Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 for June 4, 2017, Pentecost A
The entire text is here: Acts 2:1-21
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.
There is a strange verse in the New Testament about the Spirit. In 1John 4:1 it says:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
It is strange for several reasons. First, you would think that if the Spirit is at work, communicating something, it would be so clear, so self-evidently from the Spirit that there could be no mistaking it. But apparently that is not the case.
Second, this verse is strange because it gives the power to the Christian community to somehow “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” That means the community already has a sense of the kinds of things that are from God and which are not, and will be able to discern which is which.
You would think that such discernment comes from the Spirit, but in this case the discernment comes to tell you if the Spirit is reliably from God. It is completely assumed that the Christian community has spiritual instincts that help it know the difference between things that are of God and things that are not.
Where did we get these instincts? Well the answer is pretty clear: the Spirit has been following a distinctive trajectory from the beginning. You can see the direction of movement. So, any word or teaching claiming to be “of God” that is going in another direction is automatically suspect.
The understanding that God is Spirit, that we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday, was a completely Jewish understanding. We read that brief text from Numbers in which the Spirit comes upon the elders around Moses and they prophesy.
The Hebrew bible has many stories in which the Spirit of God comes upon people – prophets, judges, kings, even tabernacle designers.
In the story John’s gospel tells, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and said, in such stark and simple terms, “God is Spirit”, it was completely non-controversial. Of course God is Spirit; what else would God be?
So, what direction is God, the Spirit going? How can the community know if it is discerning the movement of the Spirit, or following a false prophet’s direction, as 1 John described the alternative?
Increasing Complexity, Depth and Unity
Some of us just watched Rob Bell’s video Friday called, “Everything is Spiritual.” In it, he starts with the beginning of the universe, from a single point which, at the big bang, explodes. From this singularity came energy. Gasses cooled to form particles, which grouped into atoms, which gathered to become molecules, then cells, then multi-cellar life, and eventually us, including, incredibly, consciousness. All this from that original singularity.
The direction, as Rob points out, is aways towards increasing complexity, depth, and unity.
What is true, on this cosmic and quantum scale, is also true in our development as humans. We went from small clans on the Savannah in Africa, to tribes, to city-states, and nations, and eventually into our modern international systems that enable international education, science, art, music and business.
Is this what the Spirit is doing? Yes. This is exactly the movement that the church interpreted as the direction to which the Spirit was taking them.
We are going to run through just a few of the many texts we could look at to get a clear sense of the Spirit’s direction.
The Pentecost Story
Let’s begin with the text we always read on Pentecost Sunday from the book of Acts. Remember that Acts is volume two of Luke’s story of Jesus and the early Christians. That is important because next we will look at a story in Luke’s gospel.
So first, Pentecost. This is a Jewish holiday. It is fifty days after Passover. Passover celebrated the night the Hebrew people were liberated from the oppression of Pharaoh’s Egypt and became free and independent.
Fifty days later, they are at Mt. Sinai where they receive God’s instructions on how to live as a new covenant community. So they celebrate fifty days after Passover with Pentecost. Moses went up the mountain, as the story goes, and came down with the Law, the Torah; God’s instructions to the people in their language; Hebrew.
So, in Acts, on the day of Pentecost, what happens? God speaks again. Only this time, not in one language for one people, but in all of the languages of all the people present. Of course this is the story. From the beginning of their story, the people who descended from Abraham and Sarah knew that the promise of God was that eventually, all the families of the earth would be blessed though them. Now, this is coming true.
God Speaks Your Language
Let us pause here to make this personal. How do you tell that a person is a foreigner? Usually, language is a dead give away. I have even seen brilliant professors who speak English fluently, who even publish in English, get stumped by some of the vocabulary on a menu. When you are not a native speaker, there will always be gaps in your understanding.
But get this point: God speaks your language. That is a metaphor, of course, but a powerful truth. God gets you, at your deepest level. I will go so far as to say God not only speaks your language, meaning your native tongue, but the language you live in, every day. For some of us, it is the language of hope and joy, but for others it is the language of grief or anxiety. Whatever the nuance, whatever the subtlety, God speaks your language.
This is also a “Spirit-thing”. The New Testament tells us that we do not know how to pray, being limited by our finite mortality, but that’s okay, because the Spirit intercedes for us, with sounds too deep for words. God speaks your language, and the Spirit enables you to speak back, in God’s language, beyond words.
So, back to the story. On Pentecost, the trajectory, set in motion by the promise to Abraham and Sarah, is coming true: God’s words are going out into the world, crossing ethnic and linguistic lines. The universe is still expanding in depth, complexity and unity.
The First Controversy, and the Spirit
This story, in Acts, is one of many like it. To mention one other: there is a huge controversy in the church that culminates in the story of the first church council. The issue is whether non-Jews, Gentiles, can be fully a part of this new Jesus-following community along with full -blooded, circumcised Jews.
The matter is settled by the testimony of Paul and Barnabas who recounted stories of Gentiles receiving the Spirit. Finally, they decide that yes, this is the direction the Spirit is pointing: full inclusion of Gentiles in the community. They sent out a letter saying this decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit.”
How did they know that Gentile-inclusion was truly the direction of the Spirit? After all, letting in people, who did not bear the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision, was a departure from the perspective they had maintained for thousands of years.
Jesus and the Spirit
The answer was that this is the same direction that Jesus took, specifically, under the inspiration of the Spirit. This is what we read in Luke’s gospel. First, in Luke 4, Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath, as a good Jewish rabbi would, and reads from the prophets. He goes to Isaiah 61 and reads “The Spirit of the Lord us upon me….” then says, “today this is fulfilled.”
Everybody there likes him, until the next thing that he says. He tells two stories from the Hebrew bible, abut how God’s Spirit was at work, through the prophets, in non-Israelite people: a widow who lived in Zarephath, in Sidon, and a leper named Naaman from Syria.
The idea that God was at work outside of and beyond Israel was offensive to the people that day. They had been bitten by the bug of Jewish nationalism and had a raging case of the disease. But Jesus was clear about which direction the Spirit was taking him: it was beyond the borders, out into the Gentile world.
So, of course the story continues in Acts, following this same trajectory. The Spirit comes at Pentecost, and every language is now a language that God speaks. The Spirit guides the early council to open the door to Gentiles. The promise to Abraham and Sarah is coming true: all the world is being blessed.
The Present Direction of the Spirit
So what is the Spirit doing in our times? The same thing. The Spirit is continually pushing the envelope, continually opening the door to people who were outsiders, in increasingly inclusive ways. The Spirit has enabled us to end state-sanctioned slavery, and especially, in our context, to show the evil of the implicit racism slavery entailed. The Spirit continues, in our day, to confront the lasting and harmful legacy of racism that is still present.
The Spirit opened the door to women in ministry, at least in the Presbyterian Church USA, and several other denominations – though not all, after almost two thousand years of gender discrimination,.
The Spirit opened the door to full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. After millennia of discrimination, now we can speak the language of inclusion.
The Spirit and Other Faiths
The challenge that is before us now, is to both celebrate and affirm our faith tradition, while not condemning or excluding persons of other faiths. Today, I think about this issue with an eye on the consistent trajectory that the Spirit has led us on all this time – towards greater openness and inclusion.
I remember when it seemed reasonable to me, to believe that God created the world, and loves the world; that God created every human being, and loves each of them, but someday will send the vast majority of them to be tortured forever in hell. Even though that idea runs counter to the whole stream of biblical tradition of God’s increasing inclusion, even though it runs counter to the way Jesus lived and treated people, including non-Jewish people, still, I believed it.
And even though the Jewish people lived for thousands of years without any real belief in conscious existence after death, and even though I learned that the concept of souls being punished after leaving the body at death came from Greek religion, still, it seemed reasonable that Christians would take that idea and call it hell. It no longer does, to me.
So, we can embrace people of other faiths, and recognize God’s Spirit at work in them as well. We do not pretend to know details about the after life that remain a divine mystery, but we do know that God is good. God will not be unjust or unfair. We know that God is love: God is not a torturer. And we know that the consistent direction of the Spirit is towards inclusion of the outsider.
That is what we believe. The days of frown-faced, negative, narrow-minded judgmentalism are over. We, in this community, live in the joyful open-heartedness of a loving God who walks with us, through all of our days, speaking the language of our hearts, and giving us open hearts to all the humans God has made. That is why, for us, Pentecost is such a rich day of celebration!