Rule-Breaking Spirit

May 31, 2020 | Acts 2, 1-21, Numbers 11

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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.
18 Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’


Today we celebrate Pentecost which is full of great good news.  And we need it.  And I’ll get to it.  But we can’t ignore that it has been a sobering week in these United States.  The number of persons who died from COVID-19 has passed the 100,000 mark.  These are not just numbers.  These are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, partners, friends, and colleagues.  There is widespread grief among us.  Many are anxious about getting the virus, and many are restless, impatient, ready to get on with life as we knew it.  People are fighting government restrictions, and fighting one another in public places about wearing masks and distancing.  Businesses have closed, people have lost work, our economy is in trouble.

Then on Monday, George Floyd died in police custody, the final minutes of his precious life and horrifying death captured on a video that has gone viral.   Derek Chauvin, the police officer who kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, ignoring his repeated plea, “Please, please, I can’t breathe,” was finally arrested and charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter three days later.  Three other officers who were there but did not intervene to stop this killing have lost their jobs, but so far, their complicity has brought no criminal charges.   Grief and anger have erupted in peaceful and violent protests across this country, and it isn’t only about the murder by white police officers of this one black man for the crime of purchasing something with a counterfeit $20 bill.

We are once again face to face with the devastating realities of racism in this “Christian” nation where because of our history of slavery, of physical and psychological violence, African Americans are disproportionately impoverished and unemployed; disproportionately lacking adequate healthcare and dying from COVID-19; and, disproportionately harassed and killed by white police who serve in precincts that are blind to the systemic racism that protects their criminal behavior.   And we cannot pretend that the criminal behavior of some police officers is unrelated to the behavior of those citizens in Georgia who in February gunned down Ahmaud Arbery while out for his morning run.  We cannot any longer turn a blind eye to the reality of the embedded racism and the pervasive tribalisms that are present in our society, and have cursed the human family from the beginning of time.

What happens on Pentecost is God’s divine intervention, God’s creative corrective to our racism, our tribalisms, our sexism, our heterosexism, our classism, our ageism—all of the “isms” that choke the life out of our life together.   Through the Hebrew prophet Joel, God promised that this intervention would someday come, and in his sermon Peter says, “that day is here.”  Today is the day.   On Pentecost God pours out God’s Spirit on all flesh.  People from all nations under heaven.  Sons and daughters.  Young and old.  Men and women.  Slave and free.  God is baptizing the whole mess of humanity with Holy Spirit power and vision.   And Holy Spirit is gonna wipe out all the “isms.”  Blow away all of the power inequities.    Undo all the rules about who can speak and who gets heard.  Pluck up the paralyzing policies and practices that mean privilege for some and poverty for others.  Consume the crippling categories of superiority and inferiority.  Holy Spirit is poured out to burn up all of our “isms,” our isolations, our segregations, our divisions.

Over the past week, I heard several people say, “I just want to burn it all up. I just want to burn it all up.”  These words prompted me to read more of the Pentecost story than I had planned.  I wanted to skip over the part where God says:  “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire and smokey mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”   I didn’t want to include these apocalyptic images in our worship because many take them literally, as a picture of the ultimate end of the world, when God is going to burn it all up.  I just didn’t want to deal with this stuff.

But by Thursday, I was drawn to these images.  Our situation feels apocalyptic to me.  Our whole world is undergoing seismic changes with the global pandemic, an eroding economy, a degrading environment, a disintegrating socio-political order, now starkly visible.  There is blood, and fire, and the smoky mist of tear gas.  There are days when the “sun don’t shine.”  It happens in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is killed by the people in power.  The world goes dark.  It happened on Monday when George Floyd was murdered by white police before a watching world.  God isn’t doing any of this.  We are doing it to ourselves.

And, the weird thing is that even though all we are going through is really hard, and really painful—the Biblical witness, the story of God with the world, is that this is all part of how the world is being renewed.   It is how we get “woke” to the mess we are in.  All of this “falling apart,” all of this “end of the world as we have known it,” is encompassed about by a new world that is coming to be.  I get the impulse to want to “burn it all up,” to be rid of all of the entrenched stuff, the embedded structures, the “isms” that choke the life out of our life together.  It is incredibly difficult to give shape to a new world, when we are stuck in what now is.  It would be easier to just start over from scratch.   But the coming of the new world includes the work of dismantling and overthrowing the old.  Both are taking place simultaneously, and both are unfolding from the initiative, the desire, the intention of God.  And God’s desires will be fulfilled.

This is the good news that Scripture proclaims from beginning to end.  The Spirit of God moves over the chaos.  The Spirit of God moves within the deep abyss.   God creates and re-creates because God desires creation to be.  And God desires every single creature, every living thing that exists.  And God desires you.  God loves you.  The breath of God, the Spirit of God is the source of all life and being, and with that breath, with that life, comes God’s own holy desire for the other. [repeat]  It is planted in us.  To say that human beings are created in the image of God is to say that we are creatures who share God’s desire, longing and love for the other.

Human history records the distortion of God’s holy desires in us.  It witnesses to our fear of the other, our turning against and away from the one who is different.   And human history tells the story of God, the story of the Spirit who labors every day in every moment to restore in us God’s own desire for the other.  What happens on Pentecost is God’s creative corrective to all of our “isms”—to the isolations, segregations and divisions that choke the life out of our life together.  The whole book of Acts is the story of a revolution.  It shows us life in the disrupting presence of the Spirit of God who re-ignites in us the God-given desire, longing and love for each other.   It is possible to resist the Spirit, but we do so at our own peril.  Not because God will damn us, but because we will destroy ourselves.  We will create our own apocalyptic day of reckoning AND the Spirt of God will be moving within the chaos.

When Jesus is baptized, Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and from that moment, Jesus never resists the Spirit.  Jesus goes where the Spirit sends him and joins his life with those to whom he is sent.  On Pentecost, the Spirit descends on the disciples of Jesus like a violent wind and a burning fire and gives them the miraculous ability to speak the languages of other people.  And those who hear them speaking in their own languages are amazed and ask, “What can this mean?”

What it means is that God has bridged the gap.  The Spirit has enabled the disciples to understand and speak languages they didn’t know before so that they might be joined with the other.   This is the heart of the matter, and I wish that it were oh so easy.  I wish we were suddenly able to understand the language, the experience, the suffering, the hopes, the gifts, the perspectives of those who are different from us, from whom we’ve lived separated lives.  But it doesn’t happen quickly.   It doesn’t happen if we resist the Spirit.  It doesn’t happen without our willing co-operation with Holy Spirit.

The truth of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has been poured out, with power, on all flesh.  This means that God’s own holy desire for us, for the other, presses through centuries of fear, animosity, and division, and it presses on this moment to renew in us the holy desire for, the longing for, the love for one another. This what that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is doing.  This is what became visible on Saturday as our very diverse community gathered to peacefully protest the murder of George Floyd, and committed to work toward the vision of our lives woven together, with all of the diversity that we embody in our one shared humanity.   We move together into a future that will not yield to the old world order, but yields to the world that is coming into being through the Spirit who has been indiscriminately poured out on, and poured into all flesh.  It is neither quick nor easy.  But it is what Holy Spirit is making possible.  It is where Holy Spirit is taking us.  Come, gentle dove.  Come, fire of love.  Come breath of life and holy desire.  Come Spirit, come.

(With thanks to Willie Jennings, I acknowledge my debt to him for his commentary on the book of Acts where he declares that Luke is writing about a revolution through the disrupting presence and movement of the Spirit which restores in humanity God’s desire for the other.)

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