One of the more curious texts associated with the celebration of Pentecost is the story of Eldad and Medad, charged with unauthorized prophecy. Moses and the seventy elders gathered at the tent of meeting, and the Lord “took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy…and they prophesied,” (Numbers 11:25) but only briefly. Meanwhile, back at the camp, the spirit came to rest on Eldad and Medad, and they prophesied there. Even Joshua—usually portrayed as level-headed—entreats Moses to stop them. They had not followed the protocol with the rest of the elders, and Joshua worries that Moses’ authority will be undermined. Moses’ mature response is telling: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses is simply grateful for the empowering presence of God’s spirit, and does not attempt to domesticate the Spirit.
As I wrote in Joining the Dance, “Regulating, suppressing, and ordering have too often been the church’s response to the lively and unpredictable movement of the Spirit.” The challenge of Joshua is echoed in our day. Some ecclesial traditions question whether women can prophesy as bearers of Spirit; some question whether lay persons are empowered to discern the ways of God as prophets. Others wonder if those outside the church can offer a prophetic word from God. While I would argue that the Spirit has an integral relationship to the church as the Body of Christ, the Spirit is not controlled by the hierarchy of the church as certain forms of apostolic succession would contend. Believing that God can speak through “unauthorized” channels calls ecclesial leaders to humility.
The greatest need of persons of faith today is to trust that God’s Spirit continues to guide and empower for ministry. Further, the Spirit works in freedom, calling the church and society to new forms of service in the world. Discerning the movement of the Spirit remains a demanding spiritual practice, yet there are some helpful questions to guide the process.
1. Is the pathway we sense the Spirit to be prompting a way to live the Gospel more fully?
2. Will this require more faith, more hope, more love?
3. Are we persuaded that we cannot do this in our own strength? (The Spirit usually nudges us toward what will require radical dependence upon divine assistance.)
4. Will this pathway challenge old perceptions of how God is at work in the world? Is God up to something new?
5. Will my community of faith grow in maturity by following this guidance of the Spirit?
6. Will authentic expressions of grace and mercy flow from following this pathway?
7. Will this action be an authentic participation in the Reign of God?
The Spirit continues to move, transgressing boundaries of human invention. May we discern God’s holy nudge and act accordingly.
Molly T. Marshall
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