of spiritual realities. The Metanexus Institute is an example of the discussions which have taken place with the intention of bringing about a dialogue if not a rapproachement of religious, social, political, economic and scientific thought.
First, a look at the definition of the English word spirit .
The word comes from the Latin spiritus, which means "breath," a sense that derived from the Latin of Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible. The OED gives the basic definition as “The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life too the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements.” The almost identical definition of soul in the OED leads to the conclusion that the two words are synonymous: “The principle of life in man or animals; animate existence.” Thus spirit also can mean "soul, courage, vigor.” The original root of spirit is thought to be Proto-Indo-European, as opposed to Latin anima and Greek psyché, generally translated as soul.
What then are we to make of the Holy Spirit ? Is it just a biblical name best considered as a metaphor for what the writers of scripture perceived as God at work in creation and human history? In asking these questions we are bound to deal with the human experience of reality and truth that is at one and the same time both transcendent and immanent. Usually a discussion of this subject would be limited to theologians and philosophers of religion. Since we cannot yet reduce such reality to mathematical formulae or accurately measure the nature or extent of such experiences, scientists might tend to limit the boundaries of research in this field.
A former head of the department of psychology at McGill University, Montreal, used to begin each year’s lectures to the freshmen class with the statement, “For the purposes of this course, there is no soul.” In making this assertion he avoided any discussion of spiritual and religious issues which he believed should be limited to the stately confines of the department of religious studies at Divinity Hall across the campus.
Kurt Gödel, (1906-1978) a brilliant mathematician and friend of Albert Einstein, showed that there can exist propositions that by insight must be true but that cannot be proven mathematically. This led his to a theist and personal concept of God and belief in the afterlife while appealing to human reason as his witness. He found that even the most exacting scientist places faith in the cognitive processes of the intellect even though arguing that science and mathematics are outside the realm of faith. Hector Rosario stated in an article on Gödel’s work that “a closer look at the foundations of physics and mathematics, as well as to the history of these subjects, seems to yield a different conclusion. This closer look reveals a delicate membrane that conjoins these experiences: Faith. This is the greatest common denominator of science, mathematics, and theology.” (“Kurt Gödel's Mathematical and Scientific Perspective of the Divine: A Rational Theology.” The Metanexus Institute. The Global Spiral. February, 2007.)
This recalls Anselm’s famous dictum that God is “that thing which nothing greater can be thought.” At the same time psycho-neurological research as well as intuitive insights - in biblical language regarded as revelations - may well “help in the search for common ground—a search that is crucial given the trajectory of present scientific research, particularly into the nature of sentience,” as Kathleen L. Housley put it in her article in The Global Spiral (January 2010), “Seeing the Thunder: Insight and Intuition in Science, Mathematics and Religion.”
Gödel also thought mathematical intuition to be a kind of “knowing” that defied mathematical formulation. It was similar to a physical sense such as hearing or sight. He went so far as to regard it as a sixth sense. In biblical and theological terms, this is metaphorical thinking. The experience being inspired by the God, as the prophets of Israel believed they were, or of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the apostles did on the Day of Pentecost, can thus be considered valid
forms of knowledge. Housley further reminded us of Gödel’s assertion that something can be known objectively even though its discernment is beyond sensory perception is the equivalent to the insight of Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is to be certain of what cannot be seen.”
About the same time that Gödel was in his prime, an Anglican professor, R. H. L. Slater was lecturing in the philosophy of religion at the University of Rangoon, Burma. I had the privilege of studying under him at McGill University, Montreal, from 1948-50. In 1957 he went to Harvard University to found the Center for the Study of World Religions. Slater’s study of human destiny, God of the Living, (Charles Scribner’s, 1939) presented a cogent analysis of the fundamental Christian belief that God is Love as “the last word of Christian devotion, the climax of Christian faith.... Remove that conviction, and the whole scheme of redemption is lost, the ground of confidence, aye, even the ground of worship, is shaken. Destroy it, and the Christian faith itself is destroyed.... It is the meaning behind the Cross. It is the reason for the Church.” (Slater, 294)
A profoundly Trinitarian, Slater held that humans are neither barbarians or saints. “His (sic) history and his constitution call him to live with his fellows in the bonds of creative charity, not to prey upon them or forsake them.... Man is not a fighting animal. He is spirit in the making. And spirit is love.”
That love is personal and is being experienced every day by ordinary people who
seek the reign of God’s love in their own lives and in the unfolding of history. The recent review of economic history by Jeremy Rifkin posits the thesis that the future hope for global peace and security rests in what he called the development of “empathic civilization.” Reading this study made one immediately think of the Gospel phrase, “the kingdom of God.” Rifkin’s analysis could be seen as an appeal for the application of the Golden Rule to geopolitics and economics. Are we not seeing this worked out in the day to day events in Europe in the spring of 2010 as frantic efforts are made to rescue national economies in the face a traumatic and foolhardy fiscal decisions by too compliant governments? Can this not be seen as the Holy Spirit of God at work in much the same way that the inspiration of Moses led to the freeing of the Israelites from the privation of slavery in Egypt?