The Wait is Over?
On the Day of his Ascension, Jesus gave the disciples a commission – be my witnesses to the ends of the earth. He also told them to wait for the day when the Holy Spirit would come upon them, to empower them, so that they might fulfill this calling (Acts 1:1-11). The question is – did they do this patiently or not?
Waiting patiently is not something most us do with any degree of success. More often than not our waiting is filled with anxiety. If you call me in the afternoon and tell me you want to meet in the morning to discuss something important – I’m going to fear the worst. So, if you’ve got something to say – tell me now, because I’ll be tossing and turning all night. So, let’s get this over with. Of course in this case the disciples know what has to be done; they just have to wait for the right moment. They may not be filled with fear, but anxiety can still creep in to our thoughts. And in our day, when instant gratification defines our existence, can we wait patiently without losing our intensity?
Now, however, the Day of Pentecost is upon us. These ten days of waiting have ended and the day of empowerment has arrived. Are they ready? Are we ready to act in concert with the Spirit of God in bearing witness to the message of God’s good news?
As I picture the early followers of Jesus as they are waiting for the Spirit, I have made the assumption that they remained a sad and demoralized group. They had bid Jesus good bye on two occasions – before he was taken to the cross and then on the day of Ascension. In both cases a meal precedes the departure (according to the gospel of Luke). But are my assumptions correct? Could it be that their time of waiting is filled with hope? Could they be spending their time getting ready, preparing for this day? According to Acts, they did fill one of the leadership positions. So maybe they are waiting expectantly not pensively. Now that Pentecost has arrived, however, the wait appears to be over.
Reading the texts for Pentecost, one isn’t sure where to start. I could have chosen to bring the reading from Ezekiel 37, which speaks of the revivifying of the valley of dry bones, into the conversation, but instead I want to use the Pentecost story as found in Acts 2, which is the other first reading. Before I go there, however, I want to first visit Romans 8 and the reading from the Gospel of John. Both of these texts help us think through what it means to wait for the Spirit, a wait that comes to a close in Acts 2.
Paul writes in Romans 8 that the whole of creation is “groaning together and suffering labor pains.” This is a powerful image that draws from the process of giving birth, something I’ve observed, but not partaken in directly – I’m a father, not a mother. I was there when my wife gave birth to our son, but she did all the hard work. But I can identify with Paul’s image.
It’s been a long time since I was at the hospital participating in the birth of my son, but I was reminded of what is involved in labor and birth as I’ve read Katherine Willis Pershey’s book Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family. Giving birth has its blessings, but it’s not easy. So, Paul draws on this experience – second hand, of course – to describe the movement of the world toward its salvation, a salvation that is brought to fruition through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Creation and we ourselves have been waiting for the day in which the reign of God makes itself felt in our midst, transforming our reality into one that reflects God’s vision for Creation. Having received into our lives the presence of the Spirit, we are the first fruits of the harvest. But the job isn’t finished. There’s more to do. We live, Paul says in hope – even as pregnancy is a time of hope and expectation. We hope not for what we’ve seen, but for what we’ve yet to see. That nine-month journey (give or take a few) is filled with hope, but until the day of delivery – we don’t know what this life will be. Yes, we have sonograms and such, things Paul never envisioned, but even that doesn’t tell us what we need to know – the character and the personality of a life to be lived. And so it is with the reign of God, which brings into the world with full force on the day of Pentecost.
In waiting for the fullness of the reign to take root, however, we can experience weakness, but the Spirit comes to our aid, providing words we cannot utter, except through unexpressed groans. The Spirit, the one who is coming and who has come, well plead our case, and will do so in ways consistent with the will of God. Whether or not we wish to understand these groans as ecstatic utterance or glossalalia (speaking in tongues) is really irrelevant. The point is – there is a hope, at it has borne fruit in our salvation!
In the reading from John’s Gospel, we find ourselves back at a point prior to the cross. It is in the afterglow of the Last Supper (we’re making an assumption that in addition to washing feet, Jesus also shared a meal with the disciples), that Jesus speaks of one whom he will send, who will be their Comforter, Advocate, Companion. The Greek is parakaletos (paraclete), a word that means “to call along side,” and which is translated variously, suggesting that there are nuances to this name/title that help us understand the role the Spirit plays in our lives. The Spirit comforts us when we are saddened and discouraged. The Spirit speaks on our behalf with God and with the world, interpreting our groans before God. And it’s clear that the promised one will be with us in all times and places, and thus is our Companion.
As John tells this story, Jesus tells the disciples that if he doesn’t go away, the Paraclete can’t come and be with them. The Spirit (Paraclete) doesn’t come of the Spirit’s own volition – Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and testifies about Jesus, and as a result they will testify (as will we, if we’re willing) – the Orthodox seem to have the upper hand on the question of procession of the Spirit in this text (no filioque here).
In the suggested text there are verses omitted, and something should be noted why this may be true. As is often true in John, the Jews seem to be a target – perhaps directly or metaphorically – but we must always be careful with how we read the text to avoid anti-Jewish sentiment. The fact is, there’s nothing crucial in the omitted verses, so it might be best to let them be (quiet that is).
As we read this text in the context of Pentecost, it’s clear that the Spirit comes upon the people of God as a permanent presence – as their companion. But the Spirit also has a judicial responsibility (Advocate), to show the world that it was and is wrong about “sin, righteousness, and judgment. Sin in this case is defined as disbelief. John McClure writes that what is condemned here are “patterns of disbelief that turn away from love and justice and cleave to violence, ambition, greed and self-securing power” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, p. 257).
As Companion, the Spirit is able to do what Jesus is unable to do – reveal to the disciples (and to us) all that needs to be revealed. Jesus tells the disciples that they’re not yet ready to hear this word of truth – not just yet. The phrase, in the Common English Bible, “you can’t handle it now,” reminds me of that statement made by Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men. Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Kaffee, tells Col. Jessup (Nicholson), “I want the truth,” to which Jessup replies: “You can’t handle the truth!” Without comparing Jesus to an out of control Marine colonel, can we not say that there are times when we’re ready to handle the truth, at least in its fullness. It takes time and patience, but the Spirit of Truth is coming and will reveal this truth – in its proper time and place. The Companion will guide us “in all truth.” The Companion will speak what is revealed by God, and will glorify Jesus by taking what is his and making it known. There is a hint of the Trinity in this passage – What belongs to the Father belongs to the Son and it is revealed to us through the Spirit. So are you ready for the Truth? Can you handle it? Is the time right? We’ll see.
And thus we come to that most definitive of Pentecost texts, Luke’s description of the Day of Pentecost. The disciples – all of them, male and female, young and old – are gathered in one place. Perhaps they’re praying. Perhaps they’re planning for when the Spirit comes. They are, however, together, waiting for the Spirit. Not, perhaps, as a fearful band of disillusioned followers of Jesus, but people waiting expectantly for that moment of revelation, when the Wind of God blows life into those old dry bones that lie scattered over the valley floor. And as the wind blows, the disciples now filled with the Spirit, their lungs alive with breath, their hearts on fire, they begin to speak – in languages they may not understand, but which are understood by those who gather in the streets of Jerusalem. Pilgrims from across the Diaspora, they hear these supposedly unlettered Galileans declare the mighty works of God. People ask – what does it mean? Others speak derisively of new wine – just a bunch of drunks, chattering away, their words meaningless. Perhaps – or perhaps meaningful to those ready to hear, those ready to call on the name of the Lord and be saved – as the prophet Joel foretold long before that day. The Spirit comes and barriers fall as bridges are built so that all might hear the good news, respond to it, and find peace, wholeness, hope, grace, and love.
They waited patiently – now the time has come for their patience to bear fruit – and so it does. Pentecost is here, and with it comes a new day! Living in the afterglow of Pentecost, we continue that mission established by Jesus’ commission, and fueled by the empowerment of the Spirit, who is our comforter, our companion, our advocate – interpreting, when necessary our groans as prayers before God. Yes, the wait is over!