A little bit of chaos

8 June 2014
The Feast of Pentecost
Pentecost A(RCL)
Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23

The gift of the Holy Spirit is never quite predictable. All four of the readings from scripture appointed for today seem to have that in common. The passage from Numbers is often read at ordinations, but I think it runs counter the neat expectations that the spirit operates through clearly ordained channels. Moses has complained to God that he can’t manage this people by himself. In the verses just before, he challenges God, “Did I conceive this people? Did I give birth to them, that they should be my concern?” God agrees that the problem is too big for Moses alone, and arranged to give some of the spirit which rests on Moses to seventy elders of the people recognized to be elders among them.

These seventy come out to the tent with Moses, where Moses habitually encounters God. The spirit comes to rest on them, and they prophesy, but only once. Heaven forbid, the author seems to be saying, that we should have seventy people capable at any time of flying into an ecstatic fit and calling out God’s word. We need a modicum of control on the whole enterprise. However, Eldad and Medad (it’s not clear whether they were in the original seventy, or just a couple of extra — which would bring the number to 72, a nice multiple of 12) begin prophesying in the camp. We are not told that they prophesied only once. Presumably, they became ecstatic prophets. Joshua, Moses’ hand-picked assistant, can’t stand to see Moses authority (and thereby his own) challenged in such a way, and begs Moses to tell them to stop. Moses replies that he wishes all God’s people were prophets.

I suspect this episode hints at the difficult relationship between the monarchy and priesthood on one hand, and the ecstatic prophets like Elijah and Elisha on the other hand. That pesky Spirit just won’t stay in the box.

In the psalm, the Spirit gives life to creatures like “that Leviathan, which God made for the sport of it.” God withholds God’s spirit, and creatures die, and God sends it forth again and renews the face of the earth. There is an element of unpredictability here.

The Acts reading also suggests the chaotic nature of the Spirit. Those who don’t understand what is going on think these Christians are drunk on new wine (that would be very hard to do, since new wine is not yet fermented). All of those who heard them were devout Jews visiting Jerusalem from all the lands named in the reading. As such, they would have been able to hear the mighty deeds of God in their shared language, Hebrew. This linguistic heritage placed a nice, tight control on the the telling of the history of God’s saving deeds. Now, all of a sudden, each of them is hearing of the God’s saving acts in the language of each. That history has opened up to many more tellers, and is no longer under the neat control of its traditional adjudicators. Who knows what God might be doing?

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus breathes on his disciples and gives them the authority to forgive or retain sin. Here, the traditional function of the priesthood (remember, the Temple is gone by the time John is writing) is shared with the whole community. Jesus shows them his wounded hands and feet and side before giving them authority to forgive sin, suggesting the gravity of sins that can be forgiven. The boundaries of grace have just been opened to all. The Spirit might do anything!

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