Sermon Acts 2:1-21 for Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
What would you say if you just met an interesting and likable person and they asked you, “Tell me your story.”? Where would you begin? Would you begin with the present “you” and then explain how you got here? Or, would you begin with your earliest memory?
The way you start a story can make a huge difference in its meaning. This is Pentecost Sunday. We call this the birthday of the church. How do we tell this story? Where do we begin?
When Israelites told their origin story for centuries they began with Abraham and the promise God made to Abraham to bless him with land and family. In fact, in the book of Deuteronomy, we hear Moses giving everyone a script to recite each year that tells their origin story. Here is what he said:
“When you have come into the land that Yahweh your God is giving you…2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest …, and you shall put it in a basket and go…to the priest …, and say to him, “Today I declare to Yahweh your God that I have come into the land that Yahweh swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of Yahweh your God, 5 you shall make this response before Yahweh your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to Yahweh, the God of our ancestors; Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, … 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Yahweh, have given me.” (Deut. 26:1-10)
So, the story that starts with Abraham quickly jumps to the Exodus story. Liberation from slavery is at the very heart and center of the Jewish story. God as a liberator is at the heart and center of the Jewish concept of God’s nature and purpose. God hears the cries of the oppressed. God wills their freedom.
The Prequel to Abraham and Exodus
Many centuries after Moses, probably during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th Century BCE, stories that had probably circulated in various forms, oral and written sources, were brought together, including the Genesis stories. So, the Abraham story of origin was given a prequel. It began with the creation of the world, and with Adam and Eve, followed by Cain and Able, Noah and the famous tower of Babel.
We call these stories myths. They are our wisdom tradition. They are stories told to try to say things that are true, deeply true, about humans, about God, about what is good and evil, about how we are to live in the world, and about how the world got to be the way it is – both in its awesomeness and in its evil.
The last prequel story before we get to Abraham, is the story of the tower of Babel. All the people of the world, so the story goes, want to build a tower up to the heavens, all the way up to God. The story, as we have it, is written with some humor; this quest is meant to look pathetic. Even after building the tower, which to humans must have seemed tall enough to reach the stars, God has to look down from a long way off, up in heaven, to see what these little people are up to.
Anyway, it seems as though there is an implicit desire on the people’s part, not just to be near God, but to exert control over God – to get God to be their pet. At that time, all the people of the world still spoke one language. So God decides to confuse their languages, that is, to give them separate languages, to frustrate their project.
Amazingly, a story like this shows up in other religions as well. In a Hindu legend, Brahma is responsible for introducing separate languages to punish a prideful tree of wisdom. In North America the Kaska Indians tell about “a great darkness came on, and high winds which drove…” their boats in different directions separating them from each other, so that their languages became different. There are stories like this from upper Amazon and from Central American native peoples. (see here)
What can we learn from these? It is deeply human to know that we all should be united in one human family. But it is also painfully true that we are not. And language is a perfect way to talk about our state of separation. It is almost uncanny how we have this amazing capacity to communicate that no other animal shares in anything close to our human level. But instead of unifying us, languages divide us.
Language here is a symbol for everything that goes with it; culture, customs, costumes, music, cuisine, and of course religion. Our differences are legion.
Getting back to the Jewish story, after the story of the tower of Babel, then the narrative zooms in to focus on one family, on Abraham and Sarah. The story becomes personal. This family understands itself as chosen by God, blessed by God, and called by God to a journey. They become “wandering Arameans” seeking the fulfillment of God’s promise.
That understanding never goes away. No matter what happens in the future, through good times, and, more often, bad times, at the root of an Israelites’ experience is the profound understanding that they are characters in God’s story. And what God wills for them is blessing.
But of course it is a story of hardship, of slavery and oppression in Egypt for a long time. Then it becomes a liberation story of freedom from Empire.
The Jews celebrated their liberation every year with the festival of Passover. It remembers the night in Egypt when the angel passed over their homes, and they were free.
Passover + 50 Days = Pentecost: Sinai
As the story goes, they crossed the Red Sea, came to Mount Sinai where, after 40 days, Moses comes down with the Torah, the Words of God, the instructions for the community. This event is celebrated every year also. Fifty days after Passover they celebrate Pentecost. When Moses was up on the mountain, the story says there was the loud sound of rushing wind and there was the fire of the presence of God while Moses was receiving God’s words.
For the rest of Israel’s history, their story was a story about God’s words, God’s laws. The question was always, were they keeping them or not? Were they faithfully obedient or not? Were they going to the temple, were they offering sacrifices, were they bringing their tithes, were they celebrating Jubilee, releasing debts, doing justice for the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen?
Is this what God wants most; obedience to the law? Well, according to Israel’s prophets, the answer has always been “no!” God always wanted most a relationship of trust, even of love, that would naturally lead towards faithfulness. Festivals like Passover and Pentecost, as important as they were, to the prophets, always were lower in priority than loving God and doing justice. (for example, see Isaiah 58)
Openness to the Spirit
This is where Jesus comes in. With a perspective of who God is, and what God wants that is completely prophet-colored, Jesus showed people what it could mean to be totally open to the Spirit. He lived and served and taught and prayed as a person fully human, and fully alive to God’s presence and power.
What was it like to live as a Spirit-man, as Marcus Borg called Jesus? It made him uniquely open hearted. He was open to all people, especially to the people who others were not open to. As a man, he was open to women, and took them seriously. As a Jew, he was open to Gentiles, and intentionally went to their towns and brought the healing message of the kingdom to them. As an oppressed person he was even open to his enemies, to Romans, and reached out to them with God’s love.
The story we tell on Pentecost, the story of the birthday of the Christian Church, is an origin story. But it is a story that has to start way back with Abraham, and Moses, and further, even to the tower of Babel.
Just like in the story of Moses on the mountain, this story also has the sound of a rushing wind and the fiery presence of God. This story also has words that come from God. But this story has words, not in Hebrew for one people, but in all languages for all people. Not words for one special person, like Moses, but words for everyone.
Babel has been reversed. Everyone hears God speaking to them, in all their rich and colorful diversity. And these words are not a new set of commands, but the new wine in the new wineskins that Jesus predicted: they are words of good news to all people.
This is what the Spirit of Christ does. The Spirit of Christ does not end our differences, but rather refuses to consider them barriers. The good news is that God is with us, and, by the Spirit, is in us, and for us. It is the message, as Paul calls it, of reconciliation. The blessing that was promised to Abraham and his family, and “to all the families of the earth” is finally including all the families of the earth.
Being a Spiritual Community
So this is what the church is: a spiritual community. We have heard Jesus inviting us to call God Abba, papa, Father. We have come to understand that the Spirit of Christ is alive in us; that we are actually temples of God.
And we have come to understand that this beautiful story is not an exclusive one, meant for us alone, but is for the world. Not so that all the world will speak our language of faith, but that we will rejoice that God is speaking in their languages as well.
A spiritual community is naturally then an open-hearted community. Following Jesus, we worship and serve a God that is Spirit. God, as Spirit, will always be way beyond anything we can grasp or understand. But God, as Spirit, leads us and calls us to new understandings all the time, and always follows the trajectory that Jesus pointed us towards, of openness and inclusion.
Richard Rohr who I refer to often, calls his headquarters in New Mexico the “Center for Action and Contemplation.” I often speak of his teaching on meditation, or contemplative prayer. But this deeply spiritual focus naturally leads to action in the world. Action follows Contemplation as a natural work of the Spirit.
So a truly spiritual community is a community that reaches out, just as Jesus did, to the poor, to the hungry, to the vulnerable, to the weak, to the oppressed, with Spirit-motivated acts of mercy, compassion and justice. It practices liberation from oppression, it embraces God’s opposition to the tyranny of empire.
It is not by accident that the first organized activity of the early church that was born on Pentecost was a bread ministry to poor widows. And it was a ministry to both Jewish and non-Jewish widows. They were a spiritual community; a community of Action and Contemplation.
That is what we are. That is what we are called to be. The Spirit has been poured out on us, to empower us to live transformed lives. That is our story. So, what will be the next chapter? Let us be open to the Spirit, and we shall see.