Rev. Clarence on Pentecost

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Rev. Clarence on Pentecost
from 26 May 2007, Trinity Church, Geneva, New York

Last week, as I drove over to the office, I listened to WCRB, a radio station which tags itself as “Classical Music Boston. One of its announcers, in a game of trivia, posed the question: X County in California has a population of 40 million, the most populous country in California which is itself our most populated state. How many states in the United States have a population of 40 million or more? Because I was driving on a very busy Rte. 16 with nothing onto which I could write my answer, I had to use my brain power. I, like all the other listeners, was given only three minutes in which to contemplate my answer.

Music ended, I listened for the correct response. Had I been even at home at my desk, with pen in hand, I would not have come close to the correct response. What I do recall is that are only 9 states each, individually, with a total population of 40 million or more inhabitants. Massachusetts is not one of them. More astounding is that 41 of the states in these United States have a population under 40 million, and some with only a population of several hundred thousands! North and South Dakota!

Having failed that informal civic test, I thought that I would pose for you today a Christian IQ question. How many High Holy Days are there in the Christian Calendar? A. two; B. five; C. Three; D. four. Answer: D
Bonus question: Name those four events central to all Christianity. As tempting and misleading and important as they may be and should be observed, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary or Ash Wednesday or All Saints Day does not qualify for taking the big prize. And, the correct answer is: Christmas, Good Friday/Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost.

Pentecost is often viewed as party time. Even some of those who witnessed the first recorded Pentecost, believed that the folks gathered were drunk and, if not inebriated, what was then the cause of that commotion? The Day of the Pentecost has been misunderstood, in large part, due to a language used in translation many centuries ago.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read of people speaking in tongues and so we have come to associate the Day of Pentecost with glossolalia, which—no offense intended to our Pentecostal sisters and brothers in Christ—no one understands. In fact, the “tongues” were none other than the native languages or dialects of the folks gathered, as the account in the Acts of the Apostles clearly describes for us, and so I offer you this morning a new way of thinking about Pentecost.

On that first day of Pentecost, another prophecy was fulfilled. It was one foreseen by the prophet Joel who had lamented the decline and decimation of the ancient Hebrew nation and the scattering of the ancient Jews in the diaspora. Yet, Joel prophesized their return from all the nations of the world. They would bring with them the “tongues” of those nations, but united once again under one God in Jerusalem. Pentecost was to be the great reversal of what God had made happen at the beginning of time, surely a part of Joel’s knowledge base.

And here is where I am reminded that we, you and I, are held hostage to our language, the language of translators and transmitters from centuries past.

We are hampered, in the 21st Century, by the word “sin,” and so I have to deal with “sin” if I am to understand Pentecost. Together with Joel and subsequently with Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, we recall the “sin” which got this whole thing started in the first place. Adam and Eve fell from grace when they gave in to the temptation of wanting “to be like God.” (Gen. 3.5). Symbolized by the eating of the fruit in disobedience to God, the first man and the first woman separated themselves from God.

With the mutual passing-the-buck on who was to blame, they separated themselves not only from God, but from each other as well. They allowed doubt and suspicion into their relationship. This separation of humans from God and the separation of humans from one another is the “sin” we speak of, that is at the very core of being human. Sin is the great schism which we have generated between God and ourselves, and among ourselves; sin is the placing of ourselves at the center of the universe, not the societal prohibition placed by one group on another.

Wanting still to be like god in a subsequent generation, we humans decided to build a tower to the heavens where we would sit and reign as God. But this tower at Babel was nothing more than a symbol of the people “making a name for themselves” (Gen. 11.4). So, my 21st Century translation of “sin” would be the word “alienation.” As had Adam and Eve, the people of Babel had wanted to put themselves as God, and hence alienation or “sin” was perpetuated. And so it was that God dispersed the people from one another by causing them, as the story goes, to speak in different languages or tongues.

However, the Day of Pentecost informs us that all this has been reversed. By his own death and his resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated a new relationship between God and humanity. The schism has been bridged.
With the outpouring of the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit on that Day of Pentecost and each day thereafter, the potential for removing the very barriers within humanity is given. If the people at Babel were confused and scattered, the Spirit of Pentecost brings all back together again. A transformation has taken place.

We often say that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. Personally, I do not find this language, always helpful. It is a sound bite. But it implies as true a falsehood. The church, as a mission, had been established and ratified by Jesus prior to the Day of Pentecost: LOVE God and neighbor as self. Such a phrase, “the birthday of the church,” makes this day seem merely like an annual commemoration of an event that took place almost 2,000 years ago. It is also rather humorous to think of thousands of candles, rather like the tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads that lit up the neighborhood at that first Pentecost.

Rather, I propose the following. A close reading of the Bible informs us of this: Pentecost, i.e. receiving the Holy Spirit, is not about self-rapture. Rather, receiving the Holy Spirit is about being/becoming equipped to go forth to spread the Gospel in tongues, i.e. in languages, which the entire world would understand. And that gospel is none other than that of the LOVE of God, write large, for Creation. Pentecost is truly a celebration of the Spirit among us—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy in God’s presence. This means, where the Spirit is, there is power, there is transformation, and things happen.

Admittedly, the effects of Babel were not completely reversed. After all, the diversity of languages was still there, as the apostles were empowered by the Spirit to speak in all those languages. The diversity of the people was still there, as the people gathered from the ends of the known world and returned to their parts, albeit with a new vision of God’s love and grace. All this is part of the gathering force of the Spirit.

These diversities are still a part of who we are. Diversity is a gift. We humans are women and men, young and old, people of various races and ethnicities, abilities and orientations. These are gifts which we carry by the grace of God’s creative power, from birth, from a God who, according to the Psalmist, has known us from our mother’s womb. That creative power has not been undone. We are the Pentecost.

The vision with which we are called as descendants of the man from Nazareth is one of Resurrection and Pentecost, of life and action. It is the vision proclaimed by the prophet Joel. The vision with which we are called to struggle is the message that Peter shouted out in the midst of the rushing sound of the spirit and the great babel of voices, “tongues” for those who insist on using the traditional language, in consort over the gospel. The vision with which we are called to struggle is where the cross and the empty tomb become the reality of bringing all people back to God and to one another.

Pentecost is not a liturgical commemoration. Rather, Pentecost is where the Spirit is, right here in our midst; not just today, but each day. As we live in that Spirit, poured upon us in our baptism and continuously shaping us, we find that where the Spirit is, there is power and things happen—God’s things happen and we are transformed.


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