I asked my wife, Jane to share with you her Pentecost sermon.
I think you will agree it gives us food for thought. . .
Acts 2:1-17. Selected text from Eugene Peterson’s wording:
“Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks….There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. (They said) “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “what’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.””
“That’s when Peter…spoke out with bold urgency: “...They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:
“In the Last Days, God says,’
“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
Also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
Your old men dream dreams. I’ll pour out my spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy…
When the time comes….”
Here is the church. Here is the steeple.
Open the door and here are the people.
(children’s hand game)
There are folks in an upstairs room, clinging to each other. They have too much shared history to let it go, but they have no idea how to go on with business as usual. The absence of the Teacher is heavy on their hearts. What can they do but pray and ask for strength and the ability to accept the situation? Surely there is more going on…I see them eating, that’s what I would do; reminiscing, shedding some tears and letting some laughter escape despite the solemn situation. Maybe they feel resentment, maybe anxiety, maybe they are trying to decide who was responsible for the trouble. All of them are trying to find that place in human experience where we honor the dead or obsess on someone who abandons us, but we labor to let them go. Perhaps thoughtful plans are being made as to how they will pick up their lives, store their memories, and manage their losses. They turn to sacred writings, looking for stories and images that will help them get a focus on the meaning of these changes.
What words are adequate for what comes next? They remain in the room, but quite abruptly…they are in the world, differently. As the change blows about and burns them, they are seeing everything that has happened differently. Understanding memories differently. Remembering all that has been said differently Still longing for the Teacher, gone away, but even longing for him differently.
Here is the Church...Here are the people who see things differently.
The moment seizes them and stuns them. They look around at one another. Something about this moment feels like the good old days when Jesus had fed them the Word of God like good food. In the empty place in each heart there swells a bounty of hope… dreams… surprise…wonder…for the first time in a long time.
There is a “pouring out” on each heart, a tender caretaking of each one. I dreamed once (nearly 40 years ago) that I stood under a waterfall of fresh orange juice. It poured over me, and all I had to do to be filled with its sweetness was open my mouth. Something satisfies them like this, fills them like this…even as it increases their appetite. It leaves everyone present astonished and grateful. It gives them new, crazy new, ideas… and an infusion of the energy, the artfulness, and the chutzpah to make good things happen.
Here is the Church. Here is the steeple.
Open the door...here go the people.
The little community of believers from the upper room races down the stairs and bursts into the glaring light of the street. They stumble into the gathering crowd; their ecstatic, romantic, heroic new way of seeing the world reaching out to find and share language that lives up to the moment. It works. People outside catch the wave, understand the significance, revel in the ecstasy…except a few folks who see intoxication, but miss the clear-mindedness of this experience. Those who believe cling together in a new kind of community…one like Joel, the prophet, had written poems about.
Here is the church. Here is the steeple.
Open the door and here is Holy Life in the midst of the people.
God strength around them and in them--tangled up with a new way for Jesus to be present among them and in them. Discovered in their own lives, the Body of Christ, not gone away, but in the world. “All flesh” inclusive, young people and old folks stepping up to say “This is how it is,” womanpower, manpower, workers united, leveling out the playing field, all dreaming and believing it together. The heady pleasure in the possibilities flows like wine in their veins. Ever since then, the church has been way too sober!
I am angry with the church.
Anger makes war against my gratitude, I ought to say. Not one particular feckless congregation, mind you, but the whole shmear—the church of two plus millennia, the church of crusades and inquisitions and witch hunts. The several limping, whining, compromising churches and parachurch projects and movements of which I have been a part. I confess to you that my first reaction to re-reading the Acts account annoys me. I wonder how Luke could bear it that these Joel-mentored believers, on whom the reconciling and liberating spirit of Christ had fallen, could arrange themselves into a squelching, power defending, hierarchy—apostles and elders directing the hoi polloi. What happened to the distribution of power on old and young, women, servants?
I wince at the condemning anti-Jewish rhetoric in the sermons. I am appalled by the vicious condemnation of two inexperienced believers, killed for a violation at the offering plate. And I am defensive for Elymas, the Magician, compromised for sure, but a proclaimed believer, who just missed the point and was cursed to Hell for it. I am offended by the apostles, whose feet had been washed by Jesus, to note their unwillingness to waste their time (as they put it) on the welfare of widows. I wonder how Luke could blandly report the bickering and resentment that so separated Paul and Barnabas that they could not even travel together. I am uneasy that the surprising gift of the Holy Spirit, falling so freely on humbled, receptive people, evolved into a status conferred by the laying on of hands by the right representatives. “Has the Holy Spirit fallen on you? No? Well I know you believe but you have the wrong baptism. We’ll do the water again and then we do the laying on of hands. Then the Spirit can fall on you.” Was this what they had burst through the doors of the upper room to be for the world?
The promiscuous use of Holy Spirit language and who possesses it dominates Luke’s early story. and then it kind of peters out, and the last references to the Spirit in that text tell us that there is a new message…”Paul, prepare for suffering, opposition, and death at the hands of people (who presumably don’t hear my wind or see my fire, nor hear the true word in their own language). I was almost relieved to see the obsession with ‘victorious living’ die.
I want to rail against the Church that often enough is too lazy to cultivate the mind of Jesus. She preoccupies herself with making declarations about the truth even when she does not know the truth. She is regularly co-opted by the system. She is too self-righteous to listen to a world so she has ignored the news, the insights of pop music and the movies and art of our times where the souls of people are on display. She is too rigid to respect human diversity, too arrogant to learn grace, and too defensive to do peacemaking. In my own personal life, the Church has forgotten my elderly parents, frustrated my siblings, bored my children, demoralized my friends with its infighting, and been often enough irrelevant to the public around me. The Church has boasted of its piety and pronounced judgment without wisdom. She has wasted called, passionate, selfless people and gifts given into her hands…The complaint inside me goes on and on.
I see again people of the powerful little congregation, packed with blessings, called to an extraordinary ministry, wound and scar each other and demolish the fellowship because they disagree on the definition of discipleship. Forgiveness would require a return to trust and that price is too great. If only a special dispensation of Spirit would force their surrender.
I see again the peacemaking counsel, its members alienated by their different work styles. I see them building defenses and gathering power against one another, saying that there is no action that they can see themselves taking to make reconciliation because those in the right must be vindicated and those who are wrong must be chastised. If only Spirit would fall so aggressively that they would be overwhelmed by the urge to see and hear each heart, then once again work together.
I see again the assembly given to ecstatic expressions of blessing and "joy in the Lord". People sing victorious psalms and praise for two hours. Afterward, I learn that the leaders of the congregation are depressed and demoralized, financially strapped, guilty that the sense of joy has escaped them. And none of this is being shared, when the people of God meet together, because the praise must not be broken. I long for the Spirit to shake them by their necks and burn out their shame so that they can lean against one another.
I hear again the Christian missionaries who share with us that they had once felt uncomfortable that their house servants lived in poverty and ate low quality food, but that they had eventually gotten used to it, and their servants didn’t know what to do with wealth anyway. I long for the Spirit to crush them like Ananias and Sapphira.
And the people of the Church worldwide…separated, on opposite sides of walls and causes--in America, in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, in Central America, in Africa…often enough sending their children to kill one another for houses and history and name calling and getting in the way.
Am I too hard? Is this rant unfair? Did I let my own self righteousness carry me away? At the very least, I’ve resorted to a generalization that paints everything ecclesiastical with the same brush. Oh yes, I know that it is the church that has introduced me to discipleship, taught me love of scripture and teased me with the idea of grace. Oh, and I make little of it but right now I remember it, that I have seen again and again occasions when the church is true to her calling and she is for a moment the Body of Christ in the world. And in every one of those moments, the world is better for it.
It has crossed my mind, the wish…if we could only call up Spirit and get a fresh helping on demand. What makes Holy Spirit fall on us? NOTHING. What forces Holy Spirit to take charge of things? NOTHING. Spirit is wild and goes where it wills. We have craved spiritual power—measured against the world’s very different kinds of power—apples and oranges. We have craved at least enough to win power over our enemies. Some of us have wondered if spiritual power has slept in us all along and waits for us to open a door, some gateway such as praise music or ecstatic prayer. We have the idea that there are ways to be open and ready, physically and mentally fit for work, but it is hard to follow through with soul-building so that we can keep up with Spirit. Or, maybe, we wonder (when we make nothing sensational happen), is spiritual power nowadays out of reach, or out of date (like wizards and dragons) belonging to another time and place?
But thank Goodness, Holy Spirit is wild and goes where it wills. Thank Goodness,it is not packaged and manipulated by heroes or even saints. Thank Goodness, it not a slave to human failure. Thank Goodness, for the Church and for you and me, that Spirit is not turned on and off as a reward or punishment. And thank goodness, the power and health of Spirit is not to be measured by mundane comparisons to other kinds of power. Thank Goodness, there are times when we will be called by Spirit and equipped with holy gifts even when there is yet no sign of power or victory in our projects.
In fact, we are forever going to be gathering inside…AND…bursting forth to the outside.
Inside, behind closed doors—we will continue to prepare for the world, being not yet in touch with vision, not ready, fearing changes, and looking around for wisdom that we didn’t quite get or seem to have mislaid. We are ordinary and frail, easily fatigued and vulnerable to our emotions. Our memories are faulty, and our histories are sometimes hard to bear. The work of our callings is enormous, seemingly without end, requiring superhuman capacity and more sterling character than we have acquired. But it is on this kind of people, ordinary people, that Spirit blows and burns.
We hear in our hearts the conversation between two men on an evening long ago. One says to the other, “We’ve seen the powerful and wonderful things you do. We can see that God is in you.” The other man says something like this: “What do you see? Unless you’re born in a fresh new way, you won’t even see God at work. Spirit is like wind; you don’t see where it comes from, you don’t see where it goes, but you know it is there."
Let’s face it, Spirit is wild and untamed. And we may be…willy-nilly… changed by it. We will recognize Holy Spirit when it is ourselves who are wild and untamed in our hope, when we are wild and untamed in the quality of our loving, when we are wild and untamed in our dreams of mending the world not with doctrine but with grace and service.
We are often going to wear our Spirit blessing self-consciously and awkwardly, but we are the people who burst through the doors of the church onto the street.