r m p






Political Pentecost


Old Testament Reading: Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1-4, 11

New Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-21

The traditional style of giving sermons requires that the sermon be based on a single pericope, a single self-contained bit of text. And usually I try to observe this protocol. But this way a whole category of biblical teaching is cut off from us.

Often the biblical writer means to tell us something by means of a systematic and comprehensive arrangement of material, and it is only by glimpsing the outlines of the whole thing that we can see what the author is telling us.

This morning I want to begin a series of sermons for the Pentecost season by drawing your attention to a series of related passages in Luke-Acts. They all have to do with the pouring out of the Spirit and what that implies.

First, listen to the preaching of John the Baptist as he heralds the coming Messiah. In Luke 3:16 we read that the Baptist foretold of his successor that "I baptize with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Luke also has John warn that membership in the traditional Holy People of God does not excuse anyone from the need to repent in order to be ready for the outpouring of the Spirit. "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father.' I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham."

Let's jump over to the resurrection in Luke 24. Here Jesus, just before he ascends to heaven, tells the disciples, "Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). The prediction of John the Baptist is on the verge of fulfillment. The disciples dare not leave the city, for then they might miss it.

In the beginning of Acts, Luke has Jesus reiterate the same point: "And while eating with them, he charged them not to depart out of Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, 'which you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (1:4-5). Here is a clear piece of editorial work. "Remember what John the Baptist said, way back in Luke chapter three? And remember what Jesus said in Luke 24? Well, stay tuned: you're about to see it."

Then in Acts 2, the famous Pentecost passage, it does happen. The passage itself tells us what some of the implications of the Spirit's advent are: notice the democratizing of prophecy.

It is no longer the peculiar province of a particular group to prophesy, to speak the divine word. "Your sons and your daughters alike shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." The traditional restriction of authority to male elders is swept away by the fresh wind of the Spirit. Moses, in a text surely on Luke's mind as he writes, had once mused, "Would that all Jehovah's people were prophets!"

But this is not the end of it. Over in chapter 10 we read the story of how Peter is strong-armed by the Holy Spirit into visiting the Roman centurion Cornelius and preaching the gospel to him. Peter is not exactly wild about the idea initially, because as an observant Jew he knows such a journey would involve violating kosher food laws.

So before he is willing to go, he has to be shown a vision in which he sees a whole zoo full of animals, some kosher, some not, and the voice of God tells him, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat!" Peter, as usual thinks he knows better than God (which is because his role in the New Testament is to stand for the Average Christian); he protests, "No, Lord! Never have I eaten anything common or unclean!" God answers, "What God himself has declared clean, who are you to call unclean?"

Peter is then awakened by a knock at the door. It is an embassy from Cornelius, asking Peter to come and preach. He puts two and two together. The dream was telling him it was okay to go with these unwashed pagans after all. "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34-35)

The audience proves especially receptive. In fact, before Peter can even finish his preaching the Holy Spirit descends and sweeps them all into a prophetic state of ecstasy. "And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even upon the Gentiles" (10:45).

Later on, in Jerusalem, Peter is called on the carpet by Jewish Christians who are skeptical of the wisdom of his actions since, like Doubting Thomas, they were not themselves present at the amazing event. But Peter defends himself by evoking  Pentecost: "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift he gave us when we first believed, who was I that I could hope to withstand God?"

But even this is not the end. In chapter 15, the same question is raised again: will God indeed accept pagans as his people without the taboos and niceties of the Jewish Law?

A conference is called in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas have their say, then Peter clinches it by reminding everyone of the Cornelius episode, now many years in the past:  "Brethren, you know how in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness, giving them the Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, but cleansed their hearts by faith" (15:7-9)

There is in these passages a long series of backwards references. Jesus recalls what he and the Baptist had said. It happens on Pentecost, and Peter preaches that "the promise [of the Spirit] is for all who are far off," namely the Gentiles. When Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles are inducted into the church Peter defends his actions by recalling Pentecost as a precedent. Years later, when the whole thing is up for grabs again, the Cornelius incident, "Pentecost 2," has itself become a precedent to settle the question.

What does this series of texts tell us? What do they imply about the meaning of Pentecost?

Here's an oddity worthy of Jacques Derrida: it is only in its repetition that the uniqueness of the event becomes manifest! Did you get that? The distinctiveness of the unique event is silent and unreadable until it is no longer unique. Only once it is repeated, until Pentecost happens again and again, can we tell what it really meant the first time.

Like all sacred time which cycles back again and again to repeat its regenerative magic, Pentecost ever again brings the cleansing flood of the Spirit to wash away distinctions of clean and unclean, to topple ancient hierarchies, to sweep away boundaries between cultures and religions.

Isn't that the pattern? When the Spirit comes, women as well as men can speak the prophetic word. The young may speak wisdom as well as the old. The Gentile may be accepted as he is without embracing what to him is an alien cultural framework, Judaism.  Even the Samaritans receive the Spirit, and thus the centuries of hatred are washed away. The Evangelist Philip preaches to Samaritans and to an Ethiopian! Even the black/white separation is swept aside by the surging tidal wave of the Spirit of Pentecost.

It is interesting that Luke seems to envision the barriers that had separated all these classes of people as being cultural, not particularly religious in nature. He speaks of the "customs of Moses," "the custom of the Law." For him they are not binding revelation, at least not where they serve to separate the races and classes.                                   

The point is much the same as what we today call "multiculturalism"--the diversity of people is a thing to celebrated. We renounce the notion that to get along we have to insist that people from other cultures have to assimilate to our ways. They don't have to become like us to be accepted by us.

I testify this Pentecost Sunday morning that many so-called Christians the world over are utterly bereft of this Spirit, whatever other spirit may possess them. It is Christians who perpetrate Medieval horrors on their Muslim neighbors in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is Christians, among others, in Lebanon, who fight Jews and Druze and Muslims. It is Christians who blow each other's children to bloody fragments in Northern Ireland. It is Christians who wield baseball bats against homosexuals and burn crosses on the lawns of black men in the United States. It is Christians in Liberia and Ethiopia who slaughter one another in the tribal warfare red in tooth and claw. It is Christians in South Africa who hold on to the reins of power over indigenous blacks, in many cases Christian blacks who kill each other there.

I bear witness against them this day that they are utterly without the Spirit of Christ. How do I know this? After all, doesn't Peter say that only God knows the heart?

Yes, but then how pray tell can Peter be so sure God accepts the Gentiles? Because he cannot deny the plain evidence of his senses! He has seen the piety of Cornelius, how he and Peter share a common experience of the Spirit. To deny or to explain away what he has seen in Cornelius's case would nullify his own experience on Pentecost, for they are the same. If one is invalid, equivocal, then so is the other. 

If you as a Christian are puzzled by the righteousness and godliness of the Buddhist or the Jew or the Gay Christian who doesn't fit your categories of who belongs to the people of God, then just be as logical as Peter.

He had concluded that his well-reasoned theology which excluded Gentiles must have made a wrong turn somewhere, because the plain fact was that God had accepted them! He was like Jonah, only Jonah still wouldn't believe it once he saw the hated Assyrians repenting. Be like Peter, who could still learn something, not like Jonah who couldn't!

Much time has gone by since the events of the Book of Acts. You take safely for granted the reshuffling of categories that made such an earthquake there. It is quite easy to accept that Samaritans are as dear to God as you are--because you don't happen to know any Samaritans! You are pretty relieved that God accepts Gentiles, because you are one!

Are you willing to learn from the young? Can you believe that they might prophesy? Or, to put in secular terms, that you might have something to learn from them?

How about the elderly? As of Pentecost they dream dreams, see visions. Dare you ignore them? Do you pay heed to what they say? Take them seriously enough to find out. Don't prove your own youthful stupidity by ignoring them.

Men, do you allow that women are your equals? Knowing you, I believe you do. I believe our church over the years has been pretty open to the Spirit on that question, given our track record of women's leadership and ordination.

In his gospel Luke shows Jesus as being approachable by lepers, whose contact others shunned. But for Jesus, ablaze with the Pentecostal Spirit from his baptism, all barriers of uncleaness had already been dropped. He welcomed he lepers. Today's lepers are AIDS victims. They are not unclean, not to be shunned. We can tell whether the Spirit is present, depending on whether you shun them or not.

The great Pentecostal denominations, who I am sure will dominate Christianity in a generation or so, reducing our kind of churches to a marginal sectarian status, believe that the one sure sign of whether one is filled with the Spirit is speaking in ecstatic tongues. But I reject that. Speaking in tongues is well and good, but is it the true sign of the baptism of the Spirit?

I claim Peter's prerogative to call it as I see it, and I see as the evidence of the baptism of the Spirit when one affirms and embraces the indigent, the madman, the AIDS pariah, the ideological opponent, when one refuses to condone the oppression of women, Africans, and the elderly, when one refuses to minimize the young, like certain churches do who catch their clergy molesting children and then silently ship them off to other parishes where they continue their loathsome games.

Let me tell you one of the things about our church that thrills me the most these days. I rejoice that we number among our members individuals from Ethiopia, Jamaica, Iran, Kenya, Cameroon, Jews and Gentiles, black and white. And I want more diversity still in our little microcosm! Insofar as we can welcome and embrace and learn from such diversity, if we can let our heritages express themselves, then I dare hope the Spirit breathes and blows among us.




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