Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

I haven’t been a rector for very long, but one of my favorite things that a rector gets to do is choose which of the optional readings will be read on a Sunday. Since we like to give our readers, musicians, and bulletin-creators enough time to get ready for those things, I made all those decisions for the whole liturgical year a few months ago. Now, I get to enjoy the fun of coming to a Sunday and inhabiting the consequences of my own choices, which were made long before I had to think about writing a sermon on these lessons.

This week, we’re reading the lesson from Ezekiel, which means our readings will be Ezekiel + Acts + John. I think the other option (Acts + Romans + John) is more traditional, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to read the story of bone being reunited with bone and flesh and sinews wrapping around them. We read that same lesson during the Easter Vigil, and I think it’s interesting to read it on Pentecost in a very different context.

This Ezekiel reading relates to Pentecost primarily in its last verse: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.” That Spirit—that breath—is the animating force for the nation of Israel, and it reminds God’s people that he will indeed redeem them. The gift of the Spirit is a sign for them that salvation has come. In one way, that fits in beautifully with the rest of the Pentecost readings. Peter’s speech in Acts points us to the last days when the promised redemption will come, and John’s gospel text gives us Jesus’ description of the Spirit’s work as that which will usher in a new age.

But in another, even startlingly different way, the Ezekiel reading is radically disconnected from Acts. The prophet’s message in Ezekiel is directed to the nation of Israel. God’s chosen people are to be saved, and evidence of the fulfillment of that promise will come through the gift of the Spirit. That same Spirit, it seems, is coming down at Pentecost to encourage the disciples to “shed abroad” the good news of salvation beyond the borders of Israel. The “I will bring you back to the land of Israel” of Ezekiel seems almost directly opposed to the “each of us in our own native language of Acts.”

As Steve Pankey posted this morning, the Pentecost moment in Acts is a surprising moment of exclusion rather than inclusion. Those people from all over the world were all identified as Jews or proselytes, so the far-reaches of the gospel at this point is still restricted to the house of Israel and its few invited guests. Maybe there’s a tension between the two. Maybe that’s another example of how the Spirit is working to spread the message of salvation across the globe but only in baby steps—first to the disciples, then to the Jews in dispersion, and then to the Gentiles.

So whom is the gift of the Spirit for? Is it for the disciples as John seems to suggest? Is it for the whole nation of Israel as Ezekiel claims? Is it for the faithful Jews and proselytes from across the globe as Acts 2 has in mind? Or is it really for everyone everywhere as the rest of Acts demonstrates? We know the end of the story—it is for all of us. But maybe we need to remember the beginning of the story—how that same good news was translated from particular to universal through the passage of many, many years.

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