Pentecost, Whit Sunday

25 May 2017

Acts 2.1-21 or Numbers 11.24-30; Psalm 104.26-36, 37b or 104.26-end; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13 or Acts 2.1-21; John 20.19-23 or John 7.37-39

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God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

GIVING, receiving, giving back: this is the pattern in God’s gift of the Spirit, described in different ways in the readings for Pentecost. It begins with life itself. Psalm 104 is one of the great poems of creation: it celebrates the wonder and variety of a world that is ordained and blessed by God, and also utterly dependent on God for its continued existence.

The relationship involves more than provision and regulation: it is personal. The Psalmist may describe a natural cycle of life and death, but what demands attention is the way that he imagines this — a world held in the gaze and animated by the breath of God (Psalm 104.31-32).

Nor is the benefit only in one direction. The world is an expression of God’s glory, and a cause for God’s rejoicing (Psalm 104.33). There is even a hint of experiment and play, as God exercises the power that makes the earth tremble and the mountains smoke, although there are dangers in pursuing that idea too far (Psalm 104.34).

The reciprocal movement is the natural world’s thankful joy in God, uniquely voiced in the gift of music (Psalm 104.35-36).

The remarkable events of Pentecost in Jerusalem after the resurrection (Acts 2.1-21) point us towards the faithful community. Transformed by the eruption of the Holy Spirit into the place where they were praying in hope, but perhaps also in fear, Jesus’s closest followers went out as living evidence that God was active in the present (Acts 2.11).

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Luke Timothy Johnson insists that the “emphasis of the story is not on what happened to Jesus, but what happened to [the disciples]: the ‘fact’ of Jesus’s new life is verified by the ‘fact’ of their new experience of power, manifested by their proclamation of ‘the great deeds of God’” (The Acts of the Apostles, Liturgical Press, 1992).

The resonant catalogue of the national origins of “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2.5-11) is a statement about the hope that is being offered to all nations. How they are to make that hope their own is not a matter of decoding language (1 Corinthians 12.10). Luke makes it clear that the Spirit working in the disciples has already done the work of making the message of the resurrection intelligible (Acts 2.5, 7-8, 11). For the audience, the task is to grapple with the event. Some are prepared to do that: others take refuge in contempt (Acts 2.12-13).

Peter speaks to them in the power and the wisdom of the Spirit, not proposing something without precedent in the tradition of these Jews from all over the known world who had found a home in Jerusalem. His long quotation from the prophet Joel (Joel 2.28-32) confronts them with their own expectations, and Luke has skilfully adjusted his source to turn the indefinite “afterward” of the prophecy (Joel 2.28) into the bolder claim of “the last days” (Acts 2.17).

In other words, the time they have all been waiting for has come, and God has acted in their sight. Against a somewhat apocalyptic picture of the events that will announce “the Lord’s great and glorious day”, Peter offers an invitation to call on the name of the Lord, confident of being saved (Acts 2.20-21).

John 7 turns the focus on the transformed lives of individual believers against a backdrop already darkened by shadows. Some early followers have fallen away; Jesus has foretold his betrayal (John 6.66, 70-71); and the Pharisees are campaigning to have him arrested for his teaching (John 7.32).

And yet some have begun to believe in him, and it is to them, and to others still hesitating, that he calls out at the end of the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. When he offers himself as the true source of water to the thirsty, he draws on a host of references to water that bring into one complex whole the desire for God (Psalm 42.1-2, Psalm 63.1); God’s material provision (Exodus 17.6); God’s faithfulness down the generations (Isaiah 44.3-4); and the vision of a renewed Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47.1-12, Zechariah 14.8).

To this, he adds another wonder: faithful hearts that will respond by themselves becoming conduits of living water (John 7.38). This is the evidence of the Spirit who will come when Jesus is glorified through his death (John 7.39).

Human lives that are also sources of life are the ongoing glory of God in the world. They do not have to be ostentatious to fulfil that calling, nor do they have to look identical. What matters is that the Spirit’s varied gifts at work in them are exercised “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 4-11), giving glory out of the gift of glory in the great economy of God.

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