Day of Pentecost Sunday May 31 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary
Pentecost Sunday Textweek
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:12: ‘All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"’ And I know just how they felt, and my guess is many have known just how they felt. We come to Pentecost year by year and there is something amazing and perplexing and maybe year-by-year we ask ourselves and each other, what does it mean?
Pentecost asks an understanding of us, just as we seek to understand it. That’s why it’s so valuable listening to the children or allowing them to have a say, without their heads, just with their eyes and their hearts they make links. Now we make the same links but we’ve got a whole lot of other things in the foreground of those links – like mortgages and what I’m going to cook for dinner tonight and will I get the washing done this afternoon because the sky looked black…all that just clutters up the cleanness by which links are there to be seen. And why Pentecost is so amazing and perplexing is probably the graphic narrative that we have in the Acts of the Apostles. It gives us so much to contemplate and it asks us to go a bit further: What are these flames that appeared on the heads of all that were there? The story in Acts is linked to an older wisdom and it’s linked to wisdom from the prophet Joel, so that last part of the first reading is, if you like, a replay of what was known and remembered from the prophet Joel, so I thought maybe that’s the place to start; let’s start with the prophet Joel and then see and work our way through the narratives that follow.
The wisdom of Joel has obviously given a frame to the writer of Acts, a frame of understanding. Therefore, if we can look at that frame of reference, maybe it leads us then to look at the other readings in a different way. Verse 18 determines the universal nature of Pentecost: ‘Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’ So straight away by going back to that earlier wisdom, we get that this is a universal movement: slaves, men and women are included in it. Pentecost is not given to a part, but it is given to the whole, and is inclusive of all. We can miss that if we just go to the account of Pentecost and read it as ‘those who were in that building at that time in those seats’. So what we’re told is that Pentecost is universal to all, to the whole and it’s inclusive.
The other thing in that verse is that it says ‘in those days’, ‘in those days I will pour out my Spirit’. It identifies Pentecost as a process; it’s a continuous activity rather than an event. If it was an event it would be ‘on that day, in that moment’. But rather it’s ‘in those days’. So we actually have a sense of there’s a movement that includes all that has got a degree of continuity about it
Verse 17, 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men’ – we already know that includes slaves men and women – ‘shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’ Again, remember it’s ancient language, it’s a language of the prophet and again it’s open to various interpretations if we read it from the present moment. In the last days it will be - so often that has been taken as a doomsday translation. It’s amazing how much, even now, how much of the church’s teaching has got an orientation towards the last days. They’ve just got their mind around the Big Bang stuff down this end, but they’re still looking at these last days and dumping everything that they can’t handle today there. So what the church is saying is in the last days – this is just a prelude don’t get too hung up about this stuff, it’s all going to happen ‘in the last days’. That’s where you get the armageddons, the doomsday stuff. That’s if we use that translation of it.
‘In the last days’, however, is equally open to be seen as the time of wholeness and fullness. The last days of the fruit are when it ripens on the tree, the last days of wine are when it has matured into its vintage; the last days is pointing toward wholeness and fullness, toward harvest. So in the time of fullness, rather than ‘in the fullness of time’, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. A divine emptying of self and a giving of self to all flesh - carefully chosen words: it’s not given to everybody, but to all flesh. A divine pouring out, a divine giving upon all that has life. And the outcome of that divine pouring out: ‘and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’. There's a future orientation; it reminds us, it tells us that our children hold the voice of tomorrow. That quote that we’ve often used: “Life is no ‘brief candle’, rather a splendid torch which we hold and then hand on, one to another: your sons and daughters shall prophesy. You’ve got a part to play in it and the part you play in the prophesy of your sons and daughters is the part of Pentecost, the pouring out of your spirit, for your sons and your daughters, even your slaves. All of our sons and daughters. So there's a future orientation in that line that asks us and asks of us to engage in this process of Pentecost.
‘And your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’ an inclusive valuation of the contribution that all have to play. The young envision and imagine tomorrow – there's an unbridled creative energy that draws and almost feeds on everything around to envision tomorrow, to move toward tomorrow - your young men shall see visions. The old, with wisdom, dream, a view of tomorrow born from within, from the creative inner landscape of life, a dream of tomorrow that emerges from the experience of life. We all, all have a part in the process of Pentecost.
Verse 19 and 20 then paint a graphic picture of prophet symbolism. ‘I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below.’ This is where medieval theology continues to live, but actually what that line does is it reiterates the whole essence of biblical wisdom. ‘I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below.’ God, seen in the divine realm, is also to be seen in the activity of humanity. The portents of heaven reflect or are reflected in the signs on earth: blood, and fire, and smoky mist, a trinity of symbols representing, reflecting birth and death and life. The seen and the unseen,
Verse 20: ‘The sun shall be turned to darkness’ – let go of the doomsday: no more shall our worldly concerns be in the spotlight. In the process of Pentecost we move away from the distractions of the material toward the integration of the spiritual. ‘The sun shall be turned to darkness’ – we do not need to see that which is around us’ for that which is around us is created within; the world around is born and birthed in our hearts, the gift of the divine.
‘The moon shall be turned to blood; the lunar cycle that navigates birth is the timekeeper of mortality. Pentecost is outside of time. Pentecost is eternally now and all this, verse 20 concludes, all of this, ‘before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day’. Now that’s confusing. Does that mean that all of this will occur before Christmas, before the Lord’s great and glorious nativity? Or before Easter - before the Lord’s great and glorious resurrection? Or before Ascension – before the great and glorious Day of Glory? Or does it mean that we read the whole lot again, read again the narrative of Pentecost as if it speaks of the day of now. The birth of tomorrow’s glory is in the Pentecost of the moment
The Lord be with you.