Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit and its meanings

The resurrection Spirit dwells within us. This is the power from on high that Jesus had promised would come from the Father (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Jesus had previously bestowed power to the 12 (Luke 9) and later the 70 (Luke 10), the same power that he had demonstrated in Nazareth (Luke 4).

The Spirit in Luke: As he writes Acts Luke says “the Holy Spirit came UPON them…” (Acts 1:8; 10:44; 11:15; 19:6). Indeed, scripture talks about being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16) and baptism is an external image. A parallel metaphor used by Paul is to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14) and in Galatians he even links the two ideas – baptism and being clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). The phrase “in Christ” appears over 90 times in the New Testament, primarily in Paul’s letters. So the Holy Spirit we can envision washing over us, covering us and saturating us as the waters of baptism – an all-consuming experience whether one is immersed or has the waters poured over. We can thus consider that the Spirit is BOTH on us and in us. These are not different realities but different viewpoints of the same reality. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” is less about the ongoing presence of God’s Spirit within us than descriptive of a momentary experience of inspiration and empowerment to speak and act according to God’s direction. This, again, is a phrase unique to Luke in his gospel and acts (John Luke 1:15; Elizabeth Luke 1:41;Zechariah Luke 1:67; the disciples Acts 2:4; Peter Acts 4:8 NRS; Stephen Acts 7:55 NRS; Paul Acts 13:9 NRS).

The Spirit in Paul and beyond: Paul further says this to the church in Ephesus: 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19). And the New Testament also includes the notion of being “in the spirit” which again seems to be a reference to being overwhelmed by a sense of God’s immediate presence while in prayer, worship, or other spiritual discipline or experience (Paul Acts 19:21; believers pray Ephesians 6:18 & worship Philippians 3:3; John Revelation 1:10) Paul states clearly the connection when he says, “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9). Our faith tells us that this God dwelt fully in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:19). And further that this God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2).

Notice the fluidity of these images – Christ dwelling in us, us dwelling in Christ. God’s fullness in us, us in God. The Spirit in us and on us, while we are in the Spirit. All of this, I conclude, demonstrates God’s refusal for us to codify or neatly systematize the divine and holy. Rather, we are invited into the complexity of this dynamic experience that is a convergence of multiple seemingly incongruous realities. It is, as has been said elsewhere, another example of the “already-not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Any box in which we attempt to contain God simply fails. And this failure is a gift of immeasurable grace – for who would want to worship a God containable by humanity? Rather, God is the all-consuming above, below, beside, before, behind, within, without, past, present, future, beginning and end of human experience. As temporal and flesh-bound creatures, we have a limited and finite experience of the limitless and infinite God.

The Spirit (Ruach) of God moved over the surface of the waters when God began to create. It was also the breath of life (ruach chayyim) which God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and into all the other living creatures (7:15). There is again a fluidity in our theological understanding between the Spirit/Breath of God and that life-giving spirit/breath from God given to humanity and all other living creatures. In Job, Elihu speaks of the breath and the spirit, and uses the two words interchangeably between that of God and that of man, and indicates that they are the source of wisdom, and that should God choose to withdraw them, we would cease to exist: 32:8 But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding….34: 14 If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, 15 all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.

The Spirit in All Creatures – So, we can comfortably say that all living creatures share the gift of a spirit/breath from God. This truth humbles us from triumphalism of misreading Psalm 8, or from misinterpreting God’s covenant as one of domination over, rather than a caretaking and stewarding dominion over our non-human fellow living creatures who share the God-given spirit/breath (ruach chayyim).

So, with that background, what is it that happens at Pentecost?

What does this giving of the Spirit mean that is distinct from all these other instances? Let me suggest at least a partial answer. The giving of the Spirit to the Church at Pentecost seems to have several simultaneous meanings.

A Continuation of the Ministry of Jesus – The Holy Spirit continues that empowering work for ministry demonstrated in the Gospels, particularly Luke 9 & 10, wherein Jesus commissions the 12 Apostles and then the 70 Disciples for evangelistic work that included healing and exorcism – i.e. a continuation of his work proclaimed in Luk 4 (quoting Isaiah 60) empowered by the Spirit of the Lord (i.e. the Holy Spirit) – 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news to those who lack sufficient resources to sustain life
Freedom to those who are bound
New vision to the blind
Freedom to the oppressed
The Jubilee Year – a reordering of the economic, social & political world

A New Relationality – An expression of God’s connection to humanity through a peculiar people – a work that began with Abraham and Sarah. This connection was for the purpose of blessing humanity – not for the primary purpose of blessing the chosen people. In order for the work of Jesus to continue, his presence needs to continue, but not through the physicality of his Nazarene body but through His Body, the Church. Therefore the Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit that descended on the Church at Pentecost, creating and confirming the unique role of the church as the continuation of the incarnation – enabling both the divine presence WITH the church and the divine presence THROUGH the church IN the world.

A Renewing Force – Because this is the life-giving resurrection Spirit, the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead will also give NEW life to our bodies – i.e. not victory over the entropy common to natural things, but over the spiritual self-destructive narcissism unique to humans. So though “the outward self is perishing, the inward self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

A Down payment on Eternity – The Spirit is a “first installment, a down-payment” from God to us on the promise of everlasting life and the redemption of our whole self – body, mind, spirit & soul, and with us all of creation (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14; Romans 8:19). As we are being made new (sanctified, re-born, re-created) in this life, a process which will see its fulfillment in the life to come, so too will all of this creation experience the same renewal – as John described in the received Revelation (21:1). The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is our assurance that God is not through with us and that the final consummation of all things means restoration and renewal with God dwelling here among us in fullness and glory.

Pentecost expresses God’s desire to be with us, to bless us and work with us to bless others.

We Are Beloved: It enables us to hear with Jesus the words of God at our baptism “You are my beloved child, with whom I am very pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

We Are Called: It enables us to say with Jesus the words from Isaiah 60: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me a proclaimer of Good news.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Kingdom Power: Pentecost is the initiating of the church, a continuation of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, for which we pray, and thus for which we work. It is our call to action in the world, among each other and among our neighbors – it is both our empowerment and our ordination to Christian Ministry.

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