Whitsunday / Pentecost

Once again, in reflecting upon the texts traditionally assigned to the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104), I am struck by both the power of the texts, and the down-to-earth realism of the New Testament. Yes, the story of Pentecost is about realism.

I may be a cynical/realist socialist, because of life experience and Jesus, yet it is precisely because I am that that Acts 2 / Pentecost strikes me as realistic. What happens at Pentecost is gritty, messy, real life.

Wisdom flows through the Holy Spirit upon God’s people. (In the English tradition, the Sunday of Pentecost is also traditionally called Whitsunday, which is derived from Wit/Wisdom Sunday, if E. Cobham Brewer got it right.) That wisdom, here expressed in a radical form of speaking in the tongues of the earth, not quite reversing, but addressing the division of humanity after Babel (Gen 11:1-9), will attract the derision of those who happen to stand outside: “they are filled with sweet new wine”. Peter invites them to be a little more gracious: come on, guys, it’s only three hours into the day (9 am)! Give us some credit, ok?!

The at times excessive emphasis that has been placed on glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”) at different times in the history of the church, particularly in late modernity (in both pentecostalism and the charismatic movement), tends to miss the point that Luke makes here, as expressed in the speech of Peter. What is happening here, Peter says, is simply what the Joel, that prophet of old, has been talking about (I won’t go into what one can make of the not-quite-so-literal rendering of the text of Joel 3:1-5; that’s for some other time): 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (NRSV)

Once again, the radically inclusive nature of this eschatological vision comes to the fore: men and women, young and old shall see the wisdom of God, thus going beyond the contemporary social and cultural conventions. In that same wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the nascent church tries to work out a communal life that sustains all (Acts 2-5), with all its radical demands and challenges.

In this same spirit, we can pray, quite fittingly, with Psalm 104, which is allocated to this Sunday: it praises the wonders of God, the creator and sustainer of the earth. And once again, the subtext is that if glory is given to God, it is, when push comes to shove, not given to those who claim to sit in lordship over us (see St Paul).

31May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works— 32who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. 33I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. 34May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. 35Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

The last verse brings up another issue, namely that of vengeance in the Psalms (traditionally referred to as the problem of imprecatory psalms). That’s another huge story, but perhaps it is enough to remember here, quite in line with my Reformation heritage, that we are all of us sinners. Reflecting on that in light of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, of Wisdom, it should become clear that Ps 104:35 is, if you will, neither masochistic nor sadistic.

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