Commentary for Pentecost

Commentary for the Day of Pentecost

The texts for the coming Sunday:  Ezekiel 37.1-14, Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27, 16.4-15.

By Father Doug Woods

Commentary for Pentecost

The texts for this Sunday: Ezekiel 37.1-14, Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27, 16.4-15.

By Father Doug Woods

Hello, it’s good to see you again.  If this is your first time, you need to know a couple of things about us.  We’re interested in exploring Christian scripture, so it means you have to be able to get your hands on a Bible.  We don’t care which of the many available translations you use—King James, NIV, NRSV/NRSVA, The Message, Jerusalem, whatever.  Most of the differences between them are simply a matter of translation.  Mind you, we can talk at great length about what influences the difference of translation, but that’s a whole different thing.  Buy me a beer and we’ll talk.

We also don’t care where you are on your scripture journey:  beginner, just a regular “civilian”, a ThD student, a biblical scholar.  It’s just that we love getting together and looking at scripture for what it means and what it means in our lives.   We have a rule though:  if you have a question, ask.  We won’t judge you.

It wouldn’t hurt to be able to refer to a STUDY Bible of some sort.  There are lots of them in the NIV version.  There’s also the Oxford.

Our texts for this coming Sunday are Ezekiel 37.1-14, Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27, 16.4-15.  These are texts set down by the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of Sunday-by-Sunday readings agreed upon by a broad spectrum of Christian denominations.

This weekend is Victoria Weekend in Canada—the birthday of Queen Victoria, who played a major part in Canadian history.  It’s also called “the 24th of May”—or “the May 2-4 weekend”.  If you don’t get that last one, you’re probably not Canadian; get someone to explain it to you.

But even more important, this is Pentecost, one of the three Principal Feasts which always occurs on a Sunday (Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity).  The other four are always tied to a specific DATE, not a specific Sunday.

Pentecost is one of those Sundays where churches are called upon to make a choice.  You’ll have noticed that I’ve listed FIVE readings for this Sunday, not the usual four.  Your minister will be called upon to choose.  The choice goes like this: for the first reading, choose either Ezekiel or Acts.  Then there’s the Psalm (no choice there).  If you chose Ezekiel for the first reading, then you must use Acts as the third piece of scripture.  On the other hand, if you chose Acts, rather than Ezekiel as the first reading, then you choose between Ezekiel and Romans as the third reading.  In other words, a reading of Acts 2.1-21 is mandatory on Pentecost Sunday.  Have a look at the content; you’ll see why.  Finally, there’s the gospel reading.  The upshot of all of this is that there’s a rich variety of readings for the day.  At YOUR church, you’ll hear four of the five.  We’re going to talk about ALL of the five, just for the fun of it.

Ezekiel 37.1-14.  You might be more familiar with this one through the spiritual song “Dry Bones”.  Well, good.  That takes us right to the heart of the matter—but we have to start with some context.

Ezekiel is the third of the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel).  He was taken into exile in Babylon when King Jehoiachin surrendered to King Nebuchadnezzar in 598 BCE.  He ministered to the exiles in Babylon.  Israel was always a small nation, both in geographical size and in world significance.  As for geographical size, it’s about 22,000 km2, which makes it less than half the size of Nova Scotia (55,000 km2), about the same size as the U.S. state of New Jersey (22,000 km2) and smaller than Belgium (30,000 km2).  Admittedly, geographical size doesn’t necessarily correlate directly with political significance; it’s just a rough indicator.  The fact is, one way or another, Israel has been controlled by foreign powers several times in its history – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Italy.

The people of Israel saw all of this as massive injustice.  As far as they were concerned, they were the people of God, and they should be exempt from this shame and suffering.  God should step in and defend them.  Even better, God should give them what they deserved:  peace, wellbeing—and the glory of being God’s people.

Our reading is from the time when Israel was controlled by Babylon.  Ezekiel reports that “the hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”  In other words, he had an ecstatic experience, a vision which the “spirit of the Lord” caused.  He found himself in a valley, and the valley was full of bones.  What must he have thought?  Whose bones are these?  Why are they here?  Are these the fallen of some battle?  Why were they not properly interred?

But the questions are interrupted by a question:  “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Anybody with an ounce of sense would just say, “No,” but Ezekiel says, “O Lord God, you know.”  Translation: “I don’t think so.”  Undeterred, God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones; they will live.  God will send breath into them.  And that’s it, the first talk of the SPIRIT being involved.

The notion of the Spirit is a broad one in the ancient world.  Even in OUR world, “spirit” has several definitions, all of them related.  First of all, “spirit” is any fluid, any liquid or gas.  It occurs in words like re-spire, per-spire, in-spire.  Breath is spirit, and breath is LIFE.  You can’t live without breathing.  The Spirit was there at the very beginning of Creation, the beginning of life.

Spirit is liquid, too.  You can’t live without water (it’s a source of great amusement for me that whiskey is “spirits”; can you live without that?).  And because FLAME looks like flowing water, it’s considered to be spirit as well.  Now you’ve got all of the manifestations of the Spirit:  breath/wind, water, and flame—and we’ve come full circle to the Valley of Dry Bones.  God says to Ezekiel about the bones, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

The next part of the reading sounds a lot like the spiritual:  “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone ….” And “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”  Now Ezekiel gets an answer to one of his questions: “Who are these people?”  God says, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.”  And there we have it; this is Israel in exile.  To all intents and purposes, they’re dead, they’re dry bones.  But there’s good news; it’s all about the Spirit and new life: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”  Thank God!

Psalm 104.24-34, 35b.  We just saw God restoring life; this is God CREATING life, and both of these accounts center on the Spirit.  “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”  Even the ground is given new life!

To Ezekiel, it was obvious that we don’t live apart from God.  Look at the mess Israel was in when he wrote.  But look at the mess we’re in.  Our environment is being destroyed, to the point where we can’t expect it to support life for us.  There’s horrible violence in the world, violence against women, violence against non-white people, violence on the pretext of religious faith.  Much of this is rooted in the drive for wealth and power, much of it is reaction against the oppression which results from this drive.

The psalmist promises to “sing to the Lord as long as I live.”  This praise comes from a thankful heart, a heart which is grateful for the blessings which come when God is in charge.  In the midst of this thankfulness are the words we sometimes use to say thanks to God before a meal: “The eyes of all wait upon thee, O Lord, and thou givest them their meat in due season.  Thou openest thine hand and fillest all things living with plenteousness.”

Romans 8.22-27.  Jewish apocalyptic thinking reaches back to what we talked about before.  The people of Israel are God’s people, yet their lot as a people had been sad—disastrous some might say.  Through their trials, they learned that they were not capable of helping themselves in the face of such oppression.  They would need to have God step in and be their defender.  When would that happen?  Not right away, apparently.  But it would happen—on the Day of the Lord.  They saw time as divided into two ages:  the Present Age and the Age to Come.  There would be a time of overlap, the time when the Age to Come was starting and the Present Age was dying.  This would be a time when terrible things would happen, a time when Satan, the Prince of this World, was fighting to maintain his position.  This time of overlap would be the Day of the Lord.  In the meantime, “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains.”  It’s very painful, but the Age to Come has started.  It began with Jesus.  And what helps us through now that Jesus is no longer here with us?  The Holy Spirit.

Acts 2.1-21.  I’ve purposely left the Acts reading until now—now we have all the context in place, and we can understand better what goes on in that story

Pentecost was a Jewish festival.  For one thing, it commemorated Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, and for another, it was the time of the giving of the first omer (approximately two litres) of grain from the barley harvest, fifty days after the Passover (hence the name:  Gk. pentēcostē ‘fiftieth day’).  And just when everything was going smoothly in Jerusalem, the lid blew off.  You probably know the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, so I’m not going to go through it piece by piece.  The story is breathtaking.  The only thing I can think of which might rival it would be getting caught in a tornado.  Two of the manifestations of the Spirit are there:  wind and flame.  Another sign of the Spirit was there:  ecstatic utterance.  The disciples, out of the middle of nowhere, were able to speak the languages of five major cultural groupings of Africa and Asia Minor, a sign of things to come, when the message of Jesus would spread across the known world.

As with any miraculous event, there were cynics in the crowd.  “Aw, they’re drunk on cheap wine.”  That’s the point when Peter stands up on his hind legs and gives a truly inspired speech.  He speaks from the prophet Joel (2.28-32), a prophecy of the beginning of the Day of the Lord.  So, this is it.  The Holy Spirit comes and breathes life into the fledgling church.  The Age to Come is in motion; the Present Age is on its way out.  Are we still in the Day of the Lord?  My question in answer to that question:  Are we still surrounded by evil?  Evil dies hard—but the Holy Spirit is there for us, helping us with what to say and what to do, reminding us of the truth, advocating for us, comforting us—being a friend.

John 15.26-27, 16.4-15.  As you know by now, this passage is from the Farewell Discourses—Jesus doing his last-minute preparations with his disciples.  If you’re a teacher, you’ll understand this; do we ever really finish the curriculum?

Once again, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit when he’s gone—and we’ve just seen the Pentecost story.  The rest of this narrative from John is a description of the role of the Spirit.  The Spirit will prove the world wrong about what it does, about the sin it embraces.  The Spirit will prove the world wrong about judgment; there will be a reckoning.  The Spirit will prove the world wrong about righteousness—about what’s right-wise life—and will vindicate those who live right lives.

This work of the Spirit is the beginning of the end for Satan, the Denier, the Adversary.

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