Like the water in the story of the woman at the well in John 4, the verses in this week’s reading have a gnostic bent to them. The water of life or of the Spirit is the special gnosis or knowledge that sets the believer on a path that will culminate in their own spirit being glorified once it is released from this fleshly housing at death. I understand where the Johannine community was coming from on this, but today we need a much more balanced understanding of what it means to follow Jesus or live in him.
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(Read this series from the beginning at Part 1 and Part 2.)
One way to redeem this passage is, as the lectionary does, to connect it to John 20, where Jesus breathes the Spirit onto the apostles after resurrection. Today we too can inhale this Spirit and exhale justice, liberation, and life. Consider how in Luke’s gospel, the Spirit that Jesus is imparting to his followers in John was manifested on Jesus himself:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
We must be careful here not to spiritualize away the above passage. The poor here are economically poor. In both Isaiah and Luke, the writers spoke of those who were actually poor in the economic systems of their day. The prisoners are those who were literally, not merely metaphorically, in need of liberation and justice. The blind were those who were in a Roman cell, a hole dug in the ground that was so dark they physically could not see their hands in front of their faces. The oppressed are not experiencing mystical, spiritual oppression but marginalization, subjugation, and oppression in their daily lives. And, finally, the year of the Lord’s favor was not someone’s warm and fuzzy assurance deep inside that God liked them. “The year of the Lord’s favor” was a Jewish reference to the literal year of Jubilee, when all economic debts would be forgiven and cancelled.
Maybe you, too, still feel the pull to spiritualize that list from Isaiah and Luke, as so many Christians have before us. But what if we lean away from a gnostic response to the list and instead interpret it literally and materially? How could taking Luke 4’s Spirit literally affect us?
To actively participate in receiving the Spirit of Acts 2 means to care about the concrete well-being of those who are being harmed in our society today. It means to care about LGBTQ people still being marginalized within and outside of our faith-based communities. It means to proclaim in solidarity that Black lives really do matter. That trans kids’ lives matter. That the children in our schools are of greater value to us than our freedom to own an AR-15. That the well-being of people migrating across our borders and coasts is a priority.
Who else would be included if Luke 4 were re-written in our social context today?
On this year’s Pentecost, what can it mean for us in our context to inhale the same Spirit being breathed on disciples in our gospel readings this week? How will that spirit be exhaled? What will it look like for us to breathe in and breathe out Jesus’ gift of the Spirit: a love that manifests itself in a faith that works justice, and an exhaling that is life-giving to those around us.
This Pentecost, may this same Spirit that blew on the primordial waters of our sacred creation stories blow once again today, spawning life and life-giving things into our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the Divine.
Herb’s new book, Finding Jesus: A story of a fundamentalist preacher who unexpectedly discovered the social, political, and economic teachings of the Gospels, is now available at Renewed Heart Ministries.