Pentecost Sunday (not the vigil), May 24, 2015
Luke's history of the early church begins with a foreshadowing of its ending, people of all nations and races hearing the mighty acts of God.
Paul describes a church diverse in its members and their gifts, united in one Spirit, united as one body.
Some who misunderstood the gospel argueed that Christians had to observe the old laws of Moses. Paul insists that is not so, and that the way of God's Spirit leads to love, joy, peace and many other goods.
With the image of Jesus' breath, John reassures anxious disciples that they can always count on the Spirit of Jesus.
For a community anxious about persecution and members tempted to abandon Jesus, John reassures that Jesus wants his followers always to have the Spirit from his Father.
Proclaiming It: The lector ought to sound more than a little amazed at the description of the extraordinary events:
Given the two radical changes described above, and how they influenced Saint Luke, Father Roger Karban writes of the Pentecost event, "There's no gentle dove here, hovering peacefully over the community. The Spirit's arrival is accompanied by the disturbing images of wind, noise and fire." All the more reason to let your proclamation be emphatic and dramatic.Pronouncing the Words: Proclaimers of this passage can lose themselves in the pronunciations of the place names at the end. Learn and/or decide now how you're going to say all those difficult words. In the past, I have minimized the importance of exactly correct pronunciation of Biblical names, in favor of confident pronunciation. I have reconsidered. Of course it's bad to insult the intelligence of those listening by delivering an unprepared reading; that's obvious when one stumbles over strange names as if seeing them for the first time. But confident, uninformed pronunciation is worse. It amounts to bluffing. The bluff is immediately exposed to anyone who knows a correct pronunciation or can deduce one. To those, the bluff says "I don't think you're smart enough to know how this should be pronounced." The ethics of poker should not dictate the aesthetics of worship. To hear acceptable pronunciations of these names, click here.
Even more important is how you proclaim the final line, "yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God."
The Historical Situation: Among the Christians living in the Greek seaport Corinth, there was a diverse manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prophets, preachers, healers, teachers, you name it, the Spirit bestowed the job on someone there. These folks often exercised their gifts in spectacular, ecstatic ways that drew a lot of attention, as they do today among people who attend revivals and the crusades of some faith-healers.
The Theological Background: Paul spends chapters 12, 13 and 14 of this letter trying to get the Corinthians to enjoy and express their gifts in ways that give strength to the community and glory to God. For the natural tendency of some of the supernaturally endowed was to glorify themselves with their God-given power. To make this point, Paul identifies the members of the church with the members of Christ. That is, he goes further than we usually admit. He doesn't just compare the church to a body, he says the members of the church are the members of Christ.
Proclaiming It: The latter sentences of the reading, therefore, deserve clear and emphatic proclamation. I would say slowly and deliberately the phrase "so also Christ," then pause for just one beat. Make your listeners say "What?"
So why does Paul care so much about the Corinthians' use of the spiritual gifts? It's his goals: The unification of the church by the humbling of all members, the squelching of their rivalries, and the re-direction of their efforts to mutual service and mission. Understand that, and make them your own goals, and you'll proclaim the reading properly.
A Theological Reflection: This, by the way, is the context of the famous passage we hear at so many weddings, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love ..." That's the middle chapter of Paul's extended teaching about the gifts of the Spirit. It's consoling to realize that, while the Spirit may not grant me tongues or healing powers, I can always choose to exercise the gift of love, which Paul ranks higher than all the rest.
The Theological Background: The contrast of flesh and spirit is a favorite theme of Saint Paul's. But here the term "flesh" has a nuanced meaning. Living in the flesh means not just being ruled by one's carnal desires. It also means trying to live by law alone, trying to keep the Old Law of Moses (roughly speaking, the Ten Commandments) by one's own moral strength. That is, using the resources only of one's own flesh to control one's own flesh and make oneself right with God. Paul is sure it won't work; we're not that strong morally; he has tried it himself. Only the Spirit can make us right with God. Good practices, even religious practices, that people attempt on their own cannot make us right with God.
So it's from both kinds of bondage that Paul wants people to be free. Neither carnal desire nor rule-bound self-righteousness should enslave us.
As you read this, let the stark contrasts in the text find rich expression in your voice.
The Historical Situation: In Romans, Paul wrote several chapters arguing that as Christians, we do not save ourselves by our good works, but we (should) let God save us by undeserved grace. Faith is acknowledging that we can't save ourselves, and trusting that God will save us anyway. In chapter 8, he reiterates the same teaching in terms of living in the flesh versus living in the spirit. One of the things he means by "living in the flesh" is that self-sufficient, indeed arrogant stance that says, "I can make God save me by how well I keep the Law, or do good deeds, or do religious practices." On the contrary, by baptism into Christ's death and resurrection, we receive the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead. There's no way we could deserve such power, but it is ours to accept, which is to live in the spirit.
Your Proclamation: The heavy theology here puts the lector in a demanding situation. What would have to happen to enable a lector to get this teaching across to a congregation? A steady, gradual teaching effort, of several weeks, by the preachers, lectors, liturgists and the parish's adult education team could accomplish it. In the absence of that, let the lector emphasize the various contrasts in the ways Paul describes life in the flesh versus life in the spirit. A listener might not know why the Apostle was so emphatic, but may get the idea that there's a right way to be right with God, and one or more wrong ways to try it. If that causes even a little self-scrutiny by some worshippers, your proclamation will not have been in vain.
Credit for the picture at the top:
Detail from Pentecost, by El Greco, ca. 1600. The painting's home is in Spain's Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
This picture, from its on-loan installation at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA, in 2010, reveals its scale.
The Prado's web page about the painting says:
"This work depicts the moment when the Holy Ghost, in the form of flames, rests on the Virgin and the Apostles* on Pentecost day in Jerusalem, as is told in the book of Acts (2: 1-5).
"The bald, bearded Apostle who looks out at the viewer from the right of the canvas has been identified as a self-portrait, or as a portrait of the artist's friend, Antonio de Covarrubias.
"Along with other paintings in the Prado Museum (P00821, P00823, P00825, P03888), this work was painted as part of the main altarpiece for the church of the Augustine College of María de Aragón in Madrid. A sketch or autograph reduction can be found in the Zogheb collection in Paris. The signature is on the second step, in Greek letters. It was redone during an old restoration."
*Who, according to Acts, was there? Acts 1:13-15 speaks of two groups:
"When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers (there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place)."
Acts, chapter 2, begins "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together."
A footnote in The New Jerusalem Bible at Acts 2:1 says of "they," "Not the hundred and twenty, 1:15-26, but the group mentioned in 1:13-14."
This page updated May 17, 2015