Spiritual Understanding

Sunday, May 31, 2020
Pentecost Sunday Year A

Focus Theme:
Spiritual Understanding

Focus Prayer:
Perplexing, Pentecostal God, you infuse us with your Spirit, urging us to vision and dream. May the gift of your presence find voice in our lives, that our babbling may be transformed into discernment and the flickering of many tongues light an unquenchable fire of compassion and justice. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Acts 2:1-21

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? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—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 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.'”

All readings for the week:
Acts 2:1-21 or Num 11:24-30
Ps 104:24-34, 35b
1 Cor 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:34-39

Focus Questions:

1. What are the different kinds of “languages” spoken in church today?

2. In what ways do you share Peter’s experience, of interpreting the present moment in your life through the lens of Scripture?

3. How do our differences enrich our experience of unity?

4. What is the greatest obstacle to good communication?

5. How much does the Pentecost story relate to the life of your church today?

by Kate Matthews

Our reading from Psalm 104 for this Pentecost Sunday speaks of God sending forth God’s Spirit in a creative burst that is both productive and renewing. In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, it must have felt like creation all over again, with wind and fire, and something new bursting forth.

Then there was the amazing linguistic experience of speaking in other languages yet being understood by people of many different languages and lands, the names of which represented the known world at that time and have caused no small anxiety to worship leaders in every time.

No matter: in that moment, all the people were one in their hearing, if not their understanding of the deeper meaning of what they heard. Despite their differences, they could all hear what the disciples were saying, each in their own language.

Dramatic events, fear and trembling

Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. Maybe it was a little frightening, something people would want to explain away, or to contain with cynical comments that blamed it all on drunkenness.

There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God’s Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and amazing “special effects,” as we call them today. But those events, like Moses on the mountaintop and Jesus transfigured, were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders.

A much wider audience

Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread to the ends of the earth, the display is for everyone. Not just the disciples, gathered in a room, getting themselves together after Jesus is once again departed. Not just the holiest or the most faithful or the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road or witnesses to his Resurrection.

No, in this case, at this moment, “all flesh,” male and female, old and young, slave and free, are invited and included–and not just invited but expected to prophesy and dream, too!

A sweeping wind, an uplifting Spirit

And just to make sure that they all know they’re included, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind, an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide. Out into the world, compelled to spread the Good News of what God is doing in a new day.

On a Jewish feast that celebrated new life and new crops by offering a gift of first fruits in gratitude and praise, Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these Jewish “ignorant, backwater folks” (a stereotype conveyed by the term “Galileans,” but lost to us today as we read the text) become impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation is drawing near.

Altering Joel’s words slightly

This reading is particularly powerful for a church that proclaims wholeheartedly that God is still speaking, and Skinner makes a case for that claim as he focuses on Peter’s alteration of the text from Joel, saying “in the last days” instead of “after these things.” In fact, commentators agree in pointing out that Joel was speaking ominously of destruction and death, while Peter speaks of the promise of new life.

In Peter’s interpretation, Skinner says, Scripture speaks in a new day about “new realities and challenges.” Peter, according to Skinner, does what we, too, need to do today. Right in the midst of these astounding and undoubtedly confusing events, he interprets them as he experiences them, relying on Scripture to help him understand what God is saying in that new day.

Good news for us today

My good friend, Mark Suriano, Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Park Ridge, New Jersey, writes eloquently about this remarkable day: “Those disciples gathered in Acts 2 were faithful Jews looking for a Jewish messiah, and when the Spirit came they became ambassadors of a more universal experience of God that found its roots in some of the later prophetic traditions of the Bible. Their experience and anticipation of what it was to be a follower of Jesus were enfolded by this renewed appreciation of that tradition, perhaps over and against other more militant and exclusivist traditions.

“The effect of the first Pentecost, then, may not be new birth, but rebirth, not a new covenant but a renewed covenant that would change the hearts and minds of the disciples and renew the face of the earth!

“This is good news for 21st-century Christians as we approach the feast of Pentecost. The same Spirit of God that warmed the hearts of those disciples on the road to Emmaus and inspired the tongues of those gathered in Jerusalem is looking to inspire a rebirth within us. It is the same Spirit that led Isaiah to envision a holy mountain for all people, or John of Patmos to witness a city with no walls and no temple, that is breaking in to our cloudy consciousness and sending us out as ambassadors of a renewed earth.”

Following Peter’s example

Today we are called to follow Peter’s example, interpreting the present moment in our lives through the lens of Scripture, rather than the other way around. As the effects of a global pandemic go on and on into the summer (for the southern hemisphere, into the winter), it’s ironic that we are unexpectedly united across our national, cultural and linguistic boundaries and barriers by the suffering and death caused by the Covid-19 virus, as well as the fear and the creativity it has generated in response.

Are we not amazed by the generosity of spirit, even the nobility of spirit, we have witnessed in health-care workers, essential workers, neighbors, friends and families who tend to the most vulnerable in our midst? Many of us have close family and friends engaged in this effort; I think of my niece Amy, a critical care nurse who has been in the ICU, caring for Covid-19 patients from the beginning. For a long time, she didn’t have proper PPE, but she was undeterred in her dedication to caring for her patients, no matter how much her family fretted over her safety.

Who is my neighbor, really?

During our conversations in those early weeks, she would tell me stories about her work, and I would picture the Spirit empowering her through unimaginable circumstances. And I would think of the Samaritan in Jesus’ story who crossed boundaries and expectations to be the good neighbor who loved and cared unconditionally, unselfishly for a person he surely never knew.

The Scriptures, the stories in the Bible, come alive for us at such moments and in such places, in unexpected and life-giving ways, and we feel the Spirit at work in our midst.

For every terrible statistic and terrifying projection, there are stories of courage and compassion and consolation that bring us hope in the midst of our anxiety and grief. Immersed in loss and longing and loneliness, we still feel God’s presence with us, as the psalmist has always sung in every age, including this week’s Psalm 104, of God renewing and recreating the face of the earth, sending forth God’s Spirit.

The Spirit at work today

We pray then that that Spirit will indeed renew the face of the earth, that the Spirit will inspire the scientists who search for treatments to ease the suffering and for a vaccine to prevent even more. We pray that that Spirit will sustain and strengthen the nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and EMTs and every single hospital worker who supports them in providing tender compassion and skillful care.

God’s works are manifold, indeed, and the gifts of scientists and health care workers are among the very finest of such blessings.

Touched and emboldened to share

We pray, too, that that Spirit will touch the hearts and embolden the thinking and the actions of every person with the power to shape our collective response to the epidemic, protecting the vulnerable and supporting those in need of our help, those whose lives have been thrown into upheaval, whose work has been abruptly halted, whose livelihood is threatened.

We pray that that Spirit will shift our thinking from our customary competitiveness to biblical norms of “the last shall be first,” the norms of communal sharing practiced by the early disciples in Acts, the norms expressed by the words of Jesus in Luke 4 and the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 61, proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon them–not to look after themselves but to bring good news to the poor and suffering. That would certainly up-end everyone’s expectations, wouldn’t it?

Amazing but confounding things

What are the amazing but confounding things God is doing in the midst of the life of your church, your community, this nation, and the world? Looking back on your life, when have you turned to your past experiences and to the tradition of scripture to interpret what God is doing now?

Is the way the church interprets the Bible helpful to its members as we view our lives, past, present, and future, through the lens of Scripture? How does this text illustrate the way that God is still speaking today? What spiritual understandings do you hunger for?

A hungry crowd

Clearly, the crowd is hungry for the word brought by the Spirit-filled disciples, even though some are immediately cynical and scoffing. Yet, we know from later verses that the church expanded from just over one hundred to three thousand in one day. A mega-church is born on a single day!

What do you think is the heart of the message that brought so many new believers to the newborn church? What converted, and even transformed, them all–in one shared experience?

In line with the prophets

We can only imagine what that energy felt like to the foreign visitors in town for the religious festival. This Pentecost experience was in continuity with the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. Since the festival of Pentecost happened at the time of spring harvest, how might we experience this Pentecost event as a different kind of harvest, yielding life-giving fruits?

When the church is once again able to confirm young people into the life of the congregation, they too may come from many different places, if not geographically, then in other ways. What is it that draws them to the church at such a time?

What are the visions that these young people see, and what are the dreams that the “old” members still dream, dreams that they long to share and build on with the youth? How might their arrival bring a shaking up of the church, as so often happens with the creative and renewing energy of the Spirit?

Drawn in, sent out

The same Spirit that drew the little band of disciples out into the world also shaped them into a community. In your church, how do you balance, or integrate, reaching out in service with prophetic witness, and nurturing within the congregation a vibrant spiritual life? How do these two impulses relate to each other?

According to Marcus Borg, the Spirit on this Pentecost undoes what happened on the Tower of Babel (in Genesis 11) as it brings back together the broken and divided community of humankind. In what ways might your church and your community need to be reunited, brought together, and healed?

What will bring us together?

Borg’s description of this Pentecost that up-ended the Tower of Babel story reminds us that the different languages of humankind have the power to divide people one from another. In the ancient world, there was a utopian ideal of one universal language, and this story provides an intriguing take on that dream.

The Spirit of God has rushed in to empower many different kinds of people to do something astounding: communicate effectively with one another. (Can you imagine such a thing?) Bridges were built and crossed in a moment, and the differences among them, instead of dividing, provided startling illustration of just how great the power of God is.

Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity that was not only touched but enlivened and experienced, profoundly, by many who were there. Others scoffed and interpreted even the most amazing of events through the eyes and ears of cynicism, but those with hearts and minds that were open to the movement of the Spirit knew that a new day had come.

A messy birth

Births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, whether it’s a human being or “something beautiful” struggling to be born. The birth of the church is no different. The feast of Pentecost–of harvest–is a good time to think about pregnancy and birth, and the great crowd of converts is its own kind of harvest even as it leads to even greater possibilities of growth and new life.

In addition, the disciples, cowering and confused, experience their own kind of rebirth or transformation by the power of this Spirit who blows into the scene on the rush of a mighty wind, with great noise and even with fire. In this case, fire and wind bring not destruction but new life. As with birth, it may not be quiet or peaceful, but it is exhilarating and, in the end, a very good thing.

A time to clean house

Mark Suriano connects this rebirth long ago with what is happening in the contemporary church: “In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle reflects on what she draws on the work of an Anglican bishop, The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, in noting sees as the regular ‘garage sale’ that the church experiences every five hundred years or so.

“She, and others, look at the church today and see the possibility that we are in fact in the middle of one of those inspired, cosmic rummage sales: a refocusing of our hearts and minds on what the good news means in our own day, while honoring the contributions of those who have gone before us. Tickle and others see this as a time of great renewal for the church and the churches, an opportunity for re-examination of the fundamental questions and a re-commitment to a renewed living of our faith.

“Is it perhaps a time for our ‘sons and daughters to prophesy,’ for our ‘young to dream dreams’ and our ‘old to see visions,’ for an outpouring of Spirit that calls from tomorrow overwhelming our preconceived notions and neat perceptions in favor of the expansive and inclusive reign of God?”

What languages do we speak?

As you reflect on this story of the birth of the church, how much does it relate to the life of your church today? Perhaps there are different “languages” in your congregation (literally or figuratively) that may divide the folks in your church, or at least make unity more difficult to achieve. What have been experiences of deep unity, across differences?

Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types. If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we were before.

Perhaps there have been events and experiences that have made us cower, have made us confused. What loud noises and “rushing wind” do we require, then, to draw us out of our “all together in one place” and send us out with courage and energy to proclaim the good news of the Risen Christ?

Are we jaded?

We are a people no longer easily impressed: in an age of technological wonders, we’ve come to expect regular improvements in the “stuff” of our lives. (Consider, for example, the improvement in special effects in film. What amazed us twenty years ago now looks almost silly.) What would it take then to astonish us?

As “the mercies of God are new every day” (Lamentations 3:22-23, and the wonderful hymn, “Great is Your Faithfulness”), so are the wonders of God, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see the astonishing things that happen quietly in the life of our churches, and in the lives of those who belong to them.

Assumptions overturned

It’s tempting to prefer a church that’s a safe refuge over a place and community where we are astonished and our safe assumptions regularly up-ended. What stories need to be up-ended and heard in a whole new light, even if we are all speaking the same language?

What is the basic unity that we share, that the people in your congregation and its neighborhood share? What deep spiritual bond brings us together across every kind of barrier and difference? How do we appreciate our differences and yet find that common ground?

Our foundational story

Today’s story is another one of those that belongs to all of us, not just to the early Christians. This is our beginning, what Michael E. Williams calls our “foundational story” of the new life, the New Age of which we are a part.

You can almost feel the wind pulling the folks together from all corners of the known world, and then propelling them back out to share the good news, like the Spirit breathing life into the young church.

A festival of harvest

The harvest festival of Pentecost, which came to remember the giving of the Law at Sinai, now marked the giving of new life and the gift of the church, a new way of living for those who would follow Jesus in every land and in every age.

Not just some kinds of people, but all different kinds of people, in all different places, different languages and customs, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences, different abilities and gender and races and orientations, all different kinds of people, beloved of God and filled with God’s Spirit, a new creation just as it could and ought to be.

New wine, new stories

The Pentecost story is one of the most familiar ones from the days of the early church, so it’s easy to pass over the remark about “drunk with new wine” with perhaps only a chuckle, and miss a subtle but important point. Rebecca J. Kruger Gaudino makes a wonderful observation when she connects this scene to Jesus’ own words about new wine and new wineskins in Luke 5:37-38, for these new Christians themselves are that new wine, “[bursting] the seams of convention.”

If this story really is our story, too, not just something stupefying that happened long ago and far away, what are we afraid of? At least some of our conventions could stand a little bursting, or even a lot. Do we feel like we are new wine?

A very different audience

Erik Heen expresses the Stillspeaking witness of the United Church of Christ when he observes that the apostles, from this day forward, will have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that they do, preaching the gospel to a very different audience that includes both Jews and Gentiles. In that way, Heen writes, the gospel is true to Jesus’ own life and witness, and yet able to reach the hearts and minds in a mission field that changes in every age.

What a marvelous diversity we face as well, in our “audience” for the gospel, with many cultures, languages, and backgrounds in a richly multicultural, multiracial world that is more linked together because of changes in technology and travel. We depend today on that same Spirit for guidance, and wisdom, that we too remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in ever more creative and dynamic mission efforts.

What message are we sending?

One of the most important things I learned in seminary was the result of a project in which we spent a semester observing our own congregation’s life and ministry, even the smallest details, to note and articulate the message we were sending. The premise was that the church teaches at all times, intentionally and consciously or not.

We were to find both the explicit and the implicit message in everything from the sign out front to the details of the worship bulletin, how meetings were begun, where we placed the Bible when we preached (did we set it aside?), and so on.

An obvious example is the sign that says, “All are welcome,” in front of an entrance that has steps and no help for those who cannot manage them. Implicitly, the teaching is, “All who are able are welcome.” When we think of the “languages” spoken in the church, and how these affect our unity, we might consider these implicit yet powerful messages as well, and ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with wisdom as we communicate the gospel to the world that God loves.

We come from different places

The same could be said of every effort to reach across boundaries that divide us: ecumenical and interfaith conversations and controversies, multiracial/multicultural/intercultural ministries, and sometimes just the language about our differences within our own families. In an age when many if not most people who practice their faith are in a different church from the one they were raised in, this can get rather complicated and raise sensitivities.

My younger (and favorite) brother and I both left the church of our upbringing; he attended a Baptist church for many years while I found a home in the United Church of Christ. He once told me that he was perplexed when people spoke of “born-again” Christians with a hint of dismissal (at best) and derision (at worst).

As I watched his expression and listened to his tone of voice, it struck me how hard it is to communicate, how powerful words and body language and voice are, and the monumental challenge this presents to unity, even within the same faith.

A blessing and a charge

Mark Suriano closes our reflections with a blessing and a charge: “On Pentecost, may you find your heart singing with the spirit of God, your ears humming with the voice of the Spirit speaking in a language that reaches deep into your soul and wisdom dawning on your mind so that the shackles that have hardened around your mind may be broken, and God’s voice and language set free. May your communities and churches experience the coming of God’s Spirit, anticipate it with joy and hope, give in to it with love, so that when the day is done all the world may know the love of God because of you!”

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

N.T. Wright, 21st century
“Those in whom the Spirit comes to live are God’s new Temple. They are, individually and corporately, places where heaven and earth meet.”

Adelaide Anne Procter, 19th century
“Dreams grow holy put in action.”

African Proverb, Ghana
“If you want to speak to God, tell it to the wind.”

Catherine the Great, 18th century
“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”

Howard Thurman, 20th century
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

L.J. Suenens, 20th century
“I believe in the surprises of the Holy Spirit.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
“A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century
“It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life worth living.”
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