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Introduction To The Scripture For Pentecost - Year C
Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17


The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Pentecost -  Year C


ACTS 2:1-21              The Jews celebrated Pentecost long before the
Christian Church adopted it as the anniversary of the gift the Holy Spirit.
John's Gospel refers to it by its Jewish name, "the Festival of Weeks."
Originally a harvest festival, it also had a connection with the covenant
God made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17).  Later it became linked with the
giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  For Christians, this passage tells how
the Spirit came unexpectedly upon the apostles giving them a new mandate:
to proclaim the sovereignty of God's love through the resurrection of
Jesus, the Messiah/Christ.


PSALM 104:24-35          Someone has said that nature is the language of
the Bible.  This psalm brings this characteristic to the fore by declaring
the dependence of all nature on God.


ROMANS 8:14-17           Paul points out that the Spirit of God is the
power by which Christians live their faith as the children of God.  This
dependent relationship in no way diminishes our status, but actually gives
us a new standing as heirs, in fact, "joint heirs with Christ."  The term
"children of God" is the equivalent of Jesus Christ being called "Son of
God."  The gift of the Spirit is unconditional, but we must be prepared its
challenges to join him in that holy status.


JOHN 14:8-17             We do not know how much of this excerpt from
Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper contains
actual words Jesus uttered.  John, or possibly a group of disciples of the
apostle John, may have created it from some remembered sayings of Jesus to
summarize what he (or they) believed Jesus would have said about his
special relationship to God.  Here John addresses those who have a problem
seeing Jesus as the full revelation of God.  This issue which still
generates fervent debate in our own denomination.

************

ACTS 2:1-21   The Jews celebrated Pentecost long before the Christian
Church adopted it as the anniversary of the gift the Holy Spirit.  John's
Gospel refers to it by its Jewish name, "the Festival of Weeks." 
Originally a harvest festival, it also had a connection with the covenant
God made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17).  Later it became linked with the
giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. 

What then was the purpose behind the choice of this day to celebrate the
gift of the Spirit to the apostolic church?  Surely this was not the first
time the disciples had felt the presence of the Spirit.  There are at least
two different traditions about the time and circumstances of the gift. 
John 20:22 reports that this occurred on the evening of the day of Jesus'
resurrection.  In 1 Corinthians 15:6, Paul also describes a resurrection
appearance of Jesus to "five hundred brethren at one time."  Could this
have been his understanding of the Pentecost experience? 

This passage tells how the Spirit came unexpectedly upon the apostles fifty
days after the resurrection to give them the mandate for a new mission: to
proclaim the sovereignty of God's love through the resurrection of Jesus,
the Messiah/Christ.  The difference between the traditions is related to
the results of the experience.  Luke makes it clear that on this occasion
the disciples received the spiritual power to carry out their newly
assigned mission.

Note also that in the ending of the Luke's Gospel he does not speak of the
gift of the Spirit.  Luke did write of Jesus giving them the mission of
proclaiming the resurrection and promises to empower them.  Then, after
blessing them, "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven" as
described in a more complete version of the ascension in Acts 1:1-11.

The results of the infusion of the Spirit can be enumerated as follows: (1)
Glossolalia: As described here this may have been more a symbol of the
universality of the Christian proclamation than the *charismaton* of 1
Corinthians 12:4-11.  Luke's identification of the Diaspora communities
represented in Jerusalem at that time (vss. 6-11) supports this view.  (2)
The courage to speak publicly of what they had seen and heard despite the
dangers of imminent persecution by the same religious leaders who had
arranged Jesus' crucifixion.  (3) The earliest Christian *apologia*
contained in Peter's sermon.  C.H, Dodd called this the basic apostolic
*kerygma.*  (4) The immediate expansion of the disciple community as people
responded to the preaching of the gospel (vss. 37-42).

The quotation from Joel places the event within the long-standing
eschatological tradition of Israel.  In the original Hebrew text of Joel,
the prophecy carried a message of doom in which "the day of the Lord" meant
"the terrible day" filled with threat and fear.  The Greek version in the
LXX had translated the Hebrew in such a way as to transform the day of
judgment into something "notable" (KJV) or "splendid."  Hence "the Lord's
great and glorious day" (vs.20 NRSV).  In short, the Christian *eschaton*
of Pentecost had completely transformed the "day of the Lord" into
something to be celebrated with great rejoicing rather than feared for its
dire threat.

There is another possible interpretation of the Pentecost event held by a
minority of scholars.  It is the Parousia - the second coming of Christ. 
In the early decades following the resurrection and ascension, the
apostolic church held firmly to the belief that Jesus would return in glory
at some later and totally unexpected date.  This reflected their adoption
of the influential Jewish eschatological texts in prophetic literature.
Certain eschatological passages of the NT maintained this view and
attributed parables and declarations of this kind to Jesus himself.  It is
quite probable that Jesus did hold such views of the Messiah.  But did he
continue to hold this view after he recognized his own messianic character?
Careful examination of the teachings of Jesus indicate that these
eschatological passages can be fairly interpreted as assurances of God's
purpose being accomplished rather than a descriptions of specific future
events. 

Toward the end of the lst century CE, however, the apostolic church began
to realize that the anticipated second coming had been delayed and might
never come as originally expected.  It then became more important to
describe the purpose of Christ's coming as the proclamation of the
sovereignty of divine love for all of creation which is being redeemed
within the normal context of history.  The promise of a second coming is
the hope of the fulfillment of God's continuing redemptive work.  In this
light, Pentecost becomes the empowerment of all who believe so that they
may participate in the redemptive mission initiated by Christ.


GENESIS 11:1-9   This alternate OT lesson tells the ancient myth of how
there came to be so many languages spoken by the human race.  It would seem
obvious that the writer of the Pentecost story in Acts 2 had this myth in
mind in describing the glossolalia of that event. 

In and of itself, the story bases the multiplicity of languages on human
pride.  By attempting to build a tower that reached to the heavens, the
people sought to take control of their own destiny.  The response of Yahweh
blocked their efforts by causing them to speak in a confusion of languages
and to spread "over the face of the earth."

People living in the so-called Fertile Crescent stretching from the valley
of the Nile in Egypt to the Persian Gulf were familiar with two elements of
this story:  a confusing number of languages and a tower that reached
toward the heavens.  As the tides of history moved back and forth along
this crescent, many different languages and cultures came into almost
constant conflict.  Problems in communication had significant effects on
the clash of cultures, as they still have in our time too.  But this
interaction also had permanent influence on the development of the Hebrew
language.  Like the English language today, ancient Hebrew included many
words borrowed from several different cultural sources. 

About fifty miles from Baghdad in the Tigris-Euphrates valley of modern
Iraq, one can still see the ruins of the city of Babylon, named for this
myth.  The name of the city and the word Babel formed a play on the Hebrew
word *balel,* which meant "confusion or mixing."  In the 5th century BCE,
the Greek historian Herodotus described a ziggurat or six staged tower
crowned with a small chapel which served as the temple of the Babylonian
deity, Marduk.  Jews would have seen this architectural wonder of the
ancient world during their exile in Babylon.  Built of sun-dried brick and
standing near the Euphrates River, the ziggurat would have been subject to
erosion by wind, rain and floods.  It would also have been a strategic
target for invading armies.  It has been suggested that the myth may have
been inspired by a time when the tower was being reconstructed after
suffering some such catastrophe.  Does this story convey some biting
sarcasm about the impermanence of the foreign deity whose followers had
caused the Israelites such pain?

 
PSALM 104:24-35   "The universe is rationally transparent and God has
written two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture.  We are
creatures made in the image of the creation, made up, literally, of bits of
carbon from far away stars."  So said Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, past
president of Queen's College, Cambridge, former professor of mathematical
physics at Cambridge, a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
(he'd be Sir John if he weren't an ordained Anglican priest.)  He was
speaking at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle, WA where he kicked off a
conference called "Cosmos and Creator: God of Physics, God of Astronomy."
Polkinghorn is an avowed enthusiast for the concept of creation by
intelligent design.

Someone else has said that nature is the language of the Bible.  This psalm
brings these two thoughts together by declaring the dependence of all
nature on God.  The poem shows remarkable similarity of this poem with
others in the wider cultural setting of the ancient Middle East.  A recent
book, *The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light,* by Canadian scholar
and journalist Tom Harpur, claims that all Middle Eastern mythology and
religious texts, including Israel's, should be seen as revisions of the
basic religious myths and texts of ancient Egypt.
     
In *The Interpreter's Bible,* (iv. 550) W. Stewart McCullough comments that
the psalmist appears to be familiar with other creation stories known to
Israel.  He shares the viewpoint of the P document.  However, the theme of
creation and control of nature by a supernatural power inspired writers in
various cultures, especially the Egyptian "Hymn to the Aton" which dates
from the time of Akhenaton (1380-1362 BC), a ruler with distinct
monotheistic interests.
     
McCullough believed that the resemblances could be accounted for by a
common monotheistic approach to the world of nature.  The differences
between the poems were notable in that the Egyptian hymn the sun is the
creator, whereas in the Hebrew psalm the sun is but a part of the handiwork
of the Yahweh.
     
A parallel to vss.24-26 may be found in Genesis 1:20-23 where Yahweh's
works on the fifth day of creation.  Vss.27-30 correspond to Gen. 1:29-30.
The doxology of vss. 31-35 contains two elements of note.  The psalmist
calls on Yahweh to rejoice in his handiwork while raising his own voice in
similar rejoicing.  The final verse offers a solution to the problem of
evil frequently found in other psalms.  This may not satisfy modern minds,
but did express the traditional Hebrew faith that good would ultimately
triumph.  Indeed, it seems so out of character with the rest of the passage
that it may have been added by someone with a more intense moralistic
intent than that of the original poet.


ROMANS 8:14-17   One could certainly claim that this is a Spirit-filled
passage, perhaps the most Spirit-filled in all of the Pauline corpus.  In
vss. 1-13 preceding this reading the Spirit is named twelve times and in
these four verses, twice more.  Paul is saying forcefully as he can that
the Spirit of God is the power by which Christians live their faith as the
people of God. 
     
The very assertion that we are the children of God is something far beyond
anything that Israel's religious leaders had ever claimed.  In the OT the
term "sons of God" was limited to supernatural beings.  Every male Jew was
regarded as a "b'nai b'rith," a son of the covenant.  Israel was "the
chosen people" solely by Yahweh's election.  This designated a special
relationship, but led to the exclusionary belief in the spiritual
superiority of the Jews whether by birth or by choice.  In the singular
form "the son of God" referred to the royal representative of chosen
people. 

Paul made no less claim for himself.  Here, however, he introduces a
startling new metaphor - adoption.  Christians are the adopted off-spring
of God.  William Barclay brings forward an even more surprising
interpretation of this metaphor.  Paul was not only a Jew, but a Roman
citizen.  He undoubtedly had in the forefront of his mind the Roman
practice of legal adoption.  In his *Daily Bible Study - The Letter to the
Romans,* Barclay outlines the way in which this took place. (See p.110-111)
In summary, a child to be adopted had to pass from the "patria potestas"
(absolute power of the father) of his natural father into that of his
adoptive father.  The adopted son lost all rights to his former family and
gained all the rights of a fully legitimate child of his new family.  He
could then inherit his adoptive father's estate, even if other sons were
afterwards born as real blood relations.  In the eyes of the law, the
former life of the adopted person completely disappeared.  The adopted
person literally and absolutely had a new father.

Barclay adds the ironic twist in citing a very famous adoption: In order
that Nero might succeed him on the throne, Emperor Claudius adopted Nero.
They had no known blood relationship.  Claudius already had a daughter,
Octavia.  When Nero wished to cement the alliance he chose to marry
Octavia.  The Roman senate had to pass special legislation to enable Nero
to marry her, his sister by adoption.

Nero became emperor in 54 when Paul's missionary work was at its height. 
It was during the middle years of Nero's reign that he wrote The Letter to
the Romans.  Tradition has it that Paul was executed in Rome 62 when Nero
was far advanced in his murderous paranoia.  Having already executed his
step-brother, Britannicus, whom he displaced as heir of Claudius, and his
own mother, Nero divorced and then arranged the execution of Octavia in
that same year in which Paul also died.  Is it too far-fetched to imagine
that Paul's execution had some connection with these words in Romans 8?  If
Paul wrote this in a letter to the Roman Christians before he arrived in
Rome, is it not likely that he also preached this same message when he was
there, a Roman prisoner?  Would this not be evidence used against him when
he appeared before Nero?  After all, the theme of the passage is the true
nature of spiritual inheritance.  And Nero believed that he was God.
     
As in legal Roman adoption, the new relationship into which our spiritual
adoption brings us in no way diminishes our status.  Actually it gives us a
new standing as heirs, in fact "joint heirs with Christ."  The term
"children of God" is the equivalent of Jesus Christ being called "Son of
God."  But in his last sentence of this reading, however, does Paul
introduce a conditional qualification?  Not likely, since Paul firmly
believed in the unconditional grace of God mediated by Jesus Christ.  More
probably Paul was saying with these concluding words that as a result of
inheriting this holy status, we must also certainly accept its challenges,
possibly at times to the point of suffering for it as Christ did.


JOHN 14:8-17   As much as we love John 13-17 and especially this chapter
14, this excerpt from Jesus' farewell discourse to his disciples at the
Last Supper may contain few actual words Jesus uttered.  John, or quite
possibly one or more of a group of disciples of the apostle John, created
the whole discourse from some of Jesus' remembered sayings.  They gave it
this longer form to summarize what he (or they) believed Jesus would have
said about on the occasion of his departure. 

However we may interpret its origin, this passage has a very theological
tone.  The issue under discussion is the special relationship of Jesus to
God.  It addresses those who were having a problem regarding Jesus as the
full revelation of God.  This issue still generates fervent debate in our
own time. So what is John saying in these words attributed to Jesus?

In response to Philip's longing, "Show us the Father and we will be
satisfied," Jesus gave an indirect, somewhat rhetorical answer designed to
elicit Philip's (and our) faith.  Then he unequivocally declared his total
identity with God: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."  He follows
this with a further declaration as to the validity of the words he has
spoken and the deeds he has done.  Then he makes an absolutely astonishing
claim: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the
works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am
going to the Father."
     
This assertion can only be understood in the light of Pentecost.  We must
remember too that this passage was written some sixty years after that
unique event.  This powerless troop of Galileans could no more imagine than
we can how God could redeem the world through their witness of words and
deeds.  It was so at the end of the 1st century when John wrote the Fourth
Gospel.  It is still so at the beginning  of the 21st century as we sit in
our now uncomfortable pews in trembling fear as the cataclysmic upheavals
of our own time swirl like hot, flowing lava around us.

Yet, to change the metaphor, there is a key which will unlock and swing
wide the gates of history in every age: "If you love me, you will keep my
commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another
Advocate, to be with you forever.... He abides with you and will be in
you." (vss.15-17) 
     
In this passage Pentecost is a promise.  In John's time and in ours, it was
and is a reality.  As we read our daily newspapers or watch the news
reports on our television screens, it may be incredibly difficult to see
the hand of God in the turbulent affairs of our time. But as the creed of
The United Church of Canada reminds us: "We are not alone. We live in God's
world, who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word
made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the
Spirit.... In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us" -
Father, Son and Spirit.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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