Progressive reflections on the lectionary #17

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 Pentecost

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #17

This week we are dealing with Pentecost Sunday, so among other things the lectionary has the narrative of Pentecost from Acts, as well as precursor gospel reading as well as the ‘valley of dry bones’ reading from Ezekiel.

I have a reasonably straightforward reading of these passages - I see them as profoundly messianic in nature, but also, in the New Testament readings, subversive of the traditional message in that they move from the specific, to the universal.

The Ezekiel ‘dry bones’ passage is all about the exile - importantly its about the exile of the Jews (Judah and Benjamin) to Babylon - not the other tribes who were exiled elsewhere. Basically what the prophet sees is that the Jews are dead and gone (dried up bones) but that they will be restored again. As, of course, they were.

The Jewish feast of Pentecost was the feast of the first fruits, a celebration of gathering the first part of the harvest. The full harvest in terms of messianic expectations is the restoration of the people of Israel: the Messiah was supposed to gather in all of the lost tribes. The returned tribes of Judah and Benjamin are the ‘first fruits’ of the Messianic harvest. (Acts 2:5 says: “Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem.” These ‘devout Jews’ are “Ἰουδαῖοι” - people of the tribe of Judah.)

So far, so traditional - we have the first fruits, now on to the rest. It’s important, though, to remember that the restoration should be understood not just as a physical thing, but a spiritual one. God’s people are returning to God’s place, the nexus of people and place is embodied in the temple - the place where God lives.

So the traditional messianic expectation is that now the rest of the harvest will be gathered too. In other words, the impossible project of restoring the lost tribes will begin. Also important is that the temple (destroyed again by the time this is written) will again be rebuilt, another impossible project.

But in the idea of the ‘advocate’, who is the indwelling Holy Spirit, the writer of John has Jesus promising not a rebuilt temple, but a new kind of temple experience, one that is inbuilt. The holy of holies, the place where God lives, is now going to be within. In other words, the expectation of specificity of place has shifted from Israel/Jerusalem to the person. It’s become a universalising message - good news for those now excluded from Judaism, and particularly given the destruction of the temple. No longer, according to this theology, does the Messiah need to gather everyone back to Jerusalem, instead God will be within them wherever they are.

The mythic language of tongues of flame (similarly wind) employed in the Acts story is intended to symbolise the divine presence - see various references in the Hebrew Scriptures in which this is the case. Meanwhile, the confusion (or otherwise) of languages alludes to another foundational myth, that of the tower of Babel - the story of how God divided up the people of the earth. Now - the writer seems to say - God is present in the people and the curse of human division at Babel, the very thing that set apart the Israelites for special treatment in the first place, has been reversed.

What you have then, is a densely referential set of texts which speak first of the traditional expectation of the Messiah, and then of the changing ideas of God and God’s people in the innovative new religious landscape of Christianity: In John we learn that the divine will now be found within rather than only in the temple, and in Acts that the mission of the Messiah is no longer to regather the lost tribes, but to restore all people to connection with the divine. This is the movement from Messianic specificity to universality.

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Image: Sabina Music Rich on Unsplash


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