May 24, 2015 The Feast of Pentecost
Joel 2:21-end, Psalm 145, Acts 2:1-11, St. John 14:15-31
Several times each week I drive a stretch of North College Drive that winds up and down the mountainside through a residential neighborhood. This particular section covers only a couple of hundred yards.
In that short space the city has put in place a number of safeguards, beginning with the speed limit. At either end is one of those guilt-trip signs notifying me that the speed limit is 25 but “Your speed is . . .” There are two imposing speed bumps as well.
These measures make perfect sense to me. Houses line both sides of the street and where there are houses one may expect children and the body politic should do its utmost to ensure their safety.
But let me amend that statement. These measures made perfect sense until one day as I passed through the thought struck me that never once in all my trips had I seen a single child at play. Or doing anything else. And that remains true today.
I am traveling at a crawl through an anachronism, a scene engineered for a bygone day when children played outside. Kids occupied with television, Internet and video games need protection, to be sure, but not the kind speed bumps provide.
And then I think of the church. Marjorie and I have spent a good deal of time knocking around Europe, we’ve visited at least our share of kirks and iglesias and duomos and cathedrales. They were built for a time in the distant past when people worshiped.
How terribly quaint. On this side of the pond we have by comparison the appearance of a thriving church. Those depressing polls tell us all too regularly of the decline of the church in the U. S. but we do still have church buildings where fannies fill seats on a weekly basis.
And we’ll ignore for now the matter of how the definition of “church” has changed.
But on this day of all days, perhaps we should see the glass as half-full. We’re celebrating the Feast of Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit erupted in the creation and breathed out salvation on 3,000 souls in Jerusalem, the day on which God inaugurated the church as we know it and understand it and live it today.
I read a story recently that provides some perspective. The 18th century was a time of indifference and apostasy in England. A pastor named Samuel Wesley was the father of two sons, John and Charles.
One day he told the one, “Charles, be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in these kingdoms. You shall see it, though I shall not.”
John of course heard of that conversation and he recalled it years later when, standing at his father’s grave, he preached the gospel to a great multitude. England did see revival, and much of the credit for it goes to Samuel Wesley’s two boys, who spooned their tonic into an ailing church in America as well. We are reminded once again to walk by faith and not by sight.
If we inhabit an age of the eclipse of the church, so have many others. But from every eclipse the church has emerged and will emerge more resplendent than before. If a spiritual gloom has descended upon our own time, it affords us an opportunity to turn up the flame of our faith in God.
This was the way of St. Augustine.
From the time of the fathers the church has seen Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, one language became many; at Pentecost, many languages become one. In the instant the church was born, she spoke with one voice.
This is the power of our God. In this power – in His power -- are our strength and our hope. In this power – in His power -- is the reason we shall not lose heart. We are His church, and the gates of hell will not stand against us.
At Babel, God confused the tongues of the nations; at Pentecost He reversed the confusion. At Babel, God scattered the people in judgment; at Pentecost He scattered the people to publish the gospel to all the nations.
At Babel, the people used language to advance a human agenda; at Pentecost, language became a sign to declare the power of God. At Babel, disunity radiated outward as when a stone causes ripples in a pond; at Pentecost, unity became the order of the day.
Our God is ever merciful. In the Garden, he drove man out so he could not continue to eat from the tree of life and live forever in his sinful state. At Babel, He drove man away, delaying judgment on the City of Man and affording His creatures an opportunity of repentance.
Only God could tolerate the sin of His creatures; only God could provide a remedy for it. After the great flood, when God looked down and saw that sin was once again rampant on the earth, He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to begin to form a people for His holy name.
Later He would send a man, born of a woman, born under the law, to complete the work. This man, after His resurrection from the dead but before His ascension into heaven, would commission His apostles, or messengers, to “make disciples of all nations,” going “to the end of the earth” to take the gospel to every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
But wait, He told them, until you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They received that gift on this day, Pentecost, the 50th day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated at the time of harvest. In God’s economy the harvest of grain would ever thereafter trigger the memory of the harvest of souls.
One thing the Holy Spirit would teach us is that there is no true unity among men if not through God. The vertical relationship must always precede the horizontal. The Holy Trinity is the model for all relationships.
Each of its three Persons has a role and the roles harmonize perfectly. Even when one submits to another – as when the Son does the bidding of the Father even at the cost of His life – none becomes less than the others.
Instruction of this sort defies human understanding . . . and it is the way of ordering all relationships in our once and future state, in the garden and in glory. It seems so foreign to us because we dwell today in the City of Man, and man’s government looks nothing like God’s.
God imposed it on His creation, when Jews from all points of the Diaspora, or dispersion, had assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. It arrived with the force of a “rushing mighty wind.” Not for the first time did God act by way of a wind. Not by chance is the word for “breath” and “wind” and “spirit” the same in both Hebrew and Greek.
The prophet Ezekiel surveyed the valley of dry bones. From ch. 37:
Also He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, `Thus says the Lord GOD: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."'"
10 “So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. 11 Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, `Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!'
12 "Therefore prophesy and say to them, `Thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. 13 "Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves.
14 "I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it," says the LORD’” (vv. 9-14).
At Pentecost, the “mighty rushing wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire” -- do you recall the burning bush? -- brought God’s remedy for the rifts between man and God and man and man that sin produced. Man dedicated the Tower of Babel, the house sin built, to the premise that man can unite with man while freezing God out.
The Psalmist would refute this notion: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it . . .” (127:1).
But by the day of Pentecost sin-stained contractors, their languages still confused, would be erecting myriad towers in the hope of ascending into the heavens of their own might or bringing God down to serve them in their realm.
The church God inaugurated on that day is His gift of a halfway house for His people, a shelter from the anarchy of the City of Man while we await communion in the City of God. This is where St. Augustine can abet our understanding.
In the fifth century Alaric led the Goths in the sack of Rome, by this time the capital of a Christian nation for more than a hundred years. The barbarian invader appeared to be pulling a vast darkness down on 11 centuries of civilization and culture.
Pagans and even nominal Christians attributed the catastrophe to that upstart religion called Christianity and predicted the ruin of the entire world. Augustine, instead of joining in the caterwauling, sat down to compose his classic “The City of God.”
This city of the Christian church rises out of the ruins of the civilizations of this world and survives all manner of chaos and tumult. One day, her King will return to take up His throne and rule over an eternal realm of perfect justice and peace.
Meanwhile, we who are the subjects of this King have the privilege of looking upon this City of God with the eyes of faith and glimpsing our future home. We have the further privilege of serving our King in preparing the world for the transfer of the City of God from heaven to earth, of proclaiming to the nations separated at Babel the solution God effected at Pentecost. Augustine wrote:
“For once the tongues became discordant through pride, and then of one became many tongues. For after the flood certain proud men, as if endeavoring to fortify themselves against God, as if anything were (too) high for God, or anything could give security to pride, raised a tower, apparently that they might not be destroyed by a flood, should there come one thereafter.
“For they had heard and considered that all iniquity was swept away by a flood; to abstain from iniquity they would not; they sought the height of a tower as a defense against a flood; they built a lofty tower. God saw their pride, and frustrated their purpose by causing that they should not understand one another’s speech, and thus tongues became diverse through pride.
“If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not, this was the doing of charity.” So wrote Augustine.
In Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had prohibited certain prayers, including the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” -- in foreign tongues. Now the Jews of the Diaspora hear the praises of God sung out in the languages of the territories whence they came.
` In Old Testament times, when the Spirit of God took control of a man, he prophesied. Here, in like manner, the people prophesy, but in tongues.
This is not the ecstatic utterance Paul will address in 1 Corinthians but known languages spoken by those to whom they are unknown. And those who prophesy are not Judean sophisticates but a rabble from the hustings of Galilee.
Three thousand of the visitors will take their testimony to this mighty act of God back to their own lands and launch the process of disseminating the gospel throughout the nations and to the very end of the earth. These are the firstfruits of the church . . . not a church for the Jew only but for those of every nation, tribe, tongue and people.
By the power of God, disunity has become unity, chaos has conceded to order, darkness has shriveled before the light.
Why, then, do we look out upon the gathering gloom?
Robert D. Putnam is a scholar who studies American culture and who focuses his work on communities. He wrote a book titled “Bowling Alone” that describes a sociological phenomenon in which more and more of our countrymen are bowling alone.
What was once a social game, to which people congregated in leagues, is turning into a solitary activity. Bowling, of course, is not Putnam’s real concern. His interest is in the disconnection that characterizes our culture more and more. He notes that it has invaded the church as well as the bowling alley.
His observations appear more faithful to the reality we see around us than the notion of a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” as we recite each Sunday – with emphasis on the “one.” In an age of proliferating denominations, epidemic divorce and families rent asunder, how can we find the unity of the promise of Pentecost?
We will see it if we look through the eyes of Samuel Wesley, who peered beyond his own demise and saw an England restored to worship . . . if we look through the eyes of St. Augustine, who stood with feet firmly planted in the City of Man and caught the vision of the City of God.
We will not stumble if we walk by faith and not by sight. Amen.