Sunday, May 19, 2013

(Pentecost) Heads on fire

Acts 2:1-21

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Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, responding to this story in Acts 2,
“Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors
and sets our heads on fire?”

Barbara Brown Taylor is a priest, professor, and preacher,
who is known for being provocative and poetic, at the same time.
She’s asking a really important question here,
if you think about it.

Acts 2 spins a tale that is pretty amazing and wild and chaotic.
The disciples were hiding in a room together out of fear, v. 1-2,
And the house was suddenly filled and overtaken
with the sound and impression of a violent wind.
Think tornado.
And then fire appeared, v. 3.
Flames danced, like long, divided tongues.
And they rested on them.
Must have looked like a bunch of heads on fire.
And then, if that wasn’t scary enough,
they started speaking in other languages, v. 4.

Whatever it was in that house was wild enough and loud enough,
that it drew of crowd of onlookers.
And since the city of Jerusalem was filled with Jewish pilgrims
from all over the Roman Empire,
from Europe to Arabia to Northern Africa,
the crowd that gathered were native speakers of languages
from all over.
It might have looked a little like EMU’s campus
during Summer Peacebuilding Institute.
But when the Gospel started to be proclaimed by the disciples,
the crowd didn’t hear it in Hebrew, or Greek . . .
or English for that matter.
They heard it in their native language, v. 5-6.
The words were powerful,
because they sounded familiar,
they resonated.
It sounded like home.

The people were amazed and astonished, it tells us in v. 7.
They asked, “How are these Galileans
speaking in my local dialect from back home?”
Some asked, v. 12, “What does this mean?”
That is, they immediately saw it as authentic and significant.
So they tried to figure out just what that significance was.
Others sneered, v. 13.
Said, “they’re drunk!” “they’re nuts!”

Then Peter, the one who moments earlier was in hiding,
the one who days earlier,
had totally given up on the Jesus movement,
and was ready to go back
and do some honest work as a fisherman—
that Peter stood up and preached a powerful sermon
that explained exactly why this was significant,
and what God was up to here.
He preached as if he understood it.
And perhaps, he suddenly did.

He said it was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel.
Joel predicted there would be
all kinds of great and wondrous and terrible signs,
ushering in a new age of God’s rule on the earth.
God’s spirit would burst on the scene,
and be poured out on all flesh . . . all flesh, you see.
All sons and daughters of humankind,
young and old,
slave and free.
And they would all think new thoughts,
say new things,
and be a new people.

That was prophet Joel’s prediction.
And apostle Peter says, it came true.

But that was then, and this is now.

So Barbara Brown Taylor asks,
Does God still blow through closed doors and set heads on fire?
And she expounds on that question, and I quote:
“Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us,
both as individuals and as a people,
or have we come to an unspoken agreement
that our God is pretty old and tired by now,
someone to whom we may address our prayer requests,
but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?”

I want to start to answer that question,
by asking a question of my own.
It’s a 2-part question.

What exactly is it that God is up to in Acts 2,
and . . . does God still want to do it today?

Of course, how we answer the second part,
depends on how we answer the first.
Unless we are clear about what God’s agenda is in Acts 2,
we can’t very well say
God wants to keep repeating that agenda today,
nor can we say,
no, that was a one-off event
for just that time and place and circumstance.

So let’s wrestle a bit with trying to identify God’s agenda,
to whatever extent we can.

I think I know what it isn’t.
Unfortunately, it’s something many American Christians think it is.

Christians all too often read this story
through our culture’s individualistic and consumeristic framework,
that is, “what’s in it for me?”
and they immediately place this story in the realm of
personal religious experience.

So the burning question in some Christian circles becomes:
“Have you had this experience?”
“Have you had the outpouring?”
“Have you spoken in tongues,
had a sudden word of prophecy,
had some overpowering ecstatic experience,
or other strange and miraculous sign?”
Those are important questions for many,
and churches and families have divided
over how important those questions are.

Now I am not saying that ecstatic experiences have no place.
I am not dismissing, or diminishing in any way whatsoever,
those who have had—one time, or many times—
a strong sense of the immediate presence of God
through the Holy Spirit,
or who have felt at times overwhelmed and overpowered
by the presence and power of God,
and for whom that experience gave them
or courage,
or made them more joyful, loving, or gracious.

That’s actually a wonderful thing.
The Holy Spirit is at work in the world and in individual lives,
and when people experience that work in powerful ways,
we should give thanks.

So without diminishing that, let me also say,
giving those individual disciples in the upper room
a certain ecstatic spiritual experience
was not God’s agenda on that first Pentecost.
God did not send the sound of a violent wind through the house,
so that the disciples had something exciting to talk about,
and to tell everyone how wonderful,
how overpowering that experience was,
and encourage everyone to seek that kind of experience.
God did not set their heads on fire,
so they could give personal witness to how wonderful it is
to have your head on fire,
and you should pray for God to set your head on fire, too.
God did not give them the ability to speak and be heard
in other languages,
so that they could teach all future members of the church
to strive for the same gift
of miraculously breaking the language barrier.

Not saying those experiences were not wonderful or transformative,
but God had a much bigger agenda,
than giving his followers cool personal experiences.
God, through the Holy Spirit,
was giving birth to a new community of the Kingdom of God.

I am confident in that claim.
It’s on solid ground, I think.
Based purely on the biblical evidence.

In the same way that God, way back in Genesis chapter 2,
breathed into a lump of clay shaped like a human,
breathing into its nostrils the breath of life,
so that the form became a living being—
So in Acts chapter 2, a communal re-enactment of the first creation,
God’s breath, the Spirit, blew into a lifeless lump of humanity,
hiding from the world out of fear, behind locked doors,
and blew life into them,
so that they became a living, spirit-breathing community,
that would bless the whole world,
that would, like the first humans, partner with God
to carry out God’s intention for creation.

God’s first and foremost agenda at Pentecost,
was to pour out the Holy Spirit,
to empower God’s people to live like God’s people in the world.

I’ve said before that this blowing of the breath of God
into the church at Pentecost,
was a big, divine conspiracy.
The very word conspiracy, when you break it down,
means to “breathe together with.”
The Latin spir-a-re means to breath.
So re-spiration means to breathe in and out. 
And when you’re in-spired, you have breathed “in” some idea
or truth or emotion that fills your whole being.
When you ex-pire (or die), you breathe “out” for the last time.
Your breath leaves you.
When you con-spire, you breathe “with.”

So when God breathed his own holy breath (or Holy Spirit)
into this group of frightened disciples,
the whole intent was to get them, as a community,
to start breathing the same air,
to start “breathing with” God.
To get them to be in a life rhythm with God.
To breathe out with God, to breathe in with God,
to breathe out and in,
in unison with God,
so that their life and life purposes,
would be in synch with God’s purposes.

God’s whole intention at Pentecost,
was to get the church to be his co-conspirators,
to be about the same intentional, purposeful business in the world.

That breath of God, the Holy Spirit,
fundamentally changed that community of Jesus’ disciples.
They became a new community.

Let me quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, in the same piece,
to describe what God was doing to that community at Pentecost.
God was “performing artificial resuscitation
on a room full of well-intentioned bumblers,
turning them into a force that changed the history of the world.
Shy people became bold,
scared people became gutsy,
and lost people found a sure direction.
Disciples who did not believe themselves capable
of tying their own sandals without Jesus
discovered abilities within themselves
they never knew they had.
When they opened their mouths to speak,
they sounded like Jesus.” [unquote]

That’s what conspiring with the Holy Spirit does to the church.
It fills our collective lungs with the very breath of God,
and we are changed.

Here she is again [quote]:
“What happens between us
when we come together to worship God
is that the Holy Spirit swoops in and out among us,
knitting us together through the songs we sing,
the prayers we pray,
the breaths we breathe.”
[How do you know when it’s the Holy Spirit?]
“Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five—
whenever you find yourself . . .
offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer . . .
taking risks you thought you did not have the courage to take
or reaching out to someone you had
intended to walk away from.” [unquote]

So when we conspire as a church,
breathing in and breathing out the breath of God together,
we take God into us and give God back to the world again.

But how do we know that what we are breathing
is truly the breath of God, the Spirit of God,
and not just some hot air that we generated ourselves?

We sometimes say,
there is a “new wind of the Spirit” blowing among us.
I don’t buy it!
There is no “new” Spirit-breath.

There may indeed be a wind of the Spirit blowing today
that is bringing about new works of God in our midst,
and which calls for new responses from us,
in changing times.
But it’s not new air.

If it’s really God breathing,
it will be consistent with the breath of life
that God breathed at creation,
it will be true to the breath of God that inspired the prophets,
it will, above all, resonate fully with the Jesus of the Gospels.
After all, it is the same air Jesus breathed on his disciples
when he said, “Peace be with you.”
The Spirit we’ve been given is the Spirit of Jesus,
If we are con-spiring with the Spirit of Jesus,
when we talk, we will “sound like Jesus”
when we walk, we will “look like Jesus”
when we act, we will “remind people of Jesus.”

So let’s join the vast world-wide conspiracy,
the Divine Conspiracy that began on the day of Pentecost.
Let’s do as that new community did,
and make it a practice to actually spend time with,
living in hope with,
other God-breathers . . .
so when the Spirit moves in and among us,
we are in a good position to see it,
to con-spire with the Spirit of God.

And then we test the results of that wind,
to see if it’s authentic.
If it’s God’s breath blowing,
we’ll know by comparing it to God’s track record.

If we are truly con-spiring with the Spirit of God in Christ,
we will see new community being formed.
God’s people will be brought together in new ways.

And as a result of the life of these communities in the world,
enemies will be reconciled,
offenders and victims will be brought together,
people will repent and renounce lives of sin,
justice will be demanded,
violence will be forsaken,
the hungry will be fed and the naked clothed,
forgiveness will be offered,
the broken will be made whole,
the lost will come home,
the shunned will be brought back into community.

All of those things happened in the New Testament church,
as a result of the outpouring of God’s Spirit.
Read about it, in Acts and the Epistles.

So to answer my original question:
“what was God up to then,
and does God still want to do it today?”
I would have to say it’s kind of obvious.

God empowered the church, through the Holy Spirit,
to do all those things,
and God wants to do the same with the church today.

The Pentecost outpouring was not a one-off event,
that we will never see again.
We have seen it again.
And we must keep seeing it again.

Whether it’s loud and wild and chaotic,
or whether it’s like a tender breath stirring,
the Spirit of God is still blowing, and breathing,
and we must con-spire,
we must breathe with the Spirit of God.

—Phil Kniss, May 19, 2013

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