Sunday, May 15, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Sneering at Speech"

Acts 2:1-13

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. 5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” (Common English Bible)

Pentecost 2016

Thirty-five thousand dollars.

That’s how much Quinn Duane and her parents had invested in her wedding to her fiancĂ© when, one week before the big day, her fiancĂ© called off the whole thing: engagement, wedding, the works.

That really isn’t enough advance notice to get all of your security deposits back.  And most importantly, someone’s heart had just been broken in one of the most painful ways possible.

But then, something amazing happened: the wedding was back on.  Well, not the wedding itself, but the reception was.  And instead of celebrating the happy couple, Quinn’s parents decided to celebrate their city’s homeless population, inviting them over to the banquet hall they had booked to enjoy salmon, tri-tip and gnocchi.

The first person through the door was an older woman who lived in a homeless shelter for elderly persons too impoverished to afford to rent a place to live.  She was followed by families with children and newborns, grandparents, people from all walks of life who could have used a lovely meal served to them with dignity.

It is that last point that is worth harping on.  It is one thing to hand someone a sandwich wrapped in saran paper, or a can of food that is rapidly approaching its expiration date, the sort of food we tend to reserve for the homeless but not for ourselves.  That may fill their stomach, but it is another thing entirely to serve someone rather than only feeding them.

The poor and the hungry who came to Quinn’s ‘wedding’ were not simply fed.  They were served.

Quinn herself was not there—it would have been too emotionally painful to her—but her parents’ gesture was an incredible act of love in the face of a sneer that, no matter how honest, tore their daughter’s life apart.  They reacted with grace in the face of a sneer, just as Peter does here in Acts 2, when the Spirit descends upon the many guests, just as you can imagine it did at Quinn’s reception.

The book of Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two-volume set composed by Luke—the first volume being, of course, the Gospel that bears his name.  Because they are separated in the Bible by John’s Gospel, it is easy to think that this was Luke’s follow-up sequel to the immense popularity of his debut work.  Like Acts is the Gospel Part, II: Electric Boogaloo.  Or his Gospel is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Acts is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Or his Gospel is the Star Wars trilogy, and Acts is The Phantom—no, wait, not even going to go there.

But the truth is that Luke-Acts was actually written as a singular cohesive story broken into parts, so the more apt comparison might be the seven-volume Harry Potter series after all...

And we see this cohesiveness at work with the Pentecost story itself.  Fifty days ago, Jesus was crucified, and ten days ago, He ascended to heaven, and the disciples cast lots to replace Judas Iscariot with Matthias in order to keep their number at an even twelve.  Luke keeps us going at a neat, tidy pace up to this fiftieth day after the Passover, when the Festival of Weeks is celebrated.

What is the Festival of Weeks?  In the grand scheme of things, it was not the biggest holiday on the calendar, certainly not being so close after the big to-do of Passover.  One commentator I read says that traditionally, the time between escape from Egypt and arrival at Sinai for Moses and the Israelites was, in fact, fifty days.  So not as big a holiday as the Exodus itself at Passover, but a significant occasion nonetheless, because the Israelites have arrived where they will be given—through Moses—the law from God, and so this festival exists to celebrate the giving of the law.

So this festival celebrating the giving of the law is taking place.  And by this time, the disciples maybe are a little worried and a little antsy.  Jesus has promised them the coming of the paraklesis—the paraclete, which we translate as the Holy Spirit—except that Jesus has beat it back to heaven without leaving behind said Holy Spirit.

However, the Festival of Weeks provides a great chance for the Holy Spirit’s arrival—not only does it give a reason for all the disciples (and not just the Twelve—Luke says devout Jews from every direction were here to celebrate the festival) to all be in one place, but it is also spiritually appropriate.  After the Passover—the liberation of God’s children from the bondage of slavery—comes the law.  And after the Resurrection—the liberation of God’s children from death and evil—comes the Spirit. 

And this coming of the Spirit includes everyone, everyone who traveled from near and far alike to celebrate this festival.  They are, many of them at least, well outside of their comfort zone because they had just elected a new member and have been trying to go about their work without the presence of Jesus.  And the travelers are outside of their comfort zone because…well, they are far from their physical homes, even as they gather near their spiritual home.

And so outside of these comfort zones, they utilize one comfort zone they still have—language.  Except, instead of speaking the lingua franca of the day, Greek—which was most peoples’ second language, like how English is today in many parts of the world—they are speaking each their own native, first languages.

And yet they understand each other perfectly, though it does not look like it on the outside.  The passersby sneer, “They are drunk on new wine,” as though all of this glossolalia could only be the result of inebriation.

It is an incredibly cruel retort to a people who are having a very real and authentic experience of God, to basically be accused of public drunkenness—a crime—on unfounded grounds, when you have just gone through an incredibly painful—life-changing as well, yes, but still painful—ordeal of the Passion.  They have just been publicly insulted in a really personal and unwarranted manner.

Yet Peter does not write them off.  He goes on from this passage to preach an incredible sermon—incredible because if you knew him at all during the Gospels, you wouldn’t recognize the theological depth of what Peter is saying in comparison to his bumbling blockheadedness back when he was following Jesus around everywhere.

The sneer did not cause Peter to lose faith, not by a long shot.  And that is the whole point of the Pentecost story, only writ even larger, on a humanity-sized scale.

The Pentecost story is, at its core, one of how God has not lost faith in us yet.

Only fifty days after the killing of His Son, God sends to us the Holy Spirit.

It is an amazing act of reconciliation to that very same humanity that had crucified God’s Son, and in that way, the Pentecost story is a natural successor to the Easter story.  Rejuvenation of spirit ought to follow resurrection, and reconciliation ought to follow the giving of new life.

A wrenching act, a display of separation and scorn, splits up a future husband and a future wife—much as, say, the prophet Hosea would speak of in his analogizing the relationship of God to the people—and the family of the heartbroken bride does not lose faith, no.  They sought the rebuilding and rejuvenating of other people even in the midst of their own pain and hurt for their daughter.

God seeks out our own rebuilding of ourselves, even in the midst of our own hurt and pain but also in the midst of God’s own hurt and pain…you don’t think the crucifixion of Jesus didn’t pain God to the very core?  I can only imagine that it did.

Yet here we are, seven weeks later, with God having not only restored Christ to the world that tried to end Him, but the Spirit to a group of disciples who had at one point probably thought they had lost it entirely.

And as a result, they understand one another, despite different languages, despite different backgrounds, despite different life stories.

Even more importantly, though, they probably understand God a little bit better now too.

They understand why they still matter to God.  Why they have, in truth, always mattered to God.

Such are the ways of the Holy Spirit in the lives of they who choose to be led by it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 15, 2016

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