27 May 2007

pentecost

"As the Father sent me, so I send you: receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:21).

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I remember grown-ups asking me this question when I was a child. And I have asked my daughter the same question, receiving a variety of answers: a zoologist who works with tigers, a princess, an astronaut who goes to Mars, a bishop.

Children don't fully grasp the future to which the grown-up question points. But even at a very young age, they begin to understand that there is an adult world of which they are not yet a part and which, some day, they can hope to enter. This adult world is a world of more experience, greater maturity, deeper wisdom, and fuller awareness, all of which will bring new possibilities, new hopes, new relationships, and new responsibilities. Children live at their present age, but look forward to an age to come.

So, when we ask children, "What do you want to be went you grow up?" we are not always asking an idle question or merely engaging in small talk. We are raising up possibilities, giving a reason for hope, and inviting a child's imagination to glimpse the future.

Yet we live in a world of poverty and disease, war and political corruption. So many people - including children - live with the most meager possibilities, without much hope at all, and glimpse only a bleak future. For them, the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" can open a door that otherwise remained unseen and unimagined. Or, sadly, it can become a bitter reminder of an immediate reality that seems to offer no way out.

The story of God's people in Scripture should remind us, I think, of the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel is often portrayed as Yahweh's child, his young firstborn son, not yet grown to maturity. And, like every loving parent, God trains Israel. He instructs and exercises discipline. He cultivates a way of life among Israel that might equip his people for adulthood - anticipating even during Israel's childhood the kinds of patterns and habits that Yahweh wanted his people to some day live fully and freely. They lived at their present age, but looked forward to an age to come.

Time and again, God approached Israel with questions, spoken upon the lips of the prophets, questions to the effect:
Israel, my son, what do you want to be when you grow up? Are you living the sort life that will get you there? Will these idols bring you to maturity? Will oppressing the widow and fatherless move you towards the kind of life I want for you? Do you grasp the dream I have for you? Do you understand the inheritance I want to give you? Israel, my son, who do you want to be when you grow up?
So, as we do with our own children, Yahweh's prophets labored to expand Israel's imagination and to give them a glimpse of God's future for them. And, as with our own children, this was not merely an idle question or small talk. Indeed, for Israel, it was the most serious question imaginable.

You see, Israel never existed just for the sake of Israel. God called Israel to serve as his son, heir, servant, and instrument, sending them among the nations to carry forward his purposes for the whole world. Who God's people would be when they grew up involved not only Israel, but every people and nation and, in fact, the entire creation. From childhood, Israel bore the responsibility of God's mission to save and renew the cosmos.

But there was a problem.

Israel, like all other peoples, was a people descended from Adam. As they looked to their responsibilities and calling, they had very little reason for hope. If the story of the Old Testament shows us anything, it shows us that even Israel - the portion of humanity with the greatest gifts, best opportunities, and highest calling - remained trapped within the most meager possibilities, without hope, with only a bleak future.

The story of Adam - a story of falling away from God, breaking trust, disinheritance, and death - was also the story of Israel. In the end, Yahweh's call upon Israel and his offer of a future, could only devolve into a bitter reminder of a situation that seemed to offer no way out.

The good news of the Gospel, however, is that God himself stepped in and provided the way out.

By sending Jesus Christ, God took upon himself the dead-end, hopeless humanity that we, like Israel, experience. Jesus, as the Messiah, represented Israel and embodied Israel's identity and calling.

And, since Israel's calling involved every people and nation, and even the whole cosmos, we can see that Jesus took up God's purposes for renewing the whole world and bringing it into the maturity and fullness for which he created it. From childhood, Jesus bore the responsibility of God's mission to save and renew the cosmos and where Israel failed in this mission, Jesus fulfilled it.

Or, to put it another way, in Jesus we see what it looks like when Israel grows up. The resurrected and ascended Jesus shows us who we really want to be when we are grown, when we come into our inheritance, when we take up the fully human lives for which we were created. In Jesus, the age to come is already here.

And that future - God's future for us - can be summed up in a single phrase: the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is what we celebrate today, upon this feast of Pentecost.

Throughout the Old Testament, glimpses of the age to come were accompanied by the promise of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit who would sprinkle God's people and make them clean, the Spirit who would bring God's forgiveness and vindication, the Spirit who would take away humanity's heart of stone and transplant it with a heart of flesh, the Spirit who would renew the whole creation.

In Jesus Christ, this promise of the Spirit is "Yes" and "Amen." The Spirit, for us, is the Spirit of Jesus.

The Spirit who conceived Jesus in Mary's womb, who descended upon him at his baptism, and who filled Jesus beyond measure, was the same Spirit who drove him into the wilderness of temptation and sent him into a life of conflict, who worked through his hand to restore and heal, and who gave Jesus his kingdom proclamation. And when all of that led to the cross, Jesus entrusted himself to the Father through this Spirit in order to accomplish our redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Therefore, out the other side of death, the Spirit raised Jesus up to new life. In doing so, the Spirit vindicated Jesus' life and death. The Spirit seated him at the right hand of the Father, clothed in a renewed and glorious humanity, so that in the person of Jesus, humanity at last came of age. In the Spirit-filled and transformed humanity of Jesus, we see God's future for us and can begin to imagine that future once again in the midst of a world without hope.

This is why the gift of the Holy Spirit forms the center of the New Testament's teaching about God's purposes for the world. When Jesus poured his Spirit out on the disciples gathered at the Temple upon that first Pentecost, it was the first installment of humanity's inheritance, the first taste of human life come of age, the forward movement of God's mission to restore and renew his world.

In his sermon on Pentecost, Peter proclaims that when Jesus ascended, he received what was promised - the Spirit - who he then poured out upon the church. In Galatians, Paul presents the gift of the Spirit to all nations, through faith, as the content of the Gospel preached ahead of time to Abraham. In Ephesians, hearing the Gospel in faith results in receiving the promised Spirit, a down payment upon the greater share of the Spirit we still await. In John's Gospel, Jesus says it is better for him to leave because, when he does, the Spirit will come upon the disciples.

Humanity all grown up - the age to come - can, therefore, be summed up as the age of the Spirit, over against the former age of flesh, when we remained in our minority.

An ever greater sharing in the gift of the Spirit is the goal of redemption, even as it was the goal of creation, sidetracked by sin. And we should rejoice because, through the Spirit, we come to share in God's own life.

Aelred of Rievaulx, the great 12th century monastic, writes upon the feast of Pentecost:
Today's holy solemnity puts new heart into us, for not only do we revere its dignity, we also experience it as delightful. On this feast it is love that we specially honor, and among human beings there is no word pleasanter to the ear, no thought more tenderly dwelt on, than love. The love we celebrate is nothing other than the goodness, kindness, and charity of God; for God himself is goodness, kindness, and charity. His goodness is identical with his Spirit, with God himself.
We see this love - the goodness, kindness, and charity of God - suddenly appear among those early disciples at the first Pentecost and among those who heard their message, believed, and were baptized. In Acts 2, we read, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." In each generation and in each situation, this love takes up new tasks and new forms. Yet this love remains the substance of our grown-up life in the Spirit through faith.

This new life in the Spirit, the life of the new age, is not a static thing. It is not simply a new experience inside of us or a higher state of consciousness. The life of Spirit is active. The Spirit who we receive is the Spirit who was sent, just as Jesus was sent - the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and, from the Father, through the Son into the world as the creator Spirit and the Spirit of new creation.

God himself is always a God on the move. He is the eternal movement of love between Father, Son, and Spirit - what theologians sometimes call God's "pure actuality," the eternal event of God being who God is, as the God who is love.

Therefore, if God chooses to create, it can only be as an overflow of that love. Moreover, God can only intend to more and more fully catch creation up into his eternal movement of love, that is, into the life of God himself. In this sharing of self - of divine life - we are enfolded within the sending of the Son and of the Spirit.

And it is that shared life which is the life "humanity all grown up," the life of maturity and the inheritance to which we are graciously called. But, if this life is movement and sending, then it is also mission.

Even in the 12th century, this Aelred, who I quoted earlier, understood the missional character of Pentecost and of God's Spirit-filled people. He writes:
In his work of disposing all things the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world from the beginning, reaching from end to end of the earth in strength, and delicately disposing everything; but as sanctified, the Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world since Pentecost, for on this day the gracious Spirit himself was sent by the Father and the Son on a new mission, in a new mode, by a new manifestation of his mighty power, for the sanctification of every creature. Before this day the Spirit had not yet been given, for Jesus was not yet glorified, but today he came forth from his heavenly throne to give himself in all his abundant riches to the human race, so that the divine outpouring might pervade the whole wide world and be manifested in a variety of spiritual endowments.
A new mission, in a new mode, by a new manifestation - living out the life of love, of goodness, kindness, and charity that the Spirit gives, in order that, through us, the whole wide world might live the life of God. That is what Pentecost involves.

On this Pentecost, then, allow the Spirit to speak to us through his word. In the exalted person of Jesus, let the Spirit raise up possibilities for us, give reasons for hope, and invite our imaginations to glimpse God's future. Let us heed the Spirit's call to new relationships and new responsibilities, to goodness, kindness, and charity. Let the Spirit send us even as he has sent Jesus Christ into world on the mission of God.

Allow the Spirit to open otherwise unseen and unimagined doors when he comes to say, "Here is who you will be when you grow up."