r m p







Fade Away and Radiate


Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

New Testament Reading: Mark 9:1-8

Text: Acts 2:1-4, 32-33

I continue this morning in a series of sermons exploring themes that come to the surface as I read and contemplate the Pentecost passage. It seems appropriate to me, as there is a season of Pentecost, and not merely a single day of it, for us to trace the Pentecostal themes throughout the designated weeks. I begin with a note as to why the 120 proto-Christians were gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. What were they doing there? Why not out in the streets mingling with the pilgrims,spreading the word? Why not in the Temple celebrating the feast themselves? Why were they sitting idle?

What they were doing was waiting, tarrying, as the King James put it, and as Pentecostal piety has put it ever since. In Acts 1:4 Luke recounted how the Risen Christ told the disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father." So that is what they were doing: waiting. In this they are like faithful Joshua in the book of Exodus. Pentecost was the celebration of the ancient giving of the Torah from the summit of Sinai. And there is reason to believe that Luke has juxtaposed the coming of the Spirit on the same day as a counterpoint and counterpart to the Old Testament event.

If so, then we must see the ascension of Jesus into heaven as corresponding to the ascent of his prototype Moses into the heights of cloud-sheathed Sinai. For forty days his lieutenant Joshua waited on a lower ridge for him to return with the tables of the Law.  Even so, here we find 120 Joshuas waiting for Jesus to send the new Law of the Spirit from the heavenly Sinai. And just as Joshua finally rejoiced to greet the Law-laden Moses, the 120 come to end of their tarrying by welcoming the descent of the Spirit.

Luke has Peter proclaim that the excess of spiritual ecstasy witnessed by the skeptical crowd is something poured out by the exalted Jesus. And now that he has poured out these living waters, the fountain is open to all who may wish to come and drink. This scene raises an acute theological and spiritual issue that I have thought about many, many times through the last decade or so. I have discussed it with some of you at times. It is this: are the spiritual experiences of the Christian faith, or of any religion, the result of God reaching down from heaven and into the human world, or are they the result of human beings awakening to a spiritual reality that always surrounds them? The Acts passage seems to say both. The Risen Christ has poured out like a Christian Aquarius, a latter rain of Spiritual power to inaugurate a New Age of Spirituality, commencing at Pentecost. It is a divine penetration of the mundane world. Yet once he has done it, the Living Waters are there for anyone to come and drink. It is up to you to plug in, so to speak.

But I will tell you that I have major problems with the very notion of God doing something. I have a hard time believing that God exists as a character acting in temporal sequence, for one thing. That would seem to make God already incarnate as a humanoid being even before and apart from the incarnation of Christ. If God acted in the same sort of way that we do, i.e. doing discrete deeds in the flow of the time stream, if God were already down there amid his creatures in the cause-&-effect sequence, why then he's already incarnate, not that Ultimate who Is that He Is.

But, to level with you about my skepticism, I just cannot accept the notion that there is an intelligent being out there somewhere trying to communicate with us or to reach us or teach us by means of pantomime. I guess I would say that in my theology God is not someone on the other side. Rather God simply is the Other Side. To picture God as a discrete being who might communicate from beyond the veil seems to demote him to the proportions of a UFO alien or some thing. Or at least that's the pitiful state of my unbelief.

So what can I make of the traditional idea of revelation, which would seem exactly to make of God a sender of news flashes from the Dark Side of the Moon? I guess I'd go along with Harry Emerson Fosdick on this one and say that every revelation of God is simultaneously a discovery by human beings, via their own searchings, their own ethical and mystical delvings. It is like drilling for oil and suddenly hitting a gusher. Or, to give you some idea where my sermon title came from (I will not tell you exactly where, except that it is a song title), let me show you how well I recall a lesson from my Astronomy course at Montclair State a million years ago. Scientists had formulated what is now a familiar theory, that of the Big Bang, the origin of the expanding universe from a small central sphere of tight, hot matter compacted into the diameter of our solar system. For some reason one day it exploded, sending atoms of hydrogen streaming outward in every direction, eventually to form the galactic clusters, galaxies, stars, and planets.

Now this sounded good to those scientists, with their horn-rimmed glasses and shirt pockets full of pencils and slide rules. But how to convince everyone else? Well, sir, some of the boys over at Bell Labs devised a scheme. They got to figuring and they figured that if the explosion had occurred in just the way they posited, the primordial fireball thus created would have left a lingering ghost of radiation that should be detectable, oh say, at three degrees on the scale. So they tuned in the big dish at Bell Labs to three degrees—and sure enough, there it was!           

My guess is that, to speak mythically as we have to do when we discuss matters of this type, the Holy is an overarching aura of Sacred Radiance which does not trouble itself to focus a beam and direct it earthward every now and again. I suspect that spiritual experience is more a matter of being intrepid and determined, like the boys at Bell Labs were, and finding a way to tap into it. To tune in to it. Listen to a statement on the subject by Evelyn Underhill in her classic book Worship:       

    Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "natural religion": the distinction which is often drawn between "natural" and "revealed" faith is an artificial one, set up by  theologizing minds. That awed conviction of the reality of  the Eternal over against us, that awareness of the Absolute, that sense of God, which in one form or another is the beginning of all worship, whether it seems to break in from without, or to arise within the soul, does not and cannot originate within man. It comes to him where he is, as a message from another order...

There is something worth pondering here. But I think Underhill immediately reintroduces the very distinction she has tried to banish! There is no difference here between special revelation and natural? Then why does she insist that the God-consciousness must come from without? Rather than upending, as Derrida would do, the distinction between revealed and natural religion, she simply eliminates all natural religion!

Underhill describes a perfect example of what Derrida calls the nonconcept of the "hymen"--a case where we can spot a conduit of conceptual passage but without being able to assign priority to passage in either direction. Since there is simply, primordially this inner awareness within all people of the Holy, without being able to show that it is the result of religious instruction from without, or on the other hand that the projection of it outward from inside us is the origin of religion, we would seem to have reached the point where we can simply drop the debate that troubled me initially: is God out there trying to get spiritual experience to us? Or are we to tap into a latent, passive field of spirituality that waits for us like a potent ocean of fiery new wine? Where is the initiative? With God or with us? Does he move oward us? Or we to him? Or both? Or are they the same thing viewed two ways?                       

How about Jesus Christ? Was he an intrusion from a higher sphere into our own, a man who was a message from God? Or was he the Promethean usurper of fire from the heavens? A man who leaped like Icarus toward the Sun and returned unsinged? I agree with Tillich who said that it works both ways: to say that Jesus is God and man must mean that the ancient competing doctrines of adoptionism (a man becoming divine) and incarnationism (God becoming human) must both be true. Each is the corollary of the other.

So what was going on that Pentecost as the 120 tarried in the upper room? The narrative describes it as a pouring out of divine grace from heaven to earth. And yet I cannot help but suspect that the traditional Pentecostal exegesis of these verses as the precedent for holding tarrying meetings reveals another way of reading the text, a countersignature in the text. Does the picture of the days of tarrying not imply that what suddenly changed on Pentecost day was not the availability of the Promise of the Father but rather the ability of the 120 to appropriate it?

I think of another passage, saying 113 of the Gospel of Thomas. The disciples ask when the Kingdom of the Father is going to arrive.  Jesus says, "The Kingdom of the Father is spread abroad upon the earth and men do not see it." It appears that one may, by expecting spiritual reality to erupt spontaneously, miss that very reality! One must instead recognize that it is already there, like the current in the wiring of your house. All you have to do is go and find a plug that fits the outlet. That is easier said than done, I realize. That is what all the rituals of all the religions, the Communion Table, the Zen koan, the recitation of the Koran, the mantras of Hinduism, are for. You are trying to plug in. Even the silent and patient waiting of the traditional tarrying meeting is a way of plugging in. It is an exceedingly active passivity because a mindful one.

What will happen if you manage to do it?  If you plug in? Or to return to an earlier metaphor, if your drilling hits the jackpot and you strike oil? It may be a gusher! Though the reality of the spirit may not have been trying to make contact with you (indeed I view it as at rest, placid, undisturbed), once you make contact

with it you will know it to be a living and consuming fire. The oil slept peacefully beneath the ground, but once tapped, it burst forth in fury that one can scarcely contain. The waters behind the dike may have been at rest, but when you unplug the dike, it jets out in resistless power! The Holy is urgent and blazing and alive! It is, however, not looking for you. You must look for it. But be careful, when you have found it you will have roused a sleeping tiger.                        




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