Today in the Spirit: Pentecost Sunday A

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“Pentecost Sunday already!?” While this might be our reaction each year to the arrival of this feast day at the midpoint (more or less) of the church year, we can only imagine the disciples who were ordered by Jesus to go to Jerusalem and wait until you are clothed with power from on high  (Luke 24:49) felt differently. As they gathered for that particular Jewish feast of Pentecost, praying, perhaps they were whispering to one another, “Could this be the day we have been waiting for?” Pentecost Sunday may be considered the birthday of the church as it marks the decisive moment in God’s season of redemption when the Holy Spirit collided full force with the hearts of all those who believed in Jesus, creating the new community of God. Each of the alternative collects assigned for the day touches on differing but co-related aspects of the arrival of the Holy Spirit–an outward manifestation for salvation “to the ends of the earth,”  and an inner manifestation within the disciples for the gifting of “right judgment” and “holy comfort.”

The set of readings assigned for Pentecost Sunday is identical for all three years of the Sunday lectionary cycle. The Gospel reading in John 14:8-17 (part of which we just heard a few weeks earlier on Easter 5A) contains Jesus’ teaching to his disciples that the [Spirit of truth now] lives with you (by Jesus himself) and will be in you (by the indwelling of the Spirit at Pentecost). The awkward listing of Acts 2:1-11(12-21) as options for both the first and second readings is the church’s way of saying “we fervently recommend in the strongest possible terms that Luke’s narrative of the coming of the Spirit over and into the first generation of believers be included in your Sunday worship.” The first option for an OT reading is from Genesis 11:1-9, the construction and destruction of the Tower of Babel, miraculous confusion the OT antitype over against supernatural understanding in the NT. The assigned Psalm 104:24-35 communicates to the worshiper that the coming of the Holy Spirit into the believing community is an act of creation–a bold new brush stroke on the canvas of God’s revelation of himself, now nearing completion. The alternate NT reading from 1 Corinthians 12:4-13 gives us Paul’s teaching on the varieties of gifts from the Holy Spirit gifted to members of the church that they might make through them a winsome witness to oneness in Christ.      

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The Collect

Almighty God, on this day, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, you revealed the way of eternal life to every race and nation: Pour out this gift anew, that by the preaching of the Gospel your salvation may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Or,

O God, who on this day 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 judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

They Were Bewildered (Acts 2:1-11(12-21))

And divided tongues as of fire appeared to [the Christians gathered] and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? (3-8).

Who was bewildered? This time it was not the apostles. Taking Luke’s Gospel and the Acts together, we find there is a noticeable shift in the portrayal of Jesus’ disciples beginning at this key juncture in Acts 2. Up to this point it is the twelve whom Luke consistently portrays as bewildered and amazed and astonished. They are the ones confused by Jesus’ teachings (Luke 8:9-10), or amazed by his displays of power (Luke 8:25), or startled by his presence (Luke 24:37). Even as late as Acts 1, the disciples are paralyzed by wonder at Jesus’ ascension, so much so that angels are dispatched to move them along (Acts 1:10-11). All that changes beginning with the report of the tongues as of fire that Pentecost day. From that point on the apostles, while certainly surprised by the opening of jail cells and healings, become bold and expectant. How can we account for the change? Is this Luke exaggerating to make heroes of Peter and Paul? Maybe a bit. Is it just that everyone has grown accustomed to the power of God? Hardly. The new understanding in the disciples has come by the Holy Spirit itself. In Ephesians, Paul writes: I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe (1:18-19). The Holy Spirit has opened Paul’s eyes to hope and power and abundance in Jesus, and he desires the same for all believers. Devotionally, It is, of course, wonderful to remain surprised by the Lord’s intervention in our lives, but we may need to ask ourselves, Am I too surprised? Am I so empty of expectation from God that my faith is hardly recognizable? 

Today, by the Spirit whose coming we celebrate this day, work in me the transformation Luke reports in Acts regarding the apostles.

The LORD Dispersed Them (Genesis 11:1-9)

And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth (6-11).

The world and all that is in it belong to the LORD; the earth and all who live on it are his (Psalm 24:1 GNT). At a basic level, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis is a testimony to the unmitigated and unassailable sovereignty of the One God over all creation. The first half relates the seemingly unstoppable ambitions of people to use geography and technology for their own ends; the second half God’s determination to stop the project in its tracks and succeeding decisively. Now compare this to Luke’s narrative of the fire of Pentecost which no one can stop. Those opposed to the outworking of the divine plan to fill the church with the Holy Spirit have no answer. The movement of the Spirit at Pentecost is as unassailable as the work of God to destroy Babel. And throughout Luke’s second volume we find the “acts” of the Holy Spirit of God prevailing. Maybe it is at this most basic level of comprehending these two readings today we take the greatest comfort. The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:1). 

Today, in the Spirit, we take comfort in the work of God both at Babel and in Jerusalem for his unsurpassed sovereignty.    

When You Send Forth the Spirit (Psalm 104:24-35)

When you give [food] to [sea creatures], they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground (28-30).

This psalm is an ode to the God of creation. Saying or singing these words on Pentecost Sunday trains us to understand the release of the Holy Spirit–really the whole saving ministry of Christ from incarnation to his return–as part and parcel of the larger order of things established by God from eternity. And why is that important devotionally? Brothers and sisters, let it be known that the ministry of Christ was not an emergency services job, not a  hurried change of plan organized by the Godhead because of an unforeseen, surprise rebellion on the part of human beings. The redemption of Jesus is not like a bandaid over a dangerous open sore that  might easily come off like it does on our school kids running around the playground. Let it be understood somehow, mysteriously, the Father God anticipated the fall of human beings and that our redemption was known in the plan of creation from the beginning of time along with the placement of the stars and the feeding of the sea creatures. The saving ministry of Christ, and particularly the coming of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the entire communion of saints, is sure and sound as birth, death and the cycles of nature. 

Today, by the Spirit who has created the universe and recreated us with utterly dependable wisdom and care, we rest in his sanctifying work as surely as we do in his sending the sunrise in the morning. 

The Same God Who Empowers (1 Corinthians 12:4-13)

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone (4-6).

The former pagans (see 12:1-2) to whom Paul is writing in Corinth apparently had no difficulty believing in the idea of divine activity at work in people’s lives, just in the organization of it–who gets what and whose gifts are more important. As a recovering secularist, I will admit my issue is believing (I mean really believing) in manifestations of the Spirit at all. My baseline worldview as a pastor born and bred in humanist America, and that of most of the people in the church I serve, has been that we are who we are, and if there is any real empowering in our lives it is simply the awakening of something already in us as part of our personalities or “skill sets.” In the same way I struggle to trust that my sins are forgiven by God through the outside imputation of his righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, I struggle to trust also that my life is empowered by God through the outside impartation of gifts to be used for his service. 

Today, Lord, by your Spirit who is in us and actively at work, open us up further to the possibilities of life under the influence of your supernatural gifts distributed to all, that we might undertake your transforming work in the world. Whatever gifts you’re offering, dear God, we’ll take them.

And I Will Ask the Father (John 14:8-17)

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (8-9).

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (15-17).

That conjunction And (Greek kago) in And I will ask the Father has given English Bible translators fits. Some translations leave it out altogether (NASB, GNT), probably under the assumption that with the connecting word the passage suggests Jesus is making the sending of the Spirit contingent on the disciples’ obedience, like “If you love and obey me, then I will ask the Father to send the Spirit.” It is a natural way to read the passage in English: Is it possible there is a works component here in John’s Gospel? Must believers earn the coming of the Holy Spirit? Well, first, it must be admitted that John’s writings do put considerable weight on a person’s genuine response of faith to the revelation of Jesus, and that true faith yields the fruit of obedience (1 John 1:5ff, 3:7ff, for example). But, second, in the context of this passage in which Jesus is encouraging his disciples before he departs, it is likely our Lord is not putting forward a linear if-then statement here as much as a circular picture of kingdom reality after Jesus’ ascension: I will ascend, you (disciples) will believe and obey, I will ask the Father to send the Counselor, and so the cycle of human response and divine empowering will continue. It is encouraging to think that even when believing is hard, even (and perhaps especially) when we are most taxed in our faith the Son of God presses in deeper with his own presence in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes harder when we are humble, obeying his commands to love one another and confessing our sins. Dane Ortlund writes: Jesus can no more bring himself to stiff-arm you than the loving father of a crying baby can bring himself to stiff-arm his dear child. Jesus’ heart is drawn out to you.” And so, yes, he will ask the Father, and he will send the Helper. 

Today, Holy Spirit, with humble joy we receive you with open arms even as you have been freely given by the Father and the Son.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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