Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pentecost


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...

10 comments:

Suzanna said...

I'm glad you posted this... it's a very refreshing perspective.
I thought of the pharse "undisturbed places of rest" today. (I think it's Isaiah 58) I am glad to be a part of the beautiful eclectic community of listeners. I can rest with them. Along with other forms of action.

The Father said...

and thumped they weren but as a long time watcher of Ireland - I can attest to the healing qualities of the black stuff in the aftermath of sporting defeat.

And i enjoyed the pentecost post - bizarrely quite similiar to a sermon in church last sunday - I was surprised to be there and enjoy it.

keep writing and look on the bright side - not long to greenbelt where we catch up at the organic beer tent before moving on to the other sprit - that water of life - usice beatha .....slan m

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

Suzanna - thanks as i very nearly didn't post it as it's quite long and I wonder whether sound-bites are better for blog land

have been mulling too on your 'undisturbed place of rest'

we need more of these precious 'eclectic' listners - walk on friend

dear father
tis always a delight to read of your wisdom - indeed the score was heavy again but a much better display by the men in white - much of the black stuff was consumed to balance the two colours that are not...

it pleases me that you enjoyed the read - its good to enjoy - something that lifts the soul and perhaps, if we are lucky, even makes us smile

the tent of beer organic beckons dear friend - as does my response to your last post (i hope it will be worth the wait!!!)

salutations

maggi said...

lovely image. lovely thoughts

thanks for long conversation and glass of wine this week... se you soon :)

Kathryn said...

"in the end, to listen is to love..."
You may have been anxious not to post in sound-bytes (and have succeeded admirably) but that is a thought i'll carry away with me. Thank you Paul

Suzanna said...

...and it's Isaiah 32:18 actually.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

maggi
thanks - just my rambled nonesence - wine was a pleasure - GB not far away...Yikes

kathryn
thank you - bugger, i wish i could spell....bytes......

suzanna - that makes much more sense.....

Awareness said...

I dare not spoil things here with my infant interpretation of what Pentecost is all about.... but I do want to share a couple of thoughts I have been mulling over since reading yours.....

the first word which jumped out at me while reading this Paul was sincerity. It's such a lovely concept and lovely word.....and yet I feel that even with the utmost sincerity, one can spoil the milk. In fact, I wonder if true sincerity even exists. Our perceptions and interpretations are all so different, that even if we are openly sincere, we can be honest to a fault.

"that which is good is so incredibly fragile....." is so true. In order to be receptive and open to someone else's interpretation, one has to always be cognizant of the fragility of goodness. I can think of many times when I personally opened my heart and shared what I considered my sincere feelings only to be chastized because of the interpretation of what I was communicating. I am at fault for this as well.....

I find the whole process of understanding the messages and key events which encompass faith very confusing because of the many many interpretations of the stories.

Your writing has offered me some clarity and definately food for thought on a topic I have been thinking about on my own lately.

The other point I want to share is about listening..... which is much more than just opening our ears to the words and sounds around us. The more I try to tackle what it means to listen, the more I realize that listening is a respect for the silence found between the words. Listening is allowing ourselves the bravery to tune into the breath and whispers of the Holy Spirit.

I abhor the loudness of some who preach from a place where the breath of the Holy Spirit isn't allowed to expand and contract....where it is a bunch of hot air coming from a blind talking head who isn't doing ANY listening to the person they are preaching to. This is where the feeling of insincerity and false ideas breed.

my two cents.......unrefined and unpasteurized and hopefully without any vinegar.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

dana, i love this: the more I realize that listening is a respect for the silence found between the words. Listening is allowing ourselves the bravery to tune into the breath and whispers of the Holy Spirit.

listening is for more active than we think.... unpaturised or not deep thoughts...i enjoy them

paris parfait said...

Really interesting perspective, Paul - well said. As for England getting thumped, my husband was glad they didn't show the game in France, as it would have been too painful!