Saturday, June 02, 2007
I have been mulling these thoughts since Sunday. Finally, six days later they spill out...
Take a wholesome glass of milk, add a single drop of vinegar, and you'll get an undrinkable beverage (ask my children - not that I do put vinegar in their milk - though now I am veering far from my point). The whole thing is spoiled. So it is with writing and speaking. A single drop of insincerity can make the whole thing unpalatable - and so it is also with most of life's endeavours. Whole painstaking efforts to produce that which is healthy and true - in this case (and very topical to where I live), raising cows, milking them, pasteurizing, packaging, marketing, transporting, refrigerationg, pouring, serving; reading, reflecting, studying, reflecting, writing, reflecting, rethinking, rewirting - can be so easily spoiled.
That which is good is so incredibly fragile.
Pentecost is a feast more easily spoiled than most, spoiled by a small misunderstanding with devastating consequences. And, like the souring of milk, they are generally irreversible. What should be the culmination of the most glorious season of the Church's year can become a day of shattered dreams so that we arrive at Trinity Sunday back where we started - mirred in quarrels and doubts rather than inspired by hopes and possibility.
Pentecost is not only the culmination of the Church's year; it is also the culmination of Jesus' ministry - the constitution of the Church - it's birthday if you like. A misunderstanding of this day sours our whole identity - makes us Christians distinctly unpalatable - to one another, and to the world.
There is no doubt that Pentecost has something to do with the Holy Spirit. But to my mind at least, the usual misreading, however, focuses too heavily on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and not enough on the rest of the story. it rushes past the details to settle on a visually startling image and thus presents itself as the crudest form of advertising. The following are a few points I think we too often overlook.
First, the Holy Spirit does not come down upon the Church, if by the Church you mean those who believe or those who have been baptised. The apostles gather to choose just one of those who 'accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us' in order to make up their numbers to twelve after the death of Judas. It is upon these twelve that the Holy Spirit falls, commissioning them with the special gift suggested by their name: I am not trying to teach my grandma how to suck eggs here, but the word apostle comes from the greek apostolos, meaning one who is sent; in this case, sent to proclaim the Gospel.
if one takes part of the story, and makes it the whole of the story, one ends up with a picture of the Church as a community of public speakers, of preachers and proclaimers (though we all love letter from America and 500 Miles). There are several things to say about this picture. Firstly, it is simply not realistic. Can you imagine everyone in your Church's standing up and performing this apostolic duty - I have seen some places and it has not been a helpful experience for growth. So if you are left thinking either that the Church is not what it should be, and spend most of your time feeling guilty for not mentioning Jesus to your friends, your boss, colleagues, employees, and any Parthians, Medes or Elamites you might happen to run into; or else trying pursuing some distinctly narrow mission plan that encourages you to do just that - whether or not the Spirit has given you utterance. Personally, I find this vision not only unrealistic, but a dangerous distortion of the Pentecostal vision.
I think we need to notice, secondly, that the Holy Spirit does not give the gift of inspired speech to all the faithful. It is not given to those who lost the ballet in the upper room; nor any of the other 'devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.' Instead, they become the audience. And this is a very curious line, because Jerusalem was filled with Pagans. One might have thought that, not only failing to believe in Jesus (whom most of them had never heard of) but also failing to beleive in God, they were more in need of the Gospel than anyone. Instead, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles preach to Israel, to those who wrestle with God.
And, of course, that is how we think of the Church - as the new Israel. As far as this story goes, we need to see ourselves as the 'Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs', though today our rich diversity may be described by different labels.
These people, too, receive a gift from the Holy Spirit. They receive the gift that truly constitutes the Church; not the ability to speak, but the ability to listen, and in listening, to hear, and in hearing to understand. If you read just a little further in Acts, we discover that it is these people who receive the Holy Spirit; these people touched by God who devote themselves "to the apostles' teachng and to fellowship; to the breaking of bread and to prayer." There will be some called out and given the gift to make known the works of God in words, but it is a greatly overrated vocation, with a huge burden let me tell you; and it does not excuse those of us so called from the deeper need to listen, to love, to break bread and to pray.
Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will give you another counsellor to be with you forever - the Spirit of Truth." Those who would heed this councel must listen, and listen intently. False ideas come from a failure to listen. And a single falsehood can poison a whole community.
In the end, I guess to listen is to love...
Now I have got that off my chest I can go about doing manly things like drilling and watching england get thumped again by South Africa whilst drinking too much black stuff....
Oh, I knicked the image from my friend Chris George - not my shot today...