God's vision, God's initiative

Imagine you turn on the news one night and the lead story is about a festival on the streets of Jerusalem. You see parades, musicians, and dancers, every food truck imaginable, and thousands upon thousands of people from Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, you name it, celebrating the end of violent conflicts across the Middle East. Then the news anchor transitions to the next big story: the floating island of trash in the northern Pacific that has been collected and filtered out of the ocean and recycled; coral reefs around the globe are thriving, and COlevels in the atmosphere have dropped below 300ppm. Imagine you turn on the news and no child has been abused or abducted, no spouse murdered, no neighbor robbed, and there wasn’t a single person on the whole planet who went to bed hungry. You try the channel changer, but it’s the same story across the entire spectrum of broadcast and cable news: peace everywhere you turn. It blows you away! A gust of joy is rushing into your home through every screen of every size, through every speaker and window, a gust so powerful it knocks over your easy chair and you find yourself lying on the floor, laughing and crying because it’s all so good, so very good. Unbelievable? The question is, how concrete do you allow your vision of the whole world redeemed and restored by God to be?

Luke paints a scene with Jerusalem at the center. The last thing the risen Jesus had told the disciples was, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no idea what exactly they were waiting for and what it would feel like to walk around dressed in power and what sort of power it would be. But devoting themselves to prayer, they waited. While they were waiting they had a nominating process, and they elected Matthias to take Judas’s place as one of the twelf apostles; it was all done in the proper sequence and order. And then it happened. It started with a sound like the rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house, and then it burst into tongues like firy flames, one resting on each of the disciples, and all of them began to speak in languages none of them had ever learned, and the house could not contain all that. A crowd gathered and they were bewildered, because each heard those Galileans speaking in their own native language. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples spoke of the mighty deeds of God, and their speech was heard in the languages of every nation under heaven.

At this point, Luke adds a list feared by every man and woman called upon to read Scripture in public worship on Pentecost Sunday. We know how to say Egypt and Libya, Arabs and Asia, but that’s about it; the rest are like trying to say the names of Icelandic volcanoes or Georgian weight lifters. The really curious thing, though, is that those names don’t just give you and me a hard time; the world’s finest New Testament scholars continue to wrestle with what to make of them. Jacob Myers writes about “Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem – a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome!” Elamites? The Elamites had been nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C., and the Medes had been nonexistent as a distinct ethnic group for over five-hundred years![1] What are Elamites and Medes doing in 1st-century A.D. Jerusalem? The question is, how concrete do we allow our vision of the whole world redeemed and restored by God to be?

In Luke’s picture, the disciples of Jesus asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were ready then to see their deepest hopes fulfilled, but now the outpouring of God’s Spirit expands their limited scope of vision along with ours. God’s redemptive and restorative work extends not only to the ends of the earth in geographical terms, or from Pentecost into the future in historical terms, but also into the past to include Elamites and Medes and every tribe and nation under heaven.

“Whoa, preacher, easy now,” some of you might be thinking. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we can see, that we can trace on our maps, the spread of the good news into Asia and Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia – but into the past? I don’t know, preacher, what did you put in your coffee this morning? We hear words like perplexed, bewildered,  and amazed in the text, and that is what we are, baffled, more than puzzled, blown away.” No wonder some of the observers concluded the disciples were drunk. But Peter said no. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning,” he said, which was such a weak point, he should have skipped it and go straight to reciting the bold prophecy with Joel’s name on it. In the last days God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh – not just chosen people, note just male people or church people, but all people – male and female, young and old, slave and free. All would have visions. All would prophesy. All dreams would be given voice. God’s Spirit would blow through all our carefully constructed boundaries of culture, ethnicity, and language not to eliminate them, but to weave us together into a unity of life where all are at home. And this was the beginning. Pentecost was the eruption of God’s vision for the world: resurrection writ large, all of creation transformed into new creation, all of life redeemed. The church wears red on Pentecost, because the passion, the fire and light of God’s Spirit is now loose in the world, claiming us as Christ’s own, inspiring and empowering us to live into that vision as his witnesses.

Many of us are worried about what is becoming of the church in the United States, what will be the future of our ministry here in Nashville. The ground is shifting under our feet; our governance models are eroding; our buildings are too large and inflexible; and our habits still reach deeper than our imagination. But today the church wears red. Today the church around the globe celebrates our beginnings in the movement of God’s Spirit in the world. Jesus told the disciples who didn’t know yet how to be witnesses of the risen Lord to stay in the city and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high. And devoting themselves to prayer, they waited. They didn’t hang around and do nothing or whatever they felt like doing or what they knew how to do because they had done it for years, they waited, tuning their hearts and minds to the movement and vision of God. And on the Day of Pentecost a mighty wind blew through the house on a backstreet in Jerusalem where they had come together and gave them everything they would need to change the world: not money, not a set of bylaws and a lectionary, not even ordained leadership, but the breath and Spirit of God. This is where the church begins, again and again, with God’s initiative, because the risen Christ needs a body in the world.

I wonder if perhaps our observance of Pentecost is a lot more subdued and understated than what we do around Easter and Christmas, because it is so much easier to celebrate what God has done for us and for all in the incarnation and life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, than to celebrate what God intends to do with us for the sake of the world. We turn on the news and nine times out of ten we don’t like what we hear and see, because it reminds us what is wrong with us and the world. But this is the world in which we live and raise our children, and for all that is wrong with it and with us, it is God’s and so are we. And that is why things don’t have to be or remain the way they are.

Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. And we too groan while we wait for redemption, and we are not alone, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray while we wait, but the Spirit intercedes for us and for the whole creation, with wordless groaning, with sighs too deep for words. The groan you hear coming from deep inside of you when you are reminded yet again how ugly we can be to each other and how mean, and how difficult it is for us to communicate freely and honestly, and how thoughtless self-absorption, greed and hatred appear to gain ground in human affairs every day instead of going away – the groan you hear then is yours as much as it is God’s. It comes from the place where life that longs for wholeness encounters the God who is making all things new and who is calling men and women, young and old, people of privilege and people from the margins to participate in that healing work as members of the body of Christ in the world.


[1] Jacob Myers http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1296