Receive the Holy Spirit
There are a whole variety of readings one can pick for today. You may or may not know that each week we have the readings for each particular Sunday laid out for us in a document called the Lectionary. Lection means reading, like “lector” means reader. It comes from the Latin, lectio. Lectio Divina is a particular way of reading the sacred texts which I think is quite helpful. So if you look in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, you will see readings for each Sunday laid out in a cycle of three years, A, B and C, and that pretty much covers the whole Bible. There is a second lectionary there, which is a two year cycle for reading the whole Bible during the week. We took this concept of having particular readings for each week from Judaism. They read a particular section from the Torah each Sabbath. This Torah is a special one that is written on a scroll. When it is time to read the section from the Torah, they take the scroll from its special place – which is where we got our “special place” to keep the reserved Sacrament – and then they lay it on the bimah, which looks like our altar. They take the cover off of the scroll, and open the scroll by unrolling it a little. Each week, it is rolled forward just enough to read the next section. At the end of the year, there is a lovely service called Simḥath Torah where the scroll is rolled back to start all over again.
We have 4 sections of readings for each week: the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, aka the Old Testament; the Psalm, which was the hymn book; the Epistle, which are the letters, by Paul and his followers, and the Gospel lesson. Some of the time there is simply one option from each of those categories, but occasionally, there is a choice. The reading for today that is normally chosen is the big story about how the disciples are hiding from the authorities, and God busts into the room in a mighty way, everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit, and they burst out of their hiding place and into the streets. The city was full of tourists from other countries because it was a major holiday, and these tourists heard what they were talking about in their own languages. You know what it is like. There you are working so hard to understand a different language, and suddenly someone is talking excitedly. You want to know what is going on, and then you realize that you do understand, because they are speaking your language. There are two excitements, one because of what they are talking about, and two because you can actually understand it!
What is not clear from the story is whether the disciples were actually speaking the foreign languages, or whether the people were hearing in their own language. It really doesn’t matter! Either way, the tourists heard the good news, the astonishing news, and they saw something different. They saw people who were not afraid, in an occupied territory, where their leader had just been executed. They could see that something very big was going on. They were right.
So what was this big thing? We have to go back to the first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand what is so important, and why it makes any difference to us. In our first lesson, Moses has turned to God in total exhaustion. He has been leading these people in very difficult circumstances, and he is worn out. He tells God he cannot go on. God tells him to gather the elders in the tent of meeting. Now the truth is, Moses has not been doing everything all by himself. He has Joshua as his assistant, and the elders, are in fact, named elders for a reason. They have been helping out as well. So it is not simply a matter of governance. What is going on here? Moses is the only one who has had the direct connection with God.
So the elders are signed up, and they gather at the tent of meeting. Two of them don’t get their act together, so they are still back in camp when the event happens. And what happens? God visits his spirit on the elders. They now have direct contact with God. This is the first priesthood, as it were. And even the procrastinators who stayed in camp but who were registered as elders, they also have the visitation. Joshua is really angry at these guys. They didn’t live up to their part of the bargain, but they are getting the goodies anyway. He wants Moses to stop that! But look at the response Moses gives to him – this is critical. “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God rested his spirit on them.”
This gives us a very clear picture – the norm is that ordinary people do not prophesy, and that they do not receive God’s spirit. Then we have the prophet Joel, who gives the prophecy about what will happen when all is well with God and the people (Chap 2)
27 You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God—no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame. 28 After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. 29 In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.
The disciples of Jesus, and anyone else who was Jewish, which was most of the population, would have known this by heart. This was part of the promise. When God was in the land, God’s spirit would be poured out upon everyone, even the slaves. And now they could see and hear, God’s spirit had indeed been poured out upon everyone. The other people who would know this by heart were the Jewish religious hierarchy. Don’t you know they were stunned! This was not good news to them.
So I want us to get how important this concept is. From the beginning of Advent, which is the beginning of our church year, until this point we have been hearing about Jesus. We have seen the whole story, he was born, he grew up, he went away for a while, he came back and electrified the country for three years. Finally he got too hot, and the Romans executed him with the help of the higher ups in the religious establishment. At that point it got really interesting, because he refused to stay dead. He came back, and then commissioned the folks who had been following him and his way. At his commissioning, he told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to come give them power. Then they were to go to work spreading the good news. The good news, by the way, was not about him. It was about God. Then he left them for good. The story of him leaving was what we read last week. So now his story is over. Now we hear the story of what happens after he left. Now our story begins.
The rest of the church year is focused on what people’s responses were to receiving the power of the Holy Spirit, and instructions on how to live this new life. It is a call to us, to receive the full power of the Spirit into our lives, so that we also may live a new life. Are you ready?
What does this mean, to live a new life? I have known several people who have had near-death experiences. What many of them have said is that this kind of experience changed them forever. What it really changed was their perspective on what was important, and what was not. Their lives after this experience reflected this new perspective. Making money often ceased to be the very important thing that it had been previously. Paying attention to love often became a very important thing.
Receiving the Holy Spirit might be called a near-God experience. It changes perspective. For example, someone who had only gone to church out of duty before, might now come expecting a time to deepen one’s time with God. It’s a little like expecting to get a little sembei and a few stale cookies, and instead finding a fabulous dinner, all because now you know to open the bento box! A near-God experience gives you such an incredible and overwhelming sense of love, that like the disciples, you simply have to go out to tell someone, anyone. You feel the absolute need to give, because you are overwhelmed with how much you have received.
So it is that we talk about the gifts of the Spirit. The most powerful gift of the Spirit is love, and the most identifiable gift is joy. Joy is not a happy-face, it is a deep sustaining well that knows God as the giver of life. There are many gifts that we think of as gifts of the Spirit, but the easiest way to think about this is not that you do anything different, but rather, that you do all that you do differently. If you are a teacher, you teach with joy, giving your students a safe place to grow. If you are a banker, you look for ways to help people deal with the system, perhaps you create new systems, because you hold such love for the clients who come in the door. If you are a caregiver, you love with God’s love, and you take care of yourself as a child of God too. In all that we do, we see the face of God in the other’s face, and we are honored in our hands touching the face of God.
One of the wonderful things about having a cyclical calendar is that each year the various feasts and fasts come up again, challenging us to stand before God in a different posture. At Pentecost, we are challenged to stand up from our depressed bent-over frightened places. God comes to us in our well-hidden places, saying “I love you, yes even you, and definitely all of who you are. Now come!”