From John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21, sans vv. 9-11a.
(Taken from the ACCS). “In the theological presentation of Luke, we first saw the reconstitution of the Twelve, and thus the new Israel (Acts 1:15–26), and the giving of the new law at a new Sinai at Pentecost follows this. Then, in Peter’s speech to the old Israel, gathered from the nations in Jerusalem, the new Israel, in the power of the Holy Spirit, addresses the old Israel. Just as there were 50 days between the Jewish Passover and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, so there were 50 days between the death of the Lamb of God, Jesus, and the inscribing of the Law upon this believers’ hearts by the Spirit. They are aware that Luke is alluding to the undoing of Babel in the gift of tongues (Bede, Cyril) and the significance of the presence of this gift in showing forth the universality of the church” (Augustine, Leo, Cyril, Cassiodorus).
Now I just want to focus on a couple of verses here to save time, since it would probably take a couple hours to comment on even half of these verses. I want to start by focusing on a comment by a 7th century monk, who actually went to the monastery at age 7, so he’s had a good chance to spend time with God and get to know some things through His experience with God in prayer, nature, and Scripture. This reflection helps us to look back on the experience of Pentecost when we each have the question, “Why can’t I experience God like that?” So here’s Bede the monk on this:
In order to proclaim to the world the glory of the indivisible Trinity, the Holy Spirit descended appropriately at the third hour. And since it was said above, “They were persevering in prayer,” they quite rightly received the Holy Spirit at the hour of prayer, so that it might be shown to readers that it is not easy to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit unless the mind is raised from material things by concentration on the things that are above (Bede).
Now wait a sec, if we look at the monasteries even back in the 7th century, there were material things in there: crosses, icons, altars, candles, gardens, trees, and more. But what’s the difference between the mind being focused on material things versus on things that are above? Well that very reality: things that ARE above. All of these things, and many more material things, are for the purpose of pointing us towards our Creator in worship, yet we so often get entrapped in the significance of these objects in nature and in our world in and of themselves. So the challenge to us in this part of his reflection on receiving more of the grace of the Spirit is to reinterpret the world around us in light of Jesus, the Logos, the Reason, source, and life behind all things material and immaterial. As we look at a cross, it reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice for us so we could receive abundant life. As we look at the bread and cup of communion, we are reminded that Jesus wants to give His very self to us as we participate in becoming like Him. As we look at people who became like Christ, we are encouraged to become like Christ and assured that it is possible even for us mere humans. As we look at nature, we see the intentionality and care God has for the earth around us.
But before we go any further, you’re probably asking the question, “Receiving more of the Spirit? I thought God was either with you or He’s not!” Not necessarily. There is this idea of going from glory to glory in a letter Paul writes to a church in the city of Corinth: “17 Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.18 With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17-18) Here’s some examples of this. Jesus said earlier in John 20, “Receive the Holy Spirit”, breathing upon the disciples. Then later on, they received more of the Spirit. Also, we’ll see in a couple chapters into Acts that God wants the apostles to choose men for a project who are “full of the Spirit”. So all that to say, yes, you can be filled with different measures of the Spirit, absolutely. Does God want all of us to be filled to the brim with the Spirit? Absolutely, but its we ourselves who prevent that from happening. How? Well as Bede, our 7th century, once 7 year old monk reminds us, “It is not easy to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit unless the mind is raised from material things by concentration on the things that are above.” And this doesn’t mean things that we don’t have access to, but things from above that we DO have access to on earth. It can be merely reorienting ourselves in a mindset of praise and worship. As we go on hikes this summer, it’s using that sense of beauty not to say, “Wow, what a beautiful world that evolution gave us”, but looking to the originator and the ongoing director and sustainer of these things! As an early believer, Paul, writes in a letter to the church of the Colossians about Christ, “All things were created through Him and for Him. In Him, all things are held together” (Col 1:16-17).
Another early Christian, John Chrysostom, says this, “No one from heaven appeared to people of former times, because they were in pursuit of matters on earth (so they wouldn’t have cared!). But when man ascended on high, the Spirit descends from on high, “like the rush of a mighty wind.” Through this it is made clear that nothing will be able to stand against them and they will blow away all adversaries like a heap of dust. (Chrysostom)
I think of things in sports that used to never have been imagined to be possible now becoming possible. The first 900 degree turn, 2.5 times around, on a skateboard was performed by Tony Hawk in 1999. 5 years later, two more people did it, then by 2011, four more. Then a young kid, born 3 months after Tony’s first 900 in 1999, landed a 1080, 3 full spins, in 2012, age 12. Then as of May 8th of this year, 4 more people have landed it. So the bar was raised, and what was elevated became possible.
-The reality is that because Christ joined Himself to humanity, through becoming human, He was able to increase the level at which humanity might ascend. This idea starts with a letter that a disciple of Jesus named Peter writes and the understanding continues through many early Christians:
2 Peter 1:3-4, 3 His divine power has granted us all that we need to live in godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by glory and virtue.4 Through these things, he has granted to us his precious and tremendous promises, so that having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust, you may become partakers of the divine nature. (So as we partake of the divine nature, through prayer, The Lord’s Supper, worship, and more, the following early Christians see a result of this:
The language of II Peter is taken up by St Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, ‘if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods’ (Adv. Haer V, Pref.), and becomes the standard in Greek theology. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius repeats Irenaeus almost word for word, and in the fifth century St Cyril of Alexandria says that we shall become sons ‘by participation’ (Greek methexis). Deification is the central idea in the spirituality of St. Maximus the Confessor, for whom the doctrine is the corollary of the Incarnation: ‘Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages,’ … and St. Symeon the New Theologian at the end of the tenth century writes, ‘He who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face to face.
In an even greater way, Jesus exalted humanity to the heavenly gates, He did the 1080 spin, and people are pressing into it because they know it’s possible. But it’s not easy, it’s a lifestyle of living that denies the flesh and goes after the things of the Spirit. That avoids things displeasing to God for the sake of replacing them with His very heart. That does the hard work of facing sin straight on to confess it before the fire of God for the sake of purification and refinement.
Which brings us to the reality of the Covid age of refinement. If our purpose is to pass from glory to glory, then any fire that we go through, whether it be the fire of the first Pentecost, or the modern day ‘fire’ of Covid, is a means by which we can be refined, reorient, and become who we were made to be in Christ.
There are two responses to the fire: 1. succumb to it and hold on to our old ways and our old self, or 2. receive it as a refining process and enter into the next realm of glory, where we start to focus on what it means to love God through loving others as ourselves.
Cyril of Jerusalem, a Bishop shortly after the year 350, puts it this way: They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire. This is a fire that consumes the thorns of sins but gives luster to the soul. This is now coming upon you also in order to strip away and consume your sins, which are like thorns, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and to give you grace, the same given then to the apostles. The Spirit descended upon them in the form of fiery tongues, that they might crown themselves with new and spiritual diadems by fiery tongues upon their heads. As a fiery sword had barred of old the gates of paradise, a fiery tongue that brought salvation restored the gift.
The opportunity to enter back into the original human condition, shown to be the Garden of Eden, is through pressing into the kingdom by force (Luke 16:16). Which means, according, again to Cyril, that this person “uses all his eagerness and strength in his desire to enter within the hope.”
So my encouragement to you on this day of Pentecost, is to use our current situation to press into greater realms of God’s presence as we are reminded that the greatest way we can receive more grace is to take our focus and look through the world around us to the Person who created it. Intentionally discerning whatever material things we see through seeing Christ’s purpose in having it on the earth. This means even looking at the ways that God is using the material effects of Covid-19 to point out to us where we need to shift, prioritize, repent, and adjust for the sake of knowing and then subsequently experiencing the heart of God Himself.
God, we thank You that there is an opportunity to experience You more. That we can go from glory to glory, ascending to greater heights in You as we go through the fire of refinement. Help us to submit to this fire as a refinement process rather than hold so tightly onto our old ways that it becomes a fire that burns us. Refine us, lead us, and guide us from glory to glory, in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.