Distilling and Dispensing shots of Spirit – Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The Day of Pentecost was traditionally a harvest festival for Israel.  I remember the harvest festivals in the churches where I grew up.  The altar groaning and the communion rail festooned with produce.  Canned and fresh it didn’t seem to matter.  It was a time of cornucopial abundance. For Israel the feast was celebrated on the fiftieth (Greek=Pente) day after the first sickle had sliced through the crops in the field.  Every person, clan and tribe would carry the first fruits of their harvest in baskets to the temple.

It makes sense then that our cultivating Heavenly Parent, the Lord of the Harvest, should choose to reveal the extravagant abundant aspect of God’s nature on this day.

There is the rushing ruach wind, there are the the tongues of fire evenly distributed and dancing on each person’s head.  It is every bit as dramatic as any and every theophany that happened in the Old Testament.  It is Moses and Elijah, Sinai, Horeb and Carmel all happening in Jerusalem.

Unlike Elijah on the mountain before the Lord 1Kings 19:6-16 here God is indeed in the wind, and in the fire!  Instead of the sound of sheer silence in Elijah’s experience, this time there is the peal of universally comprehensible proclamation.  Everyone hears, everyone sees, everyone experiences. That is the earth shattering earthquake that happens not in the ground but in the hearts of those who see and hear this reversal of Babel and comprehend that in God all the peoples of the earth have access to common language and understanding.

The cynics of course thought they were drunk, which I suppose in some way they were.  Holy Spirit is intoxicating stuff.  Yet that is not the disturbing part for me about this day.  Honest cynics, I have found are useful to my understanding of things  and usually they are open to discussion.

No the disturbing thing for me is that as I stand in church on any given Pentecost Sunday, I hear no mighty wind, except perhaps the whisper of the pipe organ and I see no tongues of flame except on a banner or an altar cloth. Even the Bishop’s mitre is a tame doffing of the cap to what happened the first Pentecost. 

I suppose I could live with even that as we have become meeker and milder than those dusty, lusty first disciples.

The most disturbing thing for me about the feast of Pentecost year after year is that there are so many who no longer hear in their own language about God’s deeds of power.

How have we as disciples and church moved from fire carriers with loose tongues, gossiping the Good News Gospel; to become domesticated distribution centres of mediocrity, where only club members have access, and only franchise holders get a tongue of fire endorsement branding, after doffing their cap to the Bishop and the treasurer?

Peter quotes Joel in his sermon, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”

I am willing to bet, good non-gambling Methodist that I am, that if we advertised that these things Joel and Peter are referring to were going to happen here this morning, most of us would have elected to rather go and play golf, or walk on the beach.

I mean really!  Where is the reverence and decorum in that chaos!

Could that be why the ruach wind no longer blows in the churches? Why young people have visions on YouTube and old people dream dreams of the preacher ending the belaboured sermon so they can go and have tea? 

When last was the church truly prophetic and not keeping one eye on the bank balance and another eye on whether the dominant culture group was approving? When last did we allow a foreign Galilean, speak to us in our own language?

No folks, I fear we are a long long way from Pentecost. I fear our respectability, our rules and our recalcitrance to be moved by a creative, fiery God, has left us breathless and becalmed whilst the Spirit seems to be blowing fiery freshness elsewhere where the Spirit wills.  It’s hard to imagine a harvest in some of these fields.

It’s enough to make one go and get drunk!

You gotta practice man…

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.  While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.  Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.  Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.  I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”  Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”  While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, …

I enjoy telling the rather “corny” story of the man carrying a violin in a case, who emerges from Grand Central Station onto the streets of New York. A visitor to the city, he stops at a homeless man propped up against a wall on the sidewalk and asks him, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how I can get to Carnegie Hall?” The drunk squints up at the man and the violin case and answers, “You gotta practice man, practice!

Today’s reading has something of that ironic misunderstanding about it. It is a passage of contrasts. Luke, our gospel writer/editor frames the narrative in a way that enables us best to glimpse the contrasts. There is a mystical drama unfolding on the summit of the mountain, and a very human drama unraveling at the mountain base.

Jesus has been teaching the disciples and sending them out on practical ministry events. He has been feeding the crowds and encouraging them in the simplicity and struggle of their daily existence. He has been testing the disciple’s understandings of who he is, “Who do you say that I am?“, and he has been spelling out the cost of discipleship with the gruesome analogy of carrying a cross.

After all the activity of the opening verses of Luke 9, we now find Jesus taking three close disciples and going up “the mountain” to pray. After all the hands-on and direct encounters early in the chapter, the events on the mountain take on a very ethereal mood. There is what the mystics call the “Tabor Light“, the glorious radiance of the Shekinah glory of God associated with moments of epiphany and transformation. The disciples are sleepy, just as they will be portrayed in the garden of Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. What is it about our psyche that wants to fall asleep at the very moment we are faced with moments of enlightening growth and challenge? “Can we not watch one hour, because the weak flesh cannot keep the pace of willing spirit?” (Matthew 26:41) Here, at least, says Luke, the disciples manage to stay awake and see the transforming glory of Jesus as well as the meeting with archetypal characters Moses and Elijah, who embody the pillars of Judaism, namely, the Law and Prophets.

This meeting has all the power of that classic encounter of Frodo with Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Simply exchange the word cross for ring and Moses and Elijah for Gandalf, and you have one of those timeless moments when vocation and destiny collide and the inevitable consequences of obedience are glimpsed in all their fearful reality. How consoling to know that the faith ancestors, will come to us at those times to steel our shivering spines!

When Peter decides to build a mountaintop monastery, it feels to me that our proto-church leader, is simply verbalizing religion’s motivation to settle in moments of God’s blessing and to avoid the ongoing, cross-carrying journey which all encounters of this nature are designed to fuel. We who, thanks to Luke, know what is happening at the foot of the mountain recognize that Pilgrims and not Settlers are needed for this enterprise of healing the world.

Don’t you just love the precious parental presence that does not smite nor embarrass Peter? God simply envelops the entire community in a blanket of glorious unknowing which renders all our best building plans facile.

In that cloud of glorious unknowing, the Baptism voice of God again affirms who Jesus is, and encourages us all to listen to him.

In keeping with all mystical transmissions the moment is over as quickly as it began.

I would like to think that the silence which the disciples held about this moment they shared with Jesus, had more to do with profundity of the experience than with mere exclusive secrecy.

Perhaps I, in the evangelical church, could do with less testimony and more transforming silence? After all, how does one put these things into words. Like Mary, I would do better to “ponder these things in my heart and think deeply about them.

The Cross waits for Jesus, the gates of Mordor for Frodo.

Isn’t it ironic that the Only Son who will be lifted from the earth by evil shadows of power, is here at work restoring another only son who is being dashed onto the earth by the same dark forces?

A world oppressed by a plethora of unclean spirits meets me every time I come off the mountain top moments of transformation. There is no avoiding the encounters, but if I treasure the silent secret of what I have seen in the cloud, my heart will not break nor quake as I touch the darkness with the cross cutting into my shoulder.

You gotta practice man practice