The Feast of Pentecost
Joel 2:21-end, Psalm 145, Acts 2:1-11, St. John 14:15-31
Many Tongues Became One
My dad was a sprout during the Great Depression. His family fared better than most. His dad worked as a superintendent in the Texas Company oil field just outside of town and he remained gainfully employed throughout that dark period.
They lived in West Columbia, Texas, home of the fightin’ Roughnecks, which is just across the river from East Columbia.
When Dad was 8 or 9 it became the custom for his mother to give him a nickel each Saturday night – assuming he had been reasonably well behaved and had tended to his chores. That nickel would cover both admission to the movies and the price of a candy bar.
Dad would meet up with a couple of his pals and they would head over to the Bijou Theater on the main drag and take in the show.
One summer night, one of the boys had a better idea. He’d heard about a regular Saturday night event that promised to be a better show. And not only that, they could keep their nickels in their pockets because it was free.
So the three boys headed for the big tent on the edge of town where the Pentecostal church met. They held their service on Saturday night because this was the Texas Gulf Coast and the summer days were hotter than blazes.
The Pentecostals also rolled up the bottom edges of their tent all the way around so that any breeze that might stir wouldn’t go to waste. That gave three puckish boys an opportunity to flop on their bellies and peer inside.
The Pentecostal preacher was a fellow named One-Arm Brown. He had transitioned from his previous career as a bootlegger after he lost an arm in the course of a high-speed chase. A revenuer got off a lucky shot that sent the bootlegger skidding off the gravel road and into a tree.
This unfortunate incident limited him to the point that he felt compelled to withdraw from the bootleggers’ guild and move on to the related field of preaching. He reckoned that both jobs were about making people feel better during those difficult days.
Well, on this particular night as the boys looked on, the praise band got to playing and the preacher got to preaching and before long some of the folks appeared to enter a state of frenzy. A comely lass of about 17 became so ecstatic that she fell off of her chair and began to roll around in the center aisle.
As she did, the hem of her skirt began to ride up higher and higher. The widow Jones, who was seated right there on the aisle, reached down to pull the young lady’s skirt back down in the interest of propriety. Whereupon Reverend One-Armed Brown held up his one arm and bellowed, “Desist, Sister Jones, desist. And let her glory shine.”
Dad and his buddies were quite faithful in their Saturday-night church attendance for some time thereafter. The only downside for Dad, I suspect, was that the service at the Presbyterian Church in East Columbia, where his mother dragged him every Sunday morning, got even more boring.
And so as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost I pose the question: Is that how God the Holy Spirit operates in His creation?
Pentecost is the day on which the Holy Spirit erupted in the creation and breathed out salvation on 3,000 souls in Jerusalem, the day on which God inaugurated the church as we know it and understand it and live it today.
We have our concerns – well-founded concerns – about the state of God’s church in our place and time, but perhaps this is a day to see the glass as half-full.
I read a story recently that provides some perspective. The 18th century was a time of indifference and even apostasy in England. A pastor named Samuel Wesley was the father of two sons, John and Charles.
One day he told the one, “Charles, be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in these kingdoms. You shall see it, though I shall not.”
John of course heard of that conversation and he recalled it years later when, standing at his father’s grave, he preached to a great multitude. England did see revival, and much of the credit for it goes to Samuel Wesley’s two boys, who spooned their gospel tonic into an ailing church in both England and America. We are reminded once again to walk by faith and not by sight.
If we inhabit an age of the eclipse of the church, so have many others. But from every eclipse the church has emerged and will emerge more resplendent than before. If a spiritual gloom has descended upon our own time, it affords us an opportunity to turn up the flame of our faith in God.
This was the way of St. Augustine.
From the time of the fathers the church has seen Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, one language became many; at Pentecost, many languages become one. In the instant the church was born, she spoke with one voice.
This is the power of our God. In this power – in His power — are our strength and our hope. In this power – in His power — is the reason we shall not lose heart. We are His church, and the gates of hell will not stand against us.
At Babel, God confused the tongues of the nations; at Pentecost He reversed the confusion. At Babel, God scattered the people in judgment; at Pentecost He distributed the people to publish the gospel to all the nations.
At Babel, the people used language to advance a human agenda; at Pentecost, language became a sign to declare the power of God. At Babel, disunity radiated outward as when a stone causes ripples in a pond; at Pentecost, people flew together as iron filings to a magnet.
Our God is ever merciful. In the Garden, he drove man out so he could not continue to eat from the tree of life and live forever in his sinful state. At Babel, He drove man away, delaying judgment on the City of Man and affording His creatures an opportunity of repentance.
Only God could tolerate the sin of His creatures; only God could provide a remedy for it. After the great flood, when God looked down and saw that sin was once again rampant on the earth, He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin to form a people for His holy name.
Later He would send a man, born of a woman, born under the law, to complete the work. This man, after His resurrection from the dead but before His ascension into heaven, would commission His apostles, or messengers, to “make disciples of all nations,” going “to the end of the earth” to take the gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
But wait, He told them, until you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They received that gift on this day, Pentecost, the 50th day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated at the time of harvest. In God’s economy the harvest of grain would ever thereafter trigger the memory of the harvest of souls.
Even back in the day of the prophet Joel, God had promised to send His people a Helper. The Son would pray to the Father, and the Father would send this Helper. Of course, not everyone is astute enough to recognize a helper when the Father sends one. I recall one soul who did.
This woman received a call at work informing her that her daughter was sick. On her way to the school, she stopped at the pharmacy to get medicine. When she got back to her car she found that in her haste she had locked her keys inside.
She spied an old rusty coat hanger on the ground. She had heard of using a coat hanger to pop the lock, but even as she picked it up she thought, “I have no idea how to use this.”
She bowed her head and asked God to send a helper. In less than five minutes a beat-up old motorcycle pulled up. The rider wore a scraggly red beard and a do-rag. He got off of his motorcycle and asked if he could help.
The woman said: “Oh, yes, please, my daughter is sick. I’ve locked my keys in my car. I must pick her up. Can you use this hanger to unlock my car?”
The biker said, “No problem.” He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the door was open. The distraught woman hugged him and through her tears of gratitude she said, “Thank you so much! You are a very nice man.”
The biker replied “Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday. I was in for car theft.”
The woman hugged him again, sobbing, “Oh, thank you, God! You even sent me a professional!”
Now, that’s discernment.
One thing the Holy Spirit would teach us is that there is no true unity among men if not through God. The vertical relationship must always precede the horizontal. The Holy Trinity is the model for all relationships.
Each of its three Persons has a role and the roles harmonize perfectly. Even when one submits to another – as when the Son does the bidding of the Father even at the cost of His life – none becomes less than the others.
Instruction of this sort defies human understanding . . . and it is the way of ordering all relationships in our once and future state, in the garden and in glory. It seems so foreign to us because we dwell today in the City of Man, and man’s government looks nothing like God’s.
God imposed it on His creation, when Jews from all points of the Diaspora, or dispersion, had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. It arrived with the force of a “rushing mighty wind.” Not for the first time did God act by way of a wind. Not by chance is the word for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” the same in both Hebrew and Greek.
At Pentecost, the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire” — do you recall the burning bush? — brought God’s remedy for the rifts between man and God and man and man that sin produced. Man dedicated the Tower of Babel, the house sin built, to the premise that man can unite with man while freezing God out.
The Psalmist would refute this notion:
“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it . . .” (127:1).
But by the day of Pentecost sin-stained contractors, their languages still confused, would be erecting myriad towers in the hope of ascending into the heavens of their own might or bringing God down to serve them in their realm.
The church God inaugurated on that day is His gift of a halfway house for His people, a shelter from the anarchy of the City of Man while we await communion in the City of God. This is where St. Augustine can abet our understanding.
In the fifth century Alaric led the Goths in the sack of Rome, by this time the capital of a Christian nation for more than a hundred years. The barbarian invader appeared to be pulling a vast darkness down on 11 centuries of civilization and culture.
Pagans and even nominal Christians attributed the catastrophe to that upstart religion called Christianity and predicted the ruin of the entire world. Augustine, instead of joining in the cacophony, sat down to compose his classic “The City of God.”
This city of the Christian church rises out of the ruins of the civilizations of this world and survives all manner of chaos and tumult. One day, her King will return to take up His throne and rule over an eternal realm of perfect justice and peace.
Meanwhile, we who are the subjects of this King have the privilege of looking upon this City of God with the eyes of faith and glimpsing our future home. We have the further privilege of serving our King in preparing the world for the transfer of the City of God from heaven to earth, of proclaiming to the nations separated at Babel the solution God effected at Pentecost. Augustine wrote:
“If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity.” So wrote Augustine.
In Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had prohibited certain prayers, including the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” — in foreign tongues. Now the Jews of the Diaspora hear the praises of God sung out in the languages of the territories whence they came.
In Old Testament times, when the Spirit of God took control of a man, he prophesied. Here, in like manner, the people prophesy, but in tongues.
This is not the ecstatic utterance Paul will address in 1 Corinthians but known languages spoken by those to whom they are unknown. And those who prophesy are not Jerusalem sophisticates but a rabble from the back woods of Galilee.
Three thousand of the visitors will take their testimony to this mighty act of God back to their own lands and launch the process of disseminating the gospel throughout the nations and to the very end of the earth. These are the firstfruits of the church . . . not a church for the Jew only but for those of every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
By the power of God, disunity has become unity, chaos has conceded to order, darkness has shriveled before the light.
Why, then, do we look out today upon the gathering gloom?
Robert D. Putnam is a scholar who studies American culture and who focuses his work on communities. He wrote a book titled “Bowling Alone” that describes a sociological phenomenon in which more and more of our countrymen are bowling alone.
What was once a social game, to which people congregated in leagues, is turning into a solitary activity. Bowling, of course, is not Putnam’s real concern. His interest is in the disconnection that characterizes our culture more and more. He notes that it has invaded the church as well as the bowling alley.
His observations appear more faithful to the reality we see around us than the notion of a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we recite each Sunday – with emphasis on the “one.” In an age of proliferating denominations, epidemic divorce and families rent asunder, how can we find the unity of the promise of Pentecost?
We will see it if we look through the eyes of Samuel Wesley, who peered beyond his own demise and saw an England restored to worship . . . if we look through the eyes of St. Augustine, who stood with feet firmly planted in the City of Man and caught the vision of the City of God.
We will not stumble if we walk by faith and not by sight, if we walk not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has built this house, His church, and the Lord does not labor in vain. Amen.
The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
Habakkuk 1:12-2:4, 9-14, Psalm 15, Colossians 3:12-17, St. Matthew 13:24-30
Audio: Living in the New Creation
Living in the New Creation
One day in 2010, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts announced from the bench the death of Marty Ginsburg, husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Observers saw Justice Antonin Scalia wiping tears from his eyes.
And why not? He went way back with the Ginsburgs. He and Ruth had been contemporaries as law professors and had served together on the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. He was a Catholic and she a Jew but they were both outer-borough New Yorkers and they both loved opera.
They not only attended the opera together but went souvenir-shopping when they traveled. On a trip to India, they shared an elephant. The plentiful Antonin Scalia sat in front. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that lean, jut-jawed champion of women’s rights, sat in back. The question was inevitable.
“It had to do,” she said, deadpan, “with distribution of weight.”
And they and their families and a circle of friends had a tradition of sharing New Year’s Eve. One regular guest, a high-ranking lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said – referring to Scalia’s reputation as a hunter – “Scalia kills it and Marty cooks it.”
So, right there on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, Scalia wiped away tears at the public announcement of Marty Ginsburg’s death. And it mattered not a trifle that regarding the cases that came before the court he and Ruth disagreed – and disagreed vehemently – about just about everything.
He was a Constitutional originalist, committed to the principle that the Founding Fathers’ intent should be primary when judges interpret the law. She was and is as liberal as any jurist who has sat on the high court, ever ready to revise the Constitution to accommodate changes in society and culture.
In a case that resulted in Virginia Military Institute’s opening its doors to young women, regarded by some as the capstone of Ruth Ginsburg’s lifelong battle for gender equality, Scalia growled in dissent, “This is not the interpretation of a Constitution but the creation of one.”
But he made sure to complete his dissent in time to deliver it to her while she was still writing the majority opinion. “He absolutely ruined my weekend,” she said, “but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”
She said, “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’”
He said, “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.”
They were, in her words just after Scalia died last year, “best buddies.” And friendship is important and we should celebrate it but there’s something else in their relationship we can learn from. Their mutual warmth and respect made the Supreme Court better.
Spirited debate, done civilly, sharpens the arguments on both sides. And the public nature of their friendship despite their differences at law said out loud for all to hear that the institution they served could function just fine despite polarized views among its members.
A nine-member court is, after all, a community, something like a church.
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering;” St. Paul instructs the members of the church at Colossae, “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
“But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
We must of course consider what the “therefore” is there for. The apostle has been explaining to his charges in Colossae that the church is a “new creation.” Because it is without precedent, it must incubate relations among its members such as the world has never known. It must adopt an original rule of life to inform and govern those relations.
We find Paul using terms applied to Israel in days gone by – “God’s chosen ones,” “holy” and “beloved” – because the church is the “new Israel.” In this new creation, the standard under the new covenant that regulates it is mutual love.
He’s not sketching some Utopian dream; he’s not describing a scene from heaven he saw in a vision. He’s telling them – and us – to treat one another with kindness, meekness, patience and forgiveness.
The word for “kindness” is interesting. It’s used for wine that has aged long enough to lose its harshness and take on a mellow quality. It’s also the word Jesus uses when He says, “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30).
And, yes, this is the Jesus who has modeled for us these same qualities the apostle is urging upon us. This Jesus, who is the perfect representation of God, in whose image we are made. This Jesus, in whom we are forgiven and who calls us to forgive one another.
In the church that is the new creation the world should see the new man, created in the image of God and re-created, or born again, through His grace. The world will know us by how we love one another.
When we do, we demolish the walls that have forever kept men apart. In the verse that precedes our lesson for today Paul has said that in this new creation, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free . . .”
Well now. Everyone has forgotten all those old grudges, buried all the hatchets, hugged his old enemies. Not a lot of wiggle room there. Kumbaya, Lord, kumbaya.
Maybe he’s kidding. He’s probably putting us on. We’re not angels, are we?
Except for one thing. Here’s the next phrase: “but Christ is all and in all.” Christ has brought about a spiritual revolution. If Christ is in you, you are not as you were before. You have put off the “old man” and put on the “new man” who is a member of that “new creation” which is Christ’s church.
When Christ becomes everything to everyone, “love, which is the bond of perfection” pulls everyone together as the peace of God rules in your hearts. You have become one body, in which every member maintains a vital interest in the welfare of every other member.
Paul’s overarching concern is unity in the church. Certain recent “visitors” have called its theology and practices into question, and the result has been dissension. The way to overcome it, to achieve peace individually and corporately, is through love, which is possible when every member relies not on his own understanding but on the Christ who dwells within him.
C. Lucas put it this way: “the treasure of Christ’s spirit resides in the very ordinary clay of the local congregation of his people in Colossae, as elsewhere.” No, Paul isn’t putting us on.
He adds: “And be thankful.”
If I tried to examine every quality of this new man in Christ I might make you late for the Super Bowl, and I’m far too savvy a preacher to run that risk. I’ll settle for three – forgiveness, humility and gratitude – because I’m fascinated by how they bleed into one another in the Bible.
To attain forgiveness we must first acknowledge our need for forgiveness. He who makes no such acknowledgement is an unrepentant sinner, wise in his own understanding and proud in the imagination of his heart. He thinks himself righteous.
He may claim an innate perfection. I remember an old country song. The chorus goes:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait
To look in the mirror.
Cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.
More likely, he who sees no need for forgiveness assumes his many assets far outweigh his few liabilities and considers himself justified in the balance. He has not considered well Paul’s words addressed to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
So, begging forgiveness requires humility, an understanding of our own frailty and utter dependence on the God who made us to cleanse us and make us fit to come into His holy presence. No sin may enter there.
Any who will not forgive do not know God’s forgiveness. All who understand what they have been forgiven will freely forgive those who have wronged them.
When we summon the humility to beg forgiveness, we receive it, for God promises it to all who ask. And when we receive it, we are profoundly grateful.
I have discovered that gratitude is the hallmark of a person in whom Christ’s Spirit resides. It’s impossible to miss for anyone who has a child who wandered for years and decades in darkness and at long last emerged in God’s glorious light.
Gratitude pours off of him in buckets. He can’t say “thank you” often enough – both to God and to those who stood by him through all the trials and provocations and helped him find his way into the light. Anyone who finds within him the humility to beg forgiveness will be overcome with gratitude when he receives it.
When this spirit prevails in the members of a church it will produce peace in the church, and peace must prevail for the church to function effectively as the body of Christ.
Does that mean we must always agree? In your dreams. But Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg show us that we can disagree, even vigorously, and be at peace, that we can make each other better and make our church better in the bargain. And not they alone.
At the beginning of his brilliant academic career, C. S. Lewis could be a bit of a bully. Some of his early students suffered under his scorn.
In his early 30s – more or less concurrent with his giving up his embrace of atheism – he wrote to a friend that he had recognized he was in danger of turning into “a hardened bigot shouting every one down till he had no friends left.” Lewis said, “You have no idea how much of my time I spend just hating people whom I disagree with.”
Many of you know of Lewis’ friendship with the other members of the literary discussion group known as the Inklings, among them fellow Christian authors J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. But this Christian conservative had other friends who were atheists and liberals and socialists.
He loved to debate and he would take on friend or foe, conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist. George Watson was first a student of Lewis at Oxford and later a colleague on the faculty at Cambridge.
Watson said, “Lewis was a Christian conservative from around the age of thirty, which is to say before I knew him; and since I am neither one nor the other, there was never any question of doctrinal influence. If I was not exactly a friend, still less was I a disciple. That in no way altered my sense of admiration and affection . . .
“We both thrived on dissent . . . (He was) the best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions.”
Watson said Lewis’ “twin passions . . . were people and arguments, but he did not often make the mistake of confusing them. Good people can believe in wicked things . . . like race war and class war. Lewis could be polite, even friendly, to such people. What aroused his trenchancy was evil opinion.”
He provided an example of Lewis’ aggressive attack on the argument of a communist scientist, all the while making it plain that it was communism and not its advocate he was lambasting.
Lewis fell back on a deep humility that acknowledged that he didn’t have all the answers and could always learn from others. At Oxford, he served as president of a discussion group known as the Socratic Club. In a debate with him there, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe catalogued the deficiencies of Lewis’ book “Miracles.”
His response? He promptly sat down and rewrote it, demonstrating what his opponent called his “honesty and seriousness.” Truth always mattered most for him. He loved to debate not to parade his wit and learning but to bore down to the truth.
I pray that for us what seeps up from Lewis’ example is a sense of proportion. People of other faiths or no faith at all are made in the image of God. Those of other Christian denominations and traditions for the most part agree with us on the Trinity, incarnation and resurrection. That’s not nothin.’
Within the Anglican world we have important differences with liberal churches, so stark that we look back and ask ourselves how we could begin in the same place and spin off into such radically different orbits. Still, we’re all Anglicans.
Inside our own body we will disagree on various points. This church has split before. I pray that before it splits again all concerned take a deep breath and consider the grace and even charm in times of dispute that others have modeled for us. If C. S. Lewis could summon humility, you and I ought to be able to.
I don’t mean to make gracious disagreement sound easy. It often isn’t. Sometimes the mere presence of those of repugnant opinions can make the skin crawl. I believe abortion is murder. Making cocktail party chitchat with those who speak breezily of the “right” to choose an abortion has proved a burden for me.
So, I return to one sentence: “Good people can believe in wicked things.” Even if that is not so, we will not win them over if we refuse to speak with them. And if we can disagree respectfully with them, surely we can do so with one another.
A mentor for me in this regard was our late Bp. Grote. He didn’t shrink from conflict but neither did he seek it and he appeared never to take disagreement personally. I remember well Bp. Sutton’s eulogy at Bp. Grote’s funeral, his recollection that his friend seemed to be bathed in a perpetual peace.
To have peace, he said, is to have Christ who is our peace. Forgiveness, humility, gratitude . . . peace. Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. It’s the way of love. It’s the way of unity in the body. Amen.