This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17, (25-27)). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter pastors, flames in worship, pneumatological inebriation, meaning, Whiskey Creek, baptism, Eugene Peterson, repetition, anchovy pizza, advocacy, and true community. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Relentless
Tag Archives: Holy Spirit
Standing In The Midst
“The story of Pentecost is more than a pretty tale. Here is real knowledge, deep ultimate insights into that existence which Jesus is. What is told on Pentecost is that Jesus not only was, but that He is, and will be. He does not exist here or there in a certain place; for Him there is not only a ‘once’ and a ‘then’ but he is yesterday, today and the same in all eternity; in a word, Jesus is ‘standing in the midst.’ – Karl Barth, Pentecost Sermon
Full disclosure – I get a strange and sweet satisfaction from listening to lay liturgists when they read scripture aloud in worship. Perhaps it’s the years of training and devotion to a collected volume of texts being boldly proclaimed, but I think most of my enjoyment stems from the struggle that can occur with particular passages. It could be one of the many genealogies, or a more graphic detail from the Song of Songs, or a moment of profound violence and, in real time, you can witness the person reading the text coming to grips with the text.
The same holds true for the story of Pentecost from Acts.
“And how is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia 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.” (Acts 2.9-11)
I love it when laypeople read that bit because they, like everyone else (clergy included) don’t really ever say those words and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.
It’s a rather diverse ethnic gathering for the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but it’s also a historically impossible gathering as well. The Medes of Acts 2 would’ve had one hell of a time getting to Jerusalem all the way from Mesopotamia not only because the distance between the places is a few hundred miles, but also because the Medes had been extinct for at least two centuries before the day of Pentecost took place.
And the Elamites? They are only mentioned in passing in the book of Ezra and are never mentioned again.
Pentecost, then, is peculiarly and particularly powerful because it details the gift of the Spirit across space and time.
Which is all just another way of saying that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost really was for everyone.
We might not know it, or even believe, but you and I were there too along with the Medes and the Elamites.
Or, to use Barth’s words, Pentecost is a reminder that Jesus, through the Spirit, is still standing in the midst.
And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in a Pentecost(al) mood: (The playlist includes some of my favorite cover tunes of The Beatles – I share them because whenever I listen to these covers I feel like I am out of space and time hearing other bands interpret some of the most well known tunes of all time.)
A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope
Life After Easter
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He boarded the plain, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. He was a pastor and professor of theology, and was returning from a conference on the other side of the country and was looking forward to going home.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat, and reluctantly squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seat on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The two men fumbled over one another and conversation, as it always does on planes, began awkwardly.
The second man began, “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his seat partner declared, a little too loudly, “I’m not a believer!”
“That’s fine,” he replied, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference – Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher kept his mouth shut after that, and thought about catching some Zs as they made their way to cruising altitude, but the other man started talking. First it was just the usual flying next to a stranger chit chat, but then it turned serious, the man started talking about Vietnam.
He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now tried to pretend like it never happened.
The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually, he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What do you mean confessed?! I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done. That’s the lot of em.”
And suddenly he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the sear and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign binged from above and the closest steward came over and ordered the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, and instead he placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.
“Oh yes I did, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears and wept all over himself like a child.
The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
After the plane landed, the man leaned over the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he couldn’t get enough of the good news, so that preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “Hell, if what you said it true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”
I’ve told that story from this pulpit before. It bears repeating, like all good stories, because it’s just so good.
Notice, the preacher didn’t just sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead he offered absolution.
He gave the man the Gospel.
On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples were hiding and cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.
For years Jesus had prepared them for this most momentous occasion and it, apparently, didn’t make a beans worth of a difference.
They betrayed him.
They abandoned him.
They denied him.
Consider these would-be disciples. Terrified and alone. Apparently they didn’t really believe Jesus would do all that he said he would do. I mean, he only predicted his passion and resurrection three different times. He only told them parables about the upturning of the cosmos ever chance he got. He only promised that this is exactly what would happen.
And yet, today, whenever we think of the disciples, if we do at all, we usually imagine them as the paragons of morality, faith, and virtue. We see them as those who were willing to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. But here, in this story, they’ve left everything, namely Jesus, behind just to shake in terror.
The disciples are not the perfect Christians we often imagine them to be.
They are, in fact, just like us.
Sinners without a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes back from the dead.
And it’s to these fools, these faithless so-called followers, that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter evening!
And not only just Jesus encounter them, he made his way throughout locked doors to find them! He breathed upon them. He commissioned them to get out and to share the Good News.
You and me and everybody else, we are constantly falling short of Jesus’ hopes and expectations. We lock our doors, we turn our gaze away, we put up walls of separation, and Jesus keeps showing up! Walking through our doors, redirecting our attention, and toppling down our walls.
This story of Jesus appear to the disciples falls of the 2nd Sunday of Easter every single year, if we follow the lectionary. It’s like God wants to remind us over and over again right here, just on the other side of the resurrection, that Jesus ain’t done with us yet and we’ve got a job to do.
Jesus is going to get through whatever barriers and locked doors and walls we’ve erected.
Jesus is going to keep showing up to offer us words of grace even when we know we don’t deserve them.
Jesus is going to appear to the sinners and the doubters and everyone in between because that’s what Jesus does.
The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus never ever shied away from sinners and doubters. Even though, in the church, we often ostracize those very people to the margins of the community. Jesus does his best work, frankly his only work, with the kind of people hiding in the upper room.
Listen – Jesus rewrote and reknit the fabric of reality and then told a bunch of losers to spread the word.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. For, it means that even on my worst days, Jesus is still for me. It means that even in the midst of my sins and my questions, Jesus has a word to share. It means that nothing, not life, death, nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate me, you, and anyone else from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The world is going down the drain, but we’ve got a Savior who works at the bottom of the drain and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.
And what is the anything our savior does?
He forgives the abandoning, denying, and betraying disciples.
He forgives you.
Life after Easter is defined and made possible by Christ’s rather reckless forgiveness. It is reckless because it runs counter to how we believe the world is supposed to work – namely an eye for an eye. The problem with “an eye for an eye” is that it leaves everyone blind.
Jesus, however, offers a bewildering alternative – a life of mercy, peace, and forgiveness.
Whenever we read about life after Easter, those days between the empty tomb and the Ascension, we tend to focus on the disciples and their reactions. Which means we usually do so at the expense of sitting in the strange news that Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the people who deserve him the least.
Jesus chooses the unworthy ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging around for three years as the people through whom he would changed the world.
On Easter, Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.
And notice: Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them, or judge them, or even damn them. He offers them peace, and commands them to do the same for others.
When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.
Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.
Lost in exile? God brings the people home.
Dead in sins? God sets us free.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their holy experience. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed his card over to the man and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. When later asked why he kept answering the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
Believe it or not, it’s true, and Jesus is going to keep showing up to remind you. Amen.
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.”
Think and Let Think · All!
They were all together in one place.
A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.
But instead they were all together in one place.
A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.
Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.
They told them the Good News.
The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.
And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”
The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church.
For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter.
But, go read his sermon some time.
It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.
So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.
But, go look at what the church does.
Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.
The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.
If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.
Just like the Spirit.
I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”
And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.
It’s shouldn’t exist.
But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers.
None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.
And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.
I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”
Which is fine.
But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?
It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost.
Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.
Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.
Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.
Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.
Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy.
It still drives us crazy.
Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.
Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.
It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.
We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.
And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control.
Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever.
We just don’t act like it.
Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.
What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.
But that’s ridiculous!
Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.
Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.
We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.
But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.
Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.
And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid.
We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.
We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.
Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.
But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.
Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?
Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”
The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.
The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently.
Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.
In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.
Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.
Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.
Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”
And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.
Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.
But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.
Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.
And all really means all. Amen.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.
They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.
Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.
And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.
That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.
But that’s not what happens in Acts.
Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.
They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
They gather together in fellowship.
They break bread and feast with one another.
And, finally, they share their prayers.
But it’s more than that.
We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.
On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray.
But wait, there’s more!
And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.
I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences.
But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?
That sounds awful.
Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.
Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.
However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.
And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.
Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.
This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.
Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God.
Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money.
But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.
Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people.
It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.
God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.
However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.
It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,
Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.
Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.
But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?
They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.
Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.
And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.
This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.
Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise.
Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop.
Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.
Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.
Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.
And it drove people crazy.
It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!
And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve.
Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.
But, haven’t we heard all of that before?
We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.
Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er.
But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?
Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.
The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.
Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution.
They just start living differently.
Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.
And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?
Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?
Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?
Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.
We do things we know we shouldn’t.
We avoid doing things we know we should.
We care more about ourselves than other people.
Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.
And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway.
It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
That is radical.
Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.
Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.
It could change everything.
It already has.
The Future Present
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
All of creation groans.
How can we put those words into images?
On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.
On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.
Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.
If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.
All of creation groans.
Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.
We are still waiting.
Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.
And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.
The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.
Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.
There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”
And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.
But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.
And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.
We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.
Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.
Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?
Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place 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.
They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.
Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?
They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.
Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.
Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?
There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.
And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.
That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.
When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.
In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.
Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.
But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.
John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.
Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.
We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.
The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.
Devotional – Acts 10.44
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
Far too much of the church is calibrated for a world that no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. Whether it’s the ways we worship, or the types of books we use in Sunday school, or even the debates that happen in the parking lot; sometimes the church feels like it’s stuck in 1982.
When I drive through town and see church marquees that read: “Church – The Way It Used To Be” I cringe. I cringe because no one even really knows what that means, and just because it used to be a certain way doesn’t mean that it needs to be that way today. The church is (supposed to be) alive! It is not some memorial to days long ago.
As God’s church we are called to two realities: We pass the tradition from one generation to another AND we open our eyes and ears to the winds of the Holy Spirit by which the tradition comes alive for each generation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that adding something like projectors and screens in worship will make everything better, but it does mean that the Spirit loves to interrupt our lifelessness with new life.
In Acts we read about how Peter was in the middle of preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. Notice: the verse does not say that the Spirit fell on Peter to give him the words to say, but that while he was speaking the Spirit landed on all who heard what he was saying.
The Spirit loves flipping upside down our expectations and priorities. The Spirit shows up when we least expect it and it lands in ways we can scarcely imagine. The Spirit interrupts our ways of understanding the church as if to say: “Behold! I am doing a new thing!”
However, sometimes the Holy Spirit has a hard time getting through our stubborn desire to stay where we are. We can read all the right books, and pray all the right prayers, but it takes a willingness to know and believe that the Spirit moves to respond to that Spirit with new understandings of reality.
Time and time again, from Acts until today, the Spirit loves interrupting our sensibilities with new ways of moving forward. The Spirit is the one who has a story to tell, but the way we tell the story is changing.
We might think we know how the world works, and what the church is supposed to look like, but that’s usually when the Spirit shows up in the middle of our conversations to grab us by the collar and says, “Follow me!”
Last Things (Part 1)
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls on the first day of a new liturgical season we call ordinary time (terrible name) and it is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is often used as an opportunity for preachers to explain away the complicated math of a three-in-one God with metaphors that often leave congregations more confused than when they arrived. On Trinity Sunday we usually read a passage contains examples of the three parts of the Godhead working together in such a way that it can help the preacher out. However, sermons on Trinity Sunday run the risk of sounding more like a lecture, or a dogmatic defense, than sounding like the proclamation of God’s living Word.
And for us today, the scripture for Trinity Sunday has taken on another ironic twist. This bit from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth contains some interesting language for what will be my second to last sermon in this church: Finally, farewell. Put things in order, listen to what I’ve said, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.
After serving God in this place for four years, this would not be a bad scripture to end with (Though I still have one Sunday left). It contains all the things I would want to leave you with much like what Paul wanted to leave with the Corinthians. If you live in peace with one another the God of love will be with you.
But Paul goes on to implore the gathered community to greet one another with a holy kiss, which sounds like doing a lot more than just living in peace with one another.
Holy kisses require an intimacy that many of us might find uncomfortable. To be clear: it doesn’t mean the pews turn into the back seats of parked cars at “make out point”, but it does imply a willingness to know and encounter the stranger as sister and the other as brother.
I spent last week on the Easter Shore of Virginia with 40 United Methodists from the Staunton-Waynesboro Area for a mission trip. We represented a handful of churches and our youth were tasked with a number of work projects from reorganizing a Thrift Store to painting a dining hall to building a Habitat for Humanity House.
On our first night it was clear that this mission trip was going to be like a lot of others in that when we finally arrived and unpacked the vans, the youth broke off into their comfortable cliques from their respective churches. So we did what we always do: ice breakers and group activities. We quickly learned the names of everyone on the trip and random factoids that gave us glimpses of one another’s personalities and preferences.
But unlike other mission trips, by the first morning the home church groups started to fade and dissolve which left new friendships to determine the gatherings of our youth. I don’t know to what I can attribute the quick change and adaptation short of the fact that the youth greeted one another with “holy kisses” that first evening through questions and jokes and laughter such that they were in a new communion with one another by the next day.
This was made abundantly evident through a number of situations, such as when we went kayaking and canoeing and the pairs did not know each other prior to arriving at camp, but it also showed up in more intimate and beautiful ways…
One of our youth, Grace, was the only girl from our church on the trip. The boys from St. John’s all love the same things: video games, Star Wars, and the internet, (they’re like younger versions of me) but Grace is not of the same persuasion. And it could have been easy for Grace to sulk in a corner and remain isolated, she could have retreated to the false sense of communion on her phone with friends back home, but instead Grace actively sought out new friends in this new place. She quickly bonded with a girl from another church and they discovered that they shared more in common than their similar sense of humor and quick wit: both of their mothers had breast cancer at the same time and were being treated at the same facility and had the same surgery.
Their bond over a shared experience was the holy kiss that filled them with the same type communion that connects the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Trinity.
There was a boy on the trip from a different church who, years ago, had an accident that resulted in severe burns over 40% of his body. I knew him before hand well enough to know that he is remarkably self-conscious about what his skin looks like and was afraid to get ready for bed in front of the other boys in my cabin. And on that first night, after all the games designed to bring us closer together, he tentatively lifted off his shirt to which one of the boys pointed and shouted for the rest of the cabin to hear. I immediately winced and prepared myself to intervene in order to protect the boy’s dignity but then I heard what the other boy had shouted: “Dude, that’s so cool!” The majority of the cabin immediately gathered around the young boy and he beamed with pride about his scars.
And the thing that had so often brought him shame and ridicule became a beautiful example of how the holy kiss of friendship filled our cabin with the same type of communion between the Trinity.
I don’t like to make comparisons like this, but our trip to the Eastern Shore was one of the best mission trips I’ve ever been on precisely because we connected with one another in a faithful and intimate way. Rather than scattered pockets of groups and cliques we got to know each other and therefore our work became that much more faithful and fruitful.
When we are bold and brave enough to reach out in intimacy toward the church around us we connect with all the saints and we enter into the same friendship within the Trinity.
There is bravery and boldness and confidence in Paul’s willingness to say farewell to the church in Corinth. After doing the work to unite a community and sharing with them the Good News he could have held control over what they were doing from afar, he could have micromanaged every situation, but instead he knew that God’s church is far bigger than anything he could ever do. He was able to look at that collection of Christians and know that he could say farewell because they would thrive with or without him; after all the church didn’t belong to Paul, nor was it successful because of Paul. The church in Corinth thrived and was fruitful because it belonged to the Lord.
In addition to it being Trinity Sunday, we’ve also used part of our worship service today to thank the staff of St. John’s. They have all done tremendous work for and in this place whether it’s playing music on Sunday mornings, educating the preschoolers during the week, keeping everything safe and clean, or (in the case of our secretary) being the real boss around here. But their work has been productive and faithful because they are intimately connected with one another. They do not see their jobs as jobs. Instead they see what they do here as an extension of their community such that all of them will arrive early not just to get their tasks completed but to check in on one another and do whatever they can to help each other whether it connects to their work here or not.
But even beyond this church, beyond the wonderful people sitting in the pews this morning, God is the one who makes their work, and the work of the church possible. God has blessed them with unique gifts suited for making the kingdom come here on earth through their work at St. John’s. God is the one who has filled them with grace, love, and a sense of communion that makes possible the fruitfulness this church has embodied.
And that is what rests at the heart of Trinity Sunday. Not metaphors and dogmatic dissertations, but the communion and fellowship between the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That very communion, the friendship of the Trinity, is made manifest here every week, and whenever we gather together, as the church. It was there with us on the mission trip last week. It’s here between the staff members and all of their work. It rests in between us in these pews and is most certainly present at this table and in this meal.
We become God’s people, a people of holy kisses, when the pews of the sanctuary become avenues of connection instead of walls of division. We could easily remain isolated in our own comfortable boxes of experience, or we can do the good and bold and challenging work of Trinitarian communion – like the youth on our mission trip and the staff of this church, we can open our eyes to the fundamental reality of what God is calling our lives to look like, we can believe that we have been made one in Christ Jesus, and we can know that God is the one working in our lives binding us together for the work of the kingdom.
And so, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us. Amen.
The Uninvited Guest
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.
I only have three opportunities left to proclaim God’s Word in this place. After preaching for 4 years from the Old and New Testaments, after listening for the Spirit’s movement for more than 250 sermons, I only have 3 left.
It’s hard not to think about what my final thoughts should be. I’ve been the pastor of St. John’s for some incredible mountaintop moments, and some frighteningly deep valleys. I’ve gone on a bunch of mission trips, taught lots of bible studies, and implored us to do some pretty strange things in this sanctuary all under the auspices of “worship.”
What do I want to leave with all of you? Should I try to whittle the entirety of the gospel down to an easily digestible sentence like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Should I use my last three sermons to build you up with stories of love and grace and generosity? Should I use these final sermons to break you down with talk of sin, evil, and repentance?
I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks I’ve found myself far more concerned with what I want to say than with what God wants to say.
Here we are my friends, today is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. I know some pastors who will spend part of this morning in worship gathering their congregations around a giant birthday cake and will encourage an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others will spend the service talking about how it is our responsibility to offer gifts to the church for her birthday and will then not-so-subtly move to the time of tithes and offerings. And others will use the church’s birthday as an opportunity to talk about inviting others to celebrate and make the whole thing into a guilt trip about evangelism and church growth.
All of which don’t have much to do with what God is saying in the text.
But, of course, Pentecost seems like a party. There are people gathered together in one place, the house is filled with something that propels the guests to do something, and everyone leaves with a gift.
But if Pentecost is a party, how long had God planned it? Who was on the guest list? Is it the kind of party we would hope to be invited to?
Pentecost may be the birthday of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples to worship the living God, but it is NOT the birthday of the Spirit.
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… sound familiar? When nothing existed but chaos the Spirit of God swept across the waters and brought forth order. The Spirit is not new, it was there in the creation of all things, it rested on the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. By the day of Pentecost in the upper room the Spirit had already overshadowed Mary’s womb, and called Jesus forth from the tomb. It was there at Jesus’ baptism, it compelled him to preach his first sermon, it fed the 5,000, it healed the sick, Jesus even breathed it on the disciples in the upper room shortly after his resurrection.
The story of Pentecost is not about the arrival of some previously unknown force that we call the Spirit; the entire bible is the story of the Spirit of God made manifest in and among God’s people.
What happened on Pentecost began long before that day, and will continue long after we’re gone.
Near the beginning, the people of God had grown restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began work on a giant tower. With brick and mortar, sweat and tears, they cut through the horizon in an attempt to reach God, and become like God. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to confuse our language and scatter us across the earth. The unity and connection at the heart of our species was ripped apart and never again would we so brazenly attempt to reach and control our Lord.
Or so we thought.
Later, while Moses was on top of the mountain with God, at a place called Sinai, the people down in the valley grew restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began forming a golden calf to worship. With a gathering of precious gems, with kneeling and praising, they chose a new god to put their hope in. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to wipe us from the face of the earth. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and instead only 3,000 were killed for worshipping the golden calf.
The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Golden Calf in Exodus are stories we’d like to explain away. Not just for their strange and supernatural elements, but also because they don’t match with our anachronistic and modern sensibilities. We’d rather talk about what we think the text means than what it is actually saying.
But the stories of Babel and the Golden Calf do not end with a division of language or in a slaughter.
Pentecost is the undoing of Babel with God’s magnificent power reuniting God’s people under a common tongue: the Gospel.
Pentecost is the undoing of the episode with the Golden Calf where, instead of 3,000 being killed, 3,000 were added to the budding church in order to redeem what happened in the valley long ago.
The Spirit at Pentecost is the one who brings forth life out of death, hope out of despair, and a beginning out of an ending.
We here in church like everything nice and orderly, or at least I do. I want to have a bulletin that is clear and organized, I want a theme that stretches throughout the entirety of the service, I want people like you to get exactly what you want and what you need.
But the Spirit is not one for white linens, and perfect bulletins, and calm consciences. On Pentecost the Spirit did not come with manners and a polite disposition. No, the Spirit comes with power that could knock someone to the ground, fill a room as if with fire, and even turn the world upside down.
The Spirit shows up at Pentecost like an uninvited guest.
During the height of segregation, there was a well-known church in the heart of Durham that was filled with proper looking white families every Sunday. They all made sure their children were quiet in worship, knew when to bow their heads, and stood to sing the hymns. Their clothes were always clean and coordinated, they always had plans for lunch after worship, and to them the church was perfect.
On one particular communion Sunday however, a young black man showed up at the main door and attempted to walk in. The ushers promptly blocked his path and used a few choice words to explain what they thought about his presence.
The next month he showed up with a few of his friends and there were even more ushers blocking the entrance.
Finally, in the deep heat of the summer, the young black community members decided to wait until the service started before walking in. They waited for the ushers to head inside and stand in the back and then they made their way through the doors precisely when the preacher stepped forward with the bread and with the cup and invited everyone forward.
At that cue the group pushed through the back pews and made their way down to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus.
I wish I could tell you in that holy moment the white people of the church were filled by the grace of God to receive their black brothers and sisters in love.
I wish I could tell you that the whole congregation stood to sing Amazing Grace and gather with their new friends at the altar.
I wish I could tell you that the whole white community of Durham came to their senses in that profound moment and began working to end segregation.
But that’s not what happened.
The nice people sitting in the pews with their perfect families and their perfect worship service saw the young black men and women as uninvited guests, and they did what some people do when the unwanted show up, they kicked them out.
A fight broke out that Sunday in the aisles and in the pews, clothes were torn, blood was spilt, and windows were broken.
The police were called to break up the fight, which made matters even worse, and the church was evacuated before anyone even got communion.
The Spirit does not always arrive as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart. Sometimes the Spirit is electric, atomic, volcanic, and even violent.
The human community divided by God at Babel, and punished at Sinai, was brought back together in the upper room on Pentecost. Instead of overwhelming confusion there was a new cooperation. At Babel and at Sinai the people of God wanted to move vertically to become like God. At Pentecost, God connected the people of God horizontally through the kingdom.
God, on Pentecost, offered us a new way, but sometimes we fall back to the Babels and the Golden Calves of the past. At that church in Durham, they believed that one’s skin pigmentation meant more than just about anything. And it took a fight between the pews to show them how far they had fallen.
For some of us we care more about what political party we’re affiliated with than anything else. We therefore ignore or even attack those who disagree with us.
For others we divide ourselves over ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, socio-economic status, and a great slew of other factors.
But at Pentecost God did what God had to do to unite humanity back together. Like an uninvited guest God arrived as a violent wind rushing throughout the room and filled the entire house. Divided tongues like fire appeared among the disciples and a new tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was there at the creation of existence, there in the virgin’s womb, and there in the empty tomb.
God interrupted the sensibilities and the gathering of the first disciples to offer a new way, a way filled with a frightening and powerful Spirit. God united the people under a common tongue of the gospel of His Son through the power of His Spirit and it forever altered the way we understand the world.
For at Pentecost we discover that WE are the church, and that “we” often includes people we can’t imagine; people who do not look like us, think like us, speak like us, or even worship like us.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the way we worship. I love our hymns and our prayers and even the way our sanctuary looks. I love the way we greet each other as we enter the building, I love the way we share signs of Christ’s peace, I even love how many of us are wearing red this morning in honor of Pentecost.
But the church should be a disruptive thing because that’s precisely what God’s Spirit did at Babel, at Sinai, at Pentecost, and it’s precisely what the Spirit did at that church in Durham, and frankly it’s what the Spirit is going to do to the youth of this church on our mission trip this week. The Spirit will upend our expectations and our hopes and our dreams. The Spirit is the one who will show us that WE are the church, all of us, and all of the people that we can’t imagine, they and we are the church, whether we like it or not. Amen.