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Sunday, May 19, 2013

What Was Accomplished at Pentecost?

What Was Accomplished at Pentecost?
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
Pentecost Sunday

            In his 2003 book Their God is Too Small, Bruce Ware counters what he sees as a troubling theological trend in the doctrine of God, namely, Open Theism.[1] Without parsing this esoteric theological position, suffice it to say that Ware considered the “openness” of God too undefined and unbounded to be an accurate depiction of the God of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture.
            Ware and others like him find more theological stability in the certainties of God, especially those certainties that are deduced from a propositional interpretation of Scripture. This is the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd. Everything in Scripture is neatly laid out for us like a cross between a how-to manual and a 9th-grade novel.
            However we interpret sacred Scripture, though, we must approach any reading, study, or sermon with humility. Whether God is too big to not know the future or whether God is too small when we reduce God to propositions about God in Scripture will not be settled in this life. What must be the case for us is that we leave room for the Spirit of God to do the unexpected among and within us when we pray, preach, or meditate.
            Today is Pentecost, celebrated around the world as the “birthday of the Church.” It is the inauguration of the Spirit’s presence with the believers and was marked by the miraculous events that took place in Jerusalem on that day. It is the day of the first great revival, we might say, since so many people were added to the church’s number on that day, although something tells me there was no giant tent involved.
            In many cases we understand that Pentecost was at the same time a beginning and as a completion. We read the story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and see that Luke uses this event to springboard the narrative of the spread of the Gospel. Pentecost drives the missionary movement of the New Testament from the travelogues of Acts to the Epistles.
            Pentecost is also read as a completion of sorts. For many prominent Biblical scholars, the events at Pentecost are the reversal or the completion of the events at Babel in Genesis 11. Whereas God confuses the language of the people trying to “make a name” for themselves at Babel, God pours out his Spirit on the disciples so that everyone can understand God’s saving work. Many, like Ware who was mentioned above, see the events of Pentecost as a fulfillment, as a tidying up of the loose ends created by sin in the first pages of Scripture. This view envisions the redemptive work of God in the shape of a parabola, or “U.” We started in the pristine Garden, sinned and fell down low, then were offered salvation through Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The impartation of the Spirit was the penultimate restoration of God’s presence with people, only to be eventually outdone by the day when “all things are made new.”

            Let’s step back from this for a moment. As a former student of English literature, I can appreciate a good narrative arc as well as anyone. Yet when we allow the narrative of Scripture to so tightly define God I fear we enclose our expectations of just who God is and what God can do. When we say that Pentecost = Babel in the same way that we read Paul arguing that Old Adam = New Adam we run the risk of putting all of God’s redemptive work in the past tense, something to be believed and acknowledged mentally and perhaps emotionally, but never experiencing for ourselves.
            Notice the details of Babel and Pentecost. In the story of Babel we first learn of a unity of language, God intervenes and confuses their language, and eventually the people all go their separate ways. The flow of that story is from unity toward diversity. In the Pentecost narrative, God’s intervention also causes confusion among the crowd. At the beginning they "were all together in one place," presumably speaking the same language. At the end, these same people are speaking a variety of languages, and they have caused confusion and even division among those who hear them. Again the flow seems to be from unity toward diversity.
            Certainly the ability of the disciples to proclaim the Gospel in many languages is the plan for God’s redemptive work, but let us not be so quick to conclude that God has undone God’s previous action at Babel. Rather than unifying the languages and the understandings of the people at Pentecost, God built into the shape of the Church a fundamental diversity. This fundamental diversity was, at its heart, the beginning of a new unity in the Gospel.
            What does language do for us? It is a necessary and essential part of our humanity in that to communicate is part of the essence of being us. To speak is to give meaning, to define reality, to create, to destroy. Language is the ultimate marketplace; we use words to express what we feel and think in hopes that we have enough of a shared vocabulary to convey meaning to someone else.
            Language is therefore both unifying and diversifying. In the Babel narrative, the confused languages of the people prevented them from cooperation in their great task, leading them to for tribes among themselves and define borders and nations and governments and Departments and the like. So profound was the experience of Babel that later the author Josephus would cite that event as the starting point for the nations of the world in his own day.[2] The diversity of language at Babel led to diversity and ultimately a segregation of ideas and expression.
            We must not vilify diversity, though, for it is the tool through which the Spirit operates at Pentecost. As we have seen, the Spirit works in both stories as an agent of diversity out of unity, a reversal of our tried-and-true “E Pluribus Unum.” The diversity of Pentecost serves to demonstrate that the Gospel is bigger than the borders and systems that the world creates in the name of our “language barriers.” Gonzalez artfully describes what happens at the Spirit’s outpouring, ““In Babel, God intervenes to confuse the unity of a rebellious humanity. In Pentecost, God's intervention confuses the unities that empire has built. What is new about Pentecost is not that they all speak the same tongue. They do not. What is new about Pentecost is that God blesses every language on earth as a means for divine revelation, and makes communication possible even while preserving the integrity of languages and cultures.”[3]
            God blesses the diversity because the Gospel will be advanced regardless of what our little tribes may do. The Gospel trumps even our attempts to define reality through our language; rather than taking over the speech of humankind God transcends our provincialism with the Spirit!
            God blesses unity through the diversity that we naturally create with our languages and cultures and political parties and social barriers. Pentecost obviously did not unify humanity either in language or in intention – that would have been a true reversal of Babel – but instead demonstrated how humanity does not need to be of the same tongue to be of the same Spirit! We may go so far as to say that unity is not something that the Church does on its own, but that through the events of Pentecost is has been demonstrated that unity is God’s desire for the whole of Creation. There will be diversity and diversity is good, but it is unity in the Spirit that drives the redemptive plan of God.
            I would point out that in the Pentecost passage there are also those good Baptists observers who sneer at the preaching of the disciples.  Why can’t they see that a miracle has happened? Gonzalez is helpful here, too, “Those who sneer do so because they do not see the miracle. They do not see the miracle, because to them there is nothing extraordinary happening. There is nothing extraordinary happening, because to them being able to understand what is being said is not unusual. All hear what is being said in their own native tongues. So do these mockers. But they don't see the miracle, precisely because they are natives. They are used to hearing everything in their own native tongue.”[4] Those of us who are so accustomed to hearing about the Spirit moving and the work of God are often those who ignore the Spirit’s actual moving and working. We are “those who know it best” and are “hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”[5]
            We become “natives” when we become the very provincial disciples who are separated by language and culture and habit from the rest of the world. It is not enough to be “missional” or “ecumenical;” we must intentionally and constantly examine what we are assuming in our evangelism and just what Gospel we are proclaiming. Is it our provincial, American understanding of the Gospel? Are we practicing colonialism in our mission strategies?[6] Are we the very “Gospel natives” that sneer and call the Spirit-filled disciples drunk?
            Let us be people of Pentecost, then, who understand that God’s work is not to baptize and beatify our social constructs, even our church constructs. The work of God is to bring about the redemption of all creation through the Spirit. We, though agents of that redemption in a way, do not have the privilege of defining what the Spirit does or says by our own provincial understanding of the Gospel. We cannot enforce uniformity on a culture that tends toward destructive, sinful diversity in the name of a God who “tidies up” everything with the Spirit.
No, we serve a God who tends toward human diversity through the unity of the Spirit. The same Spirit that blew at Pentecost blows today. The same fire that ignited the Church sparks within our fellowship this morning. We are sent out, across boundaries and beyond the resistance of language and culture, to proclaim that God is at work redeeming all of creation. We go, separated by our own tribal assumptions and cultural lenses, knowing that there will come a day when we shall “know fully” what we “now only know in part.”
Gonzalez concludes, saying, “At Pentecost, the Spirit gathers those whom the Spirit will also disperse in preparation for a greater gathering.”[7] Until the day of that great gathering, let us find ways to proclaim the Lordship of Christ in words, gestures, and symbols as diverse and powerful as those at Pentecost. Let us be blown from this place by the wind of the Spirit like embers of God’s love. Amen.

[1] Ware, Bruce; Their God is Too Small: Open Theism and the Undermining of Confidence in God, Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2003.
[2] Antiquities 1:109-147.
[3] Gonzalez, Catherine and Justo, “Babel and Empire: Pentecost and Empire,” Journal for Preachers, 16 no. 4, p. 22-26.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “I Love to Tell the Story”
[6] Thanks to Carlie Gray for being the presence of Christ for me this week and shaking my understanding of missions.
[7] Gonzalez, 26.

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