For the common good

Day of Pentecost (May 11, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Ps. 104:25-35; Ezek. 11:17-20; Acts 2:1-11; I Cor. 12:4-13; John 20:19-23

It was an eventful week in the Middle East.

Israeli Jews celebrated the 60th anniversary of the formation of the State of Israel. For them, the birth of a Jewish state in 1948 created identity, independence and security after the trauma of the Holocaust and years of being persecuted.

But for Palestinians, this same anniversary is referred to as the Nakba – catastrophe – a time when hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed and 750,000 to 900,000 Palestinians became refugees.

In Beirut, violence erupted as pro-Lebanese government forces clashed with opposition forces led by Hezbollah. Some fear a new civil war on a scale similar to the one that shattered Lebanon from 1975 till 1990.

In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces targeted Sadr City – home to some 2 million Shia Muslims and a stronghold for cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Many civilians have been killed or injured in the fighting. Analysts worry that thousands more civilians will flee, adding to the more than 4.5 million Iraqis who are already internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

U.S. officials increasingly blame Iran for the unrest in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – leading many to fear the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran.

These troubling political realities are rooted in human fears, an unwillingness to consider the well-being of “the other,” and the illusion that security can be built with military force.

By contrast, the Common Lectionary texts for this Pentecost week speak of God the giver, the One who works for the well-being of all people. They also call for appropriate human responses to God’s gifts.

In Psalm 104, God gives food and good things to all in due season (vv.27-28) and sends forth God’s spirit to create and renew (v.30). Humans are to respond with songs of praise (v.33).

The prophet Ezekiel reminds the people of God’s gifts of land (v.17), a new heart of flesh to replace a heart of stone (v.19a) and a new spirit (v.19b). Humans are to respond by putting away false gods (v.18) and obeying God’s ways (v.20).

The reading from Acts is the story of the first Pentecost, the day God sends the Holy Spirit – just as Jesus had promised his disciples. Devout Jews and Gentiles from every nation are gathered in Jerusalem. When the Spirit comes with power, each person in this diverse crowd hears – in his or her own language — the disciples speaking about “God’s deeds of power” (v.11). God’s Spirit brings unity and clarity and the people are amazed and astonished (v.7).

In the Epistle reading, Paul reminds the church at Corinth that God’s Spirit gives a variety of gifts. All these diverse gifts – whether bestowed on Jews or Gentiles — are to be used “for the common good” (v.7).

In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are locked in a room on that first Easter day, fearing for their lives (John 20:19). Suddenly Jesus appears in the room with them. He offers them gifts of peace (vv. 19, 21a), purpose (v.21b) and power (v.22-23). Just as the Father had sent Jesus, so now Jesus sends forth the disciples with the power to forgive sins (v.23).

In the Middle East, Western Christians are often seen as contributing to the tension because of their uncritical support for Israel (at the expense of Palestinians) and their lack of respect and concern for countries with majority Muslim populations.

Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Cascadia 2007) provides a fresh and more hopeful understanding of how Christians can read the Bible in ways that do not pit one people against another. Indeed, Pentecost stands as a reminder of God’s concern for all peoples.

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