Testament Reading: Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1-4, 11
Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-21
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
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
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
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
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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