This is the festival of Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit, penta or fifty days after Easter. It recalls the story we shared from Acts, when the spirit rested on the disciples, they spoke in the languages of the people, and people heard the story of Jesus with open minds. I think the three readings from Numbers, Acts, and John each describe the work of the spirit in different ways. They speak of three different human activities through which the spirit of God or God’s presence flows: there is the bureaucratic spirit in Numbers, the communicative spirit in Acts, and the flowing of the heart in John.
First, let’s turn our attention to Numbers. This is a fragment of a longer story about the struggles of the people of God as they move through the wilderness from slavery in Egypt to the founding of a new nation on the other side of the desert. This nation building is a long and difficult process, remembered in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. At this stage of the journey, the demands of leading the people have become too much for one person. The spirit of leadership is bestowed on a system. Part of Moses’ leadership responsibility is delegated to a set of elders, commissioned for the purpose of administering the responsibilities of governance. The spirit actually bestowed on a bureaucracy. It is a limited bestowal. And it involves some certification, and perhaps an orientation. And of course not all those commissioned could attend the ceremony of installation. And there is some infighting or at least tension in the bureaucracy. But make no mistake about it, here is the bureaucratic means by which the spirit of God is bestowed on the people. The spirit of God is expressed in administration.
I have intentionally used the word bureaucracy here, to highlight what this means in our own time. For us, bureaucracy has become a bad thing. Civil servants have become in the common mind nothing more than bureaucrats whose presence actually witnesses to what is viewed as unnecessary regulation and government waste. In our growing disregard for the legitimate function of government to sustain the common good, we’ve almost created a black hole which sucks into it all those people who have dedicated their lives to public service: not only government officials, but also teachers, administrators of all sort, public health workers, inspectors, police and safety officials, and even sanitation workers and librarians. This is not a political issue for us. It is a public issue. And we have gotten to the point that we can’t tell the difference between the two, and as a result we have lost our capacity to care for our civil servants rather than malign them; and in so doing have lost large pieces of the good life together.
I know there is such a thing as government waste. Thousands of voices scream that at us each day. But on this Pentecost, one pastor, reading the book of Numbers, is simply saying that the spirit of God is often expressed in, with, and through the well run society, by people caring for the common good. The Spirit, as unlikely as it sounds, comes through the administrative, the institutional, and the bureaucratic organization.
Second, even though we know the second reading better than the first, we may need to be reminded that in this reading the spirit of God is expressed through human speech and language. This passage does not refer to speaking in tongues, but to meaning that is conveyed through the languages of all people. The spirit comes through the act of communication. What we say, and how we say it is important. It is important to say things as well as we can, even if we need to slow things down so that we get it right before we speak. Human words in any language are actually a miracle by which meaning, affection, intention, hope, sorrow, forgiveness, reconciliation, and vision can all be expressed. Human language is the foundation for all we are in community. And although our native tongues may differ, we all use language to communicate and create the good.