Archives For Pentecost

Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.

    “Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.” 

     You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields. 

     Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch. 

     Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over. 

     In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes,  and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels. 

    The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her. 

    The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target. 

     She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film. 

    The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire. 

     She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries. 

     Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes: 

“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.

“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”

     Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story. 

     The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot. 

     Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church. 

     And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work. 

    The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”

     She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her. 

     And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin. 

    The fire is only part of the story. 

     The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”

———————-

     And that’s my first point- 

     When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message. 

     Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message. 

    Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story. 

     The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God. 

     Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear. 

     The message about the mighty acts of God. 

     And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings. 

     The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them. 

     The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit. 

     Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:

“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)

     We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all. 

     Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts. 

     Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.

     Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him. 

     In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection. 

     Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit. 

     The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost. 

     Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves. 

    He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us. 

     The medium is not the message. 

     Because the message is the Gospel. 

     Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you. 

———————-

     Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them. 

     In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.” 

     In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.” 

     And that brings me to my second point – 

     Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost. 

     Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…” 

     Don’t forget- 

     All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost. 

     Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

     The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.

     And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them. 

     When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets. 

     And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

     And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets. 

     Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     Of course they do. 

     We do.

     Fail. 

     Fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God. 

     Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do. 

     And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law. 

     The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing. 

     And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.” 

     But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?” 

     Answer, nothing. 

     Not a thing.

     Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do. 

     He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done. 

     Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage: 

“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

     This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive. 

     This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful. 

     And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost. 

     That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.

     Now, pentecost is baptism. 

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water. 

————————

     Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves. 

     The Koran. 

     Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i. 

     And finally a New Testament. 

     An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all. 

     Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.

    Hers point is my final point- 

     This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     It’s the end of religion. 

     It’s the end of religion

     Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true. 

Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation. 

And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.

     As Robert Capon says:

“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”

     What’s that mean?

     It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”

     It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it. 

     But before you do so, realize- 

     It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear. 

     And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).

     And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret. 

     And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it. 

     You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even. 

     Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out: 

     He won’t forsake you. 

There’s no condemnation, remember.

He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any. 

 He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.

So how are you going to gum that up?

     You’re free. 

     You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you. 

      Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.

     You’re free.

     You’re free from keeping score. 

     The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. 

     You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7. 

     But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own. 

     Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already. 

     Which means- 

     You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.

     Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable. 

     All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift. 

     All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun. 

     In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun. 

     And your faith in it is your way into the fun. 

     Your faith doesn’t change anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t add anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already. 

     Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.

     Because, brass tacks time confirmands: 

     Your faith will ebb and flow. 

     You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not. 

     Don’t let anyone here fool you. 

     The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints. 

     And that’s just the people on staff. 

     And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message. 

The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you. 

     Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you: 

“I am with you always to the end of the age.”

“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”

“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.” 

      “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

     Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides. 

     Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are. 

     And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do. 

     Say“Amen” to them.  

      

     

     

     

     

     

Some church folk wonder why I’m jaded and cynical. 

I’ve been on record as such for so long now I can’t even blame it on our orange-hued (he has no clothes) chief in the oval. Coincidentally though, my disposition, such as it is, has everything to do with my first Pentecost as a would-be man of the cloth. I was a student-pastor at a once-shuttered church outside Princeton that had recently re-opened under the “leadership” of a retired pastor who lived several gallons of gas away, which left me kinda sorta but not really in charge most of the time. 

It was, more or less, a large AA group that met on Sunday mornings, chasing their coffee and confessions with hymns and a homily, topping it all off not with the Apostles’ Creed but with some hands-clasped, communally composed and communally recited tripe about the derivative lessons of the butterfly. 

I’m not even joking. 

And I wish I was exaggerating.

Perhaps the only part of the bible they interpreted literally, if unwittingly, was Paul’s line about the foolishness of Christ crucified. For Pentecost, they celebrated “the birthday of the Church” with sheet cake and punch. And what kind of birthday party would it be without a bozo in crazy unnatural hair and garish make-up? That’s right, the folks who dressed up as clowns for clown communion (that was a thing too…another post for another day) got dolled up in their fools’ costumes to serve us all cake with candles- but not before awkward-shaming us all into a monotoned rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ Not even Marilyn Monroe’s cover could’ve rescued that cringe-worthy moment. 

Their’s was a felony commission of a crime many churches foist every year, positing Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Nonsense. As Karl Barth rightly observed, the birth of the Church isn’t Pentecost but Jesus dying on a cross beside two guilty-as-hell criminals accompanied by his promise (to BOTH of them) “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” 

The Church Birthday cliche is as insufficient for Pentecost as is the sentimentalized portrait of the Church in Holy-Spirit-Recovery in Acts 2.43-47. Sure, the Holy Spirit begat a Church where believers held everything in common and broke bread with “glad and generous hearts” but, according to the New Testament’s own witness, that idealized Church lasted about a day and a half. In no time, Ananias and Sapphira were lying about their income. Converts in Galatia were sponsoring billboard ads for circumcision, and Christians in Corinth were sleeping with their mothers-in-law and refusing to seat the poor at the Lord’s Table. 

For all those wish with bated breath to “get back to the ancient Church,” there’s good news- we’re already there, and we always have been there. 

And we always have been them.

As problematic as are the cliched and sentimentalized accounts of Pentecost, worse are those which construe Pentecost as the arrival of a heretofore absent Holy Spirit. Never mind that the Holy Spirit animates Ezekiel’s prophecy, alights upon Mary’s womb, or thrusts Jesus in to the wilderness, according to the Gospels (especially Luke and John) Pentecost is NOT the arrival of the Holy Spirit after the departure of the Son. 

Pentecost isn’t about arrival at all.

Pentecost is about return.

Pentecost is the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit. 

Too many Christians, in other words, conceive of the Holy Spirit as differentiated from the person of the crucified and risen Jesus, but this is not how Jesus speaks of the Spirit.

The Spirit’s action, according to Jesus, is wholly related to the activity of Jesus. The Spirit’s purpose, Jesus testifies in John’s Gospel, is to glorify Christ, convicting the world of how it is wrong (sin) in light of his perfect righteousness and finished work. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit is for our understanding the gifts bestowed on us in Christ by God and to the Galatians he identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Crucified Christ. 

Pentecost isn’t about arrival so much as return. 

Pentecost is the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit.

This is why Jesus frames his departure from the disciples not as necessary but as good news- the best news, Jesus says in John 16.7: 

“However, I am telling you the sober truth: the best thing that could ever happen to you is for me to go away. Because if I do not go away, the Paraclete will not come to you. But if I do go away, I will send him to you.” 

Jesus’ ascension to the Father, therefore, is a different sort of departure; whereas, our departures from one another signal that there will be less of us present to the other in the future, Jesus’ departure signals a surprising MORE.

The odd good news of Pentecost is that, with the return of the Son in the form of the Spirit, Jesus is more present and available to us now than he was to the disciples before Easter or Ascension. Pentecost, Jesus himself teaches the disciples, is an increase- an improvement- upon the presence of Jesus. He is available now always and everywhere to each of us. 

With Pentecost, we’ve got more Jesus.

Son in the form of the Spirit > Son incarnate 

Just as whoever sees the earthly Jesus has seen the Father, whoever listens to the Spirit hears Jesus. What Jesus is to the Father, the Paraclete is to Jesus. 

Perhaps Pentecost is but another example of our sin-sick propensity to see scarcity rather than abundance, to see not the abundance of the Son we have in the form of the Spirit. 

“The best thing that could ever happen to you is for me to go away.”

I Like Big Buts

Jason Micheli —  June 5, 2017 — 1 Comment

I led with finding out I’m Jewish.

This weekend we celebrated Pentecost as well Confirmation across 4 services. Over the last 12 years, Aldersgate has confirmed 500 into the faith. My texts were all of chapter 2 of Acts as well as Paul’s big “But now” passage in Romans 3.21-26.

     After a recent cataclysmic national event that I won’t specify, I was speaking on the phone with my mother who, like many of you, had fallen into a despondent, black malaise.

“Maybe I will move to Canada” she said and sighed.

“Canada! They eat ketchup flavored Doritos in Canada- how is that a thing?! And Canada is responsible for Celine Dion and Nickelback. Think about that, Mom: Justin Bieber and Tom Ford don’t even crack the Top Ten of Canadiens for whom Canada should have to issue a global apology.

Though, Canada did give the world that babe who played Kim in 24.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is…” I said and immediately my mind wandered to the film in which Kim costarred with Raylan Givens, The Girl Next Door.

“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”

“Huh? Yeah, I’m still here. I was just…thinking. Look, forget this Canada nonsense. Mom, you hate the snow and no matter how much I begged you as a kid you never let me grow a mullet.”

“I hate mullets.”

“See, forget Canada. I’ll tell you, though, if I just had a Jew in my family tree I’d move to Israel, at their least president is actually a conservative.”

“But my grandparents were Jewish.”

“But what?!”

“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “

“But…but…but…that means my great-grandparents were Jewish.”

“Uh, huh” my mother said blankly, clearly not registering that this was a seismic revelation for someone like me who, let’s just say, is salaried and pensioned NOT to be Jewish.

“But…but…but…that means I’m Jewish” I whispered while turning down the volume on my iPhone.

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

No joke, my next thoughts, in rapid-fire succession:

1. Holy bleep, how have I not heard about this before?!

2. No wonder I’m so funny.

3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.

4. I could spin this into a book! Christian clergyman discovers his previously unknown Jewish identity. It practically writes itself.

As for the screen, it’d be the perfect follow up to LaLa Land for Ryan Gosling.

As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I pitched the book idea to my editor. I’d even come up with some snappy titles such as: Riddler on the Roots, Goy Meets God, and, my personal favorite, Trans-Gentile.

Nevertheless, my editor replied that until I actually convert and move myself and my family to the Promised Land, what I had was a good idea for a sermon.

Not a book.

Of course, that same editor came up with a terrible book title like Cancer is Funny so I figured what the hell does he know. Besides, I’ve always acted as though I’m God’s gift to the world and now, as it turns out, I really am- I’m chosen!

I’ve got to find out more about what that means! I thought.

In the weeks and months that followed, I studied up.

I researched the State of Israel’s Right of Return rules. I qualify.

I tested my DNA through ancestry.com, the results of which bore out what my mother had told me, that I am of Jewish lineage by way of Austria.

And thanks to Ghengis Khan raping and pillaging his way across Europe I also have some Mongolian in me too, and, according to the customer service person at ancestry.com, chances are, you have some Mongolian in you too.

Let that sink in for a moment.

DNA in hand, I consulted with Rabbi Hayim Herring about what books he recommends to potential converts. At his advice I read the Tanakh, Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas by Arthur Green, and To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.

And, because Rabbi Herring explained to me that Judaism is a religion that developed out of its celebrations, I read The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg, a book about the Jewish holy days.

Including the holy day of Pentecost.

Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.

——————————-

     Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.

Shavu’ot- the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.

They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.

If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.

But with my new Jew eyes, I see that that can’t be because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.

Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.

So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?

——————————-

     When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.

But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.

And at the end of his preaching, Luke tells us, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart- note the passive. They’re acted upon.

An unseen agency is working upon them too, compelling them to believe.

Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.

Maybe you Gentiles don’t know this- in the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.

It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.

On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.

When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.

So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.

Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.

Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.

They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.

What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own- God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.

Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000- it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter- who before could never get his foot out of his mouth- to proclaim.

It’s God’s doing, calling out of, creating in, Peter’s hearers, out of nothing, faith.

——————————-

      Luke shows us in the beginning of Acts what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans.

After announcing his thesis- the good news- at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul braces us with the bad news.

For the rest of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3 Paul bears down with white-knuckles and surveys the extent of our captivity, our bondage to Sin.

He says our every sin starts with the same sin as at Sinai on that first Shavu’ot: our failure to worship God, giving up God for other gods.

Our first sin also begets our wickedness and our malice. It gives rise to our greed and our lust and our violence. It spawns our slander and our deceit, our hypocrisy and our infidelity, even our gossip and our haughtiness and our hardness of heart.

Over almost 3 chapters, Paul unrolls the rap sheet of our sin until not one of us left un-indicted.

All have sinned, Paul says, religious and unreligious alike.

No one is righteous, Paul laments, not a single one of us.

No one seeks God. No one desires peace.

Our mouths are quick to curse, our hands are quick to stuff our own pockets, our feet are to quick to shed blood, Paul says.

None of us is any different than those 3,000 at the foot of Mt Sinai on the first Shavu’ot  worshipping anything other than God.

There is no distinction between any of us- we’re all ungodly.

Paul’s relentless litany of our sinfulness goes on and on for almost three chapters, an overwhelming avalanche of awful truth-telling and indictments.

For almost 3 chapters, Paul keeps raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our crimes, implicating each and every one of us.

     Until, what you expect next from Paul is the word “if.”

——————————-

     If.

If you turn away from sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you…plead for God’s mercy…

If you seek God’s forgiveness…

If you believe…

If you put your faith in him…

     If

Then

God will justify you.

Paul relentlessly unrolls the rap sheet until every last one of our names is indicted. Not one of us is righteous and every one of us is deserving of God’s wrath, Paul says.

This sounds like an altar call coming, right? And the word you expect Paul to use next is “if.”

If you repent and believe.

Instead of if but:

     “But now” Paul says.

“But now, apart from the Law (apart from Religion) the rectifying power of God has been revealed…the rectification by God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ..”

There couldn’t be a bigger but.

Martin Luther says that “but now” is a fish-hook shaped word that catches us all.

     There couldn’t be a bigger but.

It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:

We’re all unrighteous.

We’re all entangled in Sin.

But now- God.

The rectifying power of God has invaded our world without a single “if.”

The rectifying power of God- the power of God to make us right and to put our world to rights- has invaded in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The grace of God has invaded unilaterally- without prior condition or presupposition.

Without a single “if.”

There is nothing you need to do for it to be true for you.

Our justification is not God’s response to us; it’s God’s gracious initiative for us.

     As far as God is concerned, true love doesn’t wait.

If you repent, then I’ll…

     If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…

     If you believe, then I’ll…

     If you have faith in me, then I’ll…

     No. 

     No ifs. No conditions. 

“But now…” Paul announces.

God’s love doesn’t wait for us. To rescue us.

All have sinned.

All fall short of God’s glory.

But now-

All are being rectified by the uncontingent grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are no ‘ifs” just this big but: “But now…” God has done this. It’s gift. Sheer un-contingent, irrevocable gift.

It’s just like the song says.

You once were lost BUT NOW you’ve been found- note the passive again.

You didn’t find. You’ve been found not because you went searching for God, but because God in Jesus Christ has sought you out and bought you with his blood.

—————————-

     During Lent I gave up bacon.

(I know, you saw that transition coming a mile away.)

Just to see, you know, in case the UMC ever folds, if I could hack it as a Hebrew (I made it 3 days).

During Lent I also read the The Jewish Way where I learned that if I ever did convert to Judaism, then I’d need to choose a Hebrew name.

“What’s the name of that talking donkey in the Old Testament?” my wife asked pointedly.

The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg also reminded me what I’d forgotten since seminary: that the covenant (berit as my people say) God makes with Moses on Mt. Sinai on that first Pentecost, the promise God makes to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is conditional.

“You will be my treasured People” God promises “but you must keep all my commandments.”

It’s conditional.

“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”

It’s conditional.

“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”

It’s contingent.

If you keep faith in me, then I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not just on Sinai. So much of our lives and our relationships are littered with ifs.

If you make it up to me, then I’ll take you back.

If you promise not to spend it on drugs, then I’ll give you a handout.

If I’m just a better wife, then he’ll love me/then he’ll stop drinking/then he won’t abuse me anymore.

If I just get better grades, get into that college, get that job, then they’ll be proud of me/then maybe Dad will finally tell me that he loves me.

If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.

     I forgive you, but I won’t forget. 

Paul would say that’s how captives speak.

We do it with God too.

     We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences.

You are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, but first you must believe, we say.

      We move Paul’s big but to the end of our sentences.

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, crucified for you, but first you must repent.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace, but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences. We turn it around and make it conditional: If you have faith then you will be justified.

     Not only is that conditionality not Paul’s Gospel, it contradicts what Luke shows us at Pentecost and what Paul tells us here in Romans.

The whole point of Paul’s big “But now” is that by yourself, on your own, by your own power, you don’t have the capacity to fulfill any of those conditions.

Your faith, your belief, your repentance, your service- none of it is a prerequisite for God’s grace because all of it is a product of God’s gracious doing.

“But now,” Paul says, God has acted for us “apart from the Law,” apart from any of our religious doing.

Just like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost undoing the unbelief of the first Pentecost, God acts for us in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and his faith, Paul says, has the power to elicit our faith.

Jesus’ faith isn’t just prior; it’s causative.

As Paul says in another letter, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by his Holy Spirit.

As Paul puts it in this letter, in the next chapter, God calls into existence the things that do not exist- meaning, our faith.

Luke says that nothing is impossible for God, but the whole point of Paul’s big “But” is that faith is impossible for us without God.

Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.

Your faith is a sign that God has freed your will from the Power of Sin.

Which means-

Whatever measure of faith you have, whether your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as massive as a mountain, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing not your own.

It makes you proof of the God who invades our world without a single “if.”

Such that now- now as a person of faith, as a person in whom the unconditional grace of God has created faith, there is nothing you must do.

You don’t have to do anything.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right not by anything you’ve done, by what God has done.

You have been justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s not a but at the end of that sentence. There is nothing now you must do.

Rather, as a person in whom the unconditional love of God has created faith, there is now so much you are set free to do.

 

It’s cliche to whine that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity or the most neglected. To the contrary, I think the Holy Spirit is the most manipulated member of the Godhead.

With Pentecost nearing it thus behooves me to lay down these tips.

Presumptuous,  I know. Let’s just the Spirit moved me:

1. The Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience etc.) are not ideal personality attributes that are inherent to all people or achievable apart from discipleship.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit, he most often means the “Spirit of the Crucified Christ.”

The fruit of the Spirit, therefore, describe the character and ministry of Jesus and are thus sown in us by the Spirit of the Crucified only as we follow after the Son.

2. Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is about mutual understanding amidst the differences of language and culture not ecstatic speech to exacerbate difference.

If your ‘gift’ of ecstatic speech does not lead to another’s understanding where before there was only misunderstanding- and thereby heal the fractures within creation- it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit.

It’s about God undoing Babel.

Pentecost is God’s anti-war demonstration.

Just as Pentecost originally celebrated God’s revealing himself and creating the distinct People of Abraham in the world, the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost to begin making good on the promise to Abraham: that through his family all the peoples of the world would be blessed. (See: Acts, Book of)

3. The Holy Spirit is Not IN You

The Holy Spirit is God; therefore, the Holy Spirit is not a necessary, constitutive part of you. Otherwise you would be God.

But because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is closer to you than you are to yourself.

The Holy Spirit is not the same thing as your conscience or your soul. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the imago dei, the part of you that is created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is not the little voice in your head or your own private feelings of subjectivity.

The Holy Spirit is God and, as such, only comes to us from beyond us as sheer gift.

4. You Don’t HAVE the Holy Spirit

No person (or church!) has the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a possession or even a reliable guest. The Spirit’s presence cannot be predicted and, accordingly, the Spirit cannot be manipulated into appearing through prayer or liturgy.

The Spirit can only be invited to rest upon us.

Everywhere the Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, in fact, it’s with verbs.

The Spirit DOES such that we cannot render it passive as a possession.

 

5. The ‘Comforter’ is Seldom Comforting

Though called the ‘Comforter’ (paraclete) the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son, and, like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is seldom comforting.

The Spirit  works grace in us and grace- growing into ever greater Christlikeness, which we call ‘true humanity’- is always disruptive and even painful, for ours is world that responds to love with crosses. (See: Acts, Book of)

6. The Real Gift of the Spirit

The primary gift of the Spirit from which all over gifts properly flow is the gift of God’s own self. The Spirit gives us the same delight that God is God which God has for God.

The Spirit catches us up into the never-ending mutual and reciprocal love shared between Father and Son.

7. The Spirit Does What the Son Cannot Do

Again, the primary gift of the Spirit is to raise us up into the love shared between the Father and the Son. T

he Spirit has a gift to give that the Son cannot offer.

The Spirit gives us a share in God’s own life, the Son’s eternal friendship with the Father.

8. The Spirit is Not Spirituality

The Holy Spirit reveals the Son. Any inclination or desire we have towards Christ, any hunger or curiosity we feel for God, any half-mumbled prayer or half-hearted stab at faithfulness is the Spirit’s work not our own. (See: Acts, Book of).

As such the Spirit reminds us that ours is a revealed, mediated faith. The only way to get to God is not through our own initiative, spiritual introspection or self-discovery but through God.

Thus the Holy Spirit is the opposite of Spirituality, making Christianity not a religion which is, by definition, human seeking after God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s seeking after us.

9. The Spirit is holy

The Spirit is holy, meaning, literally, ‘different.’ The Spirit is not a spirit, of which there are many. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the human spirit, team spirit or patriotic spirit. (See: Acts, Book of)

Our interior feelings are not fruit of the Spirit nor should the Spirit be confused with our own subjectivity.

This means, of course, that how one form of worship or music makes you feel has nothing to do with the Spirit.

10. The Spirit is More than What the Spirit Does

The Spirit is the love expressed in and by the community we call Trinity. The Spirit is the dynamic movement, exchange of love between the Father and Son. The Spirit cannot be reduced then to a role, mode or function like ‘Sustainer.’

And because the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mode, what you can properly say about the Father or the Son you can likewise rightly say about the Spirit.

Thus: the Spirit creates or the Spirit redeems.

 

I made an offhand comment this past week while my friend Scott Jones interviewed me for his podcast Give and Take. I said that Christians need to countenance the possibility that God could be using Donald J. Trump (who, let’s be clear and honest, is in NO way a Christian) as a Cyrus-type character.

Apparently Scott’s podcast has as many listeners as he tells me because in short order I was besieged with apoplectic responses to the contrary.

My good friend Brad is a political adman and strategist presently working on a book about the Trump voter. He’s narrow-focusing on those voters, who had voted for Obama but voted for the Donald in ’16, in the few districts in the MidWest that swung the election. Brad tells me that most Trump voters generally and Evangelical Christians in particular were under no illusions about the Donald’s character or his pretense at Christian discipleship- nor did they have any real expectations the Donald would deliver any concrete policy accomplishments.

Evangelical Christians primarily were driven by animus to vote Trump; that is, evangelical Christians knew (correctly, I’d concede) the same people who hated Trump hated them too.

A few of them- but not as many you’d guess- Brad tells me, hold out the possibility that Donald Trump is a Cyrus-like leader.

Cyrus, for those of who you skipped Sunday School, was the (pagan) King of Persia who (unwittingly according to Isaiah’s prophecy) freed the Israelite exiles from their captivity in Babylon, delivering back to the promised land and, even, helping them rebuild their razed temple in Jerusalem. In scripture, Cyrus stands as paradigmatic of God’s active but unseen agency, directing history to God’s chosen ends.

Cyrus knew not God but the Living God nonetheless used him for God’s own ends.

Might the orange-hued president with the little hands and even slighter control of his compulsions prove a different sort of Cyrus for a unique time?

Might God be using this p@##$-grabbing pagan leader to deliver God’s People from the exilic captivity of nihilistic secularism and into a new Promised Land? Or simply to appoint a pro-life court?

I get the urge- the visceral urge- to say hell no. The mere hypothesis angers my wife. A man who hated his way to the White House, often demonizing immigrants who look like my own Hispanic children, CANNOT be God’s vessel. He is anathema precisely because he makes everyone counted under Matthew 25 anathema to America.

I get the urge to say “No way.”

But-

I wonder. Does the black/white, absolute, reflexive “No” betray another conviction; namely, that God is dead or, if not dead, at the very least not an active agent?

I wonder if those who dismiss outright even the possibility of Trump being Cyrus do so because they believe to the extent that the Kingdom of God is furthered in the public square it’s up to them alone to bring it.

I wonder because- Donald aside- so much of the way we speak Christian does not rely upon a living God being the subject of our sentences.

In my parish, we will celebrate confirmation next weekend at Pentecost, and, in preparing, I’ve noticed how the baptismal vows in the tradition have “evolved” over the years.

For example, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the questions posed to godparents came with this God-dependant answer: “I will, God being my helper.”

Here and throughout that prayerbook there was the awareness that faith itself is the creation/result of the agency of the living and active God.

By the 1978 revision of the Book of Common Prayer that same profession had been neutered to: “I will with God’s help.”

Notice how the change in the language invests considerable more trust in confessor’s unaided human ability to be faithful. Already we’re far gone from the language of Romans where only the faithfulness of Christ can elicit anything resembling faith on our part. Farther still is the phrasing in the United Methodist Book of Worship which omits the agency of God altogether from the baptismal vows. There’s only a semantic change between ‘God being my helper” and “I will, with God’s help.”

In the United Methodist Church’s Baptismal Covenant, the human being is the only active agent:

“I will.”

This is a far cry from the old Catholic rite that so believed in the Living God and God’s Enemy it included exorcism and placing salt on an infants tongue to preserve them from the forces of Sin and Death.

I will is indistinguishable from ‘I am able’ and apparently that I is capable of resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms (we’re afraid apparently of saying ‘Satan’). That I is capable unaided to repent of sin and put our whole faith in Christ and serve him through the Church.

“I am able” in now way corresponds to the language of bondage and rectification and gift in the New Testament. Nor does it cohere with the language of the Holy Spirit which at Pentecost reverses our proclivity for idolatry by compelling faith in Peter’s listeners. Whenever the Old Testament mentions the Holy Spirit it does with verbs; the Spirit does because without it we cannot.

How ‘I will’ is any different than Pelagianism I’ll wait for someone to email and explain it to me.

I wonder if we resist the notion of the Donald being a Cyrus because we’ve lost our theological nerve when it comes to God being an active agent in the world?

In the mainline church we’ve certainly not failed in offering people a Loving God but have we, I wonder, offered them a Living God?

 

Is it better to say “The Holy Spirit is in you” or because you’ve been made in God’s image that “You are in the Holy Spirit?”

In this episode we talk about the lectionary readings for Pentecost. In addition to discussing ministry threads and whether XOXOXO constitutes spiritual adultery, we complain about confusing the Holy Spirit for your conscience and argue that the way most preachers and pew-sitters speak of the Holy Spirit both ignores the narrative of the Gospels and is blatantly anti-semitic.

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Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.

 

 

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

The_Holy_Trinity

 

Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

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As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

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     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

claude-rains-casablanca

     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

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     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

BabelBar

Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

Taize2_candlelight_service

That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

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The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

da_pacem_cordium

We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

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     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

St Denis 09_15This is from my friend, Janet Laisch:
This Sunday is Pentecost– a feast day as important as Christmas and Easter though less widely celebrated.  It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the birthday of the Church, which means it also celebrates us and our place in the world as icons of the Trinity. The story of Pentecost became a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century– as icons, grand refectory and altarpieces. Of these Pentecost paintings, Jean Restout II, a French Baroque painter, captured most energetically and dramatically the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles through use of chiaroscuro or strong contrasts of light and dark.  His Pentecost,an oil on canvas from 1732 now housed in the Louvre in Paris once adorned the refectory or monk’s dining room (see image below)  of the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see image above) just outside Paris. The refectory became one of the most prevalent places to display these images as it duplicated the communal space where the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit on that historical day as told in the book of Acts.
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With its chiaroscuro, exaggerated view from below, grand size, and the extreme perspective of the rows of columns to the left and right, Jean Restout II’s painting is reminiscent of Baroque ceiling paintings.  In this image, columns delineate the space of grand cathedrals and separate holy space from pagan space. Viewing it in person, the medium of oil paint enables actual light to reflect from this painting, so the painted light and cloud representingGod glows as a light source in this painting. The cloud and bright white rays of light descending from the upper third of the painting represent God both through the cloud as mentioned in Exodus and the uncreated light so common in Byzantine icons. Light rays emit the Holy Spirit as flames which hover above the heads of Mary, the Apostles and other believers. Some individuals turn away from the light overwhelmed by it; others kneel and pray while others exit and presumably begin the work of spreading the message of the Church through words and acts. 
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Mary stands majestically following apotheosis iconography paintings of her (see image by Titian below); she appears deified as she lays her hands across her chest in reverence to the one true God. The deification of humanity happens because Jesus came down to us. The Eastern Orthodox belief that “God became man so that man could become god” reigns true in Mary. Mary who stands in the center represents the eventual theosis of humanity. God will restore humanity as icons of the Trinity as originally intended at creation.
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The gestures and actions of the other figures represent our varied places in this story. As stated in Acts, Apostles go out into the world to communicate the message of God– in any foreign language to all the world- —a dramatic overturn of the language barrier that the Tower of Babylon created in the Old Testament.  The Apostles began to speak and preach the Gospel in a multitude of tongues which were the languages of the nations of the earth.
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Unlike earlier static Byzantine icons, Jean Restout’s is kinetic. The painting’s message is the action and emotional reaction of each person to the Holy Spirit’s descent.

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Though the painting has been moved from the refectory at Abbey Saint-Denis to the Louvre, it still imparts a powerful message to each of us: heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth “moves” into the “heavenly sphere” since Christ is no longer visible to us, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. Therefore Pentecost is not only an historical event but a changed world and an invitation to all of God’s people. Pentecost occurs during the Jewish Shevout or harvest festival so we might understand that theanointed disciples are about to harvest the world. We are pulled into this story and have a direct role to play in the work of the church and our relationship with others.

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An icon of the Pentecost helps explain this point.  A standardized Byzantine Pentecost icon (above) represents the Apostles sometimes without Mary seated around a table; one seat, the head of the table is intentionally left empty. This empty seat is Christ “invisible” to humankind though eternal; God is represented as the blue and silver circular mandorla or uncreated light and the Holy Spirit is embodied in the rays of light descending from the uncreated light and the flames hovering above each of the Apostles’ heads.  The semi-circular wooden table is intentionally left open so that viewer can join the group. The table is a direct reference to a meal both Eucharistic –this world and a meal for the end of time–eschatological. “King Cosmos” stands below the table holding a scroll surrounded by the darkness the world must overcome. King Cosmos represents the world, which the anointed disciples are about to harvest, and he and several Apostles hold scrolls intended to represent the word of God translated for all to know.

RubilevTrinityAt Pentecost, the Trinity has now been revealed to us; thus our theosis and salvation begins now, here on earth because of this revelation. Abraham was given the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God as told in Genesis 18: 1-3.  The Byzantine Old Testament Trinity icon (above) captures part of the mystery of the trinity– the relationship between three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (above). Made by God in the image of the Trinity, we too are intended to be in relationship to each other–created with the ability and need to love beyond ourselves. Rather than a limited love, the Trinity teaches this love is infinite.  Becoming a Trinity icon means we become fully human. 

 

 

 

 

holy-spirit-the_tThis Sunday is Pentecost, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ remaining post-Cross disciples. As it’s the Spirit that prays through us whenever we pray- as opposed to being our own action- it seems timely to reflect on prayer.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the Church in the west has capitulated to Enlightenment-bound rationalism and its consequent skepticism is our reluctance to pray. Our neglect of prayer as a central and life-giving discipline reveals the extent to which many self-professed Christians are actually functional atheists. I realize that sounds harsh, but, at the very least, our reticence to pray reveals just how badly the Church has equipped contemporary disciples to practice the one and only thing the first disciples ever asked Jesus how to do.

I think prayer is the most difficult thing we do as Christians, especially given the secular, post-Christian culture in which we live.

Because to the naked eye, prayer is when Christians converse with someone who appears not to be there.

To the skeptic, to the unbeliever, prayer isn’t any different than the crazy guy at Starbucks who talks to himself over a cup of coffee (actually he’s sitting next to me at the bar right now). More so than anything else we do as Christians, prayer- every time we do it- is a blatant, uncompromising test of our faith. Are we willing to appear crazy for this God? Are we willing to be mocked? Are we willing to be written off as quaint or self-deluded?

Prayer challenges us to ante up when it comes to what we say we believe. Do we sufficiently believe in what we cannot see that we’re willing to speak, whisper and plead to what others will only say is not there.

After all, to most people- believers and non- prayer is a waste of time.

They’re right.

It is a waste of time.

Thank God.

Were it not a waste of time, there’d be little reason for us to pray for the god to whom we prayed would not be God, would not be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Diito from Herbert McCabe:

“…For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 percent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry.

It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead.

God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is in the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange.

God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly.

It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it…”

choir_taize_crossUsually people who cop the line ‘I’m a spiritual person but not religious’ mean either ‘I’m too lazy to commit to a community trying to follow Jesus’ or ‘I’m surprised a Messiah who calls sinners would net a community of imperfect, mean and effed up people.’ 

I don’t have much patience for the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’

For one, Christianity properly understood isn’t a religion at all. The message of grace, classically understood, is the defeat of all human attempts at religion.

For another, Christians aren’t spiritual either- at least when ‘spirituality’ is vaguely and universally conceived.

Christians aren’t spiritual because we believe Spirit to be a very particular person.

This week brings us to the end of Eastertide, to Pentecost, and the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disappointments better known as disciples.

As a preacher- and a Christian- I would judge my biggest deficiency with how infrequently I make reference to the Holy Spirit.

My reluctance, while not intentional, I suspect stems from my frustration with how most Christians/Pastors speak of the Holy Spirit to baptize whatever whim, wish or work they’d already determined to bless (See: Osteen, Joel).

The Holy Spirit too often becomes a theological term for what everyone calls our conscience.

Or our Id.

The Holy Spirit, as ‘she’s’ most often spoken of by Christians is every bit as vague and universal as ‘spirituality.’ Popular misconception treats the Spirit as something no more defined than the ‘force’ in Star Wars. The Spirit gets reduced to a spirit. The Spirit, many assume, is something like our inner-voice, our conscience, the divine spark in us, a little dashboard Jesus whispering in our ear, an emotion, the source of passion.

By way of contrast, it’s a mistake to think the Spirit doesn’t appear on stage until Pentecost. The Spirit is active through out scripture, work which gives the Spirit every bit as much particularity as a Jew from Nazareth.

In our misconceptions we’re tempted to ask: What is the Holy Spirit?

The proper question to ask, however, is: Who is the Holy Spirit?

In the Nicene Creed we name the Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of Life.”

With that brief phrase, Christians claim the Spirit to be the fullness of God. As much as the Son is divine so is the Spirit. The Spirit’s home is in the Trinity just as much as the Son belongs to the Father.  

By naming the Spirit as the ‘giver of life’ the creed quite explicitly ties the Holy Spirit revealed in the New Testament to the manifestations of God’s Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. Christians can mistakenly presume that the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a new development in God’s revelation or that the way in which the Spirit works with the believing community is distinct from how the Spirit worked through Israel.

 In fact the attributes which mark the Spirit’s work in the New Testament find former echoes in the Spirit’s appearances in the Old Testament.

     The Spirit in the Old Testament too is the giver of life. In Hebrew, the word for ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same: ruah. So in Genesis 1 when the breath of God sweeps across the formless void and brings forth life, it’s the Holy Spirit giving life.

The Spirit is the source of Israel’s fruit and gifts. The Spirit gives gifts of wisdom and skill to the wandering Israelites in the Book of Exodus (31).

For Israel, the Spirit is a source  of comfort. David sings of the assurance of forgiveness provided to him by God’s Spirit (Psalm 51).

The Spirit is an advocate on Israel’s behalf, giving courage to the downtrodden (Haggai 2).

In the Spirit there is a new creation according to Ezekiel, who attributes new life from death to the Spirit (37).

The Spirit restores hope to God’s people (Joel 2).

Most significantly, perhaps, is the role the Spirit plays for Israel in commissioning servants to speak out for and restore justice when the poor and the weak find themselves oppressed by the wealthy or the powerful (Isaiah 11).

Far from making its first appearance at Pentecost after Jesus has ascended to heaven, the Spirit appears and works throughout the Israel’s history. And what the Spirit does through the Church is what the Spirit has already been doing with Israel. These parallel attributes between the testaments allows Christians to ‘see’ Jesus in the narrative of the Old Testament. If the Son is eternal in the Trinity and the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus then what the Spirit does is what the Son does.

     Just as its incorrect to think the Spirit appears for the first time in the New Testament, it’s wrong to think the Spirit does not reveal itself in the New Testament until after Jesus departs following the fifty days of Easter. One, good way to read the Gospels is to read it as a narrative of the work of the Son and Spirit.

     The Spirit, after all, by is what empowers the nativity story itself by empowering Mary’s conception. Just as the Spirit creates from nothing in Genesis, the Spirit creates from nothing in Mary’s womb.

The Spirit empowers not just Jesus’ birth but Jesus’ ministry too. It’s the Spirit, in the form of a dove, that rests upon Jesus at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. It’s the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested for forty days following his baptism. Having returned from the wilderness, it’s the Spirit that anoints Jesus, in his first sermon, to preach and fulfill Isaiah 65 and bring gospel to the poor (Luke 4).

The Spirit is the giver of life in the New Testament. In Acts, the Spirit comes down, as promised by Jesus, like breath, wind and fire to create the Church. Luke’s account in Acts is a deliberate echo of the Genesis story. In the Church’s birth we are to see yet another creation story. In the understanding amidst many languages that takes place at Pentecost, Luke intends us to see the undoing of Babel, where God looked upon a prideful humanity and confused their speech. The Spirit not only gave life to the Church it never stops giving life. It’s the Spirit that convicts us and gives us the grace necessary for us to be born all over again; so that, like Peter or Paul before us the Spirit can begin a new, good work in sinners like us.

The Spirit is the giver of fruit and gifts according to Paul (1 Corinthians 12-14). Such gifts, just as they were for the Israelites while they journeyed towards the promised land, serve for us as a foretaste of the New Creation we will enjoy fully at the End.

The Spirit is an advocate and comforter to us, making present the past benefits of Christ’s work (John 14).

The Spirit is the Spirit of freedom and truth (Galatians 5). As Paul makes clear, the Spirit does not simply create new life in individual believers. The Spirit is about bigger things. The Spirit makes new and all of creation and history is the Spirit’s canvas. The Spirit doesn’t just make Paul new; the Spirit makes Paul’s world- his society, his assumptions, his prejudices, his conventions- new.

The Spirit makes it possible that no longer do the divisions and distinctions of our world (Jew/Greek, Slave/Free, Male/Female) matter. The Spirit sets us free from those categories to create a community which transcends them. The story of Peter and Cornelius is but another illustration of Paul’s point (Acts 10). It’s the Spirit’s work among Peter and a Gentile, Roman named Cornelius that breaks down the taboos that otherwise would have held them apart.

The Spirit moves ahead of God’s People in the world, anticipates the Church’s work and sends the Church in to the world (Acts 8). The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 show the Spirit to be at work in places and in people well before the Church, Phillip in this case, arrive. Acts 8 caution the Church from every constraining our imagination or vision, and it forbids us from thinking God only works through God’s People. Very often the Spirit uses people, outcasts and sinners like the eunuch, to stretch, convert and transform God’s People.

 So next time someone tries to tell you they’re ‘spiritual not religious’ try laying all that on them.