A Reading from the Book of Numbers (11:24-30)
Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Psalm (104:25-36, 37)
25 O Lord, how manifold are your works! *
in wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
26 Yonder is the great and wide sea
with its living things too many to number, *
creatures both small and great.
27 There move the ships,
and there is that Leviathan, *
which you have made for the sport of it.
28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29 You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30 You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31 You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.
32 May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; *
may the Lord rejoice in all his works.
33 He looks at the earth and it trembles; *
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
34 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; *
I will praise my God while I have my being.
35 May these words of mine please him; *
I will rejoice in the Lord.
37 Bless the Lord, O my soul. *
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-21)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 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—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (7:37-39)
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
That was really a short gospel reading, wasn’t it? Just three verses. You would think that, as short as it is, it would be easy to understand; but it still presents us with multiple challenges.
For one thing, there is Jesus’ supposed quotation from the Bible which, for Jesus, meant our Old Testament: “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” That verse actually does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament.
But even more puzzling is John’s closing comment “as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” “There was no Spirit”? What are we, with our Trinitarian faith in the eternal God, supposed to do with that? Let’s step back for a moment and take a wider look.
This entire passage, along with the next three chapters, takes place at the end of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. This feast is celebrated in the early fall. It commemorates God’s work of leading the Israelites through the wilderness and, in particular, God bringing out water for them from the rock. In Jesus’ day, it had come to serve both as a time for thanksgiving for the approach of the year’s harvest and as a time to pray for the rain needed to nourish the next year’s crops.
Especially in the dry, rocky land in which Jesus and his fellow Jews were living, water was and is life. And, through the centuries, the Jewish people had come to see the water needed for their physical life as a powerful symbol for the life of God within their community and within themselves as faithful members of that community. We sometimes refer to that life of God as the Spirit of God.
According to our gospel reading, it was on the last day, the “great day” of that festival, that Jesus stood up and announced that he is the source of the “living water”: a term that John uses to refer to the Spirit of God. And it would be in Jesus’ glorification – that is, in his death and resurrection and return to the Father – that that Spirit would be sent forth in a new and powerful way into the world and into their lives.
In Christian tradition, this feast of Pentecost is the second most important feast in the entire church year, second only to Easter. It is the fulfillment of Easter, the completion of the Easter story. It is a day on which we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit: the living water who gives life to the world.
But the first Christians, immersed as they were in stories of the Bible, would have greeted the coming of the Spirit with mixed emotions. They knew that God’s Spirit, whenever it had suddenly rushed upon their world in new ways, had done many things that they and their ancestors had never expected and some things that they and their ancestors had not necessarily wanted. The scriptures are filled with stories like the one that we heard in today’s first reading, in which God’s Spirit was working in and through people who were not part of the mainstream, in people whom others had tried to exclude from speaking and acting on behalf of God. Those same scriptures include accounts of the Spirit of God suddenly rushing upon leaders such as Samson and Saul and David, enabling them to do – in fact, driving them to do – things that no one seems to have anticipated. The Spirit had never been under human control and had rarely conformed to acting in ways that the people of the time would have expected or wanted.
This new coming of the Spirit, this time upon the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost, began a new era of God’s Spirit acting in unexpected and, by many people, unwanted ways. It began in the story that we heard in our second reading, in which people of many different nations and cultures heard God’s word and experienced God’s presence in their lives in ways that would have been alien to the apostles and the others who lived in the land of Israel. But this was only the beginning of a whole series of surprises, some of them unwelcome surprises.
By Acts chapter 8, the Spirit had led Philip, and later others, to gather into the young church some of the traditional enemies of Israel: the Samaritans. The church in Jerusalem did not want to accept this “new thing” that God had done until Peter and John visited Samaria and returned to report that, no matter what the members of the infant church thought should happen, the Spirit had, in fact, touched the lives of the Samaritans. Two chapters later, an even greater shock hit the church – one that, at first, caused a serious division among the church’s members and leaders alike: when the Spirit led Peter to welcome into full membership in the church Gentiles, non-Jews, without requiring them to follow the Jewish law. That, again, was something that wasn’t supposed to happen. Some members of the church and even some prominent leaders of the church strongly opposed it. But once again, the Spirit had refused to conform to what people thought the Spirit was supposed to do. The Spirit refused to be limited by narrow, human ways of thinking.
Throughout the centuries, that same Spirit has continued to surprise the church time and time again by touching the lives of people who weren’t supposed to be full and complete and equal members of the church and its ministry. It happened repeatedly as the church spread to all the other peoples and continents of the world, and the Spirit manifested its presence within many strange and alien cultures. It has happened in more recent times as the church has come to recognize the Spirit’s work, calling into the church’s leadership people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations, and people with various kinds of disabilities.
The Spirit of God, which burst forth in a new way through Jesus’ death and resurrection, continues to surprise us and, no doubt, will still do so many times in the future. That Spirit still serves as the living water: quenching our deepest thirst, filling us with renewed life, and empowering us to do the work for which we were baptized.
In a quote that I have used before, William Willimon succinctly sums up the reality that we face in the coming of the Spirit (Acts, pp. 98-99): “Faith, when it comes down to it, is our own often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?’” That is the question for Pentecost. That is always the question for our life in the Spirit.