Pentecost Day: Year B

Acts 2: 1-21

The Day of Pentecost is about new beginnings, about God’s declaration in Christ that old categories and orders of being no longer apply. In Christ, the life of humankind is indissolubly linked with the life of God; in the coming of the Holy Spirit, we have the once-and-for-all-time proclamation that Christ’s ministry, and the new order of being that it brings to human life, are but a foreshadowing of the final, redemptive consummation which is God’ will for the whole of creation.

The Gospel is nothing less than revolutionary. But revolutions in human history tend not to have the redemptive qualities of new life, new ways of being. Whether political, cultural, economic, or even religious, while nothing may ever be the same again, we often discover that we have lapsed into old ways of being, old ways of oppression and exclusion. The names and faces may be different, but the old injustices prevail.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as Jean-Batiste Alphonse Karr declared.

The Industrial Revolution was different – it was genuinely revolutionary, in as much as it changed the entire economic relationship of humankind. The means of production and wealth generation shifted away from the ownership of land and agrarian activity to the industrialised centres of manufacturing and trade. No longer tied to the land, people swarmed into cities for work – and into the most abysmal conditions of servitude and degradation. The cities swelled; the countryside depopulated.

Industrialisation has brought many improvements to human living standards, from the seismic advances in medical and health technology, to the convenience of “smart” technology and online shopping. But it has also come at an appalling cost, from the wholesale destruction of the ecology upon which human life ultimately depends, to the yawning gap between rich and poor that sees the 100 richest people on earth controlling more wealth than the poorest 4 billion people on the planet.

One of the principle casualties of this revolution has been the construction of work and the role it plays in human life. There never was a time in human history when work existed without elements of slavery, exploitation, and oppression. In the medieval period, feudal serfs tied to a lord’s property worked the land from dawn to dusk for almost no return on their labour. But the rudimentary state of technology, the limits of physical endurance, and the inescapable relationship between humans and the natural environment placed significant constraints on how much, and for how long, people could work at any given time. And because of this, humans had time for other things, among them the solidarity of family and community.

This no longer applies. Technology has enabled humans to overcome the constraints imposed on previous generations; and the globalisation of the world economy means that we now inhabit a 24/7 world.  There are no days off; there are no periods of rest. The very concept of “unsociable hours” has gone out the door; and with it, the protections and compensations previously available to working people. Instead of being a part of human life, work has consumed the whole of human life; and at the same time, it has become the primary means by which the worth and validity of individual existence is measured, judged, and assessed – to the point where the stigma of being poor and unemployed has become unendurable, and work itself has become for many a deadly experience.

Work has become a monster that threatens to consume us all.

The message of the Gospel is a message of liberation and release, a message of unlimbering from the burden of sin and death. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a joyous declaration that humankind need no longer be separated by the categories of class, race, gender, language, or any other characteristic by which human life is so catastrophically divided.  We are all God’s children; we are all, through the power of the Holy Spirit, brought by Christ into the orbit of God’s grace. We all possess the same dignity through our creation in the likeness and image of the divine.

As the coming of the Holy Spirit – and Peter’s subsequent defence of the disciples – called upon those present in Jerusalem on this occasion to think anew, and be anew, and respond anew to the invitation to relationship with God that was at the heart of the Good News, so we are called on this day to think anew about the brokenness in our own lives. And we are called to think anew about the catastrophic construction of work that modernity has built around human life, an idol that enslaves us with the destructive power of seeming inevitability and inescapability. We are called to think about work in new ways and new terms – ways and terms that affirm the dignity of human life, instead of leading us down the path of degradation and destruction.

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

The Valley of Dry Bones is arguably one of the most famous images in the entire canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. The place to which the LORD brings the prophet is not merely a place of death – it is a place of extinction, a representation of annihilation and despair. It is the paradigm of utter lostness, from whence there is no return and no hope of release.

Perhaps it is an old battlefield – there are plenty of reports from ancient sources of the bleached bones of dead soldiers being visible on an old battleground for years after a battle has been fought. Regardless, this location symbolises the utter destruction of Israel – not merely at the hands of its ancient enemies, the Babylonians and Assyrians, but as a consequence of their alienation from God. These bones are the “whole house of Israel” as the LORD declares to Ezekiel.

It’s an interesting way to describe a people – as a house. A house is more than merely a structure: it is a community in its own right, a network of relationships and shared human lives. It is a microcosm of the wider human community: of the network of lives and relationships that are intertwined and interdependent. Not only are none of us “islands”, to paraphrase John Donne, but there’s no such thing as “six degrees of separation”. We are none of us separated, we are none of us strangers; whether we know it or not, we are all connected.

This description of the people of Israel as a “house” reminds us that the word economy comes from the Greek word oikos – meaning “household”. A “household”, like a “house” describes a network of relationships. It’s also a reminder that an economy is not an abstract construction of terms of trade or means of production, of balance sheets and profit margins: an economy is a reflection on the state of our community as a “household”, as a network of human relationships.

The Valley of Dry Bones is a reminder of what happens when our network of relationships breaks down, when the wealthy and powerful among us forget that their wealth and power exists not for their own self-aggrandisement, but for the common weal. The people of Israel have turned away from their covenant with God; and in breaking down their relationship with God, they cease living covenantally with one another. The widow, the poor, the foreigner, the orphan – all these personifications of the powerless and the marginalised in society have ceased having any participatory involvement in the human community of the Hebrew people. They have become instead a source of wealth and power by extortion, enslavement, and exploitation. The land of Israel has become less a house than a kind of punitive penal colony.

This passage from Ezekiel also reminds us that Adam Smith, the so-called “father” of modern economic theory (sometimes called the “father of capitalism”) was not himself an economist in the modern, technocratic sense of the term; he was, in fact, a moral philosopher. And as such, he regarded the economy not as a means for pushing money around the world, or for people living in different places to merely engage in trade, but as a mechanism whereby, through a relationship of mutual benefit, human beings might experience the fullness and flourishing of human life. Because unlike many of the economists and politicians who today claim to be disciples of Adam Smith, he himself never forgot that the economy was about the state of the human “household” – it was a means to the end of human flourishing, and not an end in itself.

The Valley of Dry Bones is a reminder of what happens when we engage in the idolatry of means and ends; it is a symbol of the deadening of human life and the destruction of human inter-relationality.  And yet – even when the people of Israel have cut themselves off from God, and thereby from one another, when they have come to this place and state of utter desolation, God is still able to invite them back into life, back into relationship.

This is what the Day of Pentecost invites us into: new life, new relationship. With God; and with one another. And just as the reading from Acts invites us to think anew about how we have distorted and crippled our construction of work, so that it distorts and cripples human life, so this passage from Ezekiel invites us to think anew about our construction of economy – of how we can re-shape and re-form what an economy is and involves, so that it once again becomes about the “household” of the human community and not a location of human despair.

Psalm 104: 24-35

There are no jobs on a dead planet.

As noted in the reflection on the reading from Acts, one of the destructive side effects of industrialisation has been the wholesale devastation of the non-human ecology upon which human life ultimately depends.  More than this, however: the emergence of the mega-metropolis, of the enormous concentration of human life in urban centres, has disconnected human beings from the natural world of which they are actually a part. Not only are we no longer sensitive to the destruction we are causing, we think we are actually above it, deluding ourselves that it belongs to a realm of consequences in which we are no longer involved.

The verses from Psalm 104 that form part of the readings for Pentecost Day are more than just a hymn of praise to nature; they speak on the themes of interconnectedness and dependence. The Psalmist notes the provision of substance and all the good things of life “in due season” to all living things, and links the operation of the natural cycle of seasons and the environment to the beneficence of God. Similarly, when this cycle is disrupted, life no longer becomes possible. The Psalmist puts this down to the withdrawal of God’s participation in the life of he world, to God turning God’s face away from the world, perhaps in response to some sin on the part of the world.

With our vaunted scientific knowledge about the natural world, we think we know better; we smugly assure ourselves that we have moved away from captivity to such superstitious nonsense. And yet we continue to destroy and lay waste to the natural world; and we continue to ignore the clear and ever-more urgent warnings of climate scientists that human intervention has decisively tipped the balance and pattern of the global ecology. The cult – the superstition – of remorseless and endless economic growth has captured our imaginations and blinded us to the ultimately self-destructive behaviours which our misconstructions of work and economy have imposed on the world.

The sin of modernity is the assumption of omnipotence; our modern mythology of the autonomous individual, the fully self-realising agent who bends reality and the rest of the world to suit our own preferences and prejudices, has made us catastrophically out of touch with the calamity we are building for ourselves. It is not God who has turned away from the world and caused the seasons to become chaotic; it is we who have turned our backs on the interconnectedness and dependence we share with every living creature for our own survival as a species.

The call to renewal and new ways of being that stands at the heart of Pentecost Day – to be attentive to the Spirit of the LORD who renews the face of creation – is a call to likewise reflect upon and change the patterns of industrialisation that have wrought so much destructiveness to our planet. Economic growth cannot be allowed to continue its relentless consumption of the biosphere. At the same time, serious attention is going to have to be paid to the impact which the sheer numbers of human beings upon the face of the planet does to the planet itself – as a species, we are going to have to confront a whole series of painful social, cultural and religious taboos as we rethink our relationship with the natural world. And we are going to have to invest without reserve in renewable, non-polluting technologies if our industrial civilisation is going to have any hope of not merely surviving, but flourishing into the future.

Romans 8: 22-27

Paul’s characterisation of creation “groaning in labour pains”, and of our own yearning as we await adoption as “children of God”, points to the yearning of all people for liberation from the burdens of being – the yearning for a fully human existence wherein the contradictions of our present reality are reconciled and made whole. The fact that we yearn alerts us to our present state of alienation: from God, from creation, from one another, and even from ourselves.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx warned of the consequences of alienation. They warned that if human work became over industrialised and subject to technology, if it became overly specialised and commoditized, then it would become alienating – people would be cut off, not merely from the fruits of their labour, but from the existential meaning of work in human life. The nexus between industrialised work and “earning a living” has proved disastrous, as work has been taken out of its wider ontological context (ie: what work says about what it means to be human) and reduced to an exchange of cash for labour. Work has become inhuman – it has been removed from the human sphere and appropriated by the narrow concerns of commercialism, production, exchange, and profit.

That creation groans points to the destructive impact of human activity on the wider global ecosystem. That we ourselves groan points to our victimisation by the very systems we have constructed. We yearn to be free – but we have confounded liberation with liberty. We yearn to be more fully human – but we have no idea what that might look like. And so we invest value and meaning in employment as distinct from work; in cycles of production, consumption, and destruction as distinct from co-creativity with God and one another; in cultures of convenience and easy celebrity and constant novelty as distinct from cultures of covenantal relationship and whole-of-life development.

But even amid this despair, there is hope. Paul reminds us that to hope is to long for what is not seen, that which lurks just over the horizon. Sometimes our hopes are unrealistic, or only possible after the passage of many years – perhaps even of generations. The horizon of redemption and wholeness to which Paul looks, and to which Christian faith points us, is the horizon of God’s promise in Christ: humankind is not irretrievably alienated from God. Quite the reverse, in fact!

Thus it is with the world of work and our construction of economy. We exist at present in a condition of alienation. But there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about that condition. We are not destined to be stuck in an unchanging and unchangeable enslavement to our own short-sightedness. We can have hope. We will have to strive toward the realisation of that hope; but we can have life in the promise and faithfulness of God, and the horizon of salvation toward which hope ultimately points us.

John 15: 26-27; 16: 4-15

The long “farewell discourse” which covers Chapters 14-17 in the Gospel According to John is a long summation of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ ministry. It is delivered by Jesus immediately after the Last Supper and is directed at his disciples. One of the themes which runs through the discourse is that of testimony: the disciples are to testify to who Jesus is, and what his identity signifies for the ultimate destiny of humankind. For this work of testimony, the Holy Spirit will come to bring them the “spirit of truth” – not a secret, gnostic knowledge, but the understanding that holiness and righteousness are matters of relationship, not personal sanctity. Relationship with God through faith in Christ; relationship with one another that springs from our covenantal relationship with God.

But a theology of holiness that stresses relationship over law, that emphasises human solidarity over finely measured assessments of individual righteousness, is always bound to run afoul of those who interpret these things in legalistic terms. There is a frame of mind that relishes in certainty, usually because the possessors of such a temperament are also the beneficiaries of any system of assessing who’s “in” and who’s “out”. Legalism leads to forms of church and community that not only replicate the Pharisaic nit-picking against which Jesus rebelled, but which also correspond to the power dynamics and structures of legitimacy which the world accepts as authoritative and true. Legalism is not righteousness and holiness; it is an example of the church co-opted by the world.

In the excised verses from this reading, Jesus warns his disciples that they can expect “kickback” from the powers of the world – not merely because those powers are seeking to protect their privileged position, but also because of their assumption that they are operating from a position of holiness. This is an important reminder that resistance against testimony and advocacy is only ever partially a matter of power; it’s also a matter of the conviction of the powerful that they are powerful precisely because they are on the side of the angels.  Power, in their scheme of reality, is an affirmation of their sanctity.

Any advocacy that calls for a reappraisal and reconstruction of modernity’s systems of economy and work will invariably invite ridicule and resistance. And that resistance will only partially be a matter of the beneficiaries of the status quo protecting their vested interests. The resistance will also come from many who are in fact victims of the present reality, and their defence will be based on the assumption that the status quo is eternal and unchanging. There is no alternative is not only the cry of self-interested oppressors; it is the despairing cry of those who recognise their own enslavement but are unable to imagine an alternative.

The Good News Christ directed the disciples to testify to is the articulation of the newly won freedom for humankind – a freedom not only from sin and death, but from the oppressive powers of the world that seek to determine the parameters of human flourishing and the particulars of human co-existence. God’s judgement is directed, not against humanity, but against “the ruler of this world” – the oppressive powers stemming from human brokenness that seek to alienate the world from God. And wherever this destructive rule is located – in politics, in society, in our construction of work and economy – it is the task of Christians to minister to those who are wounded by these powers (pastoral care), to condemn the destructive nature of those powers (prophetic critique), and to articulate God’s redemptive purpose (testimony).

Pentecost Day is a day of the proclamation of hope, the day in which, through the coming of the Holy Spirit, the world is decisively claimed by God for God – just as, in the events of Easter and Christmas, God enters into the world in unbreakable solidarity with humankind. The joy we experience is not the joy of thinking we are beyond critique or unequivocally on the side of Light; it is rather knowing that God is with us – with all of us – and that the brokenness of our present systems of work and economy will not have the final word in, or about, human existence.

 

 

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