Lectionary Commentary

May 31, 2009
Pentecost Sunday

Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom

See also: [Year B Archive]


Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27:16:4b-15

What does a process pastor, who preaches the ongoing presence of God, do with Pentecost? The Pentecost readings, especially the one from Acts, describe the arrival of the Spirit as though it is a new thing. In John, the arrival of this “Advocate” is contingent on the death of Jesus, further reinforcing the idea of an event occurring consequentially, in time. Leaving aside Trinitarian views (and the whole filioque issue), how do we account for the sudden “arrival” of an indwelling Spirit without 1) insulting Judaism, which has included the idea of an indwelling spirit since God first breathed life into Adam, while still 2) honoring a uniquely Christian experience?

One way to approach this is to view the event as a new awareness that burst forth from those gathered that day, an awareness emerging uniquely from their experience of Jesus as the Christ. And if we take this approach, there is a question embedded in it: what new behavior emerges from new consciousness? What does one do with an experience of the Spirit? The commentary that follows explores these ideas.

Acts 2:1-21
By making the connection between the experience of the disciples and the “last days” reference from Joel, Peter places the event in an apocalyptic context. And although we know that many of the early followers of Jesus believed in an imminent second coming, we need not restrict our understanding to that literal framework. Instead, the new consciousness of the divine experienced by the disciples draws a line between their previous understanding—the last days of an old mindset—and a new understanding informed by their experience of Christ.

What is specific to this new understanding? Two things leap out. First, the spirit is pluralist; it fills the entire world without obliterating particular identity. Second, it is inclusive, setting aside social and economic distinctions.

Being filled with the spirit enables the disciples to speak in languages spoken throughout the known world. Those who point to this text as the birth of the church suggest that the languages spoken by the disciples indicate the missionary routes the church will follow in establishing itself within the empire. But the specificity of language and peoples suggest an alternative reading, one adopted by those who celebrate Pentecost as Pluralism Sunday. That is, the spirit respects the diversity of language and culture, and instead of funneling everything into one hegemonic language (religion?), it retains the idea of a pluralistic world.

The inclusivity can be seen in the quotation from Joel, which emphasizes the pervasiveness of the spirit, irrespective of age, gender, or socio-economic status. To quote it in the context of a new awareness of the divine reality is to bring that idea of inclusiveness into this emergent consciousness.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
This Psalm is a lyrical reminder that God permeates and sustains all of creation. In eloquent language, it also reinforces the idea that the Spirit which filled the disciples on Pentecost may be experienced in new ways, but is not in itself new. The spirit or breath of God is as ancient as God breathing life into Adam. In the words of the Psalm, all creatures of the earth acknowledge their origin in and dependence upon God: “When you send forth your spirit; they are created,” and “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”

Romans 8:22-27
The spirit of God is variously symbolized as water, fire, wind, a dove. Except for the last one, these are things without shape. Water fills and follows the shape of its container. Fire is limited or fed by available fuel. Wind is invisible, seen only in its effects. A dove, from the days of Noah, serves as a messenger signifying a new world, a fresh start. All of these images are evocative ways to understand a God who fills us, whose flame burns as brightly as the fuel of our being provides, who moves in us invisibly, nudging us in different directions, and who calls us to new worlds of understanding and activity. All of these images can be expressed, in their interaction with us, as hope not seen, but nevertheless trusted.

With phrases like inward groaning, sighs too deep for words, and intercession, we are taken from whatever old habits and behaviors—“last days”—we wish to leave behind into the hope of a new day. And in a reversal of the Acts text, which is filled with words pouring out the disciples’ mouths in a multiplicity of languages, here we have mute weakness, an inchoate silence that is given into God’s understanding through the mediation of the Spirit. Whether our speech is flowing or frustrated, the part of our being that is always in prayer is carried to God by the Spirit, and this “primary speech”—“vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out eloquently” —is always heard by a God who searches our hearts and receives the intercessions of the Spirit. (See Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, Ann and Barry Ulanov, Westminster John Knox Press, 1982, page 1).

John 15:26-27:16:4b-15
In this section from the farewell discourse, Jesus prepares his disciples for the imminent time when he will no longer be with them. This is a crucial concern for anyone who has spent his or her life as a teacher. Will the teaching perish with the teacher? Or is there a way keep it alive? Jesus is specific that the disciples will continue his work, but they will not do it alone. The Spirit of God will testify with them. There is a lovely implication that truth is not contingent on one person—what a heavy load that would be—but the spirit moves through the community, empowering all in their witness.

In specifying that the Advocate cannot come unless Jesus “goes away,” the Johannine author deals explicitly with the issue of transmission of the faith in the (physical) absence of its founder. It is not so much that the Advocate “cannot come” while Jesus is still with the disciples, but that the Advocate must come when he is gone to ensure the ongoing experience of Christ and the transforming effect it has on believers. Not only that, but the disciples must carry on the work of Jesus. The new consciousness includes the imperative to act, with the assurance that a divine presence will direct those actions toward justice and truth.

Preaching the Text
The suggestion made at the beginning of this commentary was to approach the Pentecost event as a new awareness that burst forth from those gathered that day, an awareness emerging uniquely from their experience of Jesus as the Christ. It was also suggested that there is a question embedded in this approach: what new behavior emerges from new consciousness?

In Acts, what emerges is a respect for diversity and a reaffirmation of inclusivity. Putting these ideas together, the preacher might suggest that including everyone does mean they all have to be the same. Part of the wonder contained in the story is the sheer delight in particularity—the way the names of languages, countries, and peoples are so specifically listed. It can also be noted that the ancient category of slave and free might be seen through the more contemporary categories of gay and straight, or racial differences. Even the apocalyptic context can be used to suggest that in the “last days” of our old understanding, we behaved in certain way. In the days to come, with our new awareness, we may dream dreams, see visions, of an alternative based on a more conscious effort to live according to Christ’s teaching.

Psalm 104 is explicit about the appropriate behavior required of us in the midst of God’s creation: we should “sing to God” as long as we live, sing praise to God “while we have being.” Implicit in praise is gratitude, an emotion present in the very lyricism of the psalmic language. Also, the permeation of the divine spirit throughout creation suggests an attitude of care and respect for all life on earth (and wherever else it may be!). 

The text from Romans is practically an invitation to preach on prayer, especially in the “primary speech” mode expressed by Ann and Barry Ulanov in their book. For more inspiration, Google books has portions available online, including the very important first chapter, which describes in non-academic language (one might say, “prayerful” language) their insights.

If we say that Pentecost is the disciples’ experience of a new consciousness bursting forth in them in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, then what was the nature of that consciousness? That Jesus was somehow still alive and with them? That whatever died that day, it wasn’t a direct experience of Jesus, for they still feel him as close as if he were alive in their being? That everything he taught didn’t suddenly become meaningless, but was in fact something still worth giving one’s life to? That one way to keep Jesus alive to generations who never met him was to witness to his life and ministry? And that one way to talk about all of this was in the imagery of a spirit that fills us, that lights us up, that moves through us, urging us onward, that takes us to new worlds of understanding on the wings of a dove?

If we attend carefully to this story, we see something more than tongues of flame lighting upon a group of disciples in a house in Galilee. We hear our own language among those spoken that day. We see tongues of flame above our own heads. We see the reach of the story through time all the way to us, in the concern of the disciples that this remarkable experience be shared, that it continue as a living experience long past the reach of the disciples themselves. Then, when new consciousness breaks in on us, it is we who must ask: how shall we live? How shall we witness? Who are today’s excluded that we must embrace? What new dreams shall we dream? To where does the spirit of truth draw us today?

The Rev. Dr. Jeanyne Slettom is co-pastor of Brea Congregational UCC, in Brea, California, and Director of Process & Faith. She has taught as adjunct faculty at Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. She is the editor of The Process Perspective, by John B. Cobb, Jr. (Chalice Press).