The Answer is Blowing in a Mighty Wind: Acts 2:1-4

A recent study by the Pew Research Center on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” has generated much hand wringing and discussion because it indicates that the percentage of the American population identifying themselves as Christians is in serious decline. The release of that study just before Pentecost in the Christian calendar is a perfect motivation for us to take seriously what is often called “the birthday of the church” in Acts 2.

The second chapter of Acts is a wonderful summary of the Christian Gospel. It begins with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but that is just the beginning. The chapter goes on to describe the whole Gospel of both personal and social holiness which I outlined in my last post, and this article is the first in a series on Acts 2 that will reflect on our Judeo-Christian roots as a way of moving from hand wringing to spirit-led witness to our faith in both word and action.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about discouragement as an obstacle to resurrection living, and the evidence for being discouraged has not abated in the interim. ISIS victories in Iraq and the ensuing political posturing and blame game, a horrific shoot out in Waco, a deadly train crash in Philadelphia, a huge oil spill and draughts in California while rains and flooding of biblical proportions hammer parts of Texas.

Such bad news everywhere reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my seminary professors back in 1971. I attended Dr. Roy Reed’s memorial service last week, and that brought back lots of memories. One of them was the day I preached my senior sermon in chapel at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. I invited a talented group of youth from Wapakoneta, Ohio where I was youth pastor to join me for that service. They had formed a folk music group called “The Get Together,” and one of the numbers they sang in chapel that day was a Ray Stevens song, “Everything is Beautiful.” It’s a song about inclusivity and tolerance, but Professor Reed took exception to the chorus and challenged me about its theological soundness after the service. The chorus says:

“Everything is beautiful in its own way.
Like the starry summer night, or a snow-covered winter’s day.
And everybody’s beautiful in their own way.
Under God’s heaven, the world’s gonna find the way.”

The pastor at Dr. Reed’s memorial service talked about how honest (sometimes brutally honest) Dr. Reed could be. He even said Roy’s mother once remarked that Roy was so honest you sometimes just wanted to slap him! In retrospect I have come to appreciate and cherish that passion for truth, but not so much that day when I was on the receiving end as one of his students. In no uncertain terms Dr. Reed argued that everything is not beautiful, and as in every generation there were plenty of current events to support his argument. The news headlines in 1971 were all about Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Memories of My Lai, Selma, assassinations and riots in 1968, student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State, and the first big oil spill in Santa Barbara were all fresh in our minds.

With the benefit of more life experience I came to understand Dr. Reed’s point. Faith and hope are necessary for human survival, but so is a healthy balance of prophetic realism that shines the spotlight of truth on injustices that need to be made right. Sometimes when I reflect on my own life and career I get discouraged at the lack of progress we are making as a human race. The church and the world do not seem to be much closer to God’s vision for creation than we were that day 44 years ago.

But when I am tempted to lament the fact that the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My alma mater, MTSO, is a good example of why we need to see things from God’s perspective. God’s time is not our time. That spring that Dr. Reed and I had our memorable discussion was a different era and the seminary we both love was not the same place it is today. The school was only 13 years old in 1971, and even though it had been founded by a wonderful faculty and board committed to progressive theology and the social gospel, it was a creature of its time and culture. In my class of 50 students there were only two women, and neither of them was in the track for ordination. The faculty we studied under was top-notch, but they were all white males. (The first female and minority faculty members were hired the year after I graduated.)

By comparison, the faculty of that school is now led by a female dean and is 43% female, 29% minority, and serves a diverse student body that is over 50% female. Does that mean it is utopia or that the church is now a perfect place? Of course not. Even though women clergy are now a very significant part of the fabric of our church, the truth is that clergy women still far too often hit a “stained glass ceiling” and are rising to leadership positions in large churches at a much slower rate than women in comparable positions in other professions. We can’t ignore the need for continual progress in the church or society, but neither should we discount the significant gains we have made in women’s rights, civil rights and human rights. Everything is not and never will be beautiful in this imperfect world, but some important things are certainly more beautiful than they once were, and those things can inspire us to keep the faith and continue the quest for truth and justice.

If someone had tried to tell Jesus’ frightened band of disciples just before Pentecost that everything is beautiful, I’m sure they would have objected even more strongly than Professor Reed did to our song. Jesus had been brutally executed and all their hopes for political liberation from Rome and reestablishment of the glory of Israel were crushed. Then their hopes rose again. Jesus was back with them for a short time only to leave again permanently on Ascension Day. He promised to be with them always in spirit but told them to wait in Jerusalem for that promise to be fulfilled (Acts 1).

And that brings us to Acts 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.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Not too long ago it was common to find a yellow and brown post-it note on one’s door notifying the occupants that UPS had attempted to deliver a package but could not leave it because someone needed to sign for it. That practice has changed because the percentage of people who are home during the day makes it impractical. But God’s delivery policy has not changed. You still have to be fully present to receive God’s spirit. It can’t be done half-heartedly or in absentia. The disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem was not a safe, cozy place for them to hang out. They had good reason to believe their lives were in danger at the hands of those who had killed Jesus.

Given their track record for bravery it is pretty amazing that the disciples obeyed Jesus’ command. They were more likely to go into a witness protection program than to become bold witnesses for the faith. Let me remind you that the Greek word for witness also means “martyr.” Discipleship was not and still is not for sissies, but wait and obey they did; and on the day of Pentecost God delivered an event that transformed their lives and the world forever.

That kind of transformation requires tremendous power to overcome fear and inertia; so the delivery does not come in the form of a gentle dove alighting on their heads. It comes in the form of a violent wind and flames of refining fire that propel the apostles out of their man cave sanctuary into the cosmic battle with the forces of evil and darkness. So be careful what you ask for. Those baptized into the Christian community are playing with fire and will never be the same.

Baptism initiates all who accept it into the priesthood of all believers. Peter and his gang were not seminary grads, just forever changed by their encounter with Jesus and now filled with his spirit to do, as he predicted, even greater things than he did because he was in them and they were in him (John 14:12-20).

The seeds Jesus had planted in the disciples came to fruition on the Day of Pentecost, a significant Jewish holiday, The Festival of Weeks. Our English word “Pentecost” comes from a phrase in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs the Hebrews to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday (pentekonta hemeras in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture). This Jewish holiday was originally a harvest feast when the first fruits of their labors were brought as an offering to God. That is important to the Christian observation of Pentecost for two reasons.

The new birth of the spirit in Jesus’ followers represents an offering of their best to God first and foremost. The disciples are all in for the first time in their commitment to Christ, offering themselves completely to God’s kingdom and not to any false idols of comfort, wealth or worldly power. It is a new beginning for them, the church and the world.

Secondly, the date is important because it explains why people from all over the world were in Jerusalem. They were there for the Jewish Festival, and that’s why we hear in verse 4 that the first way the spirit manifests itself in the disciples is through a new found ability to communicate in languages they had not previously known. That is an appropriate first fruit of the spirit because it goes without saying that communication is a necessary skill for any human interaction but never more so than when it comes to the mysterious matters of faith.

The Hebrew Scriptures explain our human failure to communicate and understand each other as a punishment for human pride in the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11). Now at Pentecost a new wind is blowing that restores the ability to bridge the communication chasm and open the potential for genuine community. I will address what that gift of communication means and why we all need God’s unifying spirit more than ever in our global village today when we turn in the next part of this series to verses 5-13.

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Pentecost and Beyond: Christian Theology in Acts 2

We were out of town for Memorial Day weekend, and I was reminded again why Pentecost should not fall on the same weekend as a secular holiday. The empowering of God’s spirit is absolutely critical for faithful living; so for many Christians to be absent from church on Pentecost while traveling or doing other holiday activities is regrettable. Fortunately, Pentecost season in the church is like Eastertide, it is not a 24-hour event but a way of life.

To that end I am going to post here a series of reflections on Acts 2 which is one of the most important and complete summaries of Christian theology in the entire Bible. That one chapter covers a remarkable summary of the story of repentance, salvation, the power of God’s spirit to create both personal and social holiness, individual evangelism and conversion, and the resulting transformation of servant disciples into a model faith community.

Over the next few weeks I will reflect on different parts of Acts 2, and the outline for this 5-part series, at least at the outset, is as follows:

Verses 1-4: Obedient waiting for the Holy Spirit. If you are expecting a nice gentle dove be forewarned that the power of God’s spirit is not for sissies.

Verses 5-13: The communication barriers created at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) are miraculously removed and spirit-drunk apostles emboldened to preach the word.

Verses 14-36: Through the Holy Spirit all people of any age, race, and gender are capable of being God’s prophetic witnesses. As proof of that the former Christ-denying Peter’s first sermon summarizes salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Verses 37-42: The overwhelming response to authentic preaching – 3000 people from all over the world repent, believe and accept the gift of God’s grace.

Verses 43-47: The proof in the pudding. True conversion and salvation are not one and done personal events, but result in an authentic community of social justice, compassion and holiness.

Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living

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I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and ironically the reasons for my reflections are also the obstacles and excuses for not getting my thoughts and feelings written down. I am at that awkward age when most topics of conversation veer automatically to aches and pains. My list is not unique: arthritis, back pain, glaucoma, neuropathy—nothing noteworthy. Just this week I found a medicated pain patch that helped my nagging back, and I was feeling optimistic about tackling some yard work and playing some golf; and then in one innocent move I twisted my knee and the simplest of tasks became a new challenge.

So, as the final installment in this Eastertide series on the enemies of living resurrected lives I give you “discouragement.” God knows there are far more major issues to be concerned about in the world than a few minor aches and pains. Yes, I know they (whoever “they” are) say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” St. Paul expresses that positive spin on suffering in Romans 5: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. “ (Vs. 3-4).

Maybe in Disney movies, but not always in real life. Sometimes suffering just beats us down. The 24/7 news cycle bombards us with such bad news around the clock that I hear many people saying they can’t bear to watch the news, especially before retiring for the night. I won’t add to the bad news by reciting the litany of CNN headlines, but you know them, from Nebraska to Nepal the very foundations of the earth and of our faith seem to be on shaky ground.

It’s almost impossible to turn off the news in the information age. Even when I want to watch a recorded sporting event I almost always get an alert or see a post on Facebook telling me the outcome before I want to know it. And even if we could unplug ourselves, the only way to escape tales of suffering would be to disengage from all personal relationships. Friends dealing with unexpected cancer diagnoses, families dealing with substance and physical abuse, mental health issues, and at the same time caring for a loved one wasting away with stage-4 cancer.

One definition of sin that I learned in seminary was “to be turned in on oneself,” and though it didn’t make the church’s top 7 list it is one of the deadliest sins. It is sneaky deadly because focusing on my own problems depletes me of energy needed to care about the personal needs of others and the larger systemic problems of the world. Most people would agree, at least in theory, that compassion is one of the unique and greatest of human virtues. The word “compassion” comes from the Greek words meaning “to suffer with,” and it is almost impossible to be concerned about the problems of others when I am wallowing in a pity party about my own pain.

There has been much wisdom written about human suffering. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” (The second by the way is that our suffering is caused by attachment to the temporary things of this world, but that’s a topic for another day.) Translated into the language of the human potential movement, those two truths are summed up in the catch phrase that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Simply put, pain is part of the human condition – physical, emotional, spiritual – they all go with the territory. None of us can control things that happen to us in life. Bad things do happen to good people. What we have a choice about is how we respond to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” of life, as Shakespeare describes them in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

Here’s how St. Paul describes his own struggle with being turned in on his own problems. “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:7-10).

We don’t know what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, and we don’t need to know. We all have personal problems, challenges, aggravations, misfortunes that we have no solution for. When it comes to physical ailments we are tempted to think that modern medicine should be able to fix any problem our bodies throw at us with just the right pill or procedure. The undeniable truth that becomes clearer as our mortal bodies age, however, is that we are all “dust and to dust we shall return.” (Genesis 3:19).

And that brings us full circle in the Lent to Pentecost cycle. Those words from Genesis are traditionally used as ashes are imposed on Christians on Ash Wednesday –not to be morbid, but to give us a wakeup call. When Paul says “Take this thorn from me,” or Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me,” God’s reply is, “Sorry, this is the hand you’ve been dealt, deal with it.” Prayers are always answered, but sometimes the answer is not the one we are hoping for.

The best cure for being turned in on oneself is to be more aware of the needs and lives of our fellow human beings. And that won’t happen if we cut ourselves off completely from the bad news in the world. We need a healthy balance of reality and inspiration from others who truly live resurrection lives. Those people can encourage us so we can be encouragers for others, witnesses to the power of faith that overcomes every thorn, every tragedy and every temptation to give in to the suffering that the world throws at us.

To that end I offer two stories of inspiration that humble and encourage me to trust and believe in the Gospel of resurrection:
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The first was a simple post on Facebook from the Blue Street Journal. “Against all odds, both of these women survived gunshot wounds to the brain. One of them at the hands of the Taliban and one of them at the hands of a mentally ill mass-shooter. Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords inspire and give me hope.”

The second is a great story from Robert Fulghum about a critical life lesson we don’t learn in kindergarten. During his early twenties Fulghum used to work for a countryside resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jewish guy. A survivor of Auschwitz, Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner, he was mad because of eating the same food day-in-day-out and for having to pay for it. Worked up, he was really cross.

Sigmund, however, listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Robert Fulghum had a realization and he further wrote in his story, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”