Thursday, May 31, 2012

All That Matters

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

To say that the Day of Pentecost is the next most important festival day in the year, after Easter and Christmas, is true, but often deflated by its landing on Memorial Day weekend, a time when Americans love to get away, not so much to decorate graves as to embrace life at a spectacular time of year when we all feel drawn to the great outdoors.

In Judaism, Pentecost started out as an agricultural festival. In the Book of Leviticus, Israel is instructed to count off seven weeks from the Passover: “You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Right in keeping with that is the instruction to bring fresh baked bread as a first-fruits offering to God. And then comes the bloody part: seven lambs, one young bull, two rams, and two goats are to be sacrificed. Finally, “On that same day you shall make proclamation: you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout all your generations.”

And presumably, with all that fresh meat, the holy convocation adjourned to a mighty barbecue.

So that background may suggest why the disciples were all together in one place, this day in Jerusalem. Don’t think twelve disciples (or eleven, with the loss of Judas Iscariot): Team Jesus was about 120 persons, we heard in last Sunday’s lesson from the Book of Acts.

Does this mean that they were all fired up at the thought of celebrating the wheat harvest? I doubt it. Something far more immediate, intimate, and life-changing was happening to them. With today’s portion of John’s Gospel as an audio clip of what was on their minds, they were still struggling with the meaning of their experiences across those previous fifty days: their Lord’s brutal death and momentous emergence from an empty tomb, his sporadic and astonishing appearances (usually at meal times), then his dramatic disappearance on the fortieth day.

“Sorrow has filled your hearts,” says Jesus to his followers in John’s Gospel. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not… the Advocate will not come to you… the Spirit of truth… (who) will guide you into all the truth.”

That gives us a taste of what those disciples are still chewing on, come the Day of Pentecost. They are still grieving, still looking in a mirror dimly, a rear-view mirror to try to figure out what the meaning of all this is.

Eugene Peterson in “The Message” tweaks the language this way: “If I don’t leave, the Friend (capital F) won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you.” Or her, if you’re encouraged by some tweaking to do some more.

Now whatever meanings this day carried into this roomful of Jesus’s friends—gratitude for the earth and its bounty, sorrow and confusion over their losses—suddenly a sound filled the entire house, a sound like the rush of a violent wind. In many places today this moment in the story will bring a twinge of trauma: Joplin, Missouri… Springfield, Massachusetts, and points east… it was this time of year…

The full attention of everyone in that house was claimed, not by the meaning of past events, but by encounter with God in the immediate moment. What mattered now was not the traditions of Leviticus or the anguish of recent weeks: they were in the eye, not of a storm, but of God. Those flames of fire tell us so, as each mind and heart becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, and the mighty sound in that room is no longer wind but speech, their speech, in languages they had not studied or learned by trade or travel. And their speech is their tool to wield God’s mission given in that flow of the Spirit.

Because in Jerusalem at that time were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. And at the sound of all these languages in simultaneous fluency, an international crowd gathers. Amazed and astonished, they hear intriguing, appealing, longed-for announcement of God’s crossing the boundaries between past and present, God’s doing wonderful things not only long ago but now, God’s radical, even revolutionary, treasuring of all nations, all races, all gender, all classes. From where we stand, this is the stuff of breakthrough, the human race discovering a vision of God transcending all the tribal views of God, the human race finding itself at the threshold of unity—not under the iron fist of a Roman emperor, but at the open hand of a loving God.

Almost instantly, the nay-sayers say it can’t be so: these Jesus followers must be drunk. “Not so,” replies Peter,”it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, for heaven’s sake. What you’re hearing is fulfillment of ancient prophecy, that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, not just the ordained few or the noticeably religious or the established righteous. Slaves as well as free, women as well as men, now find their voices in God.

And at this moment in time, the religion of ancient Israel is still where the action is. Notice how the Christian author of Acts (we believe it was St. Luke) gives credit to the Jews for having advanced the cause of universal partnership, even though, by the time he wrote this, the doors of the synagogues were closing to Christians and the hearts of Christians were turning against Jews.

Luke tells of the birth of the Jesus movement at a moment when it could have kept bringing its new blood, new life, to the table of orthodoxy. But it is in the nature of the orthodox to resist change, argue with the new, miss the opportunity to reach out and welcome, and instead circle the wagons. This is the fuller story Luke will tell, post-Pentecost.

By the same token, it is in the nature of movements to step on toes, impose changes, and generally set fire to the bleachers. All that is also part of the story, post-Pentecost. While we can’t expect Luke to tell that part of the story like it was, we know ourselves and our history well enough to guess that the estrangement of Christians and Jews was reciprocal.

And little would Luke have guessed that the Jesus movement itself could become just as resistant an orthodoxy as that of the Jewish temple. Luke remembers the days when it was said, “See how these Christians love one another!” Could he have time-traveled three or four centuries forward, he would have seen troubles ahead as the Church imposed uniformity in theology, worship, and politics, breaking into armed camps, excommunications, burnings of heretics, religious wars, and a never-ending splintering of the Body of Christ into tribal religions of denominationalism.

All of which is to say how critically important to us the Day of Pentecost, the story of Pentecost, the Spirit of Pentecost is.

And how dangerous to our own favorite orthodoxies. Remember the story: The sound, like a violent wind, claims the attention of all, levels all preoccupations, transcends all issues and struggles, sweeps everyone off their feet. Then comes the fire that frees and fills minds and hearts. No one emerges unchanged. No one can claim to be in charge.

All that is left is mission. And a community made ready by communion with the divine. All that matters is recognizing God, allowing inspiration, taking part in what God is doing in the world, expressing and extending the gift of being in God.