Note from CM: This week, on Monday through Wednesday, I’d like to focus on the meaning of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Last week, we spoke about the Ascension and presented it as the climax and culmination of the gospel of King Jesus. The Ascension was when Jesus was enthroned with God in the heavenly realms. Pentecost represents his first action as King. On this day he fulfilled his promise to send the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower his people. What was the significance of this act? What implications does this have for our lives as Christians today?
We begin with an excerpt from a Pentecost sermon by N.T. Wright that lays down a foundational perspective on the meaning of Pentecost
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Jesus Poured Out the Spirit — So What?
Part One: N.T. Wright
The point about Pentecost is that it’s the point at which two worlds collide, and look like they are now going to be together for keeps. The two worlds are of course Heaven and Earth; and in the first century as in the twenty-first many people supposed that these two worlds were supposed to stay firmly and safely apart. We live on earth; God lives in heaven; we hope there may be some commerce between the two, and indeed we have special places and times when we allow for this, like the meeting between teacher and parent at the school gate, a kind of no-man’s-land which is neither quite family nor quite school and which thus avoids the embarrassment. In ancient Israel the place of that commerce was of course the Temple, the spot on terra firma where Heaven actually overlapped with Earth; and the Temple thus functioned to the rest of Israel rather like the fireplace functions in a living room, the place where that which is normally dangerous can be safely located and dealt with. But if you think of the Temple as the fireplace, providing warmth and light to the room while being in a safe spot, then the imagery of Pentecost stands out in all its starkness: here are the tongues of fire, touching down not on the Temple, or the priests about their normal activities, but on the disciples in the upper room! The fire has leapt out of the fireplace and seems to be setting light to the rest of the house! And as the book of Acts proceeds that is indeed exactly the point. Pentecost is nothing if not the democratization of the Temple; which is why the first big clash between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities, resulting in the first martyrdom, focusses on the question of the Temple and on the claim that in Jesus it has been upstaged, relativized, left behind. And it is also why the challenge of holiness, of truth-telling and communal love, is so stark, as we see in chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira: once the fire gets out of the fireplace you’d better watch out.
So the point of Pentecost is intimately linked to the point of the Ascension, ten days earlier. In Jesus the two worlds have met, without embarrassment and awkwardness – though we in our split-level western cosmology regularly feel that awkwardness and embarrassment at the story of the Ascension, and at the stained-glass pictures of Jesus disappearing into a cloud with his feet and ankles still just visible above the puzzled disciples. No: the whole point of heaven and earth in Jewish thought is that they are meant to meet and merge. And the point of the gospel story as Luke has told it in his first volume is that Jesus had come to bring the life of heaven and earth together. That is the meaning of the ‘kingdom of God’. Thy kingdom come, he taught us to pray, on earth as in heaven. The disciples, we may presume, had been praying that prayer, among others, in the fifty days since Easter. And now the prayer is answered: like so many answered prayers, answered not in the way they might have imagined but in the much greater way which takes up their prayers and welds them into a new reality, the reality God intended all along and towards which their prayers were advance signposts.
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Photo by Frodolina at Flickr. Creative Commons License