Narrative Lectionary Reflection
May 20, 2018
We are living the middle of times that are troubling. Our society has become a little less nicer and a whole lot more meaner. We are less tolerant of people who have views different than our own. A woman is hit in the head with a glass by another woman after speaking to a friend in Swahili. Angry people carry tiki torches and march through a college town. Anger towards immigrants and refugees. Looking down at people from the working class. Men abusing women. It goes on and on.
What can be done? Who can stand up?
The church has a role to play in our world. The church has a public mission in the world. Now sometimes we confuse a partisan mission as the church’s mission. But that’s not what the church is supposed to do. The public mission is that as we are guided by the Spirit, we should start acting differently. If we are a community led by the Spirit, we want to see each other as a child of God, as a person of worth and value. I am not saying we are trying to be better, but that we allow the Spirit to change us.
The world needs a witness of a community that’s united. They need an example of people who work together, who learn to love each other in spite of our differences. This is the public mission of this church. It isn’t to adopt a progressive political agenda or a conservative one. Instead we are called to model a different way of being, where divisions are healed. We are called to leave the walls of this church and model that love wherever we go.
But we also live in a time when it seems like the church and religion in general seem less and less relevant to the current context. Churches are losing members, facing shrinking budgets and divisive social issues. How in the world can the church be a witness when it seems like its in such bad shape?
Today is a big day in the life of the church. This is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church. It is also the day that we focus on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:1-21 we see the Holy Spirit as the prime mover, the One that transforms the timid disciples into fearless apostles, a community huddled in a room is sent out by the power of the Spirit into the world.
I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen. It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and then floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?
Today, we talk about the Spirit and the church.
Engaging the Text
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
Our text from Acts opens with the disciples holed up in a room in Jerusalem. These were the same bunch of people who never seemed to understand what Jesus was all about. And when the going got rough for Jesus, they abandoned him. This group was hardly the group that was going to lead the church.
And then, a wind comes through and envelopes the room. And then fire descends on each of them and they began to speak in other languages, which was quite a feat for these simple small-town men from Galilee. Peter addresses the crowd with wisdom we have never seen before. He tells them that in the last days, God would pour out the Spirit and sons and daughters would prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams and even the slaves would prophesy.
Methodist minister William Willomon says that the only way to talk about this is through narrative. Paul’s letters which we thick with theology couldn’t do it justice. This event,, was so mysterious that it could never be told straight. There are always interpretations that are not so obvious and there is more than one way to look at it. So no matter who you are, a pastor with degrees in Biblical Studies or a lay member that learned the faith from his Sunday School teacher when he was seven, this is a story that is meant to experience than a lesson to be learned. Take it as the story that it is.
When the tounges of fire settled on the disciples, they couldn’t just stay in that room. They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly. So they did just that. It just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world. They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges. Well, some were amazed of what was happening. Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk.
That cynical take on the event, that the disciples were really drunk, is a way to show how people don’t always understand the spirit. The don’t understand it because it doesn’t make sense. So, they have to find some way to explain what is going on. William Willmon notes, that this is how some try to understand the un-unstandableness of the Holy Spirit:
That power the church proclaims as gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, and so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.1
It’s also important to note that this is not the first coming of the Holy Spirit. The writer of Luke and Acts, shows other times when the Spirit comes to one person like when Mary sings the Magnificat (Luke1:46-55). But Pentecost is more of a “democratic” coming of the Spirit to everyone.
Many of us, especially in Mainline Protestant churches, don’t really know what to do about the Spirit. We know what to do with God. We are pretty sure what to do with Jesus. God is our Father and Mother, Jesus is the Son, the Lamb of God, but who is this Holy Spirit? We don’t know what to do with this third person. And, well, the word spirit brings up thoughts of ghosts and goblins…things that are rather creepy.
When most of us think of the Holy Spirit, if we ever do, we tend to think of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They are the ones that will sometimes dance up and down the isles and speak in something that sounds like complete gibberish. But “sophisticated” mainline Protestants look at such things with fear, because we most definitely don’t want to be like that. So, mainline Protestants tend to ignore the Spirit. If rolling around is what makes one “filled with the Spirit,” we will stick to our more sedate and sensible brand of worship, thank you very much.
But in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we tend to miss seeing the world through God’s eyes and in the end, we end up missing God.
One of the few things this writer remembers from his seminary days is that the word for wind and spirit in Greek is the word pnuema. For the more mature people in the congregation, this is where we get the word pneumatic tires from- tires filled with air. I think it’s interesting that this word mean both spirit and wind, because it give us some insight into what the Holy Spirit is all about. The wind is something that can’t be contained; it goes where it wants to go. God’s Spirit is not contained in churches, but is alive beyond these walls in the world. Our job is not to bring the Spirit to people but to find out where God is already at work and join God in that work.
The Hebrew word for spirit is even more fasicinating. That name is ruach, which also means breath. Think back to the creation story when God creates humans. God fashions the bodies, but they were still dead- until God breathes into their bodies and then they come to life. Spirit here means life, because to breathe means you live, you aspire. To not breathe is to expire, to die.
It’s easy to believe that the Spirit is something interior, that it has to uderstanding outside our own thoughts. But the coming of the Spirit is not an interiour event. It is like breath, it has to come out. When Luke describes the Spirit, he talks about wind, fire, confusion. Sometimes the Spirit makes one seek salvation. When Peter preaches his sermon based on the prophet Joel, the answer of many in the crowd was, “brothers what must we do?” When Jesus spoke to his neighbors at the synogogue in Nazareth, he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. His neighbors responded, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” The Spirit doesn’t always lead people to God, but it always gets a reaction.
Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church. The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey. The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.
Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.
And now a brief word on the text from Philippians. We finish Paul’s letter with chapter 4. Paul opens up the text by saying the church needs to rejoice in the Lord all the time. What that means is that joy comes taking part in God’s redemption story. But taking part in the redemption of creation includes suffering. So Paul is telling the church not to just believe in Jesus, but also be willing to suffer for Jesus. When Paul talks about that joy, it doesn’t come from achievment, but simply being with God in the good times and the bad times.
When Paul calls for the Philippians to show gentleness to others, it is a call for the church to reach out to their neighbor with compassion. Again, we do it not to spread the gospel or as a mission tactic, but simply because this is what a Christian does.
Every Sunday we come to church and pray prayers for the church and the wider world. Why? What is the point of sharing our prayer concerns? Paul responds that we pray to recieve the Peace of God. While we imitate the love of Christ, the peace of God is something that God gives.
Last year, a commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News with the provocative title, “For the sake of our democracy, go back to church (or synagogue, or mosque).” The writer, Joshua Whitfield reminds people how going to a place of worship can bring the domstic tranqulity that politics fails to produce. He writes:
Aside from various theologies, going to church or to the synagogue or to the mosque is good for us individually as healthy social beings and collectively as diverse citizens. And that’s because in faith communities we learn about the goods and virtues of belonging, and especially belonging among some people we wouldn’t normally have chosen to belong to.
And that’s what all local faith communities do in some form, gathering relatively diverse people together to practice virtues of commitment. They offer what the poet and farmer Wendell Berry simply calls “membership,” the sort of belonging that is accepted rather than purchased. It’s the sort of unbought, unsubscribed belonging that makes demands upon us but also nourishes us. It’s the sort of belonging that comes from loving and serving people you may have otherwise never thought to love or serve, discovering thereby deeper human solidarity. It’s the sort of belonging that teaches us how to love people simply because they’re there.
The church started because a group of people who were seated in a room, was touched by the Spirit and changed.
A pastor I knew used to ask how we knew how God is at work in our lives. So, have you seen God at work? Were you paying attention?
Pentecost is in many ways a question. We are asked to look back to see all the mighty deeds that God has done for God’s people, to see how Jesus showed us God’s love in his life, death and resurrection and to see the Holy Spirit descend in wind and flame. We are asked to see all of this and ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”
As we worship in our churches this weekend, as preachers prepare to preach yet another sermon on the Acts text, we might want to ask our congregations the same question. “So, what are you going to do about it?”
The “so what” for the disciples was that they started telling the story of Jesus all over the known world. They didn’t go back to their old lives, but forged ahead, being empowered and led by the Spirit to some new territory.
The wind, fire and the speaking of different languages is a pointed question to us. What does all of this mean to you? Does it affect you? Does it change your life?
As Christians our lives are shaped by a calling; a calling from God, exemplified by Jesus and sent by the Holy Spirit. It is when we serve others, teaching children about God or befriending a person battling addiction that is when we begin to answer the question that is Pentecost, it when we do something about life in response to all the amazing acts God has done for us. For all of us.
So, what are you going to do about it? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Can you see the wind? Can you breathe in the Spirit? That’s a question only you can answer.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.