May 29, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
My friend the Bible teacher/commentator Dale Bruner is a wonderful teacher of biblical stories. Part of Dale’s teachings usually include some dramatic re-enactments of the story at hand. He always elicits a chuckle from the class at this point in John 20 when he reaches a certain part in the story’s re-telling only to reach into his pocket and then pull out a little aerosol can of breath freshener. After giving his mouth a couple squirts, he then goes around the room exhaling into everyone’s faces as he re-enacts Jesus’ breathing out of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples!
This is in some ways John’s version of Pentecost (see the “Questions to Ask / Issues to Address” part of this sermon starter to wonder how this fits with Acts 2) and it is indeed noteworthy to see Jesus literally exhaling the Spirit onto the disciples.
But it’s also what comes next that is quite remarkable. After all, isn’t it curious to note that forgiveness is the first item on the agenda? In John 20, no sooner does Jesus breathe the Spirit onto his followers and he immediately mentions the forgiveness of sins, particularly the disciples’ forgiveness of other people. Apparently there is a tight connection between new life in the resurrected Christ and the act of forgiveness.
On the surface of it, Jesus seems to be giving the disciples both a blank check and a whole lot of clout and power. Are the disciples now going to wield this Spirit-driven ability to forgive (or not) in a willy-nilly, arbitrary way? John 20 provides no guidelines or instructions but we can assume that the intention here is not for the disciples to start walking around a city like Jerusalem and randomly pointing at one person after the next and saying,
“Forgiven. Unforgiven. Forgiven. Forgiven. Nope, not you, pal! Forgiven. Unforgiven . . .”
So how should we read Jesus’ semi-startling words that the disciples had this ability to forgive—or not—in ways that are so binding? It is certainly not a power to be wielded lightly. It’s also something with a clear connection to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and maybe that fact right there tells us something.
After all, consider the setting: the disciples had just recently failed Jesus miserably. They were disloyal, dishonest, fearful, and feckless. Small wonder that upon hearing that Jesus might be back that they locked the door. Maybe they convinced themselves that it was the Jewish authorities they were afraid of. But since they didn’t appear to huddle in locked rooms the day before they were told Jesus had come back to life, you wonder why they locked the door only after hearing Mary Magdalene’s testimony of his return.
In any event, it was an act of supreme grace that Jesus came among them, flashed a kind smile as he spoke “Peace” to them and then gave them the truly great gift of nothing less than a share of the divine through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. In a setting like that, hearing “If you forgive anyone his sins . . .” implicitly carried with it the idea “Oh and by the way, don’t forget all the sins I just forgave in all of you simply by virtue of showing up here brimming with grace!” Those who know they have been forgiven much—and who know that deep in their bones—ought not turn around and behave ungraciously themselves (cf. Matthew 18!).
Yes, there would be people in the future lives of the disciples (as well as in the church those disciples-cum-apostles would found) who would be unforgiven for one reason or another (and the main reason would generally be that they did not want anyone’s forgiveness in the first place). But considering what Jesus did for his disciples that very evening inside that locked room—inside that room that was so filled with shame and guilt–Jesus’ subsequent mention of forgiveness was not only a sign of the Spirit’s presence and power in their hearts but set the tone for the forgiveness they were then encouraged to dole out to others whose sins were as real and as raw as the sins of the disciples had just been.
When you just have had the weight of the world removed from your shoulders through another person’s graciousness toward you, it’s not the moment to start calculating what other people in life you want to see stay similarly burdened and what ones you might be willing to help out. Instead, the joy you feel at having been forgiven becomes contagious—you can’t wait to start spreading it around!
Questions to Ask / Issues to Address
We think John wrote his gospel well after the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had been written. We think maybe John knew of those three gospels and that is perhaps why he structured his own account so differently. I suppose we could assume that John knew of also Luke’s second volume, his gospel sequel, in “The Book of Acts” but whether he knew that book or not, surely John had been present on the original day of Pentecost there in Jerusalem. Sure, Peter had gone on to steal the limelight that day with that whale of a sermon through which the newly outpoured Spirit of God had converted thousands on the spot. But John must have been there. Granted, he’s not mentioned by name in Acts 2 but by Acts 3 he is side-by-side with Peter doing miraculous healings in the power of that same Holy Spirit who had roared into Jerusalem on Pentecost.
So what’s going on with John’s spare little pre-Pentecost out-breathing of the Holy Spirit here in John 20? How could John have known about the huge and dramatic real story of Pentecost and yet reduce the disciples’ reception of the Spirit to that Easter Sunday, behind-locked-doors event in which Jesus essentially blew them all the kiss of the Spirit? How do we square this imparting of the Spirit—replete with, as noted elsewhere in these sermon starters, the power to forgive sins—with Luke’s big story in Acts 2? It’s a little hard to say.
Was this like an initial deposit, a kind of holy down-payment, of the Spirit with the big “coming upon them with power” display still to come 50 days later? Was this like a preview that would keep them going for another 7 weeks until the fullness really came upon them in ways that would help them midwife the church’s birth after Jesus was seated in power at the Father’s right hand?
In truth, I could keep on asking questions like this for several more paragraphs (but I will spare you that!). It’s coming up with solid answers to any of these queries that is more difficult. The best we can do is probably speculate (and not get too fanciful even at that) but consider: when Jesus popped into that locked room, he was bursting with the new life of the kingdom. Although there would finally be a certain order of events upcoming, including Ascension and then Pentecost, there was really no containing the power that coursed through Jesus at that time. Resurrection life had to make some kind of an effect on even that first evening of Easter and so, as a sign and symbol and, yes, perhaps as a kind of sneak preview of all that was to come, Jesus could not help but impart some of that new life to those disciples even then.
The power of grace unto forgiveness that his death and now resurrection made possible just had to bust out somehow—there was no containing it in some ways! And so even though a very public and dramatic outpouring of the Spirit and proclamation of the Gospel was still 50 days off, that first Easter could not possibly conclude without some kingdom power leaking out to those disciples. Maybe that evening the “wind” of the Spirit was no more than what Jesus could generate by opening his mouth and puffing out some air—maybe it was no more than the warm air from a person’s mouth, the same as we’ve all felt when a loved one whispers something directly into our ear—but contained within it is great power indeed.
What with the world and with all of history having split in two earlier that day and all, there really was no holding it back. Not completely!!
Before breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, Jesus first showed them his scars. Doing so provided more than just some jolt of recognition on the part of the disciples. This was not only a sign of the continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-crucifixion body. Instead, perhaps we can see in those scars the very earthy nature of the ministry for which the Holy Spirit ultimately equips us. The scars remind us of what even the Son of God had to do so as to make us a holy enough people as to warrant the presence of God’s own Spirit in us. But maybe those same scars remind us that we are called to minister in a rough and tumble world of sin that does that kind of thing to even the divine One in our midst. The Spirit did not come to us from an ecstatic vision of light and glory. The Spirit did not come to us on a silver platter and hand delivered to us by a celestial angel of light. The Spirit came to us from One whose body had been broken and still showed the signs of this. And that Spirit comes to us and calls us to a sacrificial ministry in a world full of brokenness and a world willing to keep on breaking all that is holy.
C.S. Lewis was obviously taken with John 20’s presentation of Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit onto his disciples because he wove just that image into the final scene of his first Narnia chronicle, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” If you have seen the movie of this made a few years back, then you recall when Aslan, after returning from the dead, goes around and breathes on all the creatures that had been turned to stone by the White Witch, bringing them back to life. It’s a moving image but those of us who have focused more on the film of late may forget the lyric description of this act of new creation that Lewis wrote in the book. So here is the passage from page165 of the Colliers paperback edition of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (Colliers, New York, 1970):
“I expect you’ve seen someone put a lighted match to a bit of newspaper which is propped up in a grate against an unlit fire. And for a second nothing seems to have happened, and then you notice a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper. It was like that now. For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him, the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back—then it spread—then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper—then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. He lifted one of them and scratched himself. Then, having caught sight of Aslan, he went bounding after him and frisking round him whimpering with delight and jumping up to lick his face.”
It’s a text that really does put one in mind to anticipate those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Just before he ascended to the heavenly realm Jesus promised his disciples they’d his “witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” Yet nothing any of them had done or said up to that point had even hinted that they were up to that task.
In fact, the gospels consistently portray Jesus’ disciples as a bunch of slow, timid bumblers who never quite fully recognized who he was. They also abandoned him as quickly as they could when he got into trouble. “Witnesses … to the ends of the earth”? Peter couldn’t even be the embattled Jesus’ witness to a servant girl in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples seemed to be pretty good at calling and attending meetings. They, after all, met on the first Easter. The disciples also obeyed Jesus’ command by meeting in Jerusalem. And on the first Pentecost they’re still “all together in one place.”
But to be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem alone, to say nothing of “all the world,” those disciples would have to adjourn their meeting. To be Jesus’ witnesses in “to the ends of the earth” they’d also have to speak more than just Aramaic or a little Hebrew.
Acts 2’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us can’t fully appreciate how startling the first Pentecost’s results were until we consider the enormity of the task to which Jesus calls his disciples. And those disciples’ complete lack of preparedness for that huge task.
In the contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God, members of the Christian Reformed Church profess God pushes us to the “ends of the world” as ambassadors of God’s peace. The Spirit sends us out to announce forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as proclaim the good news of grace.
What’s more, God propels God’s adopted sons and daughters into science and art, media and marketplace and, in fact, into every area of life so that we can point to the reign of God by what we do and say.
Yet few of us feel up to that job any more than Jesus’ disciples seemed up to the job Jesus gave them. Sure, most of us can talk about God with people who share our belief in that God. But many of us feel unqualified to share the message of God’s forgiveness, reconciliation and grace with our unbelieving friends and neighbors.
Those who hear us may be able to talk all day about black holes or dangling participles, but feel tongue-tied when they try to talk about Jesus. Some are experts on the best detergents and lawn mowers, but feel they know less about the Bible than they should.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach may be able to talk all day about cells, spreadsheets or amicus briefs. But talk to their unbelieving co-workers and neighbors about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace? Who’s really up to that?
Candidly, none of God’s people are naturally up to sharing our faith and working for the Lord any more than Jesus’ disciples originally were. That’s why Jesus’ followers’ overhaul in our text is so startling.
When the day of Pentecost comes, the disciples are huddled in one place, wondering what to do next. In fact, it sometimes seems as if that’s all they’ve done since Jesus rose from the dead.
Suddenly, however, out of nowhere the sound of a howling gale fills the disciples’ conference room. Tongues of flame seem to swoop down onto each of Jesus’ followers. And, adds Acts, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Christians sometimes link such being “filled with the Holy Ghost” to feeling comforted and confident. However, the Bible generally seems less interested in what being filled with the Holy Spirit feels like than it what such filling does to people.
Just before the risen Jesus returned to the heavenly realm, he promised his disciples “power” when the Holy Spirit comes on them. They clearly receive that power on the first Pentecost. Luke begins his gospel by telling us Jesus calls 12 people to be his first disciples. Jesus then sends them out to tell people about God’s mighty actions.
Now, Luke basically begins Acts by telling us that calling is no longer limited to those 12. After all, when verse 1 speaks of those who are all together in one place, Acts 1:14 suggests it includes “women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and … [Jesus’ brothers].” In fact, when it talks about those whom the Spirit filled, it also refers to Acts 1:15’s 120 “believers.”
“All of them,” Luke insists in verse 4, “were filled with the Holy Spirit.” How can we tell? First, they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” The Spirit turns the fiery tongues that rested on Jesus’ followers into the gift of speaking in other “tongues.” The Spirit’s first gift is the gift of the ability to speak in other languages.
Christians sometimes assume that any change we make must come from somewhere within us. So we assume we need to accumulate and store up more will power, or wisdom, or strategies.
In fact, some preachers and preachers like to tell people what a lousy job they’re doing of loving their enemies, feeding the hungry and caring for creation. Then we tell them to go out and be better parents, or children, or friends, or neighbors or co-workers. And we sometimes imply that if they just pray or go to church more or try harder, they’ll be able to do all that … and more.
Yet the disciples’ Pentecostal power to speak in a variety of languages clearly comes from outside themselves. After all, none of them had ever sat through Elamite 101 or listened to the Phrygian Rosetta Stone series.
What’s more, only the Spirit could have lifted to his feet the apostle who had not just once but three times denied even knowing Jesus. This time Peter denies not knowing Jesus, but that Jesus’ followers are somehow drunk. He insists that their linguistic skill is, instead, simply a fulfillment of Joel’s prediction that God would pour out God’s Spirit “on all people.”
Our text suggests that it doesn’t matter in some ways whether you’re a man or woman. It doesn’t matter if you’re a child who still has a lot to learn about adding or playing the piano.
It doesn’t matter if you’re so grey your boss, company or family no longer thinks they need you.
In some ways it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman in a world that still questions if you have what it takes to make it in a man’s world. It doesn’t matter if you come from a family that descended from slaves or willingly immigrated to this country without a cent to its name.
After all, God pours God’s Spirit into all who call on the Lord’s name. And when God pours out God’s Spirit on God’s sons and daughters, they “prophecy.” When God pours out God’s Spirit on young men, they “see visions.” When God pours out God’s Spirit on old men, even we “dream dreams.”
My colleague Will Willimon notes that when God pours out God’s Spirit on people, those who speak are often those whom the world tries to silence. Various servants whom we tell to keep quiet and just do what we tell them. Children and young adults whom we tell are too inexperienced to speak. Old people whom we tell since their day is past, they’re just too old to say anything meaningful anymore.
We’re not exactly sure just what Peter refers to when he talks about the “visions” and “dreams” the Holy Spirit gives God’s people. We are, however, reasonably confident he’s not talking about what ordinarily happens while we’re asleep.
A lot of the dreams and visions the Bible talks about turn people’s worlds upside down. Jesus’ dad Joseph’s dream about what God has sent their Son to do. Peter’s dream about God’s plans for God’s gentile as well as Jewish sons and daughters. John’s dreams about God’s victory over stubborn sin, Satan and death.
Of course, we don’t like having our worlds turned upside down. We prefer the status quo, especially when it benefits our own interests. So our world, culture and even the Church sometimes try to silence dreamers and visionaries.
So those who preach and teach Acts 2 invite and challenge those who hear us to keep dreaming the dreams and seeing the visions the Holy Spirit gives each of us. After all, that’s perhaps the best way to genuinely celebrate Pentecost.
When I read that Martin Luther once claimed, “prophesying, visions and dreams are all one thing,” I thought of Olga Sanchez Martinez. In her book, Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario describes her work at the shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Some refugees who try to flee Central America for the United States through Mexico lose limbs to the train on which they’re riding. Some end up in Martinez’s shelter in the city of Tapachula, Mexico.
There Olga tries to heal those whom what Nazario calls “the beast” have wounded. She buys blood and medicine for them. Martinez also nurses injured refugees until they can be taken back home. A local surgeon says, “Without her a lot of patients would have died.”
As Olga sits on the corner of the battered refugees’ hospital beds, she strokes their hair as she tells them God has spared them for a reason. “If he wanted,” Martinez tells the bruised people, “he could have killed you. But he didn’t. He left your eyes open. When you are in this much pain and despair, there is only one place to find strength. God has a plan for you. You will learn to live in a different way.”
You might argue Olga isn’t being fully sensitive to the injured refugees’ loss and grief. You might even argue she’s just offering clichés to young people who need so much more. You might even argue that her theology of the relationship between God and evil is shaky. However, it’s hard to dispute the fact that Olga is speaking God’s truth into situations where it seems so scarce. That she’s one of God’s “daughters” whom the Holy Spirit is equipping to prophesy.
Psalm 104:24-34; 35b
Author: Stan Mast
Many scholars suggest that we could use Psalm 104 to put environmentalist spin on Pentecost, because of verse 30. “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” Imagine a Pentecost version of the secular Christmas carol. “Have yourself a merry little environmental Pentecost!”
I agree with that suggestion, with two provisos. First, we have to admit that the reference to “Spirit” in verse 30 is a bit ambiguous. It is the word ruach in Hebrew, which could mean nothing more than breath or wind. So it might not be an explicit reference to the third Person of the Holy Trinity.
In response to that proviso, it must be said that since the earliest days of the church, this Psalm has been the reading for Pentecost Sunday. The connection between ruach and pneuma and Spirit is as old as Genesis 1 and as authoritative as Christ breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).” Thus, most scholars, up to the present day, have said that Psalm 104 shows us the Holy Spirit’s role in creation, even as the New Testament focuses on his role in redemption (as in the other Lectionary readings for today). The involvement of the Spirit in creating and sustaining nature does have powerful implications for environmental concerns.
However, in the second place, it does seem that Psalm 104 sends a message about the environment that is directly counter to the purely secular emphasis of many contemporary environmentalists. One eminent Old Testament scholar says that Psalm 104 is a hymn about the creation, not about the Creator, claiming that the name of God is nearly absent. As I read the Psalm, he could not be more wrong. It is precisely about God. Indeed, that is what distinguishes it from other hymns about the glory of nature. You cannot find a more glorious description of the glories of nature than Psalm 104, but according to this Psalm the purpose of nature’s glory is to give glory to God.
This is the corrective that Psalm 104 offers to much of today’s environmental movement, which worships nature as sacred and largely leaves God out of the picture. So, let us by all means preach an environmental sermon on this Pentecost Sunday, but let’s be sure that it glorifies the God who created and sustains such a beautifully complex cosmos.
That is precisely how the Psalm opens and closes. “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Verse 1 gives us the theme of this nature hymn with unmistakable clarity. “O Yahweh, my God, you are very great….” Why is Yahweh so great according to Psalm 104? Because of the way he created (“when you send out your Spirit they are created”) and now recreates (“you renew the face of the earth”) every single thing in the universe. Verses 1-9 focuses on the macro-cosmos of outer space and earth’s foundations, while verses 10-23 shine a light on the details of life on this earth. From the far reaches of the universe to the depths of the sea, from elemental forces to individual creatures, from terrifying Leviathan to sailing man, “the Lord God made them all.”
Indeed, our reading for Pentecost begins with exactly that thought. “How many are your works, O Yahweh! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” Any preacher who knows about the mysterious biblical connection between wisdom and Word (Sophia and Logos) may wonder if verse 24 is a subtle reference to the role of Second Person of the Trinity in the creation of the cosmos (ala John 1 and Colossians 1). But don’t get lost in speculation about that. The point here is in the pronouns that resound throughout the Psalm. When the Psalmist is not addressing Yahweh as “you,” he is referring to the Author of creation as “he.” The Psalm is not first of all about “it,” but about “you” and “he;” not about nature, but about Nature’s God.
The Psalmist is amazed at the sheer abundance, incomprehensible complexity, and stunning beauty of the world, but his main point about the wonder of it all is its complete dependence on Yahweh. “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” From beginning to end, from Big Bang to final breath and everything in between, the world depends completely and absolutely on Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 104 calls us not first of all to our ecological duty, but to our doxological duty. I don’t mean to be the Grinch that stole an ecological Pentecost. There is plenty in Psalm 104 that urges us to take care of God’s wonderful world. Indeed, if we properly understand Psalm 104, our environmental responsibilities become even more serious, because they are rooted in God’s creative and sustaining love for his world. Psalm 104 is not anti-environmental. It simply re-orients our environmental focus, but turning things right side up. Rather than worshiping nature and calling it sacred, as many do today, it reminds us to worship the Holy God who made nature (cf. Romans 1:18-25).
That is the message of verses 31-35, where the Psalmist outlines the human response to the glory of God revealed in nature. In keeping with the emphasis of Psalms 8 and 19, our Psalm’s first response to the wonders of creation is, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever.” If God’s glory is tied up with nature, we have an obligation to keep nature as glorious as God made it. But don’t substitute nature for God.
Further, cries the Psalmist, “may the Lord rejoice in his works….” What a stunning insight into God’s motive in creating and recreating the cosmos. It gives him joy. This note of joy runs throughout the Psalm, joy and wonder at what God has made—the joy of the Psalmist and the joy of God. If God rejoices in his creation, so should we. Every Christian should be a nature lover, because God is. Every Christian should rejoice in the beauty of what God has made, because God does. What stronger motive could there be to take care of that which gives God such joy. Just don’t substitute nature for God.
In verse 32 the Psalmist deals a death blow to the crypto-pantheism that has crept into some of the environmental movement, the notion that nature is somehow sacred, that everything participates in the divine. It is separate from God, though it was created by God. Indeed, the God who made it all can unmake it all with a look or a touch. As vast and complex as the cosmos is, it is a simple little thing compared to the majesty of God who “looks at the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.” So let us take care of God’s world, but never turn it into an idol that we worship.
Our worship must be directed to God, says the Psalmist. “I will sing to Yahweh all of my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” This is a dimension of earth care that is ignored by many secular environmentalists. Indeed, this is the deepest tragedy of the environment—not that it is being abused (though that is a tragedy that grieves the God who delights in his good little universe), but that we don’t praise God when we look at his glory in creation. The old hymn says it best. “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art!”
In verse 34, the Psalmist offers up the entire Psalm (“my meditation”) to God, in the hope that it is pleasing to God. What a good reminder for all of us with all of our work, whether it’s nature poetry or technological prose, mental or physical, environmental or industrial. We all have different perspectives as we live in God’s world—scientific, economic, aesthetic, recreational, or whatever occupies us day by day. All of those pursuits are real and important (even God likes to play, as one interpretation of “frolic” in verse 26 says). But at the end of the day and at the end of our lives, we must finally face our creator. Will we be able to present our life work to God as something pleasing to him? Our work in preserving and conserving the environment is part of our service to God. Just don’t substitute nature for God.
Finally, we come to the uncomfortable words of verse 35a. We can skip over them as the Lectionary does, probably because they seem to mar an otherwise joyful paean of praise to nature and nature’s God. But the Psalmist must have thought those hard words fit into this Psalm. It may be that he was thinking of the way human sin and evil can ruin the beauty of God’s work on earth. Then this is a fierce environmentalist prayer. Get rid of those who corrupt and pollute the earth. One can hear this prayed at a Sierra Club meeting.
Or the Psalmist might have been thinking about the revelation of God in creation the way Paul did in Romans 1:18-25. God has clearly revealed himself in nature, but sinners have distorted that revelation. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things, rather than the Creator….” If that’s what the Psalmist was thinking about at the end of his “nature poem,” then he is wishing away those who worship the creation rather than the Creator.
We don’t know which of those interpretations is correct. And we don’t know how God might make “the sinner vanish from the earth.” It might be that they will be blown away from God eternally by the cosmic winds. Or perhaps the ruach of God, the Holy Spirit, will blow into their hearts as at Pentecost, so that they cry, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And they will repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and cease being sinners in the eyes of God. Perhaps the God who created all things will recreate even those who turned nature on its head. “When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.”
Modern moviegoers are appropriately awed by science fiction movies that portray invasions of earth by alien species or inter-galactic wars in a time long ago and far, far away. Death stars, X-wing fighters, laser cannons, beings with powers unimagined on earth—all of this brings in millions of adoring fans. The power of the Alien, the Cosmic Other, awes us and frightens us and, strangely, gives us delight. How much more should that be the case with the God who “spoke and it was so,” who “opens [his] hand… and they are satisfied with good things” and “hides [his] face… and they die and return to the dust.”
Perhaps inspired by this Psalm, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw the sun’s daily rising as a sign that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wing.” The Holy Spirit is not only breath that gives life, but also bird that hatches the world? Words cannot capture the wonder of the Spirit whose coming we celebrate at Pentecost.
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
When you see a gift in action, it can be a wonder to behold. Think of the gift of administration, for instance. When I think of this, several people come to mind, including someone I once knew who I will call Ellen. Ellen worked for an organization that often required her at any given moment to be juggling a long string of details for four or five major ventures. Yet she kept everything straight, knew exactly where every folder was located that she may need to grab, and on top of that constantly had a sharp eye out to attend to new needs as they cropped up.
So if there is a catered lunch one day and one person in a group of twenty is a vegetarian, you can be assured there will be a vegetarian entree available. When Ellen heard that someone working at the organization was having wrist difficulties from working on the computer, before too long UPS showed up to deliver all new keyboards and wrist-rests designed to reduce the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. When she and I were flying back from a meeting we both attended and that Ellen had organized, the flights into Newark were backed up for hours due to rainy weather. Within ten minutes Ellen had us re-booked onto a flight into Philadelphia, had arranged to have a car pick us up there instead of Newark, and I was back with my family an hour earlier than scheduled!
Some people are “big picture” folks, others are “detail-oriented.” Some people inspire by presenting grand visions, others help realize visions by micromanaging the nitty-gritty. Thankfully, God is both types in one and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost embodies every gift and distributes them as the Spirit sees fit. Few passages lay this out as swiftly as 1 Corinthians 12.
What is striking about this passage is how methodical it is. Although Paul is talking about a host of spiritual gifts and abilities, it is clear that the Lord of the Church parcels those gifts out very systematically. The balance of 1 Corinthians 12 uses the image of the body to make the point that even as the human body needs every single part, so also the church is organized by the Holy Spirit in such a way that all the bases are covered. It is how the church functions. Similar to walking: every time you stand up and walk somewhere, this happens not just because you have feet but also because you have legs, hips, eyes, a sense of balance. Take away any one of those, and you would fall.
This is something the late neurologist Oliver Sacks taught us in his clinical writings over the years. Sacks provides vivid reminders of how interconnected the body must be in order to function. As a neurologist, Sacks know that there are parts of our brains no larger than a pea which, if damaged, will render us unable to walk. In one of his books he tells the story of the man who received a very slight amount of damage to a very tiny part of his brain with the result that this man lost his sense of proprioception.
Proprioception is a big word that refers to your innate ability always to know where your body is located in space. Without even having directly to think about it, you always know whether you are sitting, lying down, standing, standing or sitting straight, leaning sideways, bending forward, etc. But this particular man had lost this sense and so when he walked, although he himself did not notice it, he walked bent at the waist to about a 90-degree angle. In the end, the only way they could help this man was to fit him with a pair of glasses that had a little spirit-level extending out from the bridge of the glasses. So long as he could see the bubble on the level and keep it in the middle, he knew he was standing straight. But the moment you took the glasses away, he tilted sideways again, though he could not sense this! There was nothing wrong with this man’s eyes or legs or feet. But he was missing one small item that turned out to be key.
If we extend that metaphorically to the church, we can see again that we really do need the plethora of gifts, interests, talents, and abilities that our great God in Christ is so very careful to distribute. Take any one of those gifts away, and we walk crooked (and maybe not at all). But put them all into their proper place, and we walk upright once again.
Pentecost is a day when we get reminded of the full panoply of gifts any church—and the worldwide Church—needs to function. Everyone counts. Everyone contributes. Some in flashy, up-front ways; others in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways. But take away any one of them, and the church loses its ability to function, to walk upright, to follow Jesus down paths of discipleship.
When Paul opened this chapter, he said, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about gifts.” Preachers today need to say the same thing. Everyone has a gift. Everyone spends that gift thoughtfully in order for the Body of Christ to function. Pentecost comes just once a year but its truth shines every day of every year and this has been going on in dizzying ways for a couple millennia now. Thanks be to God!