Pentecost Sunday (Year A)

Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23

The Holy Spirit breaks out—inside or outside accustomed boundaries.

Pentecost is the Christian Church’s declaration that it originated from the powerful movement of God’s Spirit.

The divine Spirit is the spontaneous, the unpredictable, the creatively new breaking forth of the union of power and meaning in a human situation. It often appears, therefore, in some contrast to the structured, ordered, and institutional forms of the church’s life. The Spirit breaks out, the offices channel and structure divine power. The movements of the Spirit are charismatic, the forms are sacramental. Pentecost is the celebration of the charismatic, the inbreaking power of God that creates a new people, a new revelation, or a new moment of delivery or vision by which God’s people may live forward into their history.

Numbers 11:24-30.

The reading from the Torah describes a strange combination of ecstatic spirit with appointed office in ancient Israel. Israel’s time in the wilderness was a time of testing. They faced trials of a life-threatening nature—death from lack of water, death from lack of food, attacks from hostile enemies, and threats from internal dissention and rebellion.

One of these threats to the people’s existence was the lack of adequate leadership to assure good administration of justice. Moses was only one man and with a vast people he was overburdened by their need for judges and magistrates. Moses’ father-in-law warned him that the burden was too great. “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” He goes on to advise Moses to set up a series of lower courts to hear the people’s cases while he, Moses, presents only the most serious cases before God (Exodus 18:13-26, NRSV). This was the administration of justice through elected and appointed offices.

Our passage in Numbers addresses the same problem, but takes a more charismatic way toward a solution. In the narrative that leads up to our passage, Moses has complained to God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me” (Numbers 11:14). God’s answer to this complaint is to instruct Moses to select seventy well-known elders and bring them to the sanctuary to be endowed with a portion of Moses’ spirit (11:16-17). When, in our reading, Moses does this, the divine spirit that has empowered Moses falls on the elders and they break into ecstatic prophesy. (On this type of prophesy, see I Samuel 10:5-6; 19:18-24.) The burden of leadership, which threatened to overwhelm Moses alone, has been spread among a circuit of spirited leaders throughout the community.

The curious story of Eldad and Medad, which is added to this narrative about leadership, gives a strange twist to the possession of the divine spirit. Moses is understood to have made a list of the seventy elders who are to be ordained (“they were among those registered,” verse 26). This episode assumes that once Moses wrote down those seventy names, they were predestined to receive the spirit, whether they had gone out to the tent of meeting or not. Thus, though these two were back in the settlement and not out at the holy tent, at the exact moment when the divine spirit burst out on the others, they too were seized by the divine ecstasy and “prophesied” in the camp. This kind of prophesying created a public spectacle, and a young man ran out to Moses to tell him in alarm about the two wild men in the camp.

The apparent scandal of the prophesying of Eldad and Medad leads to an important saying by Moses. Joshua, Moses’ bodyguard and successor, urges him to silence those seemingly unauthorized spirit-mongers in the camp. This is Joshua’s zeal for the exclusive authority of Moses and those specifically ordained as assistants to Moses (verse 28). But Moses is a larger man that that—the story implies—and utters a wish for an inspirited people for the ages. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (verse 29, anticipating the Joel prophecy that Peter will quote at Pentecost).

Though this final saying of Moses wishes for the spirit of God to guide everybody, the larger (and later) tradition did not trust this kind of charismatic common life. The final and fully developed version of the Law of Moses makes the priests the custodians of the people’s lives. There are no provisions for prophets, especially ecstatic prophets, in the ideal order of Israel’s life in the Torah. In the age of Ezra, when the Torah assumed its authoritative place in Israel’s life (Nehemiah 8-10), the only prophets around were devious accomplices of the enemies (see Nehemiah 6:10-15). The age of the great prophets was over and Israel now had only to live by the Torah.

It is this later viewpoint, which sees the age of the prophets as past, that speaks in one important sentence in our reading. In describing the charismatic gift to the seventy elders, the text says, “and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again” (verse 25). It was true that the spirit of Moses came upon the hand-picked men at their original ordination—even that they went a little wild with the ecstasy—but that was a one-time event. In future, the official elders conducted themselves more properly and were not again to be mistaken for those prophets who could so easily get out of hand—and perhaps even start revolutions (Elijah and Elisha).

So the history of God’s Spirit keeps breaking forth only to be gradually channeled and structured into offices and sacraments. Moses, however, had hoped that the breaking forth could go on perpetually.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.

The Psalm reading is a portion of a great hymn to creation. Our reading dwells on the providential care of God for created beings. It speaks of the dependent spirit of the creatures and the spirit of God sent forth as a renewing agent for the earth.

When you give to them, 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 [ruach, spirit], they die
          and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created [bara’ as in Gen. 1:1];
          and you renew the face of the ground.

If and when God’s Spirit comes upon the human scene to inspire and guide, it is the same Spirit that sustains all created things and gives new life to the earth. So the psalm affirms.

Acts 2:1-21.

In place of an Epistle reading we have THE Pentecost narrative from the Acts of the Apostles. The text contains many emphases:

  • the common life of the disciples after Jesus’ departure,
  • the presence of Jews from all the lands of the known world,
  • the peculiar power of the Spirit in giving many languages to those who preach, and
  • how Peter begins his sermon by quoting a text from the prophet Joel.

This last emphasis links especially with the reading from the Torah.

First we should listen to the description of the breaking forth of the Spirit. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind [pnoe, not pneuma], and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (verses 2-4, NRSV).

Peter stands as a spokesman for all the apostles and declares to the crowds in Jerusalem that these strange phenomena are the breaking out of the Spirit of God, and that, in accordance with prophecy, that out breaking is for all peoples. Because NOW is understood to be “the last days.” The prophecies about that end time are coming true. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” (verse17, quoting Joel 2:28 [Hebrew text 3:1]).

Not only are the first Jesus believers living in the last time, they are living in a time when the old forms are burst open again. The prophets were silenced for four hundred years, but now the spirit of prophecy breaks out on every side. “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (verse 18). There is a new divine eruption into history; it is not just religious business as usual. Jesus came and carried out his mission, ending with the commissioning of the apostles.

The Apostolic Age is now launched by the ecstatic power of the Holy Spirit. As the book of Acts moves along, we will see the wildness of the charisma calm down some, but throughout the age—right on past Paul’s end days in Rome—the ekklesia, the Assembly of God’s people, will move forward into the world by the power of the Spirit.

That’s the meaning of Pentecost within the panorama of the book of Acts.

John 20:19-23.

The Gospel reading is John’s account of Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples after the resurrection.

This narrative reflects a preoccupation by some early Christians with the physical reality of the resurrected Jesus—the disciples not only see a risen Jesus, they are shown Jesus’ wounded hands and side (verse 20), and Thomas will later actually touch these wounds (verse 27). In accordance with this preoccupation with the physical body, the description of Jesus giving the Spirit has him actually breathe the Spirit upon them. The Spirit is a wind-like phenomenon; it can be transmitted like air.

The scene described here is virtually an ordination ritual for apostles. Jesus says to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” turning the disciples into apostles. At the same time, he completes the commission with an appropriate action. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” However inspirited the Christian community in Ephesus may have been, this transmission of the Spirit looks a lot like being empowered with an office. (The power bestowed, in verse 23, is to forgive sins – an awesome capacity to transmit to mere mortals!)

The bursting out of the Spirit and the ecstatic response are not apparent here. In John, the Spirit is more a mystical revelation and inner source of truth and assurance than it is a community creator. The diverse portrayals of the gifts of Pentecost show that the Spirit of God was already leading the many groups of Jesus followers into diverse paths in the world to which they were commissioned.

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