Friday, June 10, 2011

The Spirit is Knocking at the Door -- A Lectionary Meditation for Pentecost

Numbers 11:24-30

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

John 20:19-23

The Spirit is Knocking at the Door

            If you look closely at the Nicene Creed you’ll notice that the Holy Spirit gets short shrift.  The Father has a major place in the creed, as does the Son, but the Holy Spirit appears to be almost an afterthought.  The debates of the 4th century CE weren’t focused on whether the Holy Spirit shared the same substance as the Father – it was the Son that they were focused on.  Besides, when the Holy Spirit did crop up it usually was the focus of groups like the Montanists – marginal folk who had visions and even lifted up women into leadership (at least as prophets).    

What is true of the those 4th century writers of the Creed, may be true of the church as well.  We drag the Spirit out on Pentecost, maybe even wear red.  We talk about the day on which the Spirit fell on the church, and then put the Spirit back in its trunk, hopefully before anyone has a chance to get too enthusiastic about the Wind of God blowing into our midst, stirring things up.  Pentecost is a special day in the life of the church, but what meaning does it hold for us?  Are we ready to receive the Spirit or just remember when the Spirit once came out to play – back in the 1st century, back before we had a nice institution to keep things orderly and efficient?  Yes, are we tempted to squelch the Spirit lest things get out of hand?  Or, are we ready to follow the Spirit wherever the Spirit might lead?  Are we ready to sing with Marty Haugen:
Wind upon the waters, voice upon the deep, rouse your sons and daughters,
Wake us from our sleep, breathing life into all flesh,
Breathing love into all hearts, living wind upon the waters of my soul. (Marty Haugen, 1986 GIA Publications)
            Are we ready for the Spirit to be made manifest in our midst?  Are we ready to let go of the reins and let the Spirit lead us into the future?

            In this meditation, rather than including Acts 2, a text that defines the celebration of Pentecost, I will focus on three other texts that the lectionary offers us this Pentecost Sunday.  From the Hebrew Bible we have the story of sharing the spirit in Numbers 11, an excerpt from Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, and John’s very different version of Pentecost (chapter 20).  Each of these texts help us better understand what it means for the Spirit to be present in our midst 

            Numbers 11 is most interesting, because it lifts up something every church, indeed, every pastor has experienced – trying to do too much.  In context, Moses has been struggling to hold the people together, and so, following the advice of his father-in-law, he calls together a group of seventy elders who he has chosen to help him lead the community as it travels across the wilderness into the land of promise.  As instructed by Yahweh, he gathers the people at the Tabernacle – the domain of the Lord.  Gathered there, with the seventy elders standing in front of the Tent, they wait for Yahweh to act.  Yahweh does act by coming down upon Moses in the form of a cloud, and after taking some of the spirit that is upon Moses, shares this spirit with the seventy.  It would appear that the spirit is in limited supply and concentrated on Moses, therefore, it must be transferred from Moses to the seventy if they are to assist Moses.  With this transfer of spiritual authority/power the elders break out in prophetic word, but as our writer puts it, they only do this once.  The Pentecostal in me sees something akin to the doctrine of initial evidence, wherein a person baptized with the Holy Spirit gives evidence of this endowment of the Spirit by speaking in tongues.  It may only occur once, but the sign is sufficient.  One may also see similarities with the Acts narrative, where when the church breaks through a traditional barrier, whether with the Samaritans or with Cornelius, something happens – in Acts it’s often glossalalia, as a sign to the church that God is at work in this place.     

To this point everything is done decently and in order.  Moses receives his instructions, gathers the seventy at the Tabernacle, and they receive their share of the Spirit.  But as a reminder that Yahweh is not beholden to our institutional presuppositions, we find that two brothers named Eldad and Medad have stayed behind in the camp, perhaps to guard the dinner.  Although Moses hasn’t selected them to be Elders, the Spirit falls on them any way, as evidenced by their engaging in prophesying, just as the seventy elders had.  While there’s no evidence here that Moses added them to the seventy elders, it’s clear that things weren’t as expected.  This is confirmed by Joshua’s reaction.  Make them stop! He says.  But Moses knows better and tells Joshua to let them be.  In fact, Moses speaks to the premise that marks Pentecost – wouldn’t it be great if everyone was a prophet and had the Spirit residing within them?  What if everyone had a gift of the Spirit?

For those of us reading this text, and preaching it, this text is a gentle reminder not to take our pastoral authority too seriously.  God can and does work outside our need to control things!

If Numbers serves as a reminder that God can and does work outside our expected parameters, Paul makes it clear that God’s vision of the church requires everyone’s participation.  Everyone is given a gift of the Spirit “for the common good.”  There is so much to learn from this section of the Corinthian letter about the way in which we can be church.  As evidenced in Numbers, leadership isn’t a “one-man” effort.  It’s a shared calling, everyone living out their callings using the gifts that they’ve been given – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and their interpretation.  Whatever the gifts are, they are “activated by the one and same Spirit, who allots to each one individually as the Spirit chooses.”  The Spirit that activates these gifts for ministry is the same Spirit that enables us to declare Jesus to be Lord.  To confirm this message of connectiveness, Paul turns to the image of the body, an image that figures prominently in this portion of 1 Corinthians.  We are all members of the one body of Christ, and each of us plays a role, a role that someone else can’t take on.  An eye is not an ear, etc.  I’ve been preaching on this text, teaching it, reflecting on it, and yet I know that the forces of resistance (even within myself) are exceedingly strong.  Clergy think we must do it all ourselves – maybe we feel this way because we’re getting paid or perhaps we think God isn’t able to get it done without us.  Laity have their own reasons for resisting – maybe because they’re paying the bills!  But the reminder is still there – God has given each of us gifts as a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

The lectionary text from John deals with more than the Spirit.  It’s a conversation about Jesus’ visitations with the disciples after the resurrection.  He has a tangible body that people can touch, a body that still shows the marks of his death, and yet he can move through walls.  He’s not a ghost, but he’s not just a resuscitated corpse either –but that’s a discussion for another day.    Then there’s the story of “doubting Thomas,” which is always fodder for discussions.  But in the context of this meditation, it’s the discussion of the Spirit that needs our attention. 

In many ways you can call this John’s Pentecost, for in his visitation with the disciples he gives them a commission:  “even as the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and then Jesus provides them with the means to fulfill this calling – the Holy Spirit of God.  Fred Craddock/Eugene Boring note:
Our sending is an extension of God’s own sending.  Jesus incorporates his disciples into his mission, but Jesus was not a great man who concocted his own mission.  He too was sent.  God is the primal missionary; the church’s work is not the church’s work but an extension of God’s own mission. (People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 348).   
The gift of the Spirit enables us to engage in God’s mission, and the Spirit comes to us as Jesus breathes upon us the breath/Spirit of God.  Attached to this gift is a commission to bestow forgiveness (or retain it if that is appropriate).  In other words, they (we) have been sent forth knowing that they are participating in something bigger than themselves – God’s mission.  

With the text from Numbers in mind, I wonder – did Thomas receive this blessing even if he wasn’t present at the time of the gift giving?   And with Acts 2 in mind, I wonder if Moses’ hope has been fulfilled in Pentecost – now everyone is a prophet!  And if not everyone has the gift of prophecy, at the very least we can discern our own gifts that accompany the manifestation of the Spirit, so that we might be one in Christ, committed to the achievement of the common good.           

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