Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Pentecost - the dove and the quail

Pentecost takes its name from 50. It is 7 weeks after Easter day. We have also now counted the Omer, and 7 weeks (50 days) after the offering of the first sheaf, we have come to the feast of Weeks (Leviticus 23:15). Shavuot is for the offering of the first-fruits. It nearly corresponds to Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the Church in Christian tradition, the day on which the Holy Spirit is poured out, living flame, living waters. The Holy Spirit is the one who is called in the Nicene Creed, 'the Lord, the giver of life'. While rereading James Dunn, Christology in the Making (1989, p 34), I note that he calls Jesus' resurrection the "first sheaf of the eschatological harvest...".

I begin with a review of where we've been in this reading exercise. Through the stimulus of Rachel Held Evans, I started three weeks ago with the death of Stephen and thoughts about the spirit of a human and the request of Stephen "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," reflecting the words of Jesus on the cross and the words of Psalm 31. Then two weeks ago, Paul preaches to the Athenians about Jesus, the resurrected human, having been appointed by God to judge the world in righteousness, a promise of the Psalms. Then last week, we celebrated the Ascension, the recognition that the offering of Jesus is fully accepted by God and that he is appointed as the ruler of all things, and that all power is subject to him. Jesus, in this image from Ephesians, is not standing as in the vision of Stephen, but seated, an image of governance.

And how does this human rule work? It works by Spirit. Not by might or power in the sense of coercion or force, but by the Holy Spirit. What is the Spirit of God that we should understand how the rule works? It is the spirit that is evident in the life of Jesus. That is, it is a spirit informed by the covenant-mercy of God as taught in the ancient texts. So we must learn how to learn and how to read and hear these ancient texts. As you can imagine, I consider the Psalms a generous dollop of poetry from which we can begin to learn.

This Sunday we read an Old Testament lesson from the book of Numbers, chapter 11. I transcribed some of this music last year on the complaint of Moses to God about making him care for this people. (Note, if we are going to complain, do it to God - to his face, not behind his back.)

Perhaps you remember that the people desired meat in the desert. God in this chapter gives them meat to excess and they are greedy to the point of illness. This is an awful story, a story of fierce and almost self-inflicted judgment. Interspersed with it is the story of the Spirit of God that was on Moses, being shared with 70 of the elders of Israel, as if Yahweh agreed with Moses that he had given him too great a burden to bear. What do we make of this strange pattern of interspersed stories?

The lesson in the lectionary for this week is only the bit about the elders receiving the spirit. There is so much more to the juxtaposition of the stories -
  • The people's desire for meat, belly-aching behind God's back - think of the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic ... here we are with nothing but manna to look at!
  • Moses' complaint, (above)
  • Yahweh's preparatory commands to gather 70 of the elders for the sharing of the burden, 
  • Moses' not believing that God can provide meat for 600,000 soldiers in the wilderness, Yahweh's response - just wait and see... 
  • the spirit that was on Moses being shared with the 70, two of the 70 being still in the camp nevertheless prophesying also, Joshua saying that they should be stopped, Moses replying that all God's people should have such a spirit of prophecy,
  • then come the quail - so many that the people get sick. The people are condemned for their greed.
What a context for this positive statement about all God's people being given the spirit. 
  • Is this Spirit that was on Moses the same spirit as the spirit of Jesus? 
  • Is this the same spirit as the rushing mighty wind of Acts 2 and the tongues of fire? 
  • Is this the same spirit as in the Gospel reading from John 20? If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained, 
  • Is this the same as in the rivers of living water as are spoken of in John 7:38, a text that no one can find! (but perhaps it is the living waters of Zechariah 14 - of which more next week).
  • Also anticipating next week's lessons, is this the Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation?
O how we could go on about this. But fortunately there is next week, Trinity Sunday - should be a breeze, eh?

Perhaps such a fire cannot be received if it is only to satisfy one's own appetite. Yet the appetite is given which only the fire can satisfy.

In the usual shared place, I have put music for Numbers 11:24-30. For more on the Spirit, there are several posts by Andrew Perriman which I have read recently, e.g. this one - particularly some of the comments.

PS - a local pastor is publishing his Thesis on Power and Authority in pastoral ministry here. The burden of pastoral responsibility is certainly a theme in this passage.

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