Readings for Sunday, May 31 – Acts 2:1-21; Numbers 11:24-30
Today is Pentecost Sunday. The age in which we’re living is an “age of authenticity.” This is a strange pairing. I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment, but first let’s consider a story. We’ll begin with this lovely little line from Numbers 11:19. God, speaking to the Israelites through Moses, says this: “You shall eat [meat] not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”
Meat coming out of the nostrils—what a lovely image!
Here’s the situation: God had liberated Israel from the clutches of an empire and they were camping out in the wilderness. God was feeding them with a strange grain that looked a bit like coriander seed. Every morning the people would find it covering the ground. They would gather it, mash it up and cook it in cakes. But these campers were unhappy. They wanted the meat, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic that they enjoyed before God had set them free. “Give me meat and a tossed salad or give me death!” That was the sentiment.
Moses was doing his best to lead the group, but he received complaint after complaint after complaint.
So Moses passed the complaints on to management, which in this case is God. God shares Moses’s frustration and then, as we just read, promises the people more meat than they could possibly want. God also promises to give Moses some support. God will empower 70 people to help with the customer satisfaction end of the trip. These are the elders we heard about in our reading. These elders are all empowered with God’s Spirit, just as Moses was. What happens, then, is that two of them are overzealous and begin to prophesy throughout the entire camp.
These words of prophecy are God’s ministry to the people. However, Joshua, who had been the chief deputy of Moses, says that the men should be stopped. It’s possible that Joshua is jealous or worried that he and Moses are losing control of the situation. But Moses doesn’t share the worry. He says, “[I wish] that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit in them!” Moses is filled with a holy hope.
Our second reading, the one from Acts 2, marks the fulfillment of that hope. The outpouring of God’s Spirit on young and old, on women and men, on the free and the unfree, the Spirit-powered life of the community of faith—this is the fulfillment of Moses’s holy hope.
Yes, the Spirit’s presence does undermine some old hierarchies. It can be destabilizing. This is because when we meet the Spirit of God we meet something outside of ourselves.
Now, about that age of authenticity stuff.* What most of us believe, even if we believe little else, is that we should be free to express who we really are. Can you imagine telling someone that they shouldn’t be their “true self”? Hardly. Furthermore, we believe that our identity is wrapped up in our internal feelings and wants.
Now, there is a lot of good that has come from this emphasis on authenticity. And yet, if we’re perceptive, I think we see an important contrast with the biblical vision of being empowered by God’s Spirit. If we lock the Spirit out, we lock our current ourselves in.
What Moses’s assistants experienced was the same thing the women and men of the early church experienced. This was the freedom to be themselves, but also the experience of being shaped by an encounter with someone else. That someone else invited and prepared them to join in the work of reconciliation. That someone else enabled them to be fully and authentically human.
My holy hope is that it would be so for each of us.
* I’m borrowing this “age and authenticity” description from Charles Taylor, one of the world’s leading philosophers who happens to hail from just down the road in Montreal.