Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday 31 May 2020 - Pentecost

Theme(s): Holy Spirit / Coming of the Holy Spirit / Spirit of creation and renewal / What a great day Pentecost was!

Sentence: For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).


Living God, eternal Holy Spirit,
let your bright intoxicating energy
which fired those first disciples
fall on us
to turn the world again, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings: the lectionary offers some alternatives this week. The following are my choices.

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23


Acts 2:1-21

No Pentecost celebration could be complete without the unique story of the great day of the coming of the Spirit being read.

What a great day it was!

It was a day in which a promise was fulfilled (see Luke 24/Acts 1).

It was a day in which prophecy was fulfilled (see Peter's citation from Joel in his sermon).

It was a day in which prayer was answered (the prayers made between the Ascension and Pentecost).

It was a day in which the Spirit came upon God's people in a new manifestation.

It was a day in which the gospel was preached with power and great effect.

Something to ponder is this. In Acts 1 Jesus commissions his team of disciples for their work in the world, essentially to carry on the mission of God. In Acts 2 the Spirit of Jesus empowers the disciples for that work. Jesus does not ask us to do something which he does not give us the power to carry out.

Pentecost is the festival day in which we celebrate what a great day it was and still is, for the same Jesus unleashes the same powerful Spirit to help us to be obedient to his commission.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

What kind of spirit came down at Pentecost? We say this psalm because it draws our attention to the work of God in creation, a work which is accomplished by the Spirit of God ('your spirit', v. 30).

The unstated assumption in the choice of this psalm is that at Pentecost the same creating Spirit of God is 'at it again' - creating a new thing or (picking up the emphasis in the second part of v. 30) renewing creation. From this perspective the day of Pentecost is not simply the creation of one new thing, the church, but the creation of a new world. In part, according to Acts 2, this is exemplified by the gathering of the nations in Jerusalem, with their many tongues, who are now forged into a new people of God by the overflowing Spirit of God who breathes new life into them.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

There is a whole book to be written about this passage, not least because we could write a chapter on each of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned here: utterance of wisdom through to the interpretation of tongues, nine gifts in all (8-10). As an aside, these nine gifts are not the whole list of gifts of the Spirit since in, e.g., Romans 12 we find some other gifts mentioned.

Nevertheless, more briefly, we can highlight three important aspects of the Spirit of God at work in the life of the church.

1. The Spirit of God is completely coherent with the lordship of Jesus Christ over the church. The Spirit is at work where people confess that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit is not at work where people curse Jesus (3).

2. The Spirit of God works in the church through gifting members of the body of Christ, the church, with abilities which further the mission of Christ in the world and enhance the 'common good' of the church (4-11).

3. The Spirit of God welds people together into one body of Christ, incorporating individual believers into the corporation or body of Christ. In doing this the one Spirit makes one body of Christ - the Spirit of God's work is completely coherent with the work of Christ. Paul does not use the term 'weld' but 'baptized' which alludes to the outward physical activity which expresses the body-making activity of the Spirit: 'For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body' (13).

Let's remember that when Paul also mentions the kinds of different people being welded into the one body, 'Jews or Greeks, slaves or free' (13), he is making the point that the Spirit of God can bind together the kinds of people with the humanly speaking greatest and seemingly impossible-to-overcome differences.

John 20:19-23

Here I reprise my comments from a few weeks ago. Those comments were made then to expand on the meaning of the passage in a resurrection setting for a post-Easter sermon. Here they might more directly influence the course of a sermon on the day of Pentecost itself:

Familiar with Matthew's and Luke's ending to their gospels, and with Luke's beginning to Acts, we are not surprised that John incorporates into his narrative an act of commissioning for service and an act of bestowing the Holy Spirit on the disciples. What is surprising is that John offers this incorporation on the first day of resurrection rather than some time subsequently - though there is an interesting point to consider about Luke's Gospel ending and Luke's Acts beginning with the former offering a kind of very long single day of resurrection through to departure/ascension and the latter explicitly stating an interval of forty days between resurrection and ascension.

John offers his commission and bestowal of the Spirit in characteristic manner.

Throughout the gospel Jesus has been the one sent by the Father to do a special work in the world. Now this sending and its associated mission becomes that of the disciples: 'As the Father has sent me, so I send you' (21). Simply said, profoundly full of implication: our mission is the mission of Jesus; the Father sends the Son, the Son sends us because the Son has the Father's authority (before you know it, we have the Trinity)! Our mission is worldwide in scope (see John 3:16), it follows through a divine plan hatched since before the world began (see John 1:1-18) ... no pressure then!

The Holy Spirit has been coming into view as we read through the Gospel. In his final testament to the disciples (see chapters 14-16 and his final prayer for them, chapter 17), Jesus has promised the Spirit will assist them in various ways, principally in recalling to their minds all that he has taught them and opening up for them the significance of that teaching. Now, Jesus having died and been raised to life, and commissioned the disciples for service, the time comes for the bestowal of the promised Spirit: 'he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit".'

Again, simply said, but full of profound implications. What equipment does the church of God require to do God's work? Theological degrees, certificates for training undertaken, an iPhone, a photocopier, an internet connection and a car. All those are useful but the primary equipment is the Holy Spirit!

Two questions might then arise.

a. would we have then said what is said in verse 23 about forgiving sins? Wouldn't we expect, say, something about 'go and preach the gospel with power' or 'discern which gifts the Spirit has given you and get on with using them for God's glory'? Yet, when we pause and reflect on these words, we can see a profound connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. 

What is the forgiveness of sins but the healing of the past which so often prevents people from living well in the present and rejoicing with hope for the future. The Holy Spirit comes to heal the fallen creation and to initiate the new creation of God. Those who receive the Holy Spirit have the power to enable this work of healing through forgiveness or withholding it (e.g. by keeping the gospel of grace to themselves).

b. If we call verse 22 the 'Johannine Pentecost', how does this fit with 'the Pentecost' of Acts 2, much celebrated as a specific event of bestowing the Holy Spirit fifty days after the day of resurrection?

- there is not a strict incompatibility as though this event happening in this way for ten disciples prohibits a different (but related) event happening for 120 disciples

- John tends to tell us about Jesus in his own Johannine way. 'Let John be John' is the title of a famous paper by Prof. James Dunn. Perhaps the Johannine Pentecost is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit told in John's manner, associated with John's version of the commissioning of the disciples. Luke's version is Luke's version. Thus we might reflect on what between and across the two accounts we learn.

- that the Spirit comes upon believers more than once (albeit with one of the many such occasions perhaps being more distinctive and memorable than others); even in Luke's Acts, the Holy Spirit is manifest on more than once occasion.

- the way of John telling the story of Jesus bestowing the Spirit must stand for a means of bestowing the Spirit which is available beyond this specific instance: Thomas was missing (for starters); no woman was present (contrast Acts 1-2).

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