5 June 2022

5 June 2022

Text:               Acts 2:1-21


Today the Church worldwide celebrates Pentecost Sunday. Someone shout: “SO WHAT.” And some people might ask, “IS THIS A TRUE STORY?”

And my answer is: This story is undeniably true!  Now for some that answer might not be enough and they’d want to know, “DID THIS ACTUALLY HAPPEN?”  Well, if you want me to be honest, I’d like to think so. But I doubt that it actually happened. 

But whether it actually happened or not, most of us know that the truth in this story lies in the power of metaphor. Metaphor, which literally means: ‘beyond words’. 

The power of metaphor is in its ability to point beyond itself to truths beyond those that are apparent. 

And the metaphor in this story points us to buck-naked truths about tradition, worldly power, patriarchy, hierarchy, orthodoxy and many more truths about the very nature of the church itself and religion in general.

For me it doesn’t matter whether or not this actually happened or not. What matters is what we can learn about ourselves and our life together from this story.

The heroine in this little story demands to be heard as she puts all her listeners on notice that the Spirit of God is out of the box and wearing a hat.  The story of Pentecost is just as stunning.  

Even though over years we’ve managed to pretty much domesticate the story by literalizing it and insisting that yes indeed Pentecost really did actually happen just as it is described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Pentecost refuses to play by our rules as the power of metaphor turns the Spirit of God loose on our silly notions about history.

Truth is as elusive as it is blatantly obvious and yet we continue to try to deny the paradox of truth. Truth is as colourful as the rainbows that stretch across the sky and yet we continue to try to limit the truth to the simplicity of black and white. All too often truth’s refusal to fit into our neat little boxes causes us to deny the obvious truth in favour of a truth of our own creation.

The story of Pentecost is a case in point. For decades historians, New Testament Scholars, and theologians have been telling us that the story of Pentecost is not history. Like all sorts of stories about the origins of things, the story of the church’s birthday is shrouded in myth and legend. However, in my opinion that doesn’t make the story of the church’s beginning at Pentecost any less true, it just means that it isn’t history.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles, was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel according to Luke. The truth is we have no idea who this writer was, and the name Luke does not appear on the early manuscripts. The name Luke was applied much latter, by something called “tradition”. And in those days ‘tradition” meant “the church”.  The Acts of the Apostles represents the voice of someone living in a community at the turn of the first century. The writer, let’s follow tradition and just call him Luke, the writer known as Luke writes a Gospel also now known as Luke, which tells the story of the life and times of Jesus as known by his community. 

Luke also writes the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the story of the early followers of Jesus, who managed to hang together after Jesus was gone and established a movement that changed the world. Luke writes his account of the founding of this movement out of the context of his community and addresses the needs and concerns of his community.

In both the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts, the writer makes it clear that he is writing to a character named Theopholous, which in Greek means, Lover of God. 

Luke addresses his writing to a lover of God and right from the beginning he confesses that he is writing so that you may have faith.  As lovers of God we read these ancient stories so that we may have faith. We do not read them so that we can know the history of events as they actually happened.

Most of us know the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis.

It would have been a familiar story to the people of Luke’s community. The story of the chaos that ensues because of humanity’s hubris contains truths about tribalism that would have been as familiar to a first century audience as they are to a 21st century audience. 

Humans are social animals, and not very well equipped to live a life of solitude. We bond socially with like-minded people forming groups. Even if we have a falling out with another member, the powerful, instinctive desire to belong to the tribe means we’re unlikely to leave or join another group.

One of the dangers of tribalism which pits one people against another and one culture against another were ingrained in the religious traditions of the first century.

I believe the writer of Acts uses the story of Pentecost to point to the truth of the Jesus experience. Their experience of Jesus with his radical ideas about a loving God, lead the early followers of the way to a new understanding of faith. 

Empowered by Jesus, the full embodiment of love, the early followers felt compelled to share their experience. Faith did not have to be lived out in fear, even in the face of death. Being faithful was not about being exclusive or tribal, for love knows no boundaries. It wasn’t even about religion which is so often used by the powerful to oppress the powerless. 

Faith was not about purity but compassion, healing and justice. Faith didn’t need to be destructive if it heightened our awareness that the creation of which we are a part is an interconnected web.

Sadly, over the years all too many Christians have seen the story of Pentecost as simply a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. But here we have so much more. In the Tower of Babel we have a story speaks to the origins of a kind of chaos that is the result of human arrogance. This chaos leads to disaster. 

The response of the people is to adopt a kind of tribalism where eventually only one tribe becomes the chosen people. The chosen tribe then chooses to exhibit a kind of uniformity which defines who is in and who is out. Boundaries are established. The religious practice that emerges strives for order and uniformity. Order is established and the faithful are encouraged to live within the rules. 

But you know what? In the Pentecost story the chaos and disorder is not created by humans but by God. The Pentecost story is about chaos and disorder; about God who is running amok. Boundaries are crossed. Taboos are broken. Suddenly, like the rush of the wind young people have visions and elders have dreams; dreams and visions that threaten the established order.

“Why change?” “No thank you.” “We like the ways things are. We don’t want them to change.” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

We’ve all heard these common phrases.

Do you want me to be upfront with you? For the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone would subscribe to this way of thinking. It implies that you should always wait for something to completely fail before doing anything to improve or fix it. I like the status quo if it benefits me or I don’t have to give up my power and ability to control.

Luke’s story speaks directly to his community which has become accustomed to a religion that is a product of its culture; where faith reflects the values of the tribe. 

The Pentecost story reflects the early Christian understanding of Jesus as a leader who didn’t just address the Chosen People but who engaged the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, and the Samaritan leper.

Luke, in the telling of the story of Pentecost, already knew that Christianity had spread to the edge of the known world and to its very centre in Rome. Christianity had already transcended tribe and tradition. 

Sadly, it didn’t take long for the early Christians to try to put the Spirit back in the box.

Jesus calls us to think beyond our exclusive tribes, beyond our small boxes. The story of Pentecost shows the Spirit of God out of the box, prancing about in the city malls and intoxicating the people with the sheer beauty of her audacity. Luke’s Pentecost story also served to remind those first Christians of the Jesus call to diversity. That call to diversity has the power to contradict the power of the status quo of tribalism that was exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The followers of the Way are able to declare that in Christ there is no East nor West, no North nor South, no Jew nor Gentile, no man nor woman. All are one as Christ is One. In Jesus the followers of the way are challenged to think beyond tribalism, beyond the boxes of progressives, conservatives, evangelicals or Pentecostals.

Luke’s Pentecost story calls us to a similar awakening.  An awakening that begs the question: What kind of Pentecost stories are we called to craft?  Can we 21st century followers of the Way produce Pentecost stories that will boldly declare that we are one with our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Taoist sisters and brothers, and what about atheists, agnostics and all the poor and the powerless?

Imagine a 21st century Pentecost where rather than speaking in languages that we’ve never understood before, we begin to listen to those who we’ve failed to understand before. Imagine an audacious Spirit calling us beyond ethnocentrism and exclusivism.

Imagine a vision of Christianity that celebrates difference and embrace diversity.

Imagine a vision of Christianity whose first impulse is to listen rather than speak; a Christianity that is willing to share its truths in a spirit of co-operation without an emphasis on conversion. Imagine a vision of a church full of curious Christians, who aren’t afraid to take risk, and reach out to those not from our tribes.

Imagine a vision of Pentecost where the wind and the fire represent God out of the box.

Do we have the courage to strip ourselves of the trappings of status quo Christianity and venture out into the world free of the taboos of tradition? Do we have the courage to listen and learn from the truths of other tribes? Do we have the wisdom to embrace divinely inspired chaos?  

Some dreams and visions have to be believed before they can be seen. On this Pentecost Sunday I hope and pray that the audacity of God’s Spirit can call us out of our status quo, our much love tribes that keep us from exploring the wonders of the chaos and have the courage to go “Where no person has gone before”.

29 May 2022