This week’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This coming Sunday is Pentecost.
The passage in Acts describes something rather spectacular. The followers of Christ were together, and suddenly there is a sound like a mighty wind, and tongues of fire come to rest on each believer, and they start talking in other languages, so that foreigners nearby understood their speech.
I wonder — did one speak in one language, and another in another? Or did the Spirit so move that each foreigner heard his own language from the lips of all the believers?
Either way — they heard, and understood, and the theme of all this talking was “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11).
Some thought they were drunk, which doesn’t make sense, since drunkenness rarely confers the ability to proclaim theology fluently in another language.
At this point Peter gets up and speaks to the crowd.
He could have just said “No, it’s just the Spirit making people speak in your languages.” He could have figured it was just something special for the believers, to mark them as set apart, the chosen ones. But even now, so soon after they were all so confused, he understands that this phenomenon is part of their being witnesses to the ends of the earth (end of Matthew’s gospel), part of bringing the blessing to the whole world (as promised to Abraham in Genesis), part of opening the gate wide for all who would come in. As he quotes from Joel, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Peter recognizes that what has happened is the pouring out of the Spirit, as Joel prophesied. The Spirit would be given to all kinds of people — men and women, slaves and free, old and young. Joel wrote that those receiving the Spirit would prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. In other words, they would obtain more and more truth — to speak truth about God and people and reality, to see truth whether waking or sleeping. He spoke also about signs and wonders that would herald the “day of the Lord” to come. This is apocalyptic language, marking the spiritual significance of what it describes, emphasizing that God is going to act decisively, is doing so even now. It is interesting that the list of portents includes fire; was it partly the tongues of fire that brought this passage from Joel to Peter’s mind as the people prophesied?
The Psalm echoes the themes of God’s sovereign activity and inclusion; all that he created looks to him for food, and he sustains and watches over all the natural processes he created and set in motion. The bit about death and dismay is uncomfortable. Do we want to go so far as to say dismay implies that God has hidden himself? Or is it plausible to say that the underlying idea is that it *feels* that way when we are dismayed? Likewise, is it that God takes one’s breath away and thus one dies? Or is it that death, as one of the natural processes, is under God’s care and not something he is ignorant of or indifferent about? In the same way I think we are to see God’s sovereignty over nature as a blessed letting be — natural processes under his general care rather than each event being the result of a specific intervention on his part. I don’t mean a deism in which God started everything up and then left; he is somehow deeply, widely, richly involved in all these things that happen — but not in a literalist or interventionist sort of way either.
1 Corinthians picks up these themes and expands on them. It is by the Spirit that anyone can proclaim such truth as “Jesus is Lord.” It is the Spirit who knows each individual and gives a fitting diversity of gifts and vocations. However different the gifts, the vocations, the personalities, the situations, the one Spirit is the giver, the caller, the maker, the sustainer; Christian unity does not consist of homogeneity, but of diversity under and in one Spirit.
The two Gospel options both look back to times when Jesus spoke of the coming of the Spirit: one before the cross, the other after. In the former, Jesus quotes Isaiah calling all the thirsty to come to the Lord, the spring of living water, the Spirit. In the latter, he sends the disciples out as he was sent by the Father. In both cases, it is clear: those who follow Jesus are called to a whole transformed life beginning right here and now. We are to drink — to be united with him, incorporated in him, one with his purpose, like him in love and goodness and truth. We are to be in the world to continue his work, to implement it as we may now, and in anticipation of its coming fulfillment; to bring blessing, to invite repentance, to announce the kingdom, to work for reconciliation.
I end with a question. What is Jesus getting at when he tells the disciples that the sins they retain or forgive will be accordingly retained or forgiven? Perhaps it is part of the sending them out as he was sent — that they have the authority to proclaim forgiveness of sins just as he did? Is there a sinister edge, implying that they had better be careful what they call sin, and who they condemn, lest they fall short of the full forgiveness God would offer?