This day of Pentecost reminds me of the story of the visitor in a Presbyterian church (not this one!) who was very moved. As she listened to the music and preaching, she suddenly shouted out: “I’ve heard the Lord! I’ve got the Spirit!” An elder of the church, sitting next to her said, “Yes, I can see that. But you didn’t get it here!”
God declares: I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. . .
What do we make of this powerful and mysterious passage from the book of Acts? We may feel uplifted, intrigued, and maybe even a little frightened. First, I want to point out that glossolalia, speaking in tongues as mentioned in other places in the New Testament, is not what is described in this passage. Whereas that mode of “speaking in tongues” is intelligible only to God, the language and hearing in this passage is just the opposite: On the day of Pentecost, people from all nations were suddenly able to hear the Galilean apostles speak in their own native tongues. Through the Holy Spirit, people speaking different languages were unified through hearing and understanding.
People from all nations, people with different languages, cultures, experiences: All of these people receive the good news of God’s boundless, saving love, as it is poured out in a new way! This is the same creative love of God that is the source of creation. The same power that freed the people of God in captivity, the same mystery behind the teaching given through Moses.
The same love that suffered on the cross and was resurrected to new life. This is the pouring out of God’s love, across all human divisions of nation, language, age, power and gender, sexual orientation, ability and race.
Sometimes the lack of understanding is even our own language. New Testament Scholar, Marcus Borg has a new book out, called Speaking Christian. He wrote that “ . . .Knowing and understanding the Christian language, is in a state of crisis in North America. . . For an increasing number of people, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. [Words like redemption, salvation, grace, blessing are foreign]. Many people either do not know the words at all. . .Even many of those who think they speak “Christian” fluently; think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood. But what they mean by these words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor.”
Borg tells how he moved from teaching in Minnesota–where Christian language was in the “air that we breathed” –to teaching in Oregon, the least churched state in the country. On his first day of class, he said “we can’t understand Christianity without understanding Judaism.” A hand shot up: “What’s Judaism?” As he sought to define Judaism, he mentioned Moses. Another hand shot up: “Who’s Moses?
At the beginning of a course, Borg asks students to write a 10-minute essay on the topic “Me and the Bible” or “Me and Christianity” Some questions to answer are “What has been your exposure to Christianity and the Bible? Did you grow up in church? Whether you did or not, what have you heard about the Bible and Christianity?”
Here is a sampling of answers:
“I don’t know much about the Bible, but I think there’s a story in it about a guy in a fish.”
“I don’t know much about Christianity, but I think Christians are really against trespassing.”
Borg wrote: I knew I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore.
The students are intelligent. It’s just that many have grown up with little or no involvement in church. Of those born since 1980, 25 percent describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. What might the pouring out of God’s Spirit look like for that 25 percent?
I would venture to say that not only does our culture in Oregon, not “speak Christian”, but that for the most part, even for those of us who show up regularly for worship—we have a hard time believing that God is still speaking to us today. Do we? Do we believe that God is still speaking today?
If God IS speaking, how well do we hear? I believe that God has always wanted our relationship with God to be so much more than a set of rituals we go through or a list of doctrines in which we believe. God has always wanted to be in us, to live in our hearts and restore us to God’s original dream of who we would be.
It’s what the prophet Joel predicted when he said, “And afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28). Peter quoted that passage here in Acts 2.
The celebration of Pentecost comes from Judaism. It was celebrated fifty days after the Passover, and was another remembering of liberation from bondage in Egypt. It marked the gathering of the people of God at Mt. Sinai, and the dramatic cloud-capped, thundering mountain, where Moses heard and received the Torah. The people gathered heard the “trumpet”—the Ram’s horn, the shofar. If, then, God’s voice was heard in the midst of the sound of the shofar on Mount Sinai, it too must be calling the world to freedom.
It is this freedom we taste when we hear God’s voice; when we feel God’s presence; and when we experience ourselves as spiritually alive!
In the passage in Acts, the apostles are gathered together, and with the sound of rushing wind and the drama of flames, the thousands people gathered could suddenly hear these Galilean apostles speaking—in their own languages! On Pentecost, we celebrate Spirit, Breath, Presence of God: what we celebrate in Jesus, can be present in human community. When this happens and we let it happen, the ancient curses which divide us are undone and we connect with God in a new way and we gain a new sense of identity.” Can we? Connect with God in a new way? Can we receive what God wants to pour out in us?
I recently had a conversation with a young adult who is teaching in Mississippi. We spoke of poverty and poverty’s effect on students and communities. He wisely noted: “True poverty isn’t about material resources, but about seeing yourself as limited. When you can only see your limits, you can’t begin to imagine things differently.”
Where do we feel “poor” as individuals? Where are we weak, in need of new life, as a congregation? What makes us feel limited? What stops imagination and hope? What is your longing? Could God be pouring Holy Spirit into that?
God declares: I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. . .
It is this freedom that we taste when we hear God’s voice and experience ourselves as spiritually alive. For when we are stirred by the awareness of God, whatever oppresses us releases us temporarily from its dominion. . .
Trying to hear God’s voice, is an invitation to focus on what matters, on what stirs your heart and awakens you. And to what serves others!
I’m reminded of a Mission Trip with Senior High kids I organized at another congregation. Unfortunately, as we prepared to travel, all I could seem to see were our limits! We were to travel to Warm Springs reservation—to repair and build a fence, and to do some serious clean up around the houses. As we prepared for the trip, I was already concerned because the advisors who were coming were elderly and a bit frail. We were missing our strongest, older youths. And then, at the last minute, the youth intern whom I was counting on—the real muscles in the group—came down sick and had to cancel. Much of the work I had planned for us to do seemed like it wouldn’t get done. Or worse: that we would try to do work that was too much, and do a poor job at it.
Our work began slowly. And my concerns were shared by kids in the group. On the first two days, there was lot of griping. Why were things in such a mess? Why weren’t there more adults helping? But near the end of the second day, something unexpected and new happened. Several of the youth on our team were magnets for the children of the reservation. These young children came out to be with our group. Pretty soon they were cheerfully helping, playing, singing and sharing stories. The best part was in the evening, around the campfire. With these children and some of their parents, we shared endless mugs of hot cocoa and a joy of new friendship. What had seemed limited at first–grew into abundance. Deep friendships trust and love overflowed.
God declared: I will “pour out my spirit”—filled to overflowing—beyond the limits of what we expect, know, believe, hope. . .
London Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg wrote: “For God speaks to every person all the time in a voice limited only by the capacity of each one of us to apprehend it.” He wrote that “when God spoke at Sinai all the world was manifest with such intensity and we all had the capacity to perceive it in that way. God still speaks today; God speaks in all creation all the time. Now, however, the task of seeing the world like that is up to us.”
God the Holy Spirit wants to live in us, fill us and empower us, just as the Spirit filled the apostles at Pentecost. The Spirit calls us to live the life of Jesus in this world: to be unbounded in love and joy! to be on fire with compassion, to live with forgiveness, to be recnciled. To be restored to God’s original plan for us, that we may live in wholeness with all people and creation!
What deep pain aches in you? Or what hurt in the world cries to you? What is it that you most long for? God says “I will pour out my Spirit upon you. . .” What would your life be like if you heard the Spirit calling you in that pain and longing? How would your life change if you heard and followed? What if each of us heard the Spirit calling through our longing? What would the world be like, then?