Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!

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What is Lent All About?

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:1–11 NRSV)

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LENT was originally not a religious word at all. A Teutonic (Germanic) word meaning “long,” it was used to refer to the lengthening days of spring. The word was passed through Anglo-Saxo into English, and finally used to translate the Latin quadragesima (“forty days”) which imitates the Greek name for the season of Lent, tessarakoste, or fortieth. So that is why we call this season Lent.

By the fifth century, church authorities assumed the practice of Lent went back to the apostles. However historians have noted that, in the first three centuries, churches were quite diverse in their practice of the fast before Easter. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius cites a letter from Irenaeus (late second century) who states that there was much confusion over the fast that came before Easter. Some thought it should be one day, others two, and yet others thought forty hours (day and night) as the correct amount. Later when Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which contains the letter from Irenaeus, was translated from Greek into Latin, the translator punctuated text so that last group fasted for forty days, not forty hours. So, interestingly, Lent became a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

If you would like more information about the origin and development of Lent, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm.

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LENT is about repenting, reorienting, recalibrating and realigning. Lent provides an opportunity as we approach Resurrection Sunday to bring our lives more in sync with Jesus. Reflecting on the temptation of Jesus (see the Scripture above) provides resources for this time of penitence and prayer.

Henri Nowen in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership made the dynamic  Jesus’ temptations real for me. Jesus responded to each temptation with Scripture;more specifically, Jesus quotes texts from Deuteronomy 6-8.

Deuteronomy 6-8 tells how the “newly minted” nation of Israel was tested in the wilderness; and how at each test the they failed to trust God.

Now comes Jesus’ turn. He too is tested but each time he successfully deflects Satan’s overtures. Where Israel, the nation, had failed, Jesus the Son will succeed. Part of Jesus success was that he knew the story. Because he knew the story of how Israel had failed the test, Jesus knew exactly what he was facing. Now that we have both stories, that of Israel and of Jesus, we know what we need to do when tempted.

Nowen reframes each temptation so we can hear them better. The temptation to turn stone into bread is the temptation to be relevant. The temptation to jump off the temple to be caught by angels is the temptation to be sensational. And the temptation to possess all the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to be powerful.

Each of these are a real temptation because we are all tempted to focus on what we want more than anything else. When we speak of being relevant (particularly in church life) we generally have in mind that notion that if we were more relevant, more people would be interested in church. So the conversation becomes what we need to do to please people and that is where this becomes a problem. Recall another story: when Aaron, the high priest, made a golden calf for the people. The golden calf was relevant but the golden calf was not God.

Each of us have felt the desire to be sensational. Drama Queen seems to be an art form for some today. How often do we walk the line between “doing our deeds before others” and “doing our deeds before othersso that they might see our Heavenly Father.” Jesus could have stepped off the pinnacle of the temple and floated down to the earth impressing all those who saw him. However, as with the stones, Jesus understood that making himself important or impressive works against the mission of God. All three of the temptations partake of the attitude that it’s-about-me.

Finally, the desire to be powerful is so “natural” that in our culture we assume that is what people should aspire to be. Jesus could have had the whole world without the cross! That is what Satan is offering. However, the way of power without the cross is not the way of God. To be powerful is to bypass the way of suffering and the gospel is clear that for Jesus suffering comes before glory. Those who would follow Jesus must learn this, too. As the apostle Paul will say later when we are weak, we are strong (see 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 12:10; 13:9).

So what is the meaning of Lent? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. Let me encourage you to use this season as a time to repent, reorient, recalibrate, and realign your life with that of your Lord Jesus. Let’s resist the temptation to be relevantsensational, and powerful and simply moving into being who God has called us to be.