The Church, the Spirit, and the Future
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
May 31, 2020
Scripture: Acts 2: selected verses – NRSV
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? …. in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But 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. Indeed, these people are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ….
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
I feel like I am caught between two dynamics this morning. The first side is the fact that this is like the 30th Pentecost I have had to preach on, more than 20 of them here. It feels like there is nothing new to say. I went on some websites to read other sermons on Pentecost and it seemed like no other preacher had much of anything new to say either. The other side of that dynamic is COVID19 and the reality is I have never had to preach Pentecost in a pandemic. Looking over those same websites there wasn’t anything that seemed to really speak to Pentecost 2020 and a COVID pandemic. So how do I speak to today, this Pentecost, while also doing a good job of interpreting the truth of an ancient Scripture? What does this passage have to say about the Church, and Spirit, and the Future?
Here’s what we can say about that passage, and parts may sound familiar to our situation today. The disciples were still in grief mode. They were only 50 days from the murder of their teacher and leader at the hands of the governing powers. Jesus had been executed by the Emperor, the Governor, the armies and police of Jerusalem. The action was carried out with the support and urging of the religious leaders who were political puppets to those same powers of the Empire and so out of fear for their own power and privilege were striving to maintain a shaky status quo.
In the midst of this time of grieving, in fear for their lives, wondering what the future held, they gathered together. The writer tells us that suddenly something came upon them that felt like a mighty wind, and it seemed as if there were flames around their heads like some kind of crown or halo. They began to talk about the mighty and powerful works of God, but they were doing it languages they had never spoken. It doesn’t say whether they were shouting it out the windows of that room, but people from all different nations heard them and understood what they were saying. Some who heard were shocked and some sneered but somehow many of them decided to become part of that community of believers in Jesus Christ.
Although the writer does not declare it, we have called this the birth of the church. Why? Perhaps because the writer then describes the community life that came out of that experience. It was one where they prayed, worshiped, shared meals, and everything else they had. This was an unheard of kind of community. They took in outsiders who were in need, helping the sick, the poorest beggars, people who were immigrants from other lands and all were treated according to their need.
This doesn’t mean everyone was instantly unified and of one mind. Some of those who heard the people speaking in different languages thought those who were speaking in other languages were hitting the Bloody Mary bar early and were drunk. They probably didn’t instantly join up. And the rest of Acts, even though it is an idealized description of that time, makes the point that “the church” had to deal with a lot of internal and external conflict and dissension. They had conflict about whether everyone had to obey the Jewish doctrines for circumcision, ceremonial cleansing and washing, dietary restrictions, whether foreigners were to be included, even whether those who were sexual minorities – specifically eunuchs – were welcome to believe and follow what they called “the Way” of Jesus.
When we add all that up and ask so what, what does that mean for us in these pandemic 2020’s? What guidance does it suggest for the Church, the Spirit, and the Future? Or does anything apply? I am going to suggest to you, yes, it does apply and it falls under focusing on solving problems, challenging old prejudices and differences, and seeking to create a new community, a new reality, a new world. Let me try to say a few words about each of these.
We have many problems and challenges today, no doubt. We have political division as great as or greater than ever. We have religious differences as great as or greater than ever. We have cultural differences as great as or greater than ever. Our problem is that instead of seeking solutions to the problems we seem to be stuck emphasizing the problem. We argue about the problem of guns being the problem - that guns don’t kill people, people kill guns - or something, instead of seeking a way to solve the problem we dig in and demand our way and no other. We have problems with racism, but instead of agreeing to find a way to solve it we blame Obama for widening the divide or we blame Trump for being the spokesperson for racism. Even worse, too many churches and preachers promote theologies of division based on their personal politics instead of seeking to listen and find solutions that glorify God. I suggest that the Holy Spirit is needed now more than ever to show us how to find a different way.
Those first Christians learned how to speak different languages, surely we can learn how to act and speak and live differently to overcome the racism that is deeply engrained in the systems of our nation. Calling individuals racist is tempting but the reality is individuals are prejudiced, but racism is systemic prejudice based in cultural, economic, and political power. Historically race was never even a category in human law or sociological expression until the slave trade of white European and American governments emerged. Race was used as the excuse to enslave people of a different skin color. It was a way to define another human being as inferior based on skin color, and thus less than fully human. The economies of colonial America were enriched by the free labor of slavery and the excuse to justify it was race. So the abuse and dehumanizing of persons of color was built into laws, based on the economy, the politics, and the religion of the day which supported the status quo instead of striving for what was Biblically true and faithful to the God of all humanity. When will we repent of all the ways these systems have dehumanized and still dehumanize persons of color? And oh, by the way, in the same breath, we are dehumanized if we excuse, are enriched by, or support the system “as it is,” the status quo. Are we not better than that?
The Scripture reminds us that Peter spoke to the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome the divisions of nationalities, ethnicity [ a different category than race ], of languages and gender. He pointed to God’s intention for every person to be a prophet. He quoted one of the Jewish prophets, Joel, who spoke of a time when all these divisions would end because God’s Spirit would be poured out. Age would not matter: old and young would prophecy. Gender would not matter: woman and men would prophecy. Economic realities would be disrupted: slave and free would speak truth. Nationality would not prevent unity – Jew and Gentile would prophecy and all who called out to God would be saved.
Let’s remember what a prophet was according to the Bible. Bad theology has turned prophecy into something akin to gypsies looking into a crystal ball to tell the future. In Scripture prophets had two qualities: they could be trusted to lead others in God’s ways and they would speak the truth of God’s priorities and purposes to anyone who was ignoring, defying, or simply unaware of God’s priorities and purposes. Moses and Elijah and the judges of the early Hebrew people were called prophets for their just and righteous leadership. The later prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the others came before kings and priests and told them that treating the powerless and the poor unjustly would end in death, destruction, and division of them and the nation.
Again and again they defined the will of God as doing justice for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the prisoner, and any who were in need of compassion and care and community. So again, in a time when we have arguments that say anyone who is poor, well it’s their own fault, anyone who doesn’t have healthcare, well too bad, anyone who the economic and political systems leave out well, who cares it works for me - we ignore the prophetic word of God that tells us the outcome of not solving those problems will be death, destruction, and division – for the king and the powerful and the nation, not just for the poor and powerless.
History tells us this is true. We are a nation with the richest resources in the history of the world, but instead of seeking to work together to solve problems we just keep accusing each other of being at fault. The future depends on us listening to the prophetic word of God. The future depends on us receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome the division and the destiny that division will demand of us. The Church in all its forms needs to repent of serving partisan political divisions and economic privileges and start seeking God’s will, not by condemning people for being different, but by seeking to embody the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, her Savior and Lord.
So the word for Pentecost 2020 and the Church, the Spirit, and the Future is this: we must recall, reclaim, and renew the power of that Holy Spirit to guide us. We must embody the way of Jesus Christ, not the ways of division and selfish demands. The hope for the future is to start making solving problems a priority. Can we do it? Not without the Holy Spirit. Not without repenting: turning from our divisive and hateful and fear-based ways. Will it happen? Only if we start speaking with others – not in our own language, but in the Spirit of Pentecost we need to learn to speak to others in their language so that they can hear and then hopefully they will listen – about how to change what is, to solve problems together, to turn from wanting everything to be the same and choose to work for a new reality where differences are welcome.
How about if we realize that if we all are focused on solving the problem, more perspectives and different perspectives can bring more solutions, and combining them and merging them gives us more possibility of getting it right. Let us turn away from the voices that want to divide us, that want to add to our hatred and fear of one another, and let us listen for the Spirit to speak to us of the power of God to change us, remake our world, bring about the realm of God where love and justice rule and all are blessed, not just a few, or some, but for all.
How can we do that as individuals here and now? Perhaps each of us can begin at a by personal level by asking others the question, “how do we solve these problems?” Listen to their solution. Ask them to hear your solution. Then ask, can the solution come from one way or the other, or a combination of the two, or something completely different that we haven’t even thought of? To me that seems to be the example the Church ought to model, the opening for the Holy Spirit to change us all, and the opportunity for a future that is a blessing for all, not just for one side or the other.
I am going to try to set up some opportunities for that. I am going to seek voices with different perspectives and try to create a space on Zoom here where we can listen in on different perspectives talking about solutions, not accusing or blaming others. I want to set it up where we can all listen, think, learn, and then maybe find ways to work together.
Also, you notice I haven’t said a thing directly, other than in my prayers, about the murder of the black man George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota, right on the heels of the murder of the black man Ahmaud Arbery by two white men just north of here in Georgia, right on the heels of … well one after the other after the other of black men especially, being shot for Driving While Black, Jogging While Black, Breathing While Black, which evidently offends a lot of white people. I want to set up a second place of listening. I am going to ask some of my friends and colleagues from ICARE and throughout the United Church of Christ to come in to a Zoom room and I want to listen. I am going to open it up so others can listen. Because the first thing we need to do is listen to black people speak, not tell them where they are wrong, or what they should do or not do, or all the other things we white folks often do that doesn’t help. I will alert you to these opportunities and I hope you are smart enough, Christian enough, ACC – like enough [ because I believe folks in ACC are a unique and uniquely able group to listen and learn and grow ], to ask how we can change the world beginning in our own world here in Jacksonville.
Let us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that we can become the Church God calls us to be, and build the future God envisions for all. AMEN.