Pentecost Sunday, Year B
Acts 2:1-21 or Ez 37:1-14
Rom 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spiritgave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of esopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these arenot drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
"I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Trinitarian confession ultimately means that we acknowledge one God who acts upon us and in us. Our studies in the Fourth Gospel have shown us the christological foundation upon which this one God is revealed. Jesus imitates the Father, the Creator. In the same fashion, the Holy Spirit brings this imitation into the center of our human existence as children of God.
The Holy Spirit and the world of the spirit are not spooky subjects, they are however, difficult to describe, explain or categorize. There is a special reason for this. Inasmuch as we are each unique and have our own unique combination of life experiences, so the Spirit is appreciated differently by different persons. But no matter how different the experience of the Spirit, there is the ability to ‘measure’ the experience. That measure is the person of Jesus. If what we are learning in the world of the Spirit is congruent with Jesus then we may rest assured that we are experiencing the Creator’s work in our life.
The Holy Spirit is God active in the created realm, whether in nature or us as part of the created order. We should not overlook some of the powerful traditions that have much to teach us about the Spirit but no matter where we look we must remember that the Spirit takes ‘the things of Jesus’ and gives them to us. In short, if a person claims to be ‘in the Spirit’ it follows that whatever occurs will look and feel like the revelation we have found in Jesus, namely that God is love.
“The Spirit comes as the new mode of Christ’s presence, made possible by the death through which the life of Jesus takes on a new dimension, released from the particularity of the historical and cultural context of bodily existence and set free to be given to his followers, and, through their mission, to make it possible for the wider Gentile world, which could not see the earthly Jesus, to know him as the spirit of truth and life.” (G.W.H. Lampe God As Spirit)
Karl Barth has pointed out that under the article of the Holy Spirit (in the Nicene creed), humanity is also confessed, that is, the creed, at this point, is not just about God but about us as well. “There is a faith in man (sic), so far as this man freely and actively participates in the work of God. That this actually takes place, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God on earth, which has its analogue in that hidden work of God, the outgoing of the Spirit from the Father and the Son.” (Dogmatics in Outline). This is important for “we have consistently followed the rule, which we regard as basic, that statements about the divine modes of being antecedently in themselves cannot be different in content from those that are to be made about their reality in revelation. All of our statements concerning what is called the immanent Trinity have been reached simply as confirmations or underlinings or, materially, as the indispensable premises of the economic Trinity.” (Church Dogmatics I, 1)
We cannot emphasize this enough. Experiences of ‘spirit’ abound aplenty in certain ecclesial traditions, but those who experience such do not necessarily look more like Jesus when they walk away from these experiences. This is because (as the Fourth Gospel points out) there is another spirit at work in the world and therefore also at work in us.
We do not need to tell Christian clergy about either of these spirits or of the battle that rages as the darkness tries vainly to stop the light from revealing what the darkness has hidden. Anyone who has been given the Spirit knows the tug of war, personally, relationally, and socially. What we can say is that the Holy Spirit has been working in and through many means to get our attention.
The question is: Are we listening to what the Spirit is saying to us? Some have wondered how we can hear the Spirit. Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice. He said that the Spirit will tell us all we need to know about him. So where and how do we hear the Spirit of Jesus?
We offer a threefold (trinitarian) paradigm. First, God is experienced in the created order. We are finding that unless and until one knows the God who feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies of the field it is difficult to begin to appreciate Jesus’ spirituality (also found later in some Celtic traditions and Francis of Assisi as well as many Native American traditions). This is not the same as ‘natural theology’ inasmuch as the discussion about natural theology takes human reason as its starting point. We speak of God’s revelation in and through the creation as beneficent, caring and loving, something unknown to the logical left brain. Second, God is known in the person of Jesus. Thus, the Spirit that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism, who raised him from the dead, and was poured out through him bears witness to Jesus as we read the apostolic witness. Third, God is known in us. Here we venture some thoughts quite tentatively. Our own personal journeys and experiences are constantly interpreted by the Spirit in us. Calvin has well said that God knowledge and self knowledge are so intertwined that to participate in one is to participate in the other. Long before Calvin, Socrates had said “Know Yourself.” The Spirit is God actively working in us, getting our attention and transforming us and through us, our world. This personal dimension, as we mentioned earlier, is not a quantifiable category although we can measure or authenticate its source by reference to Jesus. However, our personal experience of God will always be a vast interplay of our experience of God in creation, in Scripture, and in our own personal self understanding. Each is indispensable and they are all aspects of our becoming children of God. If we devalue them, we do so at our peril.
The church has long shut up the Spirit in its ecclesiology (e.g., the varieties of Catholicism and Orthodox churches) or it’s doctrine of Scripture (many Protestants) or by allowing a pattern of experience to determine the Presence of Christ (many Pentecostals). Humans have a long history of seeking to limit the Spirit, even as those in Jesus’ day could not believe that the Spirit had been poured out again. With God all things are possible. We should therefore not be surprised that the Spirit works and we do not know whence it comes or where it is going.
If we are once again to be the community that bears witness to Jesus Christ, we are called to be filled with his Spirit. Many other spirits seek us; spirits of ego, self doubt, distractions. There are political spirits and spirits of anger, revenge and hate. There are spirits of greed, security and power. None of these has anything to do with the Spirit of Jesus. But the Spirit of Jesus has everything to do with these spirits. He has conquered them and continues to expose them.
You may have wondered if we were going to apply mimetic theory to our text. We already have, but we can be more specific. We can also suggest as Girard does, that the Holy Spirit has been active in deconstructing our entire Western experience, its ideologies, its theologies and its spiritualities. This is accomplished by the revelation of the Spirit regarding Jesus’ relation to violence.
“By maintaining the word of the Father against violence until the end and by dying for it, Jesus has crossed the abyss separating mankind from the father. He himself becomes their Paraclete, their protector, and he sends them another Paraclete who will not cease to work in the world to bring forth the truth into the light.” (The Scapegoat)
Thus it can be said that the Spirit is active in demythologizing us and our theologies! “To confound the world, therefore, and show that it is reasonable and just to believe in Jesus as sent by the Father and returning to the Father after the passion (in other words as a divinity tha
t shares nothing in common with those of violence), the Spirit is necessary in history to work to disintegrate the world and gradually discredit all the gods of violence. It even appears to discredit Christ in that the Christian Trinity, through the fault of Christian and non-Christian alike, is comprised in the violence of the sacred. In reality, the world’s lack of belief is perpetuated and reinforced only because the historical process is not yet complete, thus creating the illusion of a Jesus demystified by the progress of knowledge and eliminated with the other gods of history. History need only progress some more and the gospel will be verified. ‘Satan’ is discredited and Christ justified. Jesus’ victory is thus, in principle, achieved immediately at the moment of the Passion, but for most it only takes shape in the course of a long history secretly controlled by the revelation. It becomes evident at the moment we are convinced that, thanks to the Gospels and not despite them, we can show the futility of all violent gods and render void the whole of mythology.” The Scapegoat
So, in the Spirit, we come face to face with God and ourselves. Ultimately there is no greater challenge or more necessary task than surrendering and listening to God.
Most of the better commentaries offer discussion on the background of the term ‘paraclete.’ We note three important elements: first, the legal or judicial background of the term, second the value of the Dead Sea Scrolls in helping to determine the Jewish background of the Spirit and third, the Spirit as teacher.
Helpful discussions can also be found in George Johnston The Spirit-Paraclete in the Gospel of John, and Gary M. Burge The Anointed Community.
In the realm of the Spirit there are two universal principles: choice and change. We are so changed that we may choose and we may choose to change. We are constantly involved in both if we take the time to listen.
Almost all of our readers have had some acquaintance with the varieties of prayer designed to help us listen. Still, not many have probably given them a significant place in their daily lives. In our experience, our desire to be changed by God will not come to fruition by mere intellectual gymnastics, even if they include mimetic theory! If we are to become people of Peace, it will be necessary to allow God space and time in our day to begin re-arranging the furniture of our lives.
The Christian tradition has a long history of exercises designed to permit the Spirit entrance and freedom of movement in our lives. “Centering Prayer” is probably the most widely known, though often not well taught. “Lectio Divina,” a method of reading, though it sounds like something less silent, is another fruitful way of opening our hearts and minds to God. These methods, while frequently associated with indoor prayer, are in fact equally well suited to use out in the midst of Creation, if that suits your personality better.
It is beyond the scope of this web-site to begin trying to teach you any of these methods of experiencing the Spirit’s presence more powerfully. All we can do in commend them to you as strongly as we can. All our intellectual efforts here in Preaching Peace will in the end yield very little without the Spirit’s empowerment and the change it can bring. We will, however, provide you with a few links to help you get started, if you feel moved to make this a part of your life.
Here are some favorites.
There are days when the war in the spirit world seems to be taking place inside me. Some days it feels as though I am split in two like the figure of Romans 7. Paul has described this battle in Galatians. But I wonder: why do I feel alone in this battle? It seems as though everyone I know has their life together except me. Yet I know differently. We are all caught up in this war, and it is a war, a war of the powers against the Spirit of God. But this war cannot be won using the usual motivations: hate, anger, retribution and duty. No, this war is fought with other weapons: light, love, forgiveness and peace. I am healthiest consider these last: when I forgive ‘the brother in my own breast’ (Jung), not when I attack him, or criticize him. That is the function of the Prosecutor, the satan. By the grace of the Holy Spirit I may look myself in the mirror and announce to myself that I am forgiven.
War is not just an external phenomenon limited to those who engage in battle. We are all at war, at war with one another and at war with ourselves. And if we are honest we might also admit we are war with God. Life feels capricious, arbitrary and frequently confusing or depressing. And it so we blame God.
And even here we are forgiven and loved. This is the good news of the Bible, that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has come to us to redeem and restore us to ourselves and each other. We must not just protest the injustice of the current war we are in, we must also protest the principalities and powers that would destroy us; those voices and memories that haunt us and cause us to be self destructive. We will always have an advocate for doing so: The Holy Spirit.
Some Sermon Thoughts:
Too often, I experience “preaching peace” as something we think we can “do.” Tragically, preaching peace is usually undertaken in our own strengths, according to our own wills. The Spirit grants us much more than guidance. Listening is great, but surrender is the key. Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina are less about listening than they are about teaching us the rhythm of surrender. There is a very real rhythm to it, as we reclaim our autonomy, recognize what we’ve done and surrender again. And again. And again.
It is this patient persistence, this forgiving effort that forms us, creates new habits in us. And these habits become the vehicle by which we are change. We do not change, we are changed.
As a preacher, I will likely find several examples by which to help my congregation experience their own frustration at trying to change themselves. It is, in fact, impossible. Oh, we may change our “strategies,” but we will not change our basic motivations or desires apart from the action of the Spirit. Surrender, acknowledging that we are helpless in the face of our desires (Yes, this intentionally mimics the first step in any twelve-step program.) and desire the action of God through the Spirit to amend our lives is the only way forward.
Having helped my folks to see the way they’ve been frustrated in the past, the gift of the Spirit becomes much less frightening. We are not a “Pentecostal” denomination, and yet we stand no less in need of the activity of the Spirit. Perhaps, recognizing the fruitlessness of trying to live the Peace of Christ apart from the Spirit of Christ, we will find the willingness to try to surrender.
Third Day, one of my favorite Christian bands, has a song whose chorus I always remember in moments like this.
“Please take from me my life, when I don’t have the strength to give it away to you…”