Spirit-ed identity

19 May 2013
The Feast of Pentecost
Pentecost C (RCL)
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17

Each of the biblical authors who deals with the Spirit of God seems to have a different understanding of that Spirit. That makes our lessons for this Sunday not seem to hang together very well. However, Pentecost is one of those days especially appropriate for Baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows. In that regard, we can see the agency of the Spirit in establishing the church.

In the reading from Acts (and we follow Luke’s chronology in placing the gift of the Spirit on the Pentcost — fiftieth day), the Spirit falls on the gathered Church and empowers them for the mission that will form the subject of Luke’s second volume. All of the first hearers of the Church’s message were devout Jews, although they come from the Diaspora all over the known world. As devout Jews (men, and Peter addresses the men), they would have known Hebrew, and so have know the story of God’s mighty deeds of power, at least in Hebrew. So, it is striking that they are astonished to hear the story of God’s mighty deeds of power, each in their own dialect (that’s the word in Greek — it also means discussion). The story of God’s deeds of power needs to be contextualized, translated into the dialect of the hearer for it to have its effect.

All to often in the Church, we have exported the discourse along with the Gospel. We have enforced our own way of viewing things, along with the story of God’s mighty deeds of power. Perhaps we have needed to take the time to learn the dialect and discover what God’s mighty deeds of power are in that dialect. My visits to Lui have made that all too clear. The kwaja’s religion has suppressed many commendable aspects of the native culture by focusing on an individualized salvation seen as getting into heaven through moral effort. The near presence of the ancestors has been suppressed as not consonant with an idea of an individual entry into heaven. In fact, the ancestors are not all that different from the early church’s cult of the martyrs. What might African Christianity have looked like if the missionaries had listened to how the presence of the ancestors functioned in African culture and then found a way to baptize it? I suspect there wouldn’t be Christians who run off to the bush priests (we call them witch doctors) for help with the mundane aspects of life to which Christianity doesn’t seem to anything to say.

As we begin to change our stance toward all missional all the time, we need to keep this story in mind. The spirit empowers for mission by empowering the first disciples to learn the language of their hearers, to be able to recount God’s might deeds of power in the native dialect of the hearer.

Paul, in Romans, speaks of a spirit of adoption. We come into this family, this people with its story of God’s mighty deeds, through adoption, not birth. That means we have to work at creating a common identity. Even families of birth have to work to create identity, but we don’t think about that. We’re born to it, after all. But families that don’t get together, don’t stay together. We have to tell the stories of our common heritage in order to have a common heritage. But, if we are forming a family by adoption rather than birth, it means a broader diversity can be included, just like the diversity of those first hearers in Acts.

John speaks of a Spirit that will remind us of everything Jesus has said to us and empower us to do the works of the Father. Throughout the Gospel of John, the “works” has meant fruitfulness, which in turn has meant bringing new members into the family (new branches on the vine, new sheep in the fold, etc.). The work which the Spirit empowers us to do is gather up the world into this family of adoption, bringing the world into participation in the divine life of the Trinity (that wonderful blurring of boundaries in the Gospel between Jesus, the Father and the community).

Not bad work, if you can get it.

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