Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost: What Does It Mean?

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17  ‘In the last days it will be,God declares, 
     that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, 
          and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 
     and your young men shall see visions, 
          and your old men shall dream dreams. 
18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, 
          in those days I will pour out my Spirit; 
               and they shall prophesy. 
19  And I will show portents in the heaven above 
          and signs on the earth below, 
               blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
20  The sun shall be turned to darkness 
          and the moon to blood, 
               before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
 NUMBERS 11:24-30
24So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Take a deep breath because here comes the Holy Spirit swooshing into our lives and into our church and leaving us all a little confused. Pentecost is the celebration of the Spirit and the birth of the church. Unlike the Genesis creation story which happens sequentially day after day and brings order out of chaos, this creation of the church story heaps chaos onto chaos. It brings visions, new languages and new people into the mix of believers.

In the Pentecost story, the Spirit doesn’t work decently or in order but with drunken-like exuberance. We can rest assured that in this case the Holy Spirit is not acting like a Presbyterian –it’s, well, Pentecostal—a little wild and ecstatic and blowing every which way. Can you imagine if we had someone in our congregation begin to speak in tongues? We’d be dialing 9-1-1 before someone had the chance to interpret.

I love the story of Pentecost because it’s chaotic and messy, just like our lives. In the stories leading up to today’s celebration, our traumatized disciples mourn their crucified leader. Then he comes miraculously back to life. Then, after a few more teachings he ascends to heaven on a cloud, body and all.

The disciples retreat to an upper room to pray and wait. What do you think they were praying for? If it were me, I’d be praying for a little peace and quiet. I’d be praying that my life might settle back to normal so that I could go home and wake up every morning for a month and not have to face anything out of the ordinary or supernatural. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead of getting easier, the lives of the disciples get even more difficult. The Spirit roars in and fans the flames of passion for the gospel. 

Suddenly all that weird supernatural stuff isn’t happening to Jesus, it’s happening directly to them

What does it mean?

The disciples must have been surprised with their new abilities. The crowd around them was bewildered. It’s a newsworthy event that everyone is talking about.

It’s as if the message erupted on cable TV, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat all at once. Maybe throw in a little skywriting as well in case someone doesn’t have a phone. Nobody was left out. They all hear it at once. The gospel goes viral.

We talk about the power of social media in our culture, about how it allows so many people to have access to information so quickly. We are watching today as it empowers people who once had no voice suddenly be able to reach tens, hundreds or thousands of people all at once. Citizen journalists are taking the place of network news anchors. Anyone with a phone can videotape a news event and post it minutes later.  Our messages spread quickly, whether it’s #yesallwomen or #bringbackourgirls or #Benghazi or #Pentecost. Virtually anyone, anywhere can participate. 

We look at our computers, phones, emails and tweets and see cats and news stories and silly pictures make their way around the world and wonder,  What does this mean?

What does it mean when our sons and daughters and grandchildren talk about things in the world that we don’t see or understand. Are they our prophets? What does it mean when our elderly people dream of a different reality? What does it mean when the people who have been marginalized—slaves, women, minorities, people with disabilities, people who are gay, people who are poor—what happens when they suddenly have a voice that that other people can hear?

The Pentecost story shows us. When change happens as dramatically and quickly, some people are amazed, some people are perplexed and some people sneer.  Some people are ready to consider the change. Some aren't sure. Others are oppose it.

A similar thing happens in the Old Testament story about Moses. Moses takes the spirit that is upon him and places some of it upon the elders and they to began to prophecy for a time. Reading that story, it doesn’t seem chaotic, but intentional. Moses gathers the 70 chosen people, takes them to the tent and give them each a portion of the spirit.

Each person in worship got a card to carry with
 them to remind them that they are prophets outside
the bounds of the church. The back of the card has
Moses desire for prophesy.
But, there are two who did not go to the tent. These two are outside the bounds. They have the audacity to prophecy in the camp. Joshua runs to Moses and says, stop them! It’s out of control. They aren’t following the rules! But, Moses refuses to stop this out of bounds prophecy and instead says, 

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!

Moses wants there to be more people full of the spirit and prophesy.

In both of these stories we see a Holy Spirit that cannot be contained or controlled. We see a Spirit that circulates in and among people causing them to minister and prophecy in new ways. The Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until we have a degree or session approval. The Holy Spirit doesn’t care whether we have enough money or volunteers.  The Holy Spirit may not even care if we’ve read the Bible, though it typically inspires us to read it after an encounter. 

The Holy Spirit instigates change. Our Holy response is to ask: What does it mean?

What does the presence of the Holy Spirit mean in Acts? It means that Jesus’ gospel is coming to life. It means that gospel is going viral, catching fire. Gospel “happens” when we come together as wildly different people of God. Gospel “happens” when we discover our unity in Christ despite our diversity in nationality or income or ethnicity or denomination. Gospel “happens” when the boundaries between people are fluid and we learn to love and forgive beyond our borders and minister out of bounds. Sometimes this happens in a church. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s downright traumatic.

One of the most powerful and scary experiences in my own life begins like a joke…

An atheist, a Jew and a Christian were standing by a pool. We were at a big birthday party for our daughter Abby’s friend the summer she was between first and second grade. We were doing the mom thing, chatting about life and kids, stretching our faces toward the sun, enjoying the grown-up conversation. It was a pretty swanky affair and it seemed like half the people there were doctors. Abby and her friends had gone inside for the cake cutting and Sarah, my third grader, was still swimming with a few other siblings. Because there was no lifeguard, I stayed to keep an eye out. At one point the woman next to me called out to Sarah.

“Sarah, can you help that boy over here I think there is something wrong with him.”

One look and I knew something was beyond wrong. The boy was on his back with his arms splayed out. He was three inches under water. His eyes and this mouth were open and his lips were blue. The little boy was dead in the water.

My next memory is of being underwater, fully clothed, with my keys in my pocket and my shoes on.  Looking up was like a dramatic movie shot with sunlight sparkling on the water and the silhouette of his small body floating against the bright sky. I frantically kicked and pushed and dragged him to the edge of the pool with Sarah's help. Hands were reaching for him and yanking him out of the water. As I hung on the side of the pool I watched people encircle him and begin CPR. I could hear a mother’s hysterical screaming.

When I got out of the water, the boy was breathing crying. Alive and terrified.

The next day I received a note and gift. The note had two messages, a child’s scrawl, “Thank you for saving my life” and a women’s script, “We are so thankful Allah used you to save our son.” Did I mention that the boy was a Muslim?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve revisited this story wondering, What does it mean? What does it mean that there were people of different faiths? What does it mean that I can’t remember jumping in? What does it mean that the depth of my spiritual life seems to be divided into a before and after this time of full immersion and trauma? What does it mean to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit? Of God?

Shortly after that, I decided to go to seminary. Now I’m here asking the same question. What does it mean? What does it mean when the church leadership adopts the mission of reaching out to ALL God’s people and then people who don't think or act like us come into our communal life?

What does it mean that the Spirit is calling the young people who have been showing up to start a ministry group for themselves? What does it mean to be the body of Christ in this time and place?

The Holy Spirit is here with us. Leading us, guiding us, and maybe even traumatizing us with its power. Things are happening. Let’s embrace what the Spirit is doing and see how it leads us into God’s glorious future.

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