November 22, 2017

Jesus Poured Out the Spirit — So What? (1)

Church and Sun. Photo by Frodolina

Note from CM: This week, on Monday through Wednesday, I’d like to focus on the meaning of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Last week, we spoke about the Ascension and presented it as the climax and culmination of the gospel of King Jesus. The Ascension was when Jesus was enthroned with God in the heavenly realms. Pentecost represents his first action as King. On this day he fulfilled his promise to send the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower his people. What was the significance of this act? What implications does this have for our lives as Christians today?

We begin with an excerpt from a Pentecost sermon by N.T. Wright that lays down a foundational perspective on the meaning of Pentecost

• • •

Jesus Poured Out the Spirit — So What?
Part One: N.T. Wright

The point about Pentecost is that it’s the point at which two worlds collide, and look like they are now going to be together for keeps. The two worlds are of course Heaven and Earth; and in the first century as in the twenty-first many people supposed that these two worlds were supposed to stay firmly and safely apart. We live on earth; God lives in heaven; we hope there may be some commerce between the two, and indeed we have special places and times when we allow for this, like the meeting between teacher and parent at the school gate, a kind of no-man’s-land which is neither quite family nor quite school and which thus avoids the embarrassment. In ancient Israel the place of that commerce was of course the Temple, the spot on terra firma where Heaven actually overlapped with Earth; and the Temple thus functioned to the rest of Israel rather like the fireplace functions in a living room, the place where that which is normally dangerous can be safely located and dealt with. But if you think of the Temple as the fireplace, providing warmth and light to the room while being in a safe spot, then the imagery of Pentecost stands out in all its starkness: here are the tongues of fire, touching down not on the Temple, or the priests about their normal activities, but on the disciples in the upper room! The fire has leapt out of the fireplace and seems to be setting light to the rest of the house! And as the book of Acts proceeds that is indeed exactly the point. Pentecost is nothing if not the democratization of the Temple; which is why the first big clash between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities, resulting in the first martyrdom, focusses on the question of the Temple and on the claim that in Jesus it has been upstaged, relativized, left behind. And it is also why the challenge of holiness, of truth-telling and communal love, is so stark, as we see in chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira: once the fire gets out of the fireplace you’d better watch out.

So the point of Pentecost is intimately linked to the point of the Ascension, ten days earlier. In Jesus the two worlds have met, without embarrassment and awkwardness – though we in our split-level western cosmology regularly feel that awkwardness and embarrassment at the story of the Ascension, and at the stained-glass pictures of Jesus disappearing into a cloud with his feet and ankles still just visible above the puzzled disciples. No: the whole point of heaven and earth in Jewish thought is that they are meant to meet and merge. And the point of the gospel story as Luke has told it in his first volume is that Jesus had come to bring the life of heaven and earth together. That is the meaning of the ‘kingdom of God’. Thy kingdom come, he taught us to pray, on earth as in heaven. The disciples, we may presume, had been praying that prayer, among others, in the fifty days since Easter. And now the prayer is answered: like so many answered prayers, answered not in the way they might have imagined but in the much greater way which takes up their prayers and welds them into a new reality, the reality God intended all along and towards which their prayers were advance signposts.

• • •

Photo by Frodolina at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. flatrocker says:

    from Robert Barron…”Jesus shows his disciples the wounds of his crucifixion, and then he offers them Shalom (peace). It is the juxtaposition of the wounds and the Shalom that carries power. The wounds alone would leave us afraid, convinced of our sin but not of a way out. The Shalom alone would leave us with cheap grace, a too easy way out.

    And this is precisely why, immediately after uttering that word and showing those wounds, Jesus sends the disciples on a mission of forgiveness: “Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.’”

    The Church receives its essential mission and identity as the bearer of the divine forgiveness. We have been entrusted with speaking the Shalom of Jesus to a fallen and hopeless world. But it’s not cheap grace that we share. We participate in Jesus’ mission of showing his wounds as well. The Church refuses to explain sin away or make excuses for it or call it by another name. But when those wounds are revealed, it offers peace.”

    I find the linkage of the wounds to peace as profoundly insightful. The mind reels in many directions at the implication of this.

    • Robert F says:

      The church has been very stingy with the forgiveness Jesus so freely bestowed, and bestows, on it. As if it’s a sparse commodity that has to be hoarded, and doled out only to the deserving.

      • flatrocker says:

        Barron has stated the high ideal. You have stated the low reality. It’s the rub we’ve inherited and the rub we perpetuate. As is the title of the blog post – so what?

        What are we willing to do about it? (assuming we buy into the high ideal)

        • Ronald Avra says:

          Trying, most days, to find my place between the high ideal and the low reality.

    • Robert F says:

      And the church has often explained away and made excuses for sin, or denied its existence, when it came to its own sins and the sins of the powerful.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > The Church refuses to explain sin away or make excuses for it or call it by another name

      If only that were true. 🙁

      Many days when I hear something like “the whole point of heaven and earth in Jewish thought is that they are meant to meet and merge” I also hear to the line from the song: “I fought the law, and the law won”.

      The Spirit came into The World; and The World kicked its ass.

      So often [most often?] The Church discards this notion of what it is and becomes yet another Institution-Of-Order – but we already have an Institution-Of-Order [thank goodness!], its is called Government. What we do NOT need is Yet Another Institution-Of-Order. Thanks, but I’m all set on Order, I have baskets of it.

      • But God is a God of Order. The Puritans said so, and the Puritans are always right. Besides, what use is Order unless you are at the top o’ the pyramid giving the orders?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          >what use is Order unless you are at the top o’ the pyramid

          Ironically, many of those calling the loudest for “Order” are those *not* on the Top. Hyper-Orderliness is rendered appealing both by Greed and by Anxiety. And it is often counter-productive in both cases. But people will be people… 🙁

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          You mean the Puritans, God’s Predestined Elect?

  2. Robert F says:

    On days like this for me, and I know for many others, as we face problems that are so much bigger than us and our ability to cope, it sure doesn’t seem like heaven and earth have met and merged. That’s counter-intuitive, it’s not self-evident, it’s not an observable happening; we have to strenuously interpret that into our experience. We have to ask, Did Pentecost really happen?

    • No, we don’t. At the risk of sounding like the recovering ftndagelical I am, the question we have to ask ourselves, and it usually comes in third-person form from our real adversary, is Are you going to believe what the Bible says or are you going to believe your own eyes?

      The Holy Spirit helps the Christian to recognize the tempter, resist him, and say instead to King Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

      I know. I know. It’s out of context, I have a paper pope, etc., etc.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        –> “The Holy Spirit helps the Christian to recognize the tempter, resist him, and say instead to King Jesus, ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.’ I know. I know. It’s out of context…”

        I don’t think it’s too out of context. All of us have a little doubting Thomas inside us, me-thinks. The issue, then, is facing those doubts in a healthy way as opposed to an unhealthy way. If a church or person makes you feel shame or guilt over your doubts, run screaming in the other direction.

        • StuartB says:

          “You have heard it said to doubt your doubts. Nevertheless, I say unto you, doubt the doubts about your doubts. Avoid the gaslighters wherever you may find them.”

          (hops into a time machine, travels back 2000 years, writes down that Jesus said these things just like others at the time put their words into others mouths to lend them authority, it becomes canon, returns to the future…somehow Biff is still President…)

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          +1

    • StuartB says:

      I’ll take it up a level and ask if Pentecost was really necessary even. Did we need an event to declare that the tribal rules of a ANE group were no longer just binding to one group but to everyone? Was the lesson of Pentecost that all that old stuff is over and done with, and now those tribes are no longer special but everyone is equal?

      There’s lots of big questions to ask still.

      • If you be Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29). The “tribal rules” of that obscure “ANE group” as well as God’s promise to its founder are ours also because we have been adopted into that family by faith in Christ Jesus.

        I don’t understand you people sometimes. Oh, and faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

        • StuartB says:

          I don’t understand anymore either, which is why I’m forcing myself to ask the uncomfortable questions. It’s not easy.

          There’s still so many assumptions built in that I need to think through. Like why the rules for one tribe’s god suddenly applies to the whole earth. And how a god that was seemingly universal became so tribal all of a sudden, and why there is/was a need to become universal again. What does “it is finished” even mean? And which god was Jesus following or a part of?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > if Pentecost was really necessary even

        Clearly it was! What is additionally necessary is recurring ‘pentecosts”.

        Which perhaps is the role of The Church?

        If anything The [Western] Church attempts – vaguely and ineffectually – to use Christmas to that end. That gets lost in a flood of nebulous sentiment.

        • StuartB says:

          Can Pentecost be reclaimed from the Pentecostals? I’ve had my fill of “outpourings”…

          • Rick Ro. says:

            –> “I’ve had my fill of ‘outpourings’…”

            Love that!! (And they could be lyrics to a country song.)

      • Dana Ames says:

        Stuart,

        The answer to the question depends on what one believes our telos as humanity is. If we’re all simply waiting to “go to heaven after we die” of if there truly is nothing after we die, then it does seem like a pretty ridiculous question.

        But, if our ultimate end is union with the Godhead, and if that telos begins with the Incarnation, then it needs to be furthered while we are yet alive on this earth. Being united with Christ in his death and resurrection means we don’t have to be afraid of death; therefore, we don’t have to be afraid and powerless in the face of living as true human beings in the midst of a not-yet-fully-renewed atmosphere that can push us, in ways subtle and not so subtle, toward that which brings us to disintegration. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of Life.”

        The “proof” we need to look for, with regard to the presence of the Holy Spirit, is the increase of self-giving love, even unto (many kinds of) death, in a person’s life. It’s been evident in those we call saints, “official” and otherwise. It was evident in those who gave their lives on that train in Portland.

        (If one holds to God having created a strict binary of a place called “Heaven” in some sort of separate realm, and a place called “Hell” where people are tortured forever, and must lay down certain rules about who goes where, it’s not possible to say that about those Portlanders. My faith tradition posits something else, something larger and deeper, in which we can trust Christ to judge worthily and so leave judgment about the state of a person’s union with God up to him, and pray for those Christ-like men who gave their lives, no matter their personal beliefs or lack thereof.)

        Dana

  3. Stephen says:

    “Are you going to believe what the Bible says or are you going to believe your own eyes?”

    Has it really come down to so stark a choice as this? If so the “Bible” has failed because most people (quite rightly) are going to privilege their own experience over the experiences of a people who came from an ancient culture that moderns only dimly understand. And the “Bible” says many things.

    And sorry Prof Wright but OUR cosmology is not the problem.

    • Stephen, but I would argue that, at least in some sense it is. See our discussion last week in the ascension post on a 1-story vs. a 2-story universe. Either “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins) or it isn’t. If it is, then there is a sacramental reality that is accessible to humans. If not, we’re all just waiting to “go to heaven”.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        +1

        After all the word-salad is disposed of – this is the question.

      • Robert F says:

        I see plenty of grandeur, and right along with it death, suffering and ugliness. If this world is the way God wants it as is, then he can have it. I don’t find it palatable. But if this world is not yet finished, if the observed grandeur is the leading edge of an unseen transformation not yet realized, count me in. But how much different is that from waiting to “go to heaven”, or waiting for Godot? Just a difference of nomenclature, I think. All the people I’ve known who hoped to “go to heaven” also hoped that it would be recognizably earth-like; they were counting on it.

        • Dana Ames says:

          Robert,

          N.T. Wright convinced me it was not simply a difference of nomenclature. His familiarity with the history, culture, texts and opinions of the 1st century Jews made me believe that none of the Jews had any idea about “going to heaven” after we die. God’s great work would happen on this earth, and would result in the eventual renewal of this earth. Since the first Christians were Jews, I believe this is what the first Christians held to as well, and that this can be clearly seen if we set aside our late Medieval western interpretive lenses. I didn’t have any good news to tell anyone before I was able to do that, and come to understand Wright’s terms and what he presents as that Jewish framework. I don’t think Wright has everything 100% correct, but he gives a coherent historically-based interpretation that is miles beyond anything I encountered before that. (It also happens to be what I characterize as about 85% consistent with EO.)

          Remember that the line between good and evil runs down the middle of the human heart, and that Christ won’t force anyone to love and follow him. But his Spirit is at work all the time, beyond what we can see.

          Dana

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Has anybody researched how Fluffy Cloud Heaven displaced Olam Ha-Ba as the Christian afterlife?

            I suspect it began as “an Intermediate State” required to ensure the continuity of the individual between death and resurrection, but grew until it became all that was left. Reaching its final version in the Victorian period through Victorian Romantic Sentimentalism.

      • Stephen says:

        For many people indeed “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”. For others the impersonal spray of particles and fields we detect through our instruments is all that is. The first is poetry and the second science. Both are faced with the same universe but speak different languages.

        For me the question is how the stories described in the Bible are shaped by the way in which the writers viewed the world. Not just the events in the stories but the possible world in the which the story could take place. For example if I write a story about a person who can walk on water my readers would assume my book was a fantasy because not only do we not believe that people can do this but because we live in a world where such things are not possible based on what we know about physical reality. The ancients lived in a world where it was conceivably possible that someone could walk on water so they were comfortable telling such stories.

        Actually the writers of the New Testament lived in a three story universe. Sheol below; our world around us; the heavenlies above. Really below; really around; really above. How can you show someone all the kingdoms of the world from the top of a high mountain if you don’t assume the earth is flat? The Ascension of Jesus sounds absurd to a modern but it wasn’t written by a modern; it was written by someone who assumed the heavens were above the sky.

        My question is just how many of the stories of the New Testament were shaped by a world view we can simply no longer share? Do we accept them as pre-scientific mythology and read them on that basis the way we read the Odyssey or the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata? Do we hunker down into a intellectually (and spiritually) bankrupt fundamentalism? Or….

        That “Or” will shape the future of the faith.

        • Stephen, excellent questions. In my mind, it has always come back to this. What we are reading in the Gospels and Acts is theologically-shaped testimony. Of course, it is written from the perspective of those within its world, but also within the context of the story of Israel. Those things shape the way the story is told, as does the situation of the audience the author wrote for. But at its heart, it claims to be a witness, and at certain points, such as Paul’s early writings about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, it takes on the cast almost of legal eyewitness testimony.

          With that at the core, we can then try to determine how the material was shaped and presented in its ancient context. As I said in my post about the ascension, I think the narrative of the event in Acts is probably more metaphorical than an actual description. But something extraordinary happened, someone witnessed it, and then Luke (or whoever) used whatever metaphorical and descriptive language he thought best to try and communicate something of the experience and its meaning to his intended audience. I’m not sure we, at this distance, can always figure out the details, but I don’t think we’re left completely clueless either.

          We could have another discussion here, but I’ll leave it for another time. For example, I find in the whole concept of quantum physics (of which I actually know very little, but I’m trying to learn) a useful metaphor for grasping the fact that there is much in this universe that exists and operates without me being aware of it and in ways that seem to contradict what we observe in the visible world. Perhaps one day I’ll have to find another metaphor as our knowledge grows, but for now I still believe in Mystery, even in a scientific and technological age.

    • There’s a typo in there, Stephen. Surely you meant to say quite wrongly, not quite rightly. (I’m just pulling your chain.)

  4. Being Eastern Orthodox unfortunately comes with a “fall of the West” narrative, and it appears to me that the place where the West went off the rails was right here, which we celebrate on Pentecost, on the descent of the Spirit. You don’t want me to march out the tired polemics about the filioque clause engineering the replacement of our Lord the Spirit to the ecclesiastical hierarchy during the Hildebrand/Cluny reforms, so I’ll just assert it again in passing.

    Fr. John Strickland has a work in progress called “Paradise and Utopia” in which he traces historically (he is by training a historian) the growth and development in the West of a turning away from the union of Earth and Heaven in the tradition of the Church due to what he calls “anthropological pessimism”. This caused the Western Church to “orient” (the word means to ‘turn to the east’) itself towards this world and seal off all the paradaisical elements of Church life to after this life,either at death or at the Eschaton. See Fr. Strickland’s podcast for a deeper and more coherent presentation of these matters.

    Once again, I find myself limited to the Orthodox and the Pentecostals when discussing the ministry of the Spirit. What I am going to say next is uncharitable, and I’m sorry I have to say it, but it’s what I’m thinking and feeling and nobody else here pulls any punches, so here goes. The Reformed seemed to limit the Spirit’s ministry to the illumination of Scripture. Standard-issue Evangelicals limit the Spirit to making you feel bad enough about your moral performance to start looking for a Savior. The mainliners and those in the wilderness tending to a mainlining direction seem to me (note the qualification) to equate the direction of the Spirit to the redistributive policies of the Democratic party.

    We Orthodox tend to seal the Spirit away in the monasteries. Having a conversation with an Orthodox layman about the work of the Spirit in his life can get awkward, although to their credit, Orthodox women are delightfully disposed to speak of Him. There is this sense that the fire of the Spirit cannot trusted in human vessels until that vessel has been purified by suffering or asceticism. The Pentecostals are a different kettle of fish altogether. If Pentecost is the democratization of the Temple, then Pentecostalism is the democratization of spiritual eldership, available in one “bolt of Jesus lightning” without decades of ascetic toil and careful self-examination. Needless to say, it shows great potential and great peril.

    • “The Reformed seemed to limit the Spirit’s ministry to the illumination of Scripture.”

      Seemed? No, they *do*, explicitly and openly. I heard Reformed types say this many, many times. For awhile, I even believed it myself.

      “Standard-issue Evangelicals limit the Spirit to making you feel bad enough about your moral performance to start looking for a Savior.”

      Or making you feel good enough during worship that you are “spiritually connected to God “.

      “The mainliners and those in the wilderness tending to a mainlining direction seem to me (note the qualification) to equate the direction of the Spirit to the redistributive policies of the Democratic party.”

      Well, if the fruits of the Spirit include helping the poor, you gotta go with what’s available. Because I tell ya, most active ministries to the poor that *i* know of aren’t Reformed, evangelical, … or even Orthodox. :-/

    • Robert F says:

      You haven’t spent much time in mainline churches, have you?

      • Stbndct says:

        All this mental masturbation. Is Pentecost necessary ? Yes because Jesus said it was. If he didn’t go away the spirit would not be sent. This is the third person of the Godhead and you wonder the importance ? What faith are you building your lives on except the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ? I realize many are in the wilderness but this is the cornerstone of our faith.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The Reformed seemed to limit the Spirit’s ministry to the illumination of Scripture.

      Another sign that Calvin Islamized the Reformation. “IT IS WRITTEN!”

      And like the Wahabi are more Wahabi than al-Wahab (as well as far more Islamic than Mohammed), so the Truly Reformed are more Calvinist than Calvin.

      We Orthodox tend to seal the Spirit away in the monasteries. … There is this sense that the fire of the Spirit cannot trusted in human vessels until that vessel has been purified by suffering or asceticism.

      Sounds like an Eastern Monastic version of Clericalism.

      Which explains why “Monk-a-bee” — taking on all the trappings of a monk (and doubling down on the asceticism) without actually placing self under the authority of an abbot — is a characteristically Orthodox way to flake out. (i.e. The more X-Treme Monkish I am, the more Holy I Must Be.)

  5. >> Last week, we spoke about the Ascension and presented it as the climax and culmination of the gospel of King Jesus.

    Maybe that’s part of the problem here. I fail to see how watching the person you bet everything on to save you rise up into the clouds as his last public appearance for going on now two thousand years can be considered good news. Nor the previous week where that same savior being tortured to death was presented as the climax and culmination of the gospel of King Jesus. Whatever your theological spin, this is not good news at all to ordinary people, never mind the culmination. Necessary to the story, yes, as was the birth of Jesus, but not the culmination, not reason to turn your life over to an absent landlord on the strength of someone’s claims, while someone else presents different claims, and the line forms at the rear.

    One of the claims that Jesus himself made was that the promise of the Spirit for his followers would take place after he left the planet on an extended leave of absence. Now we’re talking. This is either real or more hogwash, and if real it really would be good news. Did it happen or did it not? Reportedly it happened ten days after Jesus left, ceremonially and with great dramatic effect at the Feast of First Fruits, which I guess you could call synchronicity. But it happened before he left without the special dramatic effects when Jesus told his followers to receive the Holy Spirit and breathed on them, and if you do not understand that spirit and breath are the same word you really need to do a little preliminary studying here. What happened then? Not much, apparently, at least outwardly. No freight train rumbling thru, no tongues of fire, no accusations of drunkenness, no speaking in tongues, however that might be understood. But it seems to have lit the fuse.

    Was receiving the Spirit normative in the early church? Apparently so if the writings of the New Testament are any indication. Three hundred years later the Nicene Councils hammered out the official dogma, and if you read the history of this you discover that apparently the only spirit at work in crafting these loyalty oaths for the new church empire was a spirit of discord and violence and hatred and partisanship. What happened in those three hundred years? And then what happened in the years since the Holy Spirit was put in a shoebox as a footnote to Trinitarian dogma? Dana and El Burro light a candle in this disaster, and a polite description might say that the western half of the church joins those disciples at Ephesus who told Paul they had not so much as heard of the Holy Spirit when they believed. Except the western church is a lot more than half of the church, or at least was, until the Southern Hemisphere raised its head, and being ignorant and uneducated those southerners join the early church and those silly Easterners in believing the gift of the Holy Spirit is real.

    I don’t know how to deal with this. It’s not only that the great preponderance of western self-professing Christians have no clue that they are meant to be operating in the power of the Holy Spirit 24/7, the great preponderance of the western pastors are clueless as well, other than being able to garble out some Trinitarian gobbledygook. People know enough about it to be able to point to Pentecostals and snicker and call names, and in places like this where some enjoy pretending they are learned professors of theology, you get pages of bloviation, along with sneering and condescension, but the bottom line is that the Holy Spirit of God is of no consequence and is mostly a nuisance or a source of amusement to sophisticated educated modern people.

    I thank God that forty years ago after saying yes to Jesus I was directed to a little Foursquare Church where God’s Spirit was real and present and accepted and expected and welcomed, even as the intellectual understanding of this might have been a bit askew. It let me know that this was real, and over time as I grew in experience and discernment I was able to sift out the rocks and cinders that tend to jam the gears. I’m still sifting. I do not understand how anyone can think they can progress in the Kingdom of God without the Holy Spirit. This was given to the modern church a hundred years ago and then again fifty years ago, and the church has responded by looking at the imperfections of the people rather than the perfection of God’s Spirit. Holy Rollers. I’m wondering if God is not going outside the church this time around. Now is the time to learn how to distinguish between ego and spirit, and most church people have not even caught up to the primitive understanding of a hundred years ago. I fault the pastors for this more than any other factor and would not want to be in their shoes on the other side trying to explain this wilful blindness and failure to keep up.