A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:22-27
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve been thinking about it, and hardhats may not be sufficient.  Hardhats offer some protection, but they aren’t strapped on.  Crash helmets would be better.  They offer more protection because they’re strapped on, buckled in.  The rubber gloves are still a good idea.  They might not be necessary, but they’re a good idea.  And not just to protect ourselves.
Did you ever notice that, with one exception, the resurrection stories in the gospels happen either at the empty tomb or in a locked room?  Sometimes, in the empty tomb stories, the resurrected Christ isn’t even there.  There’s just an empty tomb, maybe some angels.  When Jesus does show up, it is to appear to one or only a handful of people.  When the resurrected Christ appears to any sort of a group, it’s in a locked room.

The emphasis on the locked room isn’t about the “teleportive properties”[1] of the resurrected “body.”  Rather, it is symbolic of the “locked-door mentality of the disciples.  If I read properly the story immediately preceding Pentecost, there are 120 disciples packed into one dark room.  They have been re-gathered in the Easter event, but they’re still laying low, skulking about, looking over their shoulders, and [only] whispering the glad news.

“They have good reason to be afraid.”[2]  Their leader was arrested and executed.  And even though God conquered that execution, no one was eager to follow.  That’s the result the authorities were looking for, resurrection or not.  They wanted Jesus’ disciples to be afraid, to lock themselves away.  It started with Peter denying Jesus and then slinking away.  That’s the script the powerful had written.  “Caiaphas says that it would be better for one man to die than for this thing to get out of hand and bring the Roman heel down upon them all.  There is a fragile framework, a tenuous political arrangement that can’t afford to be upset.  They do away with Jesus in order to crush a budding movement.  Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will run for cover.

“The question is this:  Will the movement be ruled by fear?  Will the followers be contained and confined?  Rendered timid and silent?  Pentecost comes with a bold answer:  No.

“The story in Acts 2 begins presumably in the upper room and ends in the streets of Jerusalem.  For the life of me I can’t figure out how they got [from one place to the other.]  Carried by the big wind?  It’s as if the walls dissolve.  Or in a reversal of the resurrected Christ’s passage into their midst, they pass through the walls and out [into the world].  The disciples take the resurrection to the streets; they go public.

“To the authorities it must appear as political madness, an acute and, they hope, isolated case of sanctified anarchism.  Some people say they have had too much to drink.  Granted this refers in part to the inspired and ecstatic utterances, but even more so to their reckless courage.  After what’s been done to Jesus, you’d have to be either crazy or drunk to be shouting his name in the streets and pointing accusing fingers at the guilty executioners.”[3]

Up until this point in the story, the disciples have experienced the resurrected Christ personally.  It’s been much more of a spiritual experience, and awe-filled experience.  “Now they experience the concrete and practical freedom of the resurrection.  No political authority … can shut that down.”[4]

I don’t pretend to understand precisely what happened in the speeches that day.  But there are some characteristics that stand out for me.  For instance, they spoke without confusion.  They spoke clearly and boldly and they were understood.  “These were just plain Galileans.  There wasn’t a seminary degree among them, no studied rhetoriticians.  They couldn’t call a hermeneutic by name to save their souls.  They spoke rough, down-to-earth, fisherman’s-wharf Aramaic.  But on Pentecost they speak the truth with eloquent simplicity.”[5]

I wonder what would happen if disciples of Christ, or even a small group of disciples – say, our church – were to speak clearly and boldly without confusion on the issues of our day.  I wonder what would happen if we were to speak clearly on racial justice, or climate change, or local and global poverty and hunger.  On Pentecost, the Spirit compelled the disciples to speak not only about Jesus, not only about his death and resurrection, but about system that put Jesus to death.  If we were to allow the Spirit to compel us the way the Spirit compelled the disciples on Pentecost, how might the world change?

On that day of Pentecost, “the disciples spoke with a voice so loud and clear that never a doubt could arise in the heart of the simplest person.  They were understood.”[6]  And they did it under the tremendous pressure of the authorities listening in.

If we were to speak so clearly and boldly, would we become a threat to the powers that be?

Speaking with such clarity and boldness certainly made the disciples a threat to the powers in their day.  At first, the powers kept their cool.  “They exercised, at first, a prudent and calculated restraint.  … Perhaps the big wind of a movement will blow itself out (Acts 5:38).  The boldness of the disciples is relentless, however.  They are back day after day in the temple proclaiming the resurrection.  In the end, as the book of Acts attests, the consequence of Pentecost is arrest and imprisonment”[7]  In chapter 4 Peter and John are called before the Sanhedrin.  In chapter 9, they plot to kill Paul in Damascus and again in Jerusalem.  In chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas speak boldly in Antioch, where some “stirred up persecution against [them] and drove them out of their district.”  In chapter 14, the same thing happens in Iconium and Ephesus.  In chapter 28, while under house arrest in Rome, Paul is still going on about the gospel, talking away unhindered.  Nothing, it seems, can shut him up.

And don’t think that only the Pauls and Peters and Johns are worthy of such a power-infusion and boldness-infusion from the spirit.  The author of Acts “is careful to note that the flame rests upon each member, without exception, and that each person receives no more and no less than others – confirming that we are all equally blessed with the gifts and responsibilities of the Spirit.”[8]

The gospel lesson for today (we didn’t read it) is from John.  It’s a passage where Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit, only in chapter 15, John doesn’t use the word “pneuma,” the Greek for spirit, wind, and breath.  John uses the word “paraclete,” a word traditionally translated “Advocate” and “Comforter.”  David Dose says that these translations are insufficient.  He writes, “The Holy Spirit as Comforter eases our distress, encourages us, and comes to us in times of trouble to remind us of Jesus’ presence and promises.  And it’s just that kind of comfort, I imagine, that is at the heart of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel.  They were distressed, feeling orphaned and abandoned, and so needed that kind of comfort and advocacy.

“Why, then, do I think the Holy Spirit is misnamed?  Because everywhere I look in these familiar Pentecost texts, the Holy Spirit isn’t comforting anyone or anything but instead is shaking things up.

“[And] in Acts … there’s nothing particularly comforting about the rush of a ‘violent wind,’ let alone descending tongues of flame.  And once the disciples take their new multi-lingual ability into the streets of Jerusalem, pretty much everyone who witnesses their activity is described as ‘bewildered,’ ‘amazed,’ and ‘astonished.’  Again, the Spirit didn’t comfort anyone but instead prompted the disciples to make a very public scene with the troubling good news that the person the crowds had put to death was alive through the power of God. …

“The Holy Spirit is as much agitator as advocate, as much provocateur as comforter.”[9]

Dare we pray that God send the agitator and provocateur upon us?

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves,…” writes Paul in his letter to the Romans.  God is doing some massive transformational work here.  Something new is being birthed in all of creation, and not just creation out there, but creation in here, in our community and in each one of us.  Maybe the role of disciple and the role of midwife aren’t so far apart.  Maybe we should put on some rubber gloves so we would be ready for the delivery room.  The rubber gloves may not be necessary, but birth can be messy and if we believe that God really is doing something new, that creation is groaning in labor pains, it’s worth being ready.

When I came back to these familiar texts in my worship planning a month ago, an Annie Dillard quote popped into my head:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[10]

I didn’t remember the quote quite right.  I thought she called for hard hats, but crash helmets are better.  They offer a little more protection because they get strapped on.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask God to send the Paraclete, we will ask God to send the one who walks along side us to defend and comfort and counsel, and to agitate and provoke.  If we’re daring, we’ll ask to be pushed beyond what we imagine is possible, knowing that we’ll end up stirring things up.  If we’re daring, we’ll let the Spirit create a new problem for us:  that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’ve done so!

If we’re daring, we’ll suit up with our hard hats (or crash helmets) and rubber gloves and let God draw us out to where we can never return.

Amen.

[1] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “In the Boldness of the Spirit,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/boldness-spirit (accessed 19 May 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michaela Bruzzese, “Full Circle,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/full-circle (accessed 19 May 2015).

[9] David Dose, “Come Alongside, Holy Spirit,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/pentecost-b-come-alongside-holy-spirit/ (accessed 18 May 2015).

[10] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper and Row, 1982; quoted on “Annie Dillard,” Wikiquote, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Annie_Dillard (accessed 23 May 2015).

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