This week’s readings are here.
On the Feast of Pentecost, our attention turns to the Holy Spirit, whose coming to the disciples we remember this day. Each of the three readings offers its own distinctive perspective on the Holy Spirit. With our focus on the drama of tongues of fire and the miraculous speaking in tongues, we tend to overlook the readings from Paul and John.
While Luke and John offer significantly different understandings of the Holy Spirit, there is one way in which they converge. In today’s gospel reading, we hear “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25). Later Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:26).
We see that very thing happening in the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit repeatedly leads the disciples to make new discoveries about the Spirit’s power and about the meaning and extent of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. There are moments when we see the radical action of the Spirit, when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch; when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. We see the Spirit working both on a cosmic scale and on a personal level, as with Paul’s conversion. But we also see the Spirit working as Luke writes. When Peter quotes from the prophet Joel in today’s reading, there are two significant alterations from the original text, which reads:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Peter (or Luke) changes the introducton from “then afterwards” to “In the last days” providing an urgency, an eschatalogical focus to the events of the day. Second, where the verses in Joel end with “I will pour out my spirit;” Peter (or Luke) adds “and they shall prophesy.”
There is a significant interpretation and adaptation of the passage from Joel to fit this new context. It’s evidence of early Christians re-reading and appropriating for new uses the familiar texts of the Hebrew Bible. It’s also evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to, as Jesus puts it in John, “guide you into all truth.”
There’s a danger here, of course. There’s a tendency among many (progressive) Christians to appeal to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (“The Spirit is doing a new thing”) whenever they seek to introduce innovation in doctrine or practice. The lesson in Acts (and John) is that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). The Holy Spirit may certainly be doing a new thing, but that new thing may not be something we are comfortable with, just as many of the disciples weren’t comfortable with Peter’s actions regarding Cornelius. I’ve often thought that it’s best to declare the Holy Spirit’s working only from the benefit of hindsight, when we can look back on events in which participants couldn’t necessarily see clearly, but were certain they were heeding the Spirit’s call.
Paul offers us a glimpse of an appropriate caution. In Romans 8, there’s a sense that the Spirit sometimes speaks on our behalf, or speaks with us; and that when it does so, we are incorporated in Christ (a spirit of adoption making us children of God and joint heirs with Christ). At first glance that might seem to lead to an even more self-interested understanding of the Holy Spirit. But Paul adds, ‘if in fact we suffer with him.” So he brings it back to the cross, to power made perfect in weakness.