Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Pentecost – Aren’t We 28 Days Too Early?

[Note: This post was first published during Lent 2008 on the former UMC  7 Villages site. I have re-posted it here and now (during Advent) to make it available to members of the Glenn Memorial New Class who are presently studying the Acts of the Apostles. Our class will focus next week on the texts about Pentecost.]

In her remarkable book on Christian anti-Judaism, The Misunderstood Jew, Professor Amy-Jill Levine proposes several practical steps that Christian congregations can take to avoid unconsciously making inappropriate statements and mindlessly repeating practices that subtly rehearse leftover habits used to justify centuries of Jewish marginalization and persecution.

One of her most helpful suggestions has to do with what I call the Virtual Jew in the Pew. I’m not sure she would affirm my phrase. But she suggests Christians imagining that she is a visitor sitting on the front row in our worship services and recommends that we might try to experience our scripture readings, sermonic lessons and liturgical practices, if you will, wearing her Jewish shoes.

Sometimes we are bedtter at addressing this issue than other times.  Our worship team made it this year through Lent and Holy Week only saying that the “Jews were out to get Jesus” one time – even using lessons from the Gospel of John.

But this morning [Pentecost], I found Levine’s suggetion more troublesome and it raised questions for me that don’t yield easy answers especially for those of us who are interested in being sensitive to post-Shoah, Jewish-Christian relations.

If I am Jewish, I expect to celebrate Pentecost for two days this coming June. Currently, if I am Jewish, I am Counting the Omer, the 49 days following the second day of Passover. Today is the 21st day of watchful waiting longing for the holiday when as a community (as part of the larger Shavuot festival) we can celebrate and give thanks for receiving the Torah. The Bible tells us to do it!

You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).

Several times this morning, I have heard talk of Pentecost as the “birthday of the church” and today’s lectionary reading relates the story of the coming of the spirit as anticipated in the prophet Joel’s oracle of a time when the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams. Indeed, according to the Christian liturgical calendar, the Christian day of Pentecost, 49 days past Easter morning begins our church year. This is a wonderful day! Many wear red and we affirm the miraculous hope for unity as the tragic story of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent confusing babble of many languages and many peoples is apparently reversed as Luke tells us that each understood in their own language. Diversity did not go away, but unity was found in the midst of that diversity.

So we celebrate the birthday of the church, a grand day that will shortly be contrasted with the next season of our church year, Ordinary Time. One blogger writes:

My spiritual director complains that Ordinary time returns with a “clunk” the day after Pentecost. Many of our traditions will be coming out of 90 intense days of prayer and celebration beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending today with Pentecost – returning to our “regularly scheduled programming”. What will tide us over until the next of the Great Feasts 7 months hence?

So rightly we celebrate the birthday of the church, BUT…..When Luke wrote his sacred history for his friend Theophilus, there was no such entity that we might now call church or faith tradition that we might call Christianity on Luke’s horizon. Whatever happened that day was thoroughly Jewish. That was not the first nor the last Jewish Pentecost, but one of many. It happened not 49 days following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but 49 days past Pesach counting from the celebration of the Seder meal. This event had to do with the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Israel.

While as Christians (misunderstanding the apostle Paul) we might be tempted to say that the story was about the replacement of the Law by the Spirit – Not! – Luke would have understood it to be about the re-enlivening of Torah in the lives of the community and Jewish nation.

I’ll let the historians sort out the mobius-strip like mutation of the Jesus movement from a Jewish apocalyptic sect in time into a Hellenistic Gentile cult. As Christians today, we are well beyond what Julie Gallambush names in her book, The Reluctant Parting. Her recent book is appropriately subtitled: How the New Testament Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book. Jews and Christians share the same heritage, but we come from a different tribe than our Jewish brothers and sisters. In dialogue, as Christians we are beginning to face our culpability for centuries of marginalization and persecution of the Jewish people. In dialogue, we are learning how to say a Christian “Yes” to the Jewish “No.”

I found myself wondering today whether we have one holiday or two. While we have different traditions, can we find a common ground? This is a lot harder than simply not saying the “Jews were out to get Jesus” when we read John.

Rabbi Heschel used to note that Christians believed that messiah will come in the future. So do many Jews! So when that finally happens, he points out that someone might ask messiah whether he has been here before. Until that day, maybe we might just as well be about the common task of loving G-d and neighbor as our self.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace

John

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