Friday, May 9, 2008

Some Notes on the Readings for the Day of Pentecost (For St Matthias')

The figure shows an Eastern Orthodox icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Kosmos, the allegorical figure at the bottom, symbolizes the world. [From Wikipedia]

The Day of Pentecost is the conclusion of the Easter Festival, when God sent the promised Holy Spirit on the disciples and empowered them to proclaim the risen Christ to all the world. It is in the Spirit that the risen and ascended Christ is with us, and this is why we believe that his Ascension did not take him from us. On this day we cannot forget Christ’s words from the Cross, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:40) or John ‘s description of his death, that “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). It is through the power of God's Holy Word and Spirit that Christ unites us to himself in Baptism and feeds us in the Holy Eucharist.
You will often hear Pentecost described as “the birthday of the Church”, since it was on that day that the disciples were empowered and emboldened to go out and proclaim the Gospel. But on reading the Gospel, when we hear that on the evening of the first Easter Day the risen Jesus breathed the Spirit on his disciples and gave them the authority to forgive, we might also want to call Easter the Church's birthday. Perhaps the whole Easter celebration truly marks the birthday of the Church. I will leave that for you to ponder.
In the notes this week I have tried to frame some points as questions that might spark further thought and contemplation.
The First Reading, Acts 2:1-21
After the Ascension of Christ, the disciples returned to Jerusalem as he had commanded to wait there for "the promise of the Father", the baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). According to the narrative in Luke and Acts, they waited ten days, during which time “they were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:53). They also chose Matthias to fill up the number of the twelve Apostles.
In today’s reading, a new beginning is announced by the formulaic expression, “When the day of Pentecost had come”, or literally, “was completed”. Pentecost means “fiftieth” in Greek, from which we may understand that on that day the time from Passover to the feast of Weeks that was completed (Leviticus 23:15-21). As Chris Haslam points out over at the Revised Common Lectionary site, it may also be translated as “fulfilled”, for the coming of the Spirit is the fulfilment of a promise. On that day, when the disciples were all together, they experienced a manifestation of the promised Spirit which drove them out to preach boldly. As we see from the Gospel today, this is not the only time when the Spirit was given. Since the Spirit is ever poured out through Christ on God’s people, there is no use in our guessing that one was the “real” gift of the Spirit. There is so much that could be said on this passage that I will offer only some brief notes:
The disciples’ experience cannot adequately be expressed: note that the sound was “like” rushing wind, and it was tongues “as of fire” that rested on them.
The disciples were given a gift of speaking in other tongues (v. 4); later we hear that each of the crowd of Jews from all nations heard them in their own native language. This seems to be different from the gift of tongues S Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 14, which was an incoherent form of speech. On this line we may see the gift on the day of Pentecost as God’s proclamation that the curse of Babel has been undone (Genesis 11:1-9) and that the divided peoples of the world are to be gathered into one again in Christ. It This interpretation has been questioned: does not the cynical reaction (“they are drunk!”) rather suggest that the disciples were speaking incoherently? This is not a necessary inference: some in the crowd may just have thought that what the disciples said was raving.
The list of nations is meant to show the universality of the Gospel message. It covers the world (as seen from Jerusalem) from Persia far in the east to Rome far in the west.
The second part of the passage is the opening of St Peter’s speech (the “first Christian sermon”) in which he shows from the prophet Joel that this is the long promised outpouring of the Spirit and the sign of the salvation of the end-times. We have heard from this speech several times in the Easter season.
The alternative first reading, Numbers 11:24-30, tells how Moses chose seventy elders of the people to assist him and the Lord’s spirit was poured upon them. Although two of these elders were apart from the rest, they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy. Joshua asked Moses to stop them, but Moses replied with what is a fine prayer for Pentecost, “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
This Psalm is a hymn of praise to the Creator of the world. Here we see the Spirit as active in the world, creating and renewing. We are reminded that it was in the brooding of the Spirit that God created all things by his Word. On Pentecost, as we celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, new meaning is given to the verse, “You send forth your Spirit and they are created; * and so you renew the face of the earth.” Called into Christ’s body and ourselves renewed by the Spirit, our concern for the renewal of the earth takes on new importance. We might ask ourselves today what our role is as Christians, as people of Gd’s Spirit, in the care of God’s earth?
The Epistle, 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13.
Although Saint Paul does not mention the gift of tongues in this passage, it appears to be apt of the difficulty he is addressing in the Corinthian Church. Apparently, a group in that church so valued the gift of tongues (glossolalia) that they despised other members. Without denying the vaue of this gift of the Spirit, Paul reminded the Corinthians (and us) that no gifts of trhe Spirit are given except to build up the body, and that all the varied gifts are valuable. The Spirit is in fact more lively and varied in gifts than we can begin to imagine. This verse calls us today to discern the ministries of all and respect them. Even more, perhaps, it calls each one of us to discern what gifts we have been given for building up the body. Not all ministries are the obvious ones, some are the new oppportunities for kindness and love that arise day by day.
You might be interested in remarks made by C. S. Lewis on the phenomenon of glossolalia and the gift of Pentecost in his sermon "Transposition," which may be found in the collections They Asked for a Paper and Screwtape Proposes a Toast and other Pieces.
The Holy Gospel, John 20.19-23.
This is the account of the evening of the first appearance of the risen Lord to his disciples. which was read on Easter Day. After his appearance to Mary Magdalene who told the disciples that she had seen the Lord” (v. 18), Jesus Appears to his disciples in his resurrection body: he bears the marks of his crucifixion, yet can pass through doors; he is truly alive. Recalling his words at the Last Supper “Peace I leave with you” (14:27), he greets them with “Peace!” Then he declares that as the Father sent him, even so he sends them. The Father sent him to reconcile the world to himself. So he joins them to himself in the authority to forgive sins.
In the Anglican tradition this gift of the Spirit and the power of forgiveness has often been seen as the founding of the priestly ministry of the Church. In this view the function of all the sacraments is founded in the ministry of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Note that Jesus “breathed on” the disciples when he gave the Spirit. In Genesis we read that God breathed into the nostrils of Adam the breath of life and he became a living being (Genesis 2.7). In Jesus’ action we see the renewal of human nature that comes from the risen life and is available to all. This might suggest a link we might not have expected with the verse we noted in today's Psalm. It also reminds us that the Spirit has always been at work in the world and in human beings. How do we understand the relation of this wider work and the particular gifts within the Body of Christ?

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