The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
For decades, I read the Pentecost story, and completely missed an important theological point. When the scales finally fell from my eyes, and I discerned a new layer of meaning, I experienced a flash of great joy and excitement.
For Christians, Pentecost -- "the birthday of the church" -- is when the Spirit of God is poured out on the followers of Jesus who were gathered in Jerusalem. The story, told in Acts 2, is full of wonderful details that anchor it in our memory.
But the key to the story comes when Peter connects the remarkable events of that morning to a message of hope voiced hundreds of years earlier by the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
I came to know that text well during my seminary studies in the mid-1970s, a time of fresh understandings about many social roles. As women were struggling to claim their rightful place in church and society, it was liberating to proclaim the ancient news that God's Spirit comes to both sons and daughters. As various liberation movements lifted themes of race and class, it was reassuring to remember that God's Spirit is poured out on the slaves as well as the social elite.
John Mark Hicks reminds us that Joel's prophecy "is a radical vision. Israelís life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable 'exceptions' (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way." Hicks has some interesting thoughts about parallels to Joel in the familiar Galatians passage, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female ..." (Gal. 3:28)
A few years ago, when I heard the Pentecost text read during a service of worship, I was hit with another layer of stunning insight, one that knocked me out of decades of my own human-centered interpretation. It is a point that is suggested only briefly in a few commentaries.
Joel proclaims that God's Spirit will be poured out upon "all flesh." That is a term which is used frequently and explicitly in the Hebrew texts to refer, not only to humans, but to all animal life.
For example, take a gander at just three of the 13 uses of the term in the story of Noah.
And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark. (Genesis 6:19)
Can it be? Does the prophesy of Joel have words of promise for all of creation? Is the "all flesh" that starts the passage a far larger category than the still-expansive but human one of "your sons and your daughters" who are named next?
The Hebrew term "kol-basar" that is translated as "all flesh" has several related meanings -- "all living beings" or "animals" or "humankind." So the New Jerusalem Bible could be accurate in translating the text in Joel as "I shall pour out my spirit on all humanity."
But hear a few of the verses that come just before the better-known lines:
Then the LORD became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people. ...
Clearly, the liberating, healing and life-giving grace of God proclaimed by Joel is not for humans alone. It is for the whole of the land -- the soil, the animals and the people. Commentator Ronald Simkins writes about this text: "Thus Joel proclaims that as the fertility of the land will be restored so also will the people be restored by the outpouring of Yahweh's spirit. The salvation of nature and the salvation of the people are the same."
So what are Christians to make of Joel's words at Pentecost?
Joel's notion of the spirit poured out wasn't that of an eyedropper, carefully dispensing tidy doses of spirit onto individual prophets. He envisioned a flooding of the entire community, a spreading of God's blessing that enlivens all that it touches -- humans, animals, and the land.
Why should we picture a more constrained pouring out of grace and power at Pentecost? Why should we reduce the "pouring out" of the Spirit so that it looks like a carefully measured dose of insight to a few select disciples? Joel gives voice to a hope for God's breath renewing of all creation. Why should that enlivening hope be narrowed to a purely human frame when the Spirit of Christ comes racing through Jerusalem with the sound of a rushing wind?
Sometimes it does seem that the New Testament narrows God's salvation to humans alone. But it may seem that way because we are consistently blind to what the core texts of our faith really say. Our expectation that the story is only about people blinds us to the ways in which God's saving love is intertwined with all of creation.
This Pentecost, may God's liberating and life-giving and boundary-shattering Spirit rush through us and our communities. Inspired by the Spirit, may we discern anew the universal scope of God's love -- for all humans, and for all of God's creation.
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A delightful little meditation for Pentecost by Vince Amlin, "Native Tongues," entices us to hear the praise of God voiced by birds. The joyous and enlivening Spirit has always moved through Creation. Sometimes we just need to listen.
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