“WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?” - thrive UMC Official Blog

“WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?”

Today we celebrate the miracle of Pentecost.  In most churches today, we tend to focus on two of the grand historical miracles throughout our liturgical year.  And these are the miracles we give most of our energy and attention to. They’re the miracles that change the inner faces of our homes, and raise our blood-sugar levels.  Those miracles are the incarnation, and the resurrection, which found our rejoicing on Christmas and Easter. God became flesh in the form of a human child; and the Christ is risen from execution on the cross. This leads us through the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter –December through roughly May. There is, however, a third miracle that belongs to our tradition, and if we miss this one, then the other miracles really don’t matter –for it is the most urgent miracle, the one for which the other miracles pave the way.  This is the miracle that changes the world, and I believe our neglect of it has led to the dying state of the Church that we find ourselves in, as Americans today.

            Let us read about this most urgent and grand miracle. The Pentecost miracle.  We’ll find the story, as we do every year, in Acts, chapter 2.  We’ll read the first 13 verses.  This is what it says:

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

            So that’s is the story of the miracle of Pentecost: there was a rush of wind, tongues of fire, and Galilean disciples declaring the mighty works of God in the language of all the nations represented in Jerusalem.  It was a moment so strange and unexpected, that it left the witnesses asking: what does this mean?

            Others, of course, dismissed the whole event as a simple display of drunkenness, because who doesn’t have a friend who gets liquored up and suddenly start spouting off about the grandeur of God in, say, Spanish or Swahili?

            But the question –as they all are in the bible- is a good one.  What does this mean?  The wind, the tongues of fire, the declarations of God’s mighty acts in new languages? How does it fit into the grander unfolding of God’s work on earth?  And more importantly still: how shall we respond?

            In order to see what God is doing here, we first need two things:

  • We need to understand the significance of the Jewish Festival of Weeks
  • We need to remember the ancient biblical story of the city of Babel.

 

In ancient Judaism, there were three festivals every year where faithful Jews from around the Middle East would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Those festivals are Yom Kippur, Passover, and the Festival of Weeks.  And these three festivals serve two very important purposes: first of all, they ensure that all faithful Jews remember and participate in the three big miracles of God, and they imbue the year with a particular rhythm.  The three big miracles that Jewish people celebrated in the time of Jesus are that:

  • God makes us one –with God and neighbor (Yom Kippur)
  • God delivers us. (Passover)
  • God sustains us. (The Festival of Weeks).

And here I want you all to notice the pattern and momentum of their calendar.  The year opens with a return to oneness and right relationship, with God and neighbor.  It starts with harmony.  But somewhere along the line, things happen and the people find themselves in slavery.  Then God sets them free!  But freedom brings them into the wilderness, and they end up afraid they will starve.  There, God becomes present again and gives them food in the form of bread, to sustain them and bring them home. 

And if you know your Hebrew Bible at all, you will quickly notice that this is the story of the Torah: in the beginning, in Genesis God created everything, and it was good!  But then God’s children end up enslaved in Egypt.  And God sets them free.  But once they’re wandering out in the wilderness, they become lost, scared and hungry, so that God has to intervene and provide the wayward Israelites with food, water, and the law so that they might live.  But then again, almost inevitably, they would lose or squander their blessings so that they would have to be forgiven and restored once more –and hence, the whole cycle would begin all over. 

But, not only was this rhythm and pattern tied to scripture, but it was also in sync with the cycle of the seasons.  In their part of the world, at what would be our autumn, the year began mild and beautiful weather. There would be sporadic rains, which would cool things down, and soften the earth enough to plow it and sow seeds. This is also the time of the olive harvest –the oil of which is used for anointing.  After the seeds were sown, -different kinds at different times over a period of four months- the big rains would come in the winter and spring. During that time, farmers would have to watch their crops and weed –and there could be severe flooding.  Then in the Spring, Passover would correspond with the Barley Harvest –the first harvest of the year.  This adds a layer of significance to that festival because the staple of the ancient diet was grain.  And if your grain stores ran out over the rainy winter, then your family could die.  And probably many people were very hungry in the weeks leading up to the barley harvest, so at Passover, the image of death leaving your house alone, would have been especially potent; and it might also add further suggestion as to why bread was eaten unleavened at this time.  

Then, seven weeks, fifty days, after that, the grain harvest continued, and culminated in another celebration: the Festival of Weeks, which corresponded with the wheat harvest. Wheat, which was a little more fickle in that climate, was more expensive than Barley, and a symbol of God’s abundance. But more notably it was the last grain that would be gathered for the year.  So, for seven weeks, they would work hard in the fields gathering grain for themselves, and this was a time of great gladness, because what they harvest then would give them life for a year.  Then, at the Festival of Weeks, they would give thanks to God, and rededicate themselves to the Lord’s service and focus on distribution. Throughout the harvest, God had been faithful, so now it was their turn to honor the covenant.  On that day, they would put away their work, gather and study scripture so that they would be able to live as faithful people. Harvest time –the time of receiving- is over.  Now you transition to giving.  And it’s built right into the prescriptions for the holiday: take care of the poor and the foreigner.  Make sure the priests, who don’t till the soil are fed, and on and on.

After the wheat harvest was over, the weather would turn dry and really hot.  And the grain fields would lie fallow, until the time arrived for the new season of sowing.

Can we see the rhythm and the pattern in this? Can we see the harmony between the cycles of the earth, and the sacred events of the scriptures, and ritual celebrations of the people?  They all work together: people work so the plants could grow; then the plants grow and feed the people; and the life the people receive from the plants goes to sowing new seeds.  And then the people are released from the demands of those fields for a little while, and they have to portion out what they have to last the whole year, and make sure everyone is cared for. And this creates the full framework for the pattern of life: sow, harvest, distribute, repeat.   

Then, at the same time, it mirrors the historical story, right? In Genesis, God sowed the seed of the people Israel; but they ended up enslaved –stuck in the ground- and later freed in Exodus, which symbolizes the harvest of the people.  And from there they went on to be scattered into new land, taking with them the life-giving teachings of God. Sow, harvest, distribute.  Repeat.

This is the rich significance that was celebrated in the Festival of Weeks, at Pentecost.  Not only were they celebrating the wheat harvest and God’s gift of the Torah, but they were rejoicing in the whole rhythm and harmony between God, the world, and humanity.  Sow, harvest, distribute. Take root; break forth; bear fruit!  Receive, grow, give! Birth, maturity, reproduction. All of creation pulses with this holy pattern for the harmony of life, from plants to global societies!

   And this is why I want to draw your attention to the story of the ancient city of Babel.  In the book of Genesis, chapter 11, the bible tells us that at one time all people spoke one language, and they gathered together to build a great city, with a tower, in order to: make a name for themselves so,  and listen to this part- “so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” That’s what they say.  This story takes place right after the global flood subsides and Noah and his family leave the ark to repopulate the land. 

But then God sees them building this big city, and what does God do?  God ‘mixes up their language and disperses them!’  And they stopped building the city, because they’re scattered across the land creating new peoples. Now, in case you have heard this story, but didn’t know, this is the origin story for the city of Babylon –the nation that later conquers Israel, and takes the residents of Jerusalem into exile!  Those people! From the very beginning, that’s what the Babylonians did: they gathered people from across the earth, and across national borders, and they brought them back to their city, to speak their language and to build them up. Build their walls, fund their systems, grow the wealth –for them. And the Jewish people experienced this as a profound evil!  It’s evil to be captured and to have your language forgotten and your history and identity erased.  It’s evil to be forced to bleed and sweat to feed an empire. It’s evil to rob people of their humanity just to build a thing. It’s evil to try and make everyone the same!

  This was a truth so close to their experience that they never needed to write that part of the story down, because it had been carved on their hearts. But here’s the shocking revelation that happened on this history-changing Pentecost we read about in Acts: what God shows them is that their own people are doing the same thing!  In Jerusalem, they’re gathering all the scattered Jews from across the diaspora to come back to the capital and feed their holy city.  Build it up!  Speak the language! Feed the priests! Make the temple –their gate to God, bigger, grander, more awe-inspiring!  Solidify the national strength of the Jewish people! But by doing those things, they have become just like the city of Babel! They have become a mirror of their enemy!

And brothers and sisters in Christ, on this high holy day of Pentecost, we have to open our eyes and dare the courage to witness: haven’t we, in the church, become just like our Jewish predecessors?  Don’t so many of our churches now aspire to be just like old, dead Babel: craving a name for ourselves so we can have a grand building, where people will gather and become just like us?  Don’t we hope that those people out there will leave their homes to come and learn the hymns we love, and repeat the phrases we say?  That they will become servants who give their money to feed our budget, and populate our committees and ministries?  Haven’t we, also, fallen into the same ancient spiritual trap of trying to capture and captivate real, living people to serve and build up a dead thing –a city, a nation, a religious institution? Haven’t we succumbed to the temptation of the same, old deadly idolatry?

Brothers and sisters, this is why we find ourselves barren today: because we’re stuck in a two-miracle faith.  We believe in the incarnation at Christmas. And we believe in the resurrection at Easter.  But if we don’t believe in, and live out, the Pentecost miracle in its proper season, then we will never, ever bear fruit.  We’ll be like an apple tree that grows tall and sprouts beautiful blossoms in the spring and shimmers with green leaves, but summer and fall pass, and there are no apples to bless the world with.  What right would we have then to call ourselves an apple tree?  In the same way, if we do not spread and dispense and share the living gospel of Christ with those we meet, what right do we then have to call ourselves Christians?

This is the Pentecost miracle: that a might windy rushes through our midst and turns us inside-out!  No longer are we concerned about ourselves and our own future and our dead institution, but we must be transformed to have hearts that move to our neighbors –hearts ready to go out!  We must repent of our efforts to get our neighbors to come here, and to speak like us, for that is evil!  Instead, we must learn to adopt their tongue.  We must come to know and to speak their language –just as an apple tree has learned what’s sweet and life-giving for our tongues.

At Pentecost, we become the resurrected incarnation: through a miracle, we are transformed into living temples for the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, we become the resurrected Christ together.  We are the produce of Christ, sent out from where we are, to meet and bless our neighbors.  The season where God works to serve and build us up is over.  Now it is time to pass the blessing we’ve received on. 

LEAVE A COMMENT