Monday, June 2, 2008

Shavuot , the Law & Pentecost

How is the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai related to the Christian story of Pentecost? To some of us, this may sound like a stretch. After all, the Apostle Paul often pits the written Law of Moses against the life of the Spirit. For example, Romans 7:6 reads, “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” Christians often associate the Law with sin, death, bondage, and condemnation, and breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to follow all those old rules any more (as if we ever would have in the first place). I no longer share this dim view of the law; rather I’ve come to see Torah as God’s life giving instruction to all of humanity. God speaks now even to us from Mount Sinai. God said to Moses, “Have them make for me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among the people.” (Exodus 25:8) The Lord touches down to the head of Mount Sinai so that He might descend further to live within, among and through us. He does not want a sanctuary so that he can dwell in it, a shrine or temple. No God longs to dwell in us, all humankind dwelling on this earth.

So what is the connection between the giving of the Law and Pentecost? Lately, I’ve been listening to Jewish audio on A particular talk of Shavuot by Rabbi Moshe New made the connection for me. [] What is Shavuot you might ask? It is the Jewish festival that falls seven weeks and one day after Passover. This is the Festival of Weeks, the lifting of the First Fruits of the wheat harvest.

And for the Church, it is the day of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover. Unfortunately the Jewish and Christian calendars are out of sync this year. By Christian tradition, Easter is the Resurrection of Christ, the Pascal Lamb, on the Sunday after Passover. This year Easter was March 23, 2008, four weeks before Passover began for the Jews on the evening of April 19, 2008. Consequently, Pentecost and Shavuot fall four week apart this year, May 11 and June 7. Christians and Jews ought to celebrate Shavuot and Pentecost on the same day, and I pray that some day this is so.

Let’s get back to the connection, even if we’re not on the same calendar. Rabbi New traces connections between Shavuot and three Jewish figures: Moses, David, and the Baal Shem Tov, the first leader of Hassidic Judaism. The connection is subtle; the Bible does not make the explicit connection between Shavuot and the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. However, these are usually the same day, the sixth of Sivan, give or take a day on some years. So now we see a link between the First Fruits and Torah. Jews elevate the first sheaves of wheat to God even as God bestows from above the life giving words of Torah. The Law is not given to condemn the Jews. Quite the opposite, God enters into an everlasting covenant with Israel; the nation gives herself even as a bride to God as the bridegroom. Rabbi New also points out that Shavuot is the only festival where a sacrificial sin offering is not to be made. The marriage covenant is pure.

Now what else happened no the sixth of Sivan, the day Torah was given? Moses turned three months old. This is the day when his mother placed him in the river so that he might be rescued from Pharaoh’s slaughter of Jewish boys. Moses crossed the water in safety to be made the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and his own mother was called to nurse him. Later Moses would lead the Israelites to safety through the water, and God would draw his son Israel like a child out of Egypt. Moses carries Israel to the foot of Mount Sinai, where God descends in thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, shaking the mountain in a dense cloud. On Mount Sinai heaven touched down to earth and gave to Moses all the words of Torah. Later God’s glorious presence would fill the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. Now the living presence that had so frightened the people on Sinai was dwelling in the midst of the camp.

The next connection Rabbi New makes with David. King David passed away on 6 Sivan. David was the first true king of Israel; Saul had fallen short. David forged a Kingdom and made preparations for the building of the Temple. While on Sinai the holiness of God had reached down to people, now under King David the holiness of the people was lift to Jerusalem.

Finally, Rabbi New points out the leader of the Hassidic movement had also passed away on Shavuot. I am to ignorant to say much about the Baal Shem Tov, meaning Master of the Good Name. You can listen to Moshe New’s own account of the significance Baal Shem Tov. New does explain that Hassidic teach somehow brings together the holiness from above with godliness from the ground upward. The true dwelling place of God is in the heart of the Hassid, the faith one.

Let’s turn now to the Christian story in Acts 2. For Christians, Pentecost is known as the birth of the Church, the day when the Holy Spirit descended with tongues of fire on the 120 disciples gathered in the upper room. The believers started to speak in new languages they had not known. The Holy Spirit gave them the words. This was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel that the Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh. (Joel 2:28-32)

Joel 2:28-32 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

In Pentecost we see the Law of the Spirit impressed upon the heart of the Church. Indeed the gift of the Holy Spirit, the abiding presence of God, is given to every believer in Christ through baptism. We are baptized in both water and spirit. We emerge from the water even as Jesus did in his own baptism to look up. The heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends upon us as fire from above. A new word is formed in our mouths, and we hear a new voice speak with in us, saying, “You are my child, my beloved.”

The full Torah, the full counsel, wisdom, and knowledge of God, flows through the Holy Spirit, for “the Spirit knows the will of the Father.” According to Jewish tradition Moses received the full Torah, both the revealed written Torah and the hidden oral Torah, on Mount. Jesus taught both what is revealed and what is hidden; moreover, he announced to his disciples that all that is hidden will be made known. Jesus told them to pray to the Father for gift of the Holy Spirit. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13b) Joshua asked Moses to stop two elders from prophesying. “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’" (Numbers 11:29) Is the Law at odds with the Spirit? Not at all, the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai is the promise of the Holy Spirit to all God’s people. God has been pouring out his Spirit all along.

Blessings for Shavuot, June 8, 2008. Take time hear the Ten Commandments with new ears.