In our Thursday Bible Study we just finished 1 Corinthians 14. Paul is helping the church that he founded learn how they should worship together; not everyone had the exact same idea about what was appropriate for worship (imagine that! We always agree on what is best in worship – right? No?).
But anyway, after giving them instructions about the way to use the gifts of prophecy and tongues, he makes an intriguing statement: if the church worships as it should, a non-believer should, after seeing and hearing you, must conclude:
“God is certainly among you.” (1 Cor 14:26)
There would be an overwhelming sense that this was not a purely human gathering, but rather an uncanny awareness of a Presence in the room – God was there – the Spirit was undeniably among them.
Being Spirit-people, like Jesus
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the fact that now we are Spirit-people! Just as at Jesus’ baptism, so too at our baptism, we have been given the Spirit of God – in fact there is no such thing as a person who is a Christian who has not received a Spirit-baptism along with the baptism in water (Rom. 8:9).
God is here, with us now, by his present Spirit. God is here by his Spirit to hear our songs, to listen to our prayers, to strengthen our faith through hearing the word – as we are doing now, and God is present by his Spirit to seal the word in our hearts at the Lord’s Supper. We are Spirit people: God, by his Spirit, is present.
God’s Spirit often looks and acts like fire. He (and we must call him “he” – or “she,” as we do persons; not “it” as we use for impersonal forces) is powerful and unpredictable: which path will he take? What will he do? Will it be exactly what he did in the past? No, if anything is clear from the stories of the Spirit in the book of Acts is that he is always doing the unexpected: coming on unexpected people (like gentiles) in unexpected places (like outside the temple walls – even in private homes) and at unexpected times (like, even before people even have a chance to get baptized) – and never the exact same way twice.
If we have inherited a church-tradition that believes that we always have to do the exact same thing we did before – does that mean we are following the Spirit, or something else – a question we do well to reflect on as Presbyterians.
Spirit like quenchable fire
The Spirit is like fire in another way as well; like fire, the Spirit can be quenched. It is possible to extinguish the flame and end its effects (1 Thes 5:19). All Christians have the Spirit of God, but the flame may be smoldering. As he wrote to his church in Corinth, Paul did not assume people would automatically sense the presence of the Spirit – that was only if they worshipped as he was instructing. It was equally possible to worship in such an inappropriate manner that people would come in, Paul said, and say, “You people insane!” (1 Cor. 12:23)
The question is, when people come in our door, what do they sense? Which do they say: “God is certainly among you” or not? Do people sense that we are Spirit-people, or that we have quenched the flames?
What is it that would show people that we were in tune with the Spirit? What would they see that would tell them that what was happening was evidence of the presence of God among us?
To answer that crucial question, we need to hear some stories.
The first story is from Genesis 11. Once, when the world was much younger than today, everyone spoke the same language. They were all alike. They understood each other deeply. When someone suggested, “Let’s build a tower up to God” everyone pictured the same tower – right down to the bricks and mortar.
They had one goal: to make sure they were able to keep things exactly as they were – everyone would stay the same – and to make a common name for themselves. They would build their unity tower all the way up to heaven – where the gods lived, to demonstrate what they had achieved.
Now God gets wind of this, up in heaven, and has to look down to see this puny little thing. Not only is this thing hopelessly far from the heaven they are trying to reach, but it has no hope of standing. Their construction technique is as ridiculous as their plan is pretentious. They planned to mortar their baked bricks together using bitumen – which is tar. The tower will melt like a stick of Babylonian butter in the Mesopotamian sun.
So, as if God was threatened by them, he comes down to confuse their languages, so now they are not one people, all alike anymore, and they scatter in babbling confusion.
The story of the tower of Babel is of the foolish and failed quest to make a kingdom out of people who were all alike. We would never do that – right? Isolate ourselves from people who looked differently, spoke differently, smelled differently, looked at the world differently? Would we?
The next story we consider is the Pentecost story in Acts 2. When the fire of the Spirit came down on those people, what were they like – as a group – and what did the Holy Spirit change? As they waited in prayer together, the disciples of Jesus all spoke the same language, all had the same ethnic background, all ate the same food, and had the same view of the world. To them, there were exactly two kinds of people in the world: us, and them; Jews and gentiles.
Then the Spirit came down like an unpredictable fire, and did the utterly unexpected. The Spirit somehow made it possible for them to preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, in such a way that everyone heard them speaking in his own native language.
Now there are not just Jews and Gentiles present, but there are people, from real places:
9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene… 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
The miracle of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was this: suddenly it is clear that God’s love is not exclusive, not just for one group, not for people who are all alike. It is precisely the affirmation of the acceptance of others as “other,” who would stay “other” in their own native languages that meant that God had done something powerful and unexpected.
In the story of Babel, it was all about conformity; when the Spirit came, it was all about diversity. Sometimes we say that Pentecost reversed Babel – but that’s not quite true is it? The Pentecost miracle of the Spirit was not a new conformity, but a celebration of God’s love extending beyond the limited circle of the disciples and into the whole wide world that had come to Jerusalem that day.
It is not a sign of the living flame of the Spirit of God that people who all look alike, think alike, dress alike can gather at peace an a pretty, air-conditioned room and worship. But what a witness to the living unpredictable fire of the Spirit among us if we gather as people who are not all cut from the same cloth.
Times of Division
We live in times of deep divisions. Young people hardly speak a language we understand in any depth – and when they do speak, they speak on social networks and by text message, to which most of us are foreigners.
We don’t speak the same cultural language. Republicans and Democrats are almost unable to agree that that the sun is shining, and the gap between haves and have-nots in our country is wider than it has ever been, and is growing. And to mention the obvious, all around us are people from different countries whose languages we literally do not speak.
The human reaction is predictable and consistent. When we feel threatened, we get the bricks out and start building – a tower, a wall, or whatever it takes to protect “our kind” from threat. Fear of “the other” drives us – and more fearful of others we are, the more bricks we compile.
It is no sign of the Spirit that people who are alike enjoy being alike together. But it is a sign that the Spirit has been quenched when Pentecost is nowhere to be seen, and only one language is spoken.
Our mission: be Spirit-people
We are Spirit-people. Pentecost has come; the Spirit is present here, now! Let us celebrate Pentecost by celebrating the work of the Spirit among us. We have a mission to fulfill. We are here to love God – but not only on the condition that he never does anything new or unexpected, nor on the condition that we love him together with people who are just like us.
We are here to grow in faith – which means growing in our acceptance of the work of the Spirit outside the walls of “our kind of people.”
We are here to share Christ’s love – and yes, that may mean learning to speak languages that feel foreign to us now: the language of the young, the language of the poor, the language of the people in the “wrong” political party, and even the language of the immigrant.
The God that we expect to be present when we need him most, at our bedside, in the hospital, in the crisis, is present by means of his Spirit. We need him then; let us not quench him now. Let us fan the flames of the Spirit by our welcome of the stranger. Then when she comes in the door, she will say:
“God is really among you!”