Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.

This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.

After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:

John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.

There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.

But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.

Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.

That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.

The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.

Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.

And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:

Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:

Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.

Thanks be to God!

* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.

(Click here to return to the reflection.)

May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Day of Pentecost, Year B

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Isaiah 44:1-8 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
- link to NRSV text
John 20:19-23 - link to NRSV text
OR John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.

It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."

I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.

Most of what I have to say boils down to this:

The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.

That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.

We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.

Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.

As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.

That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.

That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.

What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.

That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.

So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.

That's be to God!

June 3, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Acts, Galatians, Holy Spirit, Inclusion, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Reconciliation, Romans, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 9, Year C

Luke 10:1-12, 16-20 - link to NRSV text

I'll start with a side note: this passage is yet another good reason not to say “the twelve disciples” when what is meant is “the Twelve,” Peter and James and John and the rest. The gospels are clear that there were more than twelve followers of Jesus. It's also clear from this Sunday's gospel that there were more than twelve apostles.  “Apostles” means “ones sent,” and in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus chooses seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which manuscript you're reading) and sends them out ahead of him as his messengers and agents. And, by the way, there's no reason to assume that these people were all men.

Why seventy 'apostles' here? What's the significance of that? There are a few possibilities. The number seventy is a number of fullness; it often appears in contexts in which it means basically “a big bunch.” Some commentators say that the number seventy here is the number of “the nations” (i.e., the Gentiles), and that Luke is here showing that Gentiles are among those sent out as Jesus' agents. Personally, I lean toward Numbers 11 as the main biblical antecedent for Luke's use of the number seventy here. In Numbers 11, Moses appoints seventy elders to assist him, and they are anointed with the spirit with which Moses is anointed. The tradition of having seventy elders of Israel continues, with the body of seventy elders eventually becoming the Sanhedrin.

Jesus sets apart twelve of his followers as “the Twelve” to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, Jesus' ministry is reconstituting Israel, God's people. That's pretty much the only distinctive function the Twelve serve. They don't serve in Acts as any kind of governing council; they don't appear as a body after the election of Matthias in Acts 1, and in the “apostolic council” of Acts 15, James the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the Twelve, seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem disciples. They also are not the only or even the primary “apostles” or “ones sent”; even in Luke's usage of the term, which is stricter than Paul's, the Seventy have just as strong a claim to the “apostle” title as the Twelve do.

So one thing that the choosing and sending of the Seventy does for us as we read Luke is that it reminds us of what is NOT special about the Twelve. The Spirit's anointing is not at all confined to the Twelve, or even mediated by them, but is poured out in expanding circles -- first twelve, then seventy, and then (in Acts 2) believers from every nation.

Another thing that the story in this Sunday's gospel does is that in showing Jesus choosing seventy who (like those Moses gathers in Numbers 11) receive some of the spirit that rests on him, it takes up Luke's motif of showing Jesus as a (or even THE) “prophet like Moses,” another one of those eschatological figures expected within some Jewish traditions, and one of particular interest to Luke.

It's a fairly subtle but recurring motif in Luke-Acts, and one that I think is important in Luke's view of Jesus' passion. We got a big clue to that in Luke 9's story of Jesus' transfiguration, which sets the tone for the journey toward Jerusalem. In Luke 9:31, we're told that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' “departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  The Greek word for “departure” here is none other than exodus.

That's what Jesus is accomplishing for us in Jerusalem. It's our exodus, as we allude to in a different way when we say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”  I've blogged about this before, but it's worth sharing briefly again a bit of midrash I heard from Rabbi Alexander Schindler some years ago.  The Hebrew name for 'Egypt' is Mitzrayim, “the narrow place.”  Jesus, as the “prophet like Moses,” leads us out of our narrow places, our places of slavery, and into the desert, where we receive the Torah and are made a people, God's people. We are freed from Egypt's power so we can serve God's power by being a people who use power as God commands and does, to further justice and mercy.

The wideness of God's mercy can be intimidating or even frightening to those who are accustomed to Mitzrayim, the narrow place. We may look back with longing to narrowness, and to comforting rules about who can and should prophesy. But one more reason I like to read the sending of the Seventy in Luke's gospel as an allusion to Numbers 11 is because I think it works well in Luke's theology to see part of the lesson as being the lesson of Numbers 11:29. When people complain about Eldad and Medad prophesying “out of bounds,” in the view of some, Moses exclaims, “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

The sending of the Seventy reminds of us of that longing, of its fulfillment at Pentecost, and of our call to continue longing for its fulfillment among us. It reminds us not to be jealous or shocked by God's profligate generosity of (and with) Spirit. It reminds us that we too are exhorted to pursue love, the greatest of gifts, and to strive especially to prophesy, to speak truth to power in God's love (1 Corinthians 14:1). We need all of God's prophets to hear God's voice in the desert, to become the people God calls us to be.

Thanks be to God!

June 28, 2004 in Acts, Inclusion, Luke, Pentecost, Prophets, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

clarification on Pentecost entry

Thanks for the comments!

I think my last blog entry was a good example of why one doesn't, in other media, publish something written in one draft at 11:30 p.m.! I'm embarrassed that some have thought that I was trying to argue for English-only Eucharists in multicultural community -- something I find appalling.

I just want to clarify: I'm totally in favor of readings in multiple languages in services, especially when they're read in languages that are spoken regularly by people in the congregation. I miss more than I can say the bilingual Eucharists I participated in while I lived in L.A. I think that language and culture go together, and we lose a great deal as a society when we discourage people from speaking (and reading) in their first languages. I'd like to see MORE readings throughout the liturgical year in first languages of parishioners, not less.

What doesn't work for me is the practice of having people do readings in languages other than English ONLY on Pentecost, and then doing the readings in languages that aren't the native tongue of anyone present, aren't regularly spoken even by the reader, and aren't understood by anyone other than the reader.  The effect is worse for me when people read in multiple languages at once, making it difficult to hear any one version of the reading. I suppose one could use such a practice as a teaching moment by pointing out in the sermon that having everything in the majority language the rest of the time makes those whose native language is different feel just as excluded as speakers of the majority language do now; I would hope that such a teaching moment would be a way of announcing that readings would be in multiple or alternating languages from then on.

It bothers me to have speakers of other languages treated as some kind of "exotic ethnic other" on Pentecost, which is to me a celebration of what just might be the first-ever (and, if we were to take the book of Acts' report as straightforward reporting, probably the most successful) example of intentional multicultural community. On the Day of Pentecost, nobody gave up their native language, and everybody understood. It strikes me as ironic to try to observe that with a liturgy in which nobody speaks their native language and nobody understands the readings.

I hope that clarifies my views -- thanks for pointing out to me the ways in which my last entry was unclear!



May 28, 2004 in Acts, Pentecost, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

A Pentecost liturgy pet peeve of mine: having several (or bunches) of parishioners join in on the Acts 2 reading in a variety of languages that very few people in the congregation understand. This especially bugs me when it's a bunch of ethnically homogenous parishioners reading the text in a variety of languages they learned in classrooms.

Believe me, it's not that I have a problem with multi-lingual culture, community, or liturgy. It's about the text of Acts 2, in which the miracle is that all present hear what is spoken as being in their own native language, whatever it is.

Or maybe that's the second miracle in the story. The first miracle was that all of these diaspora Christians took the time to gather together. These were people who literally didn't speak the same language. A cursory survey of what Judaism looked like in the first century also shows that these were probably people who had some very different ideas about what some might be tempted to call "orthodoxy," about how to interpret the canon and even which books should be in it. The fact that they were all devout speaks to how painful some of these cultural divisions must have been. Shouldn't they all know Hebrew if they were all Jews (proselytes were Jews too, after all)? A lot of folks would have said so. And there were quite a few people arguing that the inability of those who worship the God of the Hebrews to read the Scriptures in Hebrew was the root cause of the diversity of theology and praxis they saw as fracturing Israel, threatening its very existence.

So how was it that all of these people were gathered together? They didn't come for the great sermons, since they didn't understand the same language. Yes, they gathered to break bread together, but what drew them to do that much, when they had so little in common?

I've got to think that it was the call of the Spirit promised by Jesus that brought them there, that the Spirit's call was what gathered them to break bread together first, before they understood one another. The Spirit's call, and their response to that call before they understood it, enabled them to hear what the Spirit had to say to the gathered church at the birth of the church.

I think about that when I read John 14.

"You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you."

By the way, the "you" is plural. I hear this as a word to the church: we know the Spirit because the Spirit abides with us. God's Spirit is in the assembly of God's people. And we don't have to do something to make that happen. We keep Jesus' word to love one another as he has loved us not so that God will send the Spirit, but to honor the Spirit who is present as we gather in Jesus' name.

We gather to meet the Spirit in response to the invitation set upon our hearts by that same Spirit. We're not gathering because of our shared understandings or our common language, but because we are sisters and brothers called to the family table at the invitation of the Father. And when we learn to recognize Christ in the faces of those gathered, we too will have seen the Father.

Thanks be to God!

May 24, 2004 in Acts, Holy Spirit, John, Pentecost, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)