Joel 2:26-32; Romans 8:9-17; John 14:12-17
Like the other two great festivals in the Christian year, Christmas and Easter, Pentecost issues a bold proclamation. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, has been given to the church and rests on us. Like all bold proclamations, this one, once you repeat it often enough, starts to sound dull and commonplace. Let it sound afresh in your ears. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, when the disciples were still reeling from the trauma of watching their dear friend and master be publicly executed, and after they had seen him again in a way that assured them that Jesus transcended death and was alive forevermore, these disciples received God’s Holy Spirit. Again, it’s hard for our language, our grammar, to preserve the boldness of this claim. We receive lots of things. “Hey, dear, you received a letter in the mail today, Oh, and the Holy Spirit too.” Response: Who was it from?
So we have to keep playing with language to make it convey the power of this claim, this power that is itself the very Spirit of God turning our words into wonders: The disciples knew with all certainty, that the power of God, which is God himself, was the very air they breathed. God so suffused their bodies, their wills, their personalities, their connections with others, that while they remained Peter and James and Mary and Martha, they knew themselves without question to be agents of God.
This had been the hope of Israel, the dream of the great prophets. We hear it in Joel, from whom our call to worship came, and which Peter, according to the portrayal of Pentecost in Acts 2, dared declare was now present and happening in the disciples. Joel hears God saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Being a prophet, Joel knew that God’s spirit came upon the great prophets of old, and sometimes upon kings or leaders like Samson, enabling them to be faithful followers and mighty agents and spokesmen of God. But these great leaders always had to drag the people with them. There was always a disjuncture between a Moses or Samuel or Deborah and the people; sometimes there was violent hostility between the prophet speaking for God and the king ruling by threat of violence. This disjuncture belied the calling of all Israel to be God’s holy people, living by justice and thus enjoying God’s peace.
It is a credit to the honesty of the Bible and its relentless respect for God’s holiness that the Bible almost never sugarcoats Israel’s history, almost never attempts to hide this failure of the people. From the very start the people resisted God and failed to step up. And then frustrated leaders like Moses would also lose their patience and fall away from the high calling God had given them. This failure to be a united and equally inspired social body undermined everything. /For instance, the Bible describes how injustice flourished in the kingdom of Israel, just like in every other kingdom. Everyone was supposed to have some land passed down through his or her family, but inevitably the rich would gobble up this land, leaving some with nothing on which to sustain themselves. / Popular religion departed far from the ideal of the priests, as archeological finds attest: we have found images with inscriptions depicting Yahweh and Yahweh’s wife, a God and Goddess. That might sound kind of cool to some of us—and in our very different way we’ve learned that it’s ok to pray to “God our mother and father,” but to Israel’s religious leaders it looked like the people were assimilating the god and goddess religion of the Canaanite people all around them, meaning that God no longer stood beyond the ordinary state of things, beyond even male and female, and God no longer commanded from that beyond. These failures of justice and of religious unity bred apprehension and anxiety in Israel. When bad things befell them, they could only assume that God was punishing them for their failures. Joel himself interprets a locust infestation as a divine punishment, and calls the people to repent with fasting, weeping, and mourning. That sounds to me like Joel had lost the confidence in the very God he proclaims, the God he says “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
Beside the failure of the people to live up to the high expectations articulated by Israel’s prophetic leaders, Joel also realized that those leaders were too much like the kind of people who were always in charge back then: they were old and male. And so his inspired imagination depicts a pouring out of God’s spirit to everyone, and he specifically reverses his own time’s expectations of age and gender. “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” not just the old men any more. “Your old men shall dream dreams” like young people do. “Your young men shall see visions,” and will command the kind of attention and respect that was typically reserved for the old priests and prophets. Even male and female slaves, the lowest of the low with no rights and no respect, will receive God’s spirit, he says. Hierarchies will be reversed, and knowledge of God and faithfulness to God will be equally shared in by all. And at last Israel shall be the one, united people of God, single in mind and purpose, no longer fearing God has turned against them in every bad turn of fortune.
This hope sounds to Joel so radical that he can only imagine it taking place on some great and dreadful Day of the Lord. He can only imagine God’s spirit being poured out on all, in a world where nature itself is turned inside out, where blood and fire and columns of smoke festoon the earth and sky. Where the sun is turned dark, and the moon turned to blood, “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,” as he says. Then and only then, with the foundations of the universe shaken, will those who call on the name of the Lord be saved. Joel has prophetic hope, but it is a desperate hope borne of a long frustration with Israel’s failures.
Fast forward 500 years of so. In waltz the disciples of Jesus and announce, “Remember that pouring out of God’s spirit on all, that Joel announced? We got it.” The promised gift of the spirit to all of Israel has happened to us. Likewise, Paul says of the church in Rome as a matter of course, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” As far as these first Christians are concerned, to be a Christian does not mean only that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, or that we have been reconciled to God by Jesus. It also means that the Spirit of God dwells in us. If we follow them as our guides, then we should be claiming that same Spirit for ourselves with equal confidence.
They, and we, might seem presumptuous. But remember that the disciples never made themselves into the message. They never preached in public: “Come behold, we are the ones in whom God’s Spirit dwells.” What they proclaimed was the Gospel, which was all about Jesus and God, not about themselves. Something about Christ allowed the disciples to feel like God’s judgment was over, that they had passed through “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” and that they were now liberated to be God’s agents. That Jesus was still with them and would do whatever they asked. Jesus allowed them to claim that something had changed for them, but just as much, for all humanity. Jesus allowed them to solve that problem that had plagued the Israelites. Remember, the Israelites felt that they were called, one and all, to be a holy and righteous people; but inevitably they failed, and so they saw God’s punishment behind every natural or historical catastrophe. That brought them no peace. Prophets like Joel looked to some final judgment of God, the Day of the Lord, but they couldn’t decide whether it would be a day of glorious transformation, in which the outside is brought in, or a day of terrible destruction of the wicked, and especially of the outsider. (Some of our fellow Christians today still can’t figure this one out.)
Into this fertile confusion, God send Jesus. And the disciples see in his death and resurrection that the Day of the Lord had come. There could no longer be any confusion that this righteous one, God’s Messiah, was being punished for his own sins. Oh, there’s still sin—especially in the power grabbing of the world that led to God’s chosen one being executed. Sin is a destructive force which all share in, but it is no match for God’s mercy and forgiveness. That unshakeable confidence in God’s forgiveness was the kindling that started their spiritual fire. But just believing you are forgiven does not necessarily result in that total confidence that you are a Spirit-empowered agent of God.
It was the Spirit of God’s righteousness and holiness that blew that kindled fire into a full out conflagration. Knowing that God’s forgiveness meets us where we are, the disciples welcomed the burning holiness of God to come upon them and to judge them. They symbolized this receptivity to God’s holy righteousness by preserving the idea of a Final judgment, when Jesus shall return. We saw this last week in Corinthians 3, where Paul is assured that Christians will be saved, but what matters is the fire that tests their work. Similarly, our passage today in Romans begins with total assurance: “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit.” But then Paul throws them a little off-kilter, saying “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And a little further: “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit…you will live.” I hear Paul saying this: Yes of course you are saved in Christ, and you have received the Spirit. So now is the time to take stock of just how sweeping are the implications of this life in the Spirit. Like Joel’s prophesy, these early Christians are pointing us to a transformed future; but unlike Joel they see this future grounded in what has already occurred: in Jesus.
Let’s simplify it: Jesus assures us of God’s love and mercy, and that we belong to God by grace. With that security, we can now open ourselves to God pushing us beyond all limits. We say, “Ok God, I know now that you love me, just as I am. So I’m ready to see how far you want me to go.”
John’s gospel confirms this strange flip. Just like Paul did in Romans, Jesus is telling his disciples that the Spirit is with them, and yet it is yet to come, and when it comes, they will go beyond every limit that have ever known. Note how odd are his words: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [that’s the Spirit,] to be with you forever. …. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” He does abide with you, but he will be in you. Moreover, this Spirit will continue Jesus’ presence with us, but will also take us beyond Jesus. I amazed by this comment in John: “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.”
With both the assurance of God’s love and mercy, but also this promise that the disciples would become empowered agents of God’s righteousness, and even go beyond the works of Jesus, the disciples were primed to feel the power of God coursing through them, both within each one, and also among them all, as the power of a new community. And it happened to them. They felt this power.
That is what we need and must desire, if we are to live. This Spiritual power of God. Confident of God’s love for us in Christ, let us open ourselves to God’s fire of righteousness. Come Holy Spirit, thresh me and winnow me, blow away my chaff! Burn away whatever is of the flesh in me, of the old order of things; so that the Spirit can inhabit my whole self. If we let the Spirit do this to us, we will start doing those greater works that Jesus promised us.