I may be the only person you will ever meet that claims Numbers chapter 11 as a favorite Bible passage. But it’s true. You can read it here.
There are two stories intertwined in this chapter, but for Pentecost, we’ll focus on Moses. Moses is overwhelmed by his responsibility. Moses needs help. To give Moses the aid he needs, God decides the elders should help Moses and then God sends God’s spirit on the elders.
At this point in the story, Moses and the people have left Egypt. The people have not yet become “Israel”. They were mix of peoples of various backgrounds. What they had in common was that they had been slaves and they were willing to follow Moses and the God of Moses. They are on their way to becoming Israel.
So seventy elders are to receive “some of the spirit”, but two don’t show up. What? Two don’t show up? What else did they have to do? Why didn’t they go? The text doesn’t tell us why but it does tell us their names, Eldad and Medad. It’s hard to imagine they forgot, or that they had something more pressing to attend to. My hunch is they didn’t want any part of this new thing the God of Moses was doing. They didn’t want to prophecy, didn’t want part of God’s spirit, didn’t want to share the burden of leadership with Moses.
One could wonder if they were the early, early forefathers of the Reformed tradition. (the text tells us they are male). “We’ve never done that before!” “How can 70 people receive the spirit and prophecy in any orderly, decent way? It’ll be chaos!”
But God finds them, the two who didn’t show up and they receive the spirit. Then Joshua hears about them and he’s upset that they have the spirit in an “unofficial” gathering. Eldad and Medad are not where they belong, with the rest of the elders. Joshua wants Moses to stop them but Moses appears to have a high tolerance for chaos.
God continues to work with these people to form them into Israel by taking them to new places and into new ways of living, into new social strucures. The God of Moses is a God who travels with these people as they discover who they are becoming.
Over time, they become Israel. They settle down into their new land, settle into their new ways and settle into their new homes . And as happens, the new home and new ways become comfortable.The new ways become comfortable and established. This is who we are and what we do while we wait for the Messiah. And then the Messiah comes in an odd and peculiar way and then Pentecost happens.
Pentecost is an old festival and it’s function and meaning changed over time. By the first century CE, Pentecost was (in part) a celebration of the giving of Torah to Moses. Torah is what makes Israel, Israel. Torah is the way and the truth and the life for Israel. It shapes and informs them. Torah observance is how a person declares their allegiance to God. It’s how you proclaim where you belong and to whom you belong. Pentecost is a celebration of Torah. But one Pentecost is different. Once again, God’s spirit shows up in disorderly and chaotic ways.
Jews have come from east and west, from all over the Empire to gather in Jerusalem. They live in different places, speak different languages but are unified by their Torah shaped identity. They know who they are and then God’s spirit comes and shakes that up.
The spirit doesn’t fall on Jews united in Jerusalem as it falls on them as “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Proselytes, Cretian and Arabs-”
They are not called to stay in Jerusalem to be this new people, but to travel back home. God is traveling with God’s people again. Not into the geographic unknown but into the known, into their hometowns. These people are called to stay home and change.
It’s easy to go somewhere new and reinvent yourself. Off to college, off to a new job, off to a fresh start. It’s a very American idea, in some ways. New horizons, new lands, new communities. No one knows the “old” you- that’s the appeal of a new start. You leave the old expectations behind. You can stop being the”flaky” one and become dependable or you can stop being the reliable one and become the fun, spontaneous one.
What’s hard is going home and changing. Doing something new with people who don’t see the need for a new way of doing things. At Pentecost the church is formed and disbursed, all at the same time.
Go figure out how to do this in your own home, with your own community, in your own language, in your own culture. Find your common identity each in your own place.
It’s hard to change at home. The people who know you best may not want you to change. They have to adjust and rethink who you are and what that means for your relationship.
But that’s at least part of what happened at Pentecost. People went home different and the folks back home didn’t know what was coming!
What’s interesting about life after Pentecost is the connection between unity and diversity. I know- “unity in diversity” is nearly a cliche in some circles but there it is in Acts. One Lord, one faith, one baptism- now go home and work this out in your own community.
God is a traveling God, who wonders in the wilderness with the people as they figure out how to be Israel. God wonders home with the believers at Pentecost as they figure out how to be the church.
We prostestants are not very good at staying home and changing. Our preferance is to pick up our Bible or our hymnals or our worship styles or our church government and go.
I don’t have the answer to that. Maybe that really isn’t as big a problem as we think. Maybe we affirm what we have in common and then go work out the details each in our own community and homes.
I’d like to know, what do you think?
Here is the link to my monthly science and religion post at the Presbyterian Bloggers site.