Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-21 Commentary

Note: The Common Lectionary during Eastertide substitutes readings from Acts for Old Testament lections.

Comments and Observations.

 Like a lot of us, I have seen my share of people at wedding receptions, at restaurants, and at beaches who have had too much to drink.  My son and I ate at a Chicago steakhouse a couple of years ago and at the table next to us—happily they left fairly early on in our meal—were four grown men in their 40s who had rented a limo for the day.  They had spent their afternoon at a Cubs baseball game drinking beer (lots of it) and then had spent the first part of that evening at this steakhouse drinking cocktails and then several bottles of wine.  One man was nodding off, the other was speaking with quite the slur, and much to my anger another was being very foul-mouthed only a couple feet from my teenaged son.

I’ve seen people drunk before but honestly, never once have I seen a tipsy person start to speak Russian when he knew no Russian or begin to spout grammatically perfect Japanese despite having never studied it.  Drunks say lots of things you’d just as soon not hear but achieving eloquence in another language quite simply is not one of them.  (Mostly they lose their ability to speak their native language coherently!)

So when some onlookers that first Pentecost concluded that the suddenly polyglot disciples were drunk, I wonder who was really doing the drinking!  When you hear the testimony of people from Pamphylia and Pontus and Asia and Egypt and Libya telling you that some untutored Jewish fellows who had never traveled more than 60 miles from home in their lives were speaking pitch-perfect foreign languages, it’s confoundingly odd to chalk this amazing spectacle up to the loss of control alcohol brings on.  Concluding the disciples were drunk does, however, reveal something about those who said it.

This is the kind of thing someone says just to be mean.  When a pastor says that God calls us to share equally with one another and someone in the congregation then accuses the pastor of being a socialist, you just know this person is grinding an axe and is pretty mean-spirited to boot.  When you call a sincere pacifist a wimp or accost a nurturing man as being “like a woman,” there is a mean spirit behind it all.

It’s probably somehow fitting given what would follow in the centuries to come that Pentecost began with the disciples encountering mean-spirited people.  The Spirit descended in undeniable power and ran smack into one of the spirits of the age, the perpetually nettlesome spirit of disbelief, accusation, and ignorant cruelty.  It would not be the last time.  Not by a long shot.

Of course, the fact that the disciples were speaking the languages of the other people there that day—and/or that the people heard their own languages in case you want to engage the old debate as to whether this was a miracle of speaking or hearing—was such an encouraging phenomenon at bottom.  There was more than a hint that this was a harbinger of a greater unity for humanity that God had in mind, a repairing of millennia-old divisions among peoples.  This was an early sign that what Jesus had done was not a local event but global, cosmic, for all people and for every people.  What could be more encouraging or hopeful?

This year we (once again) celebrate Pentecost in the shadow of events that highlight how ugly racial and ethnic divides are in this world.  The litany of late has grown long: Ferguson, Staten Island, South Carolina, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Madison, Baltimore.  Whatever the ins and outs of each case, each incident has lit up differences among people like fireworks in the sky.  Meanwhile Muslims and Christians slaughter each other in Nigeria, ISIS enflames every religious tension it can exploit, and the list goes on.

So what could be more hopeful, more encouraging, more worthy of wonder and joy than a spectacle that suggested that such disunity is not the whole story nor the end of the story?  What could be better than people understanding each other across ethnic and racial lines—understanding not just syllables and vocabulary (because this was the tip of the Pentecost iceberg) but each other as fellow beings made in God’s image?

Yet some mocked.  They mocked in so silly and irrational a way as to reveal what was really behind the mockery: an inability to see new possibilities, a willingness to entrench the status quo, a desire to let all the bad momentum of history gather speed and just go on and on and on.

Even so, God stepped in.  He sent the Spirit as promised and these oft-clueless, frequently timid, generally non-eloquent men from Galilee found a voice and a power they never knew could be theirs.  It changed the world.  It really did.  But it began amid ridiculous, ill-founded mockery.

Even today you can chalk up the whole Christian movement and all the theology it has ever generated to immature wish fulfillment, to the ravings of deluded people, to the childhood phase of a human race that needs to grow up for the love of God!  When all the dust settles from the anti-religious sneerings of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and others in the New Atheist camp, what it really comes down to is their looking at every Mother Teresa, every saint you’ve ever known or heard of and saying, “They’re drunk!”

Most such mockers don’t have a better vision for uniting humanity, saving us from the worst of ourselves, or generating any hope that there could yet be a cosmic reckoning in which justice really will win out over every racial and ethnic outrage ever committed.  But those who believe in God and who believe, further, that this God has a plan are nevertheless ballyhooed, called names, and consigned to some dismal category of retrograde troglodytes.

Christians today ought not be surprised it is so.  This started at Pentecost when the Spirit came in undeniable power.  And if could happen then . . . well, it surely can keep happening.

But that need not prevent us from joining Peter and saying to any and all who are even half-willing to listen, “Hey, this is not what you suppose.  This is bigger and better than that and it is, just so, way more hope-filled than that.  It’s part of a story as grand and as long as all creation and by God’s grace it’s our joy to share it with you.  Will you listen?”

Some will.  They always have.

Illustration Idea

As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by a local high school regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.

At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled years ago, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there.


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