Today in the Spirit: Pentecost Sunday B (Whitsunday)

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“Pentecost Sunday already!?” While this might well be our reaction to the arrival of this feast day on the church calendar every year, we can only imagine how the disciples felt when Jesus ordered them to go to Jerusalem and wait until you are clothed with power from on high  (Luke 24:49). As they gathered to worship and pray on that particular Jewish feast of Pentecost, perhaps they were whispering to one another, “Could this be the day we have been waiting for?” We can consider Pentecost Sunday the Church’s birthday as it marks the decisive moment in God’s season of redemption in which the Holy Spirit collided with the hearts of all those who believed in Jesus, creating the new community of God in the Spirit. 

The assigned readings for Pentecost Sunday are the same in all three years of the lectionary cycle, and with little exception, this is the only occasion we hear these passages. The assigned Gospel reading in John 14:8-17 (part of which we just listened to a few weeks earlier on Easter 5B) 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). 

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The awkward listing of Acts 2:1-11(12-21) as options for the first and second readings is the church’s way of saying, “We recommend, in the strongest possible terms, that you include Luke’s narrative of the Spirit’s coming over and into the first generation of believers in your Sunday worship on this occasion.”

The first option for the OT reading, Genesis 11:1-9, is the dramatic account of the construction and destruction of the Tower of Babel on the Plain of Shinar (probably in present-day Iraq). The miraculous confusion of languages in this story serves as an OT antitype to the supernatural comprehension of languages in the Acts reading. The assigned Psalm 104:24-35 communicates to the worshiper that the coming of the Holy Spirit 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 distributed to members of the church that they might make through them a winsome witness to oneness in Christ. 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 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.

And Suddenly There Came from Heaven (Acts 2:1-11,[12-21])

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 

Please take note of Luke’s careful ordering of events here: There came from heaven the Spirit (2), and then, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak (4). The movement is from outside in. This presentation is consistent with the witness of all of Scripture–God first approaches us, rather than we to him: God comes to Adam and Eve in the garden, Moses on Sinai, and the Israelites in Jerusalem. We are, says John, born from above through faith in Christ (Jn. 3:3); and, here from Luke, filled with the Spirit from heaven.

Those who refuse to believe in God will always have excuses at hand for why conversion has touched others and not them like they are filled with new wine (13) or they are religiously inclined. We who believe must never be lulled into thinking like that, especially when it seems so few around us are deciding for Jesus.

The minute our faith becomes something from inside us, something other than from heaven, we lose our zeal for the Gospel. May it never be! The Father God is active in sending the revelation of his Son from heaven to others all the time. In Jesus’ own words (found in the Gospel reading today), the Father who dwells in me does his works (Jn. 14:10). The gift of repentance and faith will come suddenly on others as it did that day on Pentecost, to the most unexpected people: we must remain expectant in our prayers for it, and ready to make new disciples at all times.

Today, Holy Spirit, seeing how you came suddenly from heaven on the Day of Pentecost, we prepare ourselves for the outbreaking of faith and new life on any one at any time.  

Come, Let Us Go Down and There Confuse Their Language (Genesis 11:1-9)

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (1-7)

This is only the beginning of what they will do (6). Here is a stunning statement of respect from God about the potential of human beings to unite and dominate. Divinely-imaged men and women possess tremendous power, and the Lord foresees this city and tower as the starting point of a descent of all creation into disorder. 

If God has resolved to redeem humanity after the Fall (and starting from the next chapter, we see this is his intention), scattering and dividing the peoples of the world only makes the job far more difficult. However, in his wisdom, God knows that such division surpasses a union of men founded on rock-solid, impregnable pride. Now, the only way to rescue humans and redeem the universe will be a divine persuasion set against a complex babble.  

Enter Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit poured out on the church, and this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world, as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Mt. 24:14). Today, Lord, we pray as in the Collect for the church, to preach the Gospel, that “your salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

How Manifold Are Your Works (104:24-35)

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom have you made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

25 Here is the sea, great and wide,
    which teems with creatures innumerable,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
27 These all look to you,
    to give them their food in due season.
28 When you give it to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
    when you take away their breath, they die
    and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.
31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
    may the Lord rejoice in his works,
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains and they smoke! (24-32)

This long and majestic psalm seeks to enhance the meditation (34) of worshipers of the one God by touching on, among other things, his power to both create and attend to a vast expanse with numerous creatures (O Lord, how manifold are your works! 24). “Manifold” is a word meaning “many and varied.” In this portion of the psalm, our focus is directed just to the sea (Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it). Human-made ships, which we consider a great achievement, don’t compare to the infinite numbers and kinds of sea creatures moving below them.

Devotionally, let us stay there just for a moment. Our lives are like those ships on the sea. We who appear to be driving have only a minuscule understanding of everything happening below and around us, us or above us, things visible and invisible. But our God does. Only the Maker understands the fullness of what he has made. C.S. Lewis frequently addresses this theme in his writings. In “The World’s Last Night,” he compares people in the world to characters in a play: “But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.”

Today, on the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit who renews the world, we pray for the renewal of our minds to contemplate in creation the infinite power of God and our own powerlessness as those who must depend on him.

Made to Drink of One Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-13)

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (4-13)

What is the problem the Apostle Paul is addressing here? It is not that the members of the Corinthian church were neglecting the spiritual gifts but that they were misusing and abusing them to serve selfish ends. To counteract this, Paul teaches them about the Holy Spirit: that there is one and the same Spirit of one and the same Lord Jesus Christ and that it is the unity of the Spirit into which they have been immersed through baptism–made to drink. If we drink medicine to relieve a cold, we must not expect it to work for arthritis. Likewise, God has offered spiritual medicine for love in the body, resulting in fellowship, not for individual aggrandizement causing division.

As we, in our churches, become more open to the manifestation of spiritual gifts, we may find, especially after a bit of success, the temptation arising among some to become proud and showy. It is the responsibility of the church leadership to get past the fascination of seeing power coming into the congregation’s life and monitor for a form of power that aids (rather than prevents) community building. Let us not be afraid of encouraging the use of the gifts to avoid trouble—that’s the easier road, depriving the church of power in the Spirit. Let’s take the more challenging road of opening ourselves to all the Spirit offers and build in the safeguards of love (Ch. 13).

Today, Holy Spirit, Provider of the medicine of power and love we have all been made to drink in baptism, cure us of the desire for self-exultation.

To Be with You Forever (John 14:8-17)

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 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’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 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. (8-17)

Another Helper, to be with you forever (16). Here is one among many statements in this passage that Jesus would have his disciples accept as true because he, as Son of God, co-equal with the Father, has said it. If the Holy Spirit is with us forever (Gk: εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, lit. “unto the ages”) at the point he is given, then forever begins with that first Pentecost Sunday. In fact, someone could argue from Scripture that the Holy Spirit has been with us from the beginning of creation. What can Paul’s words, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), mean if the Holy Spirit has not been with us, in some form, all along? 

Beloved, if the Holy Spirit dwells with us and in us forever, it means there is not a second of time so difficult, a place so dangerous, or a situation so complicated that he will be apart from us. It is easier for us to believe that to be true in the afterlife than it is for the here and now. We struggle daily with doubt, hurt, and confusion so much that we feel we must wonder, Is he here now? Are you here, Lord, now?

Today, in the Spirit, on this remembrance of that glorious Pentecost Sunday in Jerusalem, I resolve to put my doubts aside and confess that God’s Spirit is with me and in me always because the Son of God has said it is so. 

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.

View more from Geoff Little

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