Monday, May 25, 2020

Another Pentecost Story

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
This coming weekend we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. In normal times, there is a lot going on for this festival day. Often there are baptisms or at least an opportunity to renew baptismal vows. In some denominations (where the Bishop is not required for Confirmation) it's Confirmation Day. Some people like to call it "the birthday of the Church," a recognition that the Day of Pentecost marks the beginning of a community called to seek and serve Christ in the world, as the Holy Spirit comes like wind and fire. And besides all of that, we get to wear red.

The liturgical timing for this day comes to us from Luke, in the sequel to his gospel that we know as The Acts of the Apostles. Fifty days after Easter morning, and ten days after the Ascension, the Holy Spirit comes like a mighty wind, with tongues of fire. Her arrival essentially reverses the Tower of Babel story. In that old Genesis story, the narrator offers an explanation for why there are so many different languages in the world. When people speak different tongues, communication is much more difficult, which makes community more difficult. But on that Pentecost day in Jerusalem, on the fiftieth day after Easter morning, the Holy Spirit comes to make communication possible again, as each hears the good news proclaimed in their own native tongue.

There are many good sermons to be preached on that reading from Acts 2 about wind and fire and speech and hearing and community and new beginnings. I expect to hear a sermon like that when my bishop preaches this Sunday for a diocesan-wide liturgy which I will watch with on-line with many others. Come, Holy Spirit!

In this place, however, I am going to let that familiar story stand and tell you a different Pentecost story. One that I hope will shed some light on the main one.  One that may be less familiar. This other Pentecost story is rooted in the fourth gospel, in these strange verses from the seventh chapter of John posted above. In fact, it's not even required to read them this weekend. The first option for the Gospel for this day is from John 20, where Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the frightened disciples on Easter evening. (He and Luke didn't get their chronologies synched up!) The John 7 text is a back-up option on a week when most preachers are focused on Acts! I don't think it ever comes up at any other time in the three-year lectionary cycle.

So I suspect that the verses from the seventh chapter of John are far less familiar than either Luke's story in Acts or John's in the Upper Room. Yet they ultimately reveal something important about God’s Holy Spirit and the meaning of this day. So, let's go...

John’s story is told in the future tense: it’s about the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises he will send after he has been glorified, after finishing the work he has come to do. So if we are putting this into a timeline, we are going back to the public ministry of Jesus, before his crucifixion. In John's Gospel he doesn't just come there for the last week of his life. He comes multiple times and on this particular occasion he is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths—in Hebrew, the Feast of Sukkot


Originally Sukkot was a fall harvest festival, like Thanksgiving. But it had also become a time for Jews to remember the central narrative in their life together: the Exodus, and particularly their forty-year sojourn through the Sinai Desert. There they had begun to learn how to put their whole trust in God’s grace, one day at a time. There they had begun to learn that God would be faithful to the Covenant even when they were not. Our Jewish neighbors celebrate this festival to this day, often building their dwellings in the back yard of their homes where they eat their meals and sometimes even camp out. Building these “tabernacles” serves as a reminder of what it was like to be a people “on the move”—a people who lived in tents.

Anyway, it's the last day of the festival. For John there is a word-play here as well. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel you may recall that John puts all his cards on the table when he speaks of the Incarnate Logos: the Word that has become flesh to dwell among us. Literally, that word for dwelt among us is “pitched tent” among us. That verb form is the same as the word tabernacle in today’s reading—these “booths.”  Isn't that cool? 

So if you are reading the fourth gospel in Greek, the language in which it was written, you can’t miss it: the Word-that-tabernacled-among-us is about to do something important at the festival of tabernacles, on the last day of this great festival. Ready? 

One of the liturgical practices that occurred on that last day was a kind of parade. As I imagine it in my mind’s eye it would be something like what we do on Palm Sunday: the priest would lead a procession of the whole congregation to the Pool of Siloam and draw water into a golden vessel. Drawing water is a really big deal in the Bible. People would be singing and scripture would be read, perhaps words such as those we will sing on Sunday in our diocesan liturgy, from the prophet Isaiah:  

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. (Is. 12:3)

And then the water would be carried to the temple and poured into silver bowls around the altar. To people remembering their time in the desert, water is a very powerful metaphor. And even to people who have never spent time in the desert, we get it that water means life. An absence of rain at this time of year and there are no tomatoes and cucumbers in August. The right combination of both water and light is crucial: and Sukkoth is all about both water and light. It is written in the Mishnah (the oral traditions of the Torah) that “whoever has not seen the joy of drawing water has not experienced joy in his life.” This festival was (and still is) about that joy and about God’s abundant blessings.

So on the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. This metaphor is a familiar one to us who feel drawn to the fourth gospel, the gospel from the beloved disciple.  You may recall the Samaritan woman at the well, for example: Jesus told her that he is the living water, and those who drink the water that he offers will never thirst again. 

What comes next is important, though, and the punctuation is tricky in Greek. In fact, scholars have been arguing about it since the second century. It’s ambiguous: is Jesus saying that He is the river of life? This would ring true and fit in nicely with that conversation he had with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

But he may be saying something much more radical than that, and in fact there is a very strong case to be made for the more radical reading, which is why that is the choice that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) have made: out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water. Not just out of Jesus’ heart, but out of the disciples’ hearts! Wow! Out of your heart and mine—shall flow rivers of living water.

What if that's the right translation? What if it's the right theological claim for this day,this reminder on the Feast of Pentecost that among the many many gifts of various tongues and people hearing good news in their own language, and fire and wind and the breath of life itself, that there is even more: you and I are called to become rivers of life and to allow these living waters from God to flow through us. To flow into our homes where so many of us are fortunate enough to be tabernacled right now. Into our scattered faith communities at a time of diaspora from our buildings. Into the world around us. The Holy Spirit comes to renew the face of the earth! And She does that work, starting with us. With the believer's heart. Wow!

I suspect that is a very scary idea for most of us. But I think it is precisely what John’s Gospel does mean to say, not just in this obscure little text, but from those very first words about the Word that has tabernacled with us until the hour when “it is finished” on the Cross and Christ is Glorified, and until God sends the Holy Spirit to finish the job.  If the Father truly is in the Son, and the Son is truly in the Father, and if we really are in Christ, then we participate in the Divine life. That, Jesus says, is what the Holy Spirit is sent to do: to facilitate that process so that the waters of life might flow through us.

Isn’t that scary? But of course even though John tells the story differently, it’s what Luke is getting at as well. The metaphors are different but this is what the Feast of Pentecost is all about. Just from another angle. It's not about a historical event; but about how truly amazing things begin to happen when the Holy Spirit shows up in our lives. People like Peter, who was a bit of a screw-up before, are now equipped to do “infinitely more than he could ask or imagine.” Persecutors of the Church, like Saul, are transformed into committed disciples. Ethiopian eunuchs and Roman soldiers start finding their way into a community where women and men have an amazing story to share. Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. 

Out of the hearts of people like us, too. I know we don’t feel like that every day and right now a lot of us are feeling weary and beleaguered and parched. Sometimes we lose hope. Sometimes we feel like sinners who are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But the Spirit comes anyway. The Spirit comes to blow through us, bubbling up inside of us to heal and to renew and to strengthen and to comfort and to prod and to transform us. The Spirit comes like wind and like fire—and yes, like rivers of living water to lead us into all truth and health and joy and peace.  

Before she unsuccessfully ran for President, Marianne Williamson wrote these words, sometimes incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela. Some may remember them from the film, Coach Carter. I think they have everything to do with these words from the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel, and with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

This little light of ours - this little light of mine and this little light of yours: Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Come, Holy Spirit! Let rivers of living water flow through us - to renew the face of the earth.