Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday 24th May 2015 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Spirit of truth and power / Power of the Spirit / Pouring out of the Spirit / New wine of the Spirit

Sentence: 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 (John 16:7)


Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Your blessed anointing from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Overcome with eternal light
the dullness of our blinded sight. Amen. [Adapted].


Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104;24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15


Acts 2:1-21

Luke tells the story of the day in which Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit coming with power was fulfilled. In turn this coming fulfilled an ancient prophecy in Joel. 

The Holy Spirit comes upon everyone (not just the apostles, not just on male disciples but on both women and men). They speak in other tongues, in languages which the multitude of Jews gathered in Jerusalem from around the world could understand: 'our own native language' (2:8).  

The import of this language fluency is that the Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus to give power to his followers so they could be 'my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth' (1:8). Jesus makes good that promise: his followers will be able to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth because they have the ability to testify to Jesus through receiving a supernatural gift.

The Holy Spirit both comes  on the gathered disciples (2:3) and fills them (2:4) meaning that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers is overwhelming and complete: no aspect of life is untouched when God's Spirit comes into our lives.

Yet not all observers experience the same phenomenon as those receiving the Holy Spirit: 'others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine".' (2:12).

This accusation prompts an apologetic response at the beginning of Peter's sermon (2:14-16). No one is drunk, it is only 9 am in the morning, and let me remind you what the prophet Joel said! This is that (prophecy fulfilled), Peter argues.

This bold, courageous preaching Peter is a severe contrast to the Peter who denied his master three times. The most important outcome of the Holy Spirit working powerfully in our lives is that we are empowered to witness boldly for Jesus Christ.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Just one note here, pertaining to Pentecost. In verse 30 we read, 'When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.'

In the original creation the Spirit of God hovered over the deep. Here the psalmist acknowledges the continuing role of God through the Spirit in sustaining and caring for life.

Romans 8:22-27

In the context of the whole chapter Paul is expounding the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer, a role which is overwhelmingly life-giving (11-12). In today's verses Paul tackles the problem suffering - beginning at v. 18 - poses for his exposition of the life-giving Spirit. That is, Paul responds to the potential criticism of his eulogy of the life-giving power of the Spirit that suffering makes a mockery of the power of the Spirit to give life: Christians are persecuted, suffer illness and hardship and, of course, die: where is the life of the Spirit?

'Potential' might be a good summary word for verses 18-21: there is suffering, Paul acknowledges, but it is not worth comparing to the future 'glory about to be revealed to us' (18b).

At the beginning of our passage Paul develops the theme begun in verses 20-21 that suffering is anchored in the 'bondage to decay' of creation itself (21). In verses 22-23 Paul links creation's desire to escape the bondage to decay, via a change of metaphor to 'groaning in labour pains', with our desire for future fulfilment: 'but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies' (23).

In other words, the Spirit giving us life now is giving us a foretaste of what is to come. (If we are brutally honest, this is not obvious from reading what Paul says in verses 1-17, noting what Paul says there about 'adoption' - without qualification - and what he says in verse 23 about waiting for adoption).

Thus the Christian experience of the Spirit is both one of enjoying the foretaste (verses 1-17) and waiting patiently and hopefully for what is to come (24-25).

In a sense, we are in a weak state relative to a future strong, if not perfect state. So Paul goes back to the Spirit and what the Spirit does for us now when he writes in verse 26, 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness ...' The remainder of verse 26 and verse 27 spells out a specific work of the Spirit in the here and now of living in creation subject to bondage to decay: the Spirit works deep within us to enable us to 'pray as we ought' which is according to 'the will of God'.

But note an important point about the Spirit's work within us: the Spirit does not enable us to pray as we ought, but intercedes for us as ought to be the case, that is, 'the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God' (27).

Such prayers cannot fail! 

John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

There are three important approaches to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit within our readings today. 

(1) There is the Lukan theology represented in the Acts reading in which the Holy Spirit powerfully propels the mission of Jesus forward by filling the disciples with the power at work in Jesus, making them brave and able to proclaim the gospel.

(2) There is the Pauline theology represented in the Romans reading in which the Holy Spirit works within the depths of believers to enable their journey from creation and its sufferings to a new creation and its blessings to be completed successfully.

(3) There is the Johannine theology represented in this reading in which the Holy Spirit as both Advocate (Comforter/Paraclete/Helper) and Spirit of truth does the following:

- testifies on behalf of Jesus (26)
- (implied but not quite made explicit) will act as though Jesus is still with the disciples (note 4b)
- will 'prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment' (8-10)
- will 'guide [the disciples] into all the truth ... speak whatever he hears .... declare to you the things that are to come' (13)
- will 'glorify' Jesus (14).

Each of these works of the Holy Spirit coheres with Lukan and Pauline theologies of the Holy Spirit (though I won't explain how here - causa brevitatis) save to note, as one example of each, the way in which 'declare to you the things that are to come' fits with Paul in our Romans' passage and testifies on behalf of Jesus fits with our Acts' passage.

We might wonder what verses 8-10 mean since the claim seems extraordinary concerning 'the world'. One insight which might begin an explanation I won't attempt to complete here is a sense in John's Gospel that, just as Jesus himself is put on trial in chapter 18, so Jesus puts the whole world on trial through his coming into the world. The world rejects Jesus (see the Prologue in John 1) and thus the world is placed on trial, charged with that rejection. The Spirit's work in the world, in part, is to convict the world that it is guilty as charged.

The claim in verse 13 is also one which many ponder. Is Jesus saying that there are all sorts of hidden, undisclosed revelations which he has not given the disciples but which the Spirit will later reveal to them? (Thus, to give a contemporary example, some say that the church ought to support same sex marriage because the Spirit is now leading us into this truth as part of 'all the truth' hitherto not revealed). 

Or, is Jesus saying that the Spirit of truth will lead the disciples into a deeper and more complete understanding of what Jesus has already revealed? That is, the Spirit's role is one of clarifying and developing what is partially understood - a point worth considering if only because in the gospel (in each of the gospels) the disciples are often quite boneheaded about what Jesus is saying to them!

We could also consider the option that 'all the truth' is both clarifying the already revealed and revealing the undisclosed.

What did Jesus mean? A simple application of logic to the situation yields the unexpected conclusion that Jesus would not contradict himself so that whatever the Spirit reveals to the disciples will be consistent with Jesus' (already revealed) teaching, 'for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears' (13). 'Whatever he hears' will be whatever the Spirit hears the Father and the Son saying.

A clue that this is the right line of understanding comes from considering John's Gospel itself. Compared to the three Synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, is John's very different Gospel a new revelation of the Spirit or a deeper insight into the revelation of Jesus found in the three earlier gospels?

If we answer Yes to the former then we inevitably head in a Gnostic (i.e. new knowledge) direction and are powerless to resist the logic of (say) Mormonism or Islam which each claim new revelation from God which goes beyond the Bible. If we say No to the former and Yes to the latter then we inevitably head in the direction the church historically did head in: towards the encapsulation of the meaning of Jesus Christ for the world in the words of the Creeds, that is, towards orthodox Christian belief.

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