This is basically Connection II. It is another Pentecost sermon based on the same text as this one was. I didn’t just want to recycle one, though, especially considering the different audience (my internship congregation instead of a preaching class.) Unfortunately, this one didn’t fully take shape until 5:30 this morning. Suffice to say, I preached it while pretty tired. This is the MS – I think I made most of the changes I made at the last minute to the hard copy, and I stuck to it for most of the sermon. Interestingly, I got the best feedback from the two members I most disagree with. As always, for your reading pleasure or disdain:
Acts 2: 1-13
Being in community doesn’t sound like a big deal. It sounds like it fits in the same derogatory category of activity as navel-gazing and tree-hugging. Wasn’t communal living something the Hippies did until they ran out of grocery money? It doesn’t sound like you’re doing much of anything. You’re not getting anywhere. You’re not earning money, or sweating your way to washboard abs.
Who would suspect it was a matter of life and death?
There’s nothing new about the observation that we need each other, that we’re connected. The worst punishment in prison is still solitary confinement. Exile is another ancient punishment. These things are horrifying because we need each other.
Pointing out how connected we are is often seen the province of poets and lovers and theologians. But we don’t live like this was the case. Not at all. We look at what we can do to benefit ourselves, our families, our friends, not caring how it impacts those around us. Or maybe we do care, but not enough to stop.
Instead, we work extra hours, skip our lunch breaks, telecommute from home, take on second jobs, go shopping to relieve stress, sleep five hours a night, all the while tearing ourselves away from what actually gives us life, what actually sustains us.
We numb ourselves to the suffering around us. Tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do, or we don’t owe them anything. We anesthetize ourselves with brief flashes of pleasure found in consumption and gratification. We act as if this is natural, as if this was the life intended for us.
It is by these means that we destroy each other, and ourselves. It is because of this thinking that we’ve come to this impasse.
What impasse? In various ways, we seem to be on the verge of destroying ourselves. We can talk about ecology, about melting ice-caps and drowning polar bears and disappearing glaciers. We can talk about nuclear proliferation and the falling price-tag for mass murder. We can talk about school shootings, about extreme violence emerging younger and younger. We can talk about starvation, about 30,000 people starving to death every day, about 1 billion people without access to clean water. We can talk about suicide being the number one killer of American teenagers. Or about toddlers on psychiatric medications becoming more and more common. We can talk about these things, but we don’t seem interested in doing much about it.
The point is – I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re doing great as a species. That the way we’re currently living is a good idea. That its all going to turn out fine. I think its impossible to say that, to believe it, if your eyes are open.
And maybe we have an epiphany. Maybe we realize that our priorities are all messed up. We need to change. So we try to change. And, almost invariably, fail. We try to find ourselves, to change our lives, to create meaning, to be good people. But for all of this effort, we’re still living for ourselves. We’re still living by our own means. We’re trying to make progress in a hamster wheel. Its spinning furiously, but we don’t realize that we’re trapped.
We forget, or we never knew in the first place, that it is the Holy Spirit that gives us life. It is the Holy Spirit which leads us to these connections that we need to survive. But there’s a problem, which we’ll get to later.
For now, let’s play pretend. Pretend you are God. You’ve just pulled off the biggest surprise in the universe – Jesus Christ. People will be talking about this trick for a very, very long time. As Karl says – Tada. A lot of people are angry about it, but others are extremely happy. A few might even be on the verge of understanding it.
How do you follow up a performance like that?
You do what you’ve done in the past. You create a community.
The disciples were gathered in Jerusalem during the time of Pentecost, which in Judaism at the time was known as the Feast of Weeks. It was also known as the feast of the first fruits of the harvest. It was one of the three times when Jews from all over the Diaspora were to gather in Jerusalem, the other two being Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. To celebrate Pentecost in those days, you sacrificed animals and bread made from the first grains of the harvest.
As time went on, the festival lost its agricultural focus and became more of a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive the law. God descends onto the mountain in a mass of fire and smoke, and there is a deafening sound of a trumpet that announces God’s arrival. The mountain shakes violently. Moses has to make sure no one comes near so that the power of God doesn’t overflow onto them and kill them, because only Moses and Aaron are allowed into the direct presence of God.
What God does on Sinai is to give the Law, the Teaching, to the people who have been led out of slavery and through the wilderness. This Law is the way that God makes a community out of them – transforms them from ex-Egyptian slaves to covenant people once again. They are given a new identity which is formed by the community they are in. They are transformed from a mob into a society.
From this point on, the presence of God is with the people in the form of the Shekinah which hovers over the Ark of the Covenant where the tablets of the Law are kept. This Shekinah is the cloud by day and the fire by night that led the Israelites out of slavery, and the cloud and fire and trumpet that settled on the top of Mount Sinai. It is God’s presence in the world.
This presence came to dwell in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Ark was kept in the holy of holies. But when the Temple is destroyed, where does God’s presence go? It comes to rest in the Torah, and Pentecost changes to reflect this.
In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, a new manifestation of this society, this covenant community, is called for. Once again, the people of God are a mob – they are literally the crowds who have been following Jesus around during his ministry, wandering through Judea. Most of them have probably been scared off – if the pressure and threats were enough to make Peter deny Christ, it was probably a pretty bad scene for all of them. They go back to their families and jobs and lives. They find sensible things to do.
For those who do stick around, the crazy and the desperate ones, they’ve got the biggest surprise imaginable. The risen Christ. But he doesn’t stick around. He appears to a few followers and disciples, travels around Galilee a bit, and then moves on. Like the show of power that was God leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness, we arrive at the “now what?” moment that follows the ‘tada’.
And like the Lawgiving on Sinai, God’s presence intervenes to make the crowd into a community. There is a sound like a rushing wind, and tongues of flame, as God’s presence in the Holy Spirit descends on the people gathered there. But there is something new. They all begin speaking in tongues. Not exactly the glossolalia of televangelists. They speak in known languages. They are intelligible to the people around them.
All around them, Jews of the Diaspora suddenly give a double-take. An Egpytian hears a Galilean Jew speaking fluent Coptic. Cappadocians hear the familiar sounds of their native Syrian. Mesopotamians hear Persian, and so on.
At the moment that the community is created, the very instant it is born, it is immediately enlarged. Every person present at that festival, every language and dialect representing three continents and most of the known world at the time, are hearing of God’s actions in history in their own language. It is the Tower of Babel in reverse. Everyone who was present was embraced immediately, welcomed in, in their own language. The miracle of the birth of the church is one of inclusion.
We cannot live without each other. And I’m not just talking about the people sitting here in the pews, or those outside in the courtyard or the nursery or the fireside room or the kitchen. I’m not just talking about our friends and families. Jesus said that everyone loves their friends, everyone loves their family. We are not a society called to love our friends and family only.
We cannot live without each other, but we need the Holy Spirit to come together as a community. Our effort is not going to cut it. We want to come together on our terms, with people we choose to be with, at particular times and in particular places. We want to reserve the right to exclude, to cash in our chips when things get uncomfortable for us.
These kinds of half-measures won’t work. Not in the long run. They will not give us life. They will not set us free.
So we need the Holy Spirit. But when the Holy Spirit comes, she doesn’t sit still. She lands on Mount Sinai in the form of the Shekinah and forges a society out of ex-slaves. She shouts through the prophets and judgement is leveled against whole nations, and She cries out on behalf of the forgotten, the powerless, the helpless, the strangers, the poor. She opens the skies when Jesus is Baptized and immediately he is off into the wilderness to be tested, and then to begin his ministry. She arrives at Pentecost and overflows, gushing out of the few assembled there and gathering up three thousand more in one bright morning.
The Holy Spirit pushes, shoves, cajoles, entices, always outward. She connects us in bonds of love. She transforms crowds into covenants, mobs into missionaries, slavery into sanctification. She upsets our priorities. She overturns our assumptions. She rattles the cage, then shatters the lock and swings the door wide open.
We might say we want the Holy Spirit. Somewhere, I think we realize we need her. We need a source of genuine life. We need an intervention. But we’re playing with fire.
The moment we go outside of our comfortable life, out into the world that slips past our car window, that we glimpse in the international section of the newspaper, that we try to ignore sitting next to us on the bus, we are playing with fire.
The moment we dare to seek out an enemy, not for a reckoning, but for the sake of love, for reconciliation, to forgive and to be forgiven, we are playing with fire.
The moment we detach ourselves from the petty tyranny of our selfish culture, the rat-race, the preening rituals of social status, the lust for objects, the authority of corporations, the rapacious exploitation of the natural world, we are playing with fire.
And it will burn. It will be painful. It is going to hurt.
But don’t be mistaken. We’re numb. We’re all numb. And the pain doesn’t come because we’re being harmed. The pain comes because we’re dead and we don’t know it. We’re dead and the first pulse of life is painful. Our conscience, our empathy, our courage is numb, like a limb that’s gone to sleep, and as it wakes up there will be pain. It hurts to actually see the suffering around us. It hurts to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. It hurts to love an enemy. It hurts to be ridiculed and to lose our place in society because we don’t value the things we’re told to value anymore. It hurts to connect, to reach out, to pull down the walls we spend so much time building between us.
But the pain – the pain is just the first feeling of life flooding into us. It burns a little, but then the pain goes away, and we realize – this, this is what it means to be alive. This is what it means to connect – to God and to other people. This is what it feels like to be born again.
And I promise you, you can just look around. It is horribly obvious. The alternative hurts much, much worse.