"something about the spirit"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "FOOLISH FAITH"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
Acts 2: 1-21 sel. verses (NRSV)
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
2 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.
3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And 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.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 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.
15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.
16 No, 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.’
So as we continue to do a deeper dive into Scripture with the Sunday message, I am jumping from the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian Scriptures – from Genesis to Acts. Why? Primarily because in the Christian calendar this is Pentecost Sunday. In the story we read today the Holy Spirit is sent upon the followers of Jesus. Many people hear them telling of “God’s deeds of power” in their own languages. There were a variety of reactions, some are amazed and confused and others think they are a bunch of drunks. Let’s use some of the tools for studying Scripture and see whether our reaction is more of the former or the latter.
First, let’s talk about the context of this passage. Scholars believe that this Book of Acts is written by the same author as the writer of the Gospel of Luke. Why? Well in the first chapter of this book of Acts of the Apostles the writer addresses “Theophilus,” the same as the introduction to the Gospel of Luke. Theophilus maybe a real person, but the word in Greek means “friend of God,” so we’ll assume that it is addressed to all of us who consider ourselves “friends of God.” The writer of this book makes reference to his “first book,” and to specific quotations in it. Using the comparative tools of style of writing, vocabulary, and common themes most scholars confirm that the two books certainly can be considered the work of one author.
Scholars believe these books were written somewhere between the years 90 and 100, so some 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. All that means is it is unlikely that the person who wrote this down was an eyewitness to the events of the Gospel, but rather reports what he learned about them. The writer wanted to tell the story of Jesus in his Gospel and the story of the apostles, those first followers of Jesus, in his second work. The word “apostles” literally means “those sent,” different from “disciples” which means, “followers” or “students.” So the focus of the book is on those first 11 and the addition of Matthias as a replacement for Judas. All this sets the stage for the emergence of the community of believers in Jesus as God’s Messiah we call the church.
The power of the story Luke tells in the 2nd Chapter is often lost on us today. Like many things in Scripture we hear it, we have heard it, and it has become tame, “ho-hum,” nothing special. But if we really listen to the text Luke is straining to describe something explosive, something indescribable, something that made people stop and go, “What the hey?!” Our artistic depictions of the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit coming are too mild. The words the writer uses describe something almost like that scene in the first Raiders of the Lost Ark when the soldiers open the ark and out comes a wind and in that case the flames incinerated everyone who looked at the Spirit that came out of the Ark of the covenant. Ok, maybe not as violently destructive, but Luke is saying this was a moment that could only be described with metaphors and similes of “wind” and “fire.” One writer describes it as “fear-inducing, adrenalin-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-singed, smoke-filled turmoil.” [ Frank L. Crouch, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.]
Then Luke makes the point that the followers of Jesus began speaking in every known language of that region of the world. This was not “glossolalia” that the Apostle Paul talks about later in his letter to the Corinthians. That was a kind of “holy gibberish,” that could not be understood. This was exactly the opposite: clear, understandable, and understood by those who heard. And it was loud enough that if we understand the scene as Luke describes it, hundreds of people heard them even though they were in some upper room closed off from the streets. The words again seem tamer in English than in the original Greek which suggest people were “confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, completely uncomprehending” [ibid.]. Let me get to the point of why this is important in a moment. Let me finish describing the important elements and then get to the points I think this passage makes for us today.
The next thing I want to take note of is how one translator also renders verse 12, which in our translation reads “what does this mean.” In the Greek, the language it was originally written in, the literal words translate as “what does he wish this to be?” [ Mark Davis, leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05 ]. So in reaction to hearing “God’s deeds of power,” the people ask, “What does he wish this to be?” Now this could mean a number of things, but let’s just let that sit a bit too and see if when we summarize all this it might help us hear that question and think about the answer in a new way.
The last thing I want to focus on is the sermon Peter gives in response to the people asking that question and the mocking accusation that this is just an early-morning drunken spectacle. His sermon is mostly a quotation from the prophet Joel. Now Joel’s prophetic writings were an interpretation of the meaning of a natural disaster that had fallen on Israel. A locust plague had destroyed much of Israel’s land. Joel saw this as a warning sign for the people to return to God. Joel tells them that if they return to God in faithfulness then God will bless and send God’s Spirit on all people, young and old, wealthy and slaves, men and women using words that echo well known phrases in the book of the prophet Isaiah – “your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.”
Joel the prophet says that when God pours out the Spirit that our “sons and daughters will prophesy.” Luke adds the phrase, “and they shall prophesy,” to the male and female servants or slaves when God gives the Spirit. Now here’s the big caution: remember that you hear a lot of preachers and teachers on television and elsewhere misusing the meaning of prophesy and the work of prophets. They make them sound like the prophets wrote mysterious secrets predicting the future like some kind of holy crystal-ball gazers. That is not what the Biblical prophets did. The Bible talks about two kinds of prophets: false prophets and true prophets. The false prophets were generally hired yes men to the kings of Israel telling them that God approved of whatever they did. The real prophets that are in the Bible are those who were speaking truth to power. They were calling kings to accountability. They challenged the kings and the judges and the priests and the wealthiest people to do what was right and just and fair for all people, especially for the poor, the foreigner, the children, especially orphans. In short prophets spoke out in God’s name to tell the powerful they must do what was right for the powerless and then they listed the consequences that would befall the king or the judges or the powerful wealthy people who were taking advantage of the poor and the powerless would be painful, catastrophic, and disastrous. They weren’t predicting something 20 centuries later they were interpreting present events and the consequences of treating others unfairly. So what Luke is saying is when he says that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us we are called to prophesy, we are called to speak to the powers to do what is right for all, to protect the powerless, and provide for the poor and the foreigner among us. This isn’t something some Christian will do, it what all Christians are called to do by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s add up all the pieces we have talked about. First, we have said that the Pentecost event was a nerve-wracking, mighty expression of God’s powerful Spirit coming to God’s people, to give them the power to speak as prophets to all the world. It demonstrates that there is no one nation or race or language or gender or any other limitation on who God’s Spirit can work and speak through. It shows that God can create community among people of incredible diversity and differences if the Holy Spirit power is among them. If we understand this to be the model of what God intended the church to be then that affirms that our welcoming approach, rather than an exclusive approach to community and to following Christ is correct.
But here’s the big problem we have to face: if the Holy Spirit is so powerful why are church’s everywhere struggling, failing, and disappearing? We heard for a number of years that the problem was we were too “liberal,” we welcomed people God didn’t, we weren’t fundamentalist enough. Well, the Southern Baptist statistics show that they have been losing members at pretty much the same rate as us so-called “mainline” denominations, so that can’t be the sole reason. We heard it was because we didn’t have a rock band and light show and theatrical production values to put on a real show every Sunday, but many of those churches have failed and many more are still struggling.
Here’s the thing: when it comes to defining what makes a church a church too many of us have confused the package with the content. We have focused on the things we do instead of the things God does. We have worried about the color of carpets and the style of music instead of the power of the Holy Spirit to create a community that changes the world. Here’s my radical answer to the future of the church: We must answer that question asked by those who heard the first Christians speaking about God’s deeds of power: “What does God want this to be?” I believe the church as we know it is dying and will die. BUT – I believe in resurrection. I believe that the power of God, as shown by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, will raise up the church in a resurrection body. It may look completely different, probably will. I don’t know what it will look like, just like I don’t know what any of our resurrection bodies will look like. But if we believe that the church is the living body of Christ, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at work through human communities I believe these things: there will be a church, and it will do what Christ has called it to do and be – a community of diverse people from all over the world filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to bring compassion and justice to change the world to be what God envisions the world being. I believe that a new Pentecost is coming and it will be the rebirth of the church. It could happen at any time. Are you ready for anything the Holy Spirit might do? AMEN.