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Patient Ecstasy: a semon for Pentecost

March 19th, 2006 by isaac · 6 Comments

I had to preach a sermon on Acts 2 the other day. I know it’s a little early to start thinking about Pentecost, but I thought I’d post it nonetheless.
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Lifting his gaze up from his writing and peering out his window onto a world of conflict, a world where people crash violently into one another, Augustine writes, “Adam himself is now spread out over the whole face of the earth. Originally one, he has fallen, and, breaking up, he has filled the whole earth with pieces.”

Broken pieces. That’s what we are… brokenness. Everywhere around us… brokenness. We carry with us, in our self, the brokenness of creation, the pain of separation. Adam is shattered, Augustine says. Adam fills the whole earth with bits and pieces, split persons. That’s who we are—you and me… broken pieces.

Pentecost is God’s vision of wholeness. It’s a strange story that draws us into a new world full of promise, full of possibility—a new vista from which we can see our selves and others. In that story we see how God re-formed all our broken pieces into a new humanity, the new Human, the new Adam.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (2:1)—that’s how our text this afternoon begins. They were all there—12 apostles, the inner circle of women, and Jesus’ brothers and mother. But what were they waiting for? Why had they gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem?

They stayed in Jerusalem because Jesus told them to. But we have to understand, it couldn’t have been an easy thing to stay in that city. That city is dangerous for those who claim to follow Jesus. That city killed their leader. The religious and political authorities formed a powerful coalition and executed Jesus—people like Pilate, the elders, the chief priests, the teachers of Scripture. How were the followers of Jesus sure those same authorities wouldn’t come after them next? If I were them I would get out of there as soon as I could. You know, time to head South, flee to Mexico—somewhere safe, where those powerful people would have a hard time finding me.

But they stayed because they expected a promise. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his band of followers to stay in Jerusalem—to stay there despite their fears, to wait at the heart of those powers that killed Jesus. Because that’s where the new life will come, that’s where God will create a new world—in that heart of darkness, death will speak new life, as they remain in a risky situation, a vulnerable position, a place where life is threatened.

Here’s the promise: Jesus gives them a promise of something unspeakable, something unanticipatable, something totally unexpected. He says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

It’s so easy to hear the second part of those words and forget the first part: who wants to sit around and wait when there is just so much to do—so many souls to save, so many hungry people to feed, so much killing to stop, so much injustice to resolve, so many divisions to reconcile. We want to go, go, go; we want to be on the move, always going away, on a mission—somewhere over there, out yonder—so we can witness. But Jesus tells his followers to wait in Jerusalem, to sit around together in that upper room, just lounging around—eating, drinking, talking.

How irresponsible! How will the kingdom come? If we don’t get out there and do something, how will humans come to know the love of Christ that binds us together as a new humanity? How will the good news spread to the ends of the earth?

But this Pentecostal story in Acts makes us wait. There’s a pause in the story—something that makes us hesitate, makes us linger in the upper room; a moment that dispossesses us of all those great messianic ideas we’ve got. It’s a pause that cuts against the grain of our messianic complex—all those enlightened notions of efficacy and success, maybe even (dare I say?) of our ideas of faithfulness. The story makes us wait in the upper room even though we’re trigger happy; the story calls us to the difficult work of patience when we’ve all got itchy fingers.

We have our wonderful plans to reunite Adam, to gather up all the broken pieces of humanity and arrange them together in a new creation. We’re driven by that same despairing vision of Augustine. We long for reunion, for the wholeness of humanity, to glue back together all the shards. We long for a human touch that isn’t violence—a hand that reaches out to offer us the peace of Christ, not a fist; we long for God to weld us back together, to create us anew.

There’s a desire for union, for communion, for community, that runs through our veins… A desire that speaks from our woundedness… A desire that draws us together… A desire for union, for togetherness, for the touch of another, to feel our self united to someone (anyone), to feel our broken self returning to the wholeness of Adam, even in small ways, piece by piece.

The tragedy of our condition is that we don’t know how to come together… We don’t know how to heal our brokenness… And every time we try, we end up in more violences, we create more wounds, more divisions. But even that violence speaks from the depths of our desire for the embrace of fellowship… a desire for a touch… a point of contact that may lead into the wonders of the new Adam.

I’m thinking of that painful movie about racism in LA: Crash. It’s a story about our brokenness and the ways our broken bodies lead us into breaking others. There’s a line at the beginning of the movie that says everything I want to say about the ways we desire the human touch, the way our bodies cry out to one another for re-union… But our fallen condition always translates these desires into reasons for violence, for pain.

Here’s the line: “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. But in L.A., nobody really touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” Just so we can feel something... We want to feel, to touch, to somehow grasp hold of Adam, of our wholeness, a point of contact that somehow completes, that fulfills, our broken humanity. But every time we try to force the broken pieces together, we get ourselves into trouble: we create a monstrosity, a sticky mess of glues that force broken pieces into positions that actually require them to morph into something worse, something less human—more brokenness, more splits, more violences. It’s like that mess we make when we forget about the jig-saw puzzle picture and start forcing all the wrong pieces together. It ends up ruining the whole thing—we turn out destroying or injuring the little pieces that we thought would fit well together.

But the story of Pentecost shows us a different way into wholeness, a different way to mend our brokenness. And that way is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God comes down upon those gathered in the upper room. This is the same Spirit that hovered over those primordial waters in Genesis 1, at the beginning of creation. And now this Spirit hovers over these broken people, and begins a new creation, a new movement of God.

There, in a flash, something new comes onto the scene of history, a bolt of lightning, a flow of electricity from which we still feel aftershocks. The power of the Spirit breaks open doors, disrupts our controlled grasp on life. At Pentecost we see heaven’s floodgates open and pour forth rivers of living waters into those who linger in Jerusalem. The waters flow like wine; but this wine is new—new wine that bursts the old wineskins, flowing through and beyond previous boundaries. God pours his Spirit into that room and the followers get caught in the flow—this movement of God, the gestures of the new Adam. The Spirit comes on those gathered together, those who wait upon the Lord, and moves them into strange encounters, communication in strange languages, with a tongue they could not control. They are moved in the ecstasy of the Spirit into a new bond of love between broken people.

These are the last days, Peter says quoting Joel, when God will pour out his Spirit on all humanity. The story of Christ’s redemptive work that starts in Jerusalem and flows into every corner of the world pauses in that upper room. The story waits for something, a something that is foreseen—because Joel prophesied this day, after all—yet it comes totally strange and unexpected. Jesus tells them that the Spirit will come in power, but they had no idea it would look like this.

We think we know what we’re doing. We think we’ve got the Christian thing figured out. We’ve received the great commission; we’ve got our marching orders. We have our maps, our bible verse—we’ve got all that stuff memorized. We’re pretty confident that we know the way. We’re marching along in the Lord’s army. We’ve got our grand ideas about how to heal the brokenness, how to recreate Adam, how to create the perfect community.

But at Pentecost we hear a God of surprises: A God whose promises are too wonderful for us, whose thoughts are too much for our feeble minds… A God who reaches beyond our anxious anticipations. When the Spirit arrives, when those tongues of fire shoot down from heaven, we lose control of our communication, of all the ways we make encounters with others predictable, scripted… The ways we insist that the drama of life must unfold just as we planned. Each of us has our plans to make things come out right, to avoid vulnerability, to avoid exposure, to steer clear of those times and places where others might see our weakness, our brokenness. To see our cries, our teary eyes.

But the good news of Pentecost is that God wants to use our weakness, the Spirit throws us into situations where we have no control, and that’s when the gospel comes alive.

Hear the good news: In these last days, this Pentecostal God is healing our brokenness as he binds us together, as God heals the wounds of our bodies by joining us through the power of the Spirit… A Spirit that moves us into strange encounters that promise new life… Encounters with others that may help us see the new Adam, the new Humanity reborn before our very eyes.

But the challenge this afternoon, the challenge of the Spirit, is to welcome disruptions, to welcome those uncomfortable moments where we lose control of our selves, where we may risk a moment of vulnerability, where we may find ourselves stammering with unfamiliar tongues, to strangers. For in those disruptions, those interruptions of our journeys of faithfulness, the Christian path we’ve mapped out with all our celebrated disciplines—in these disruptions, we may come to see the movement of the Spirit, the Spirit who blows here and there like the unpredictable wind.

And as we surrender our broken selves, our desires for wholeness, for perfection, to this wind, we may find ourselves in the new Adam—Jesus—the body of Christ reassembled in our midst. But first we must learn how to see; we must learn how to wait; we must do the difficult work of patience. And for these virtues there is no substitute for waiting in the upper room… No substitute for the irresponsible work of eating and drinking together, for fellowship.

Christ has come to us so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. The fullness of life is a shared life, one where we discover our humanity, the destiny of our self, as we are drawn out from the dellusive security of our broken castles and move towards a stranger—those strangers we don’t know, and those we think we know. Strangers like the one seated next to you. Even those strangers you call enemies.

Tags: sermons

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Mar 20, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    Two things:

    1. ‘celebrated disciplines’ do you speak in links? :) “And here I wrote out an HTML link to this Richard Foster book…” šŸ˜®

    2. “We think we know what we’re doing. We think we’ve got the Christian thing figured out. We’ve received the great commission; we’ve got our marching orders. We have our maps, our bible verse—we’ve got all that stuff memorized. We’re pretty confident that we know the way. We’re marching along in the Lord’s army. We’ve got our grand ideas about how to heal the brokenness, how to recreate Adam, how to create the perfect community.”

    I’m reading through and reflecting on Soren Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity right now for one of my grad classes. There’s a section about halfway through it where he talks about the “categories of offense” (that is, Christ being the person/object/thing/Being of offense). He criticizes those who try to create a direct communication to God, or think that all that God reveals is direct, without any kind of mediation (of, say, the ‘God-Man’, Jesus). Direct recognizability is an idol, but indirect recognizability is Jesus, because Jesus looked like just a man (when he wasn’t all transfiguring, I guess ;)), but he really was fully God and fully Man in a mysterious union (there’s a big word for that). We like to tell ourselves that we recognize God and have it all figured out, for certain. We know we’d recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but would we? I don’t know. I don’t mean to end despairingly, but I think it’s helpful to address our certainty in where we think Jesus is, or at least what we think this Jesus looks like. Surely he couldn’t look like our enemy…

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 2 Eric Lee // Mar 20, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Third thing: Yes, good sermon! Thanks for sharing, bro.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 3 isaac // Mar 23, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    Eric, thanks for checking out the sermon. I appreciate your encouragement.

    So, I just wrote this long response and just lost it!! Very frustrating. I was just saying how your comments are great and they got my wheels turning. Like the Kierkegaard quote. Great stuff. It reminds me of something I read just yesterday from Kierkegaard: “Humiliation belongs to him just as essentially as exaltation. in case there was one who could love him only in his exaltation—such a man’s vision is confused, he knows not Christ, neither loves him at all, but takes him in vain.” So, not only must knowledge of the true God pass through Jesus, like you said, but our journey into Jesus is not a comfortable passage. We have to squint and wrestle with an image that unsettles our perceptions. We want to see the glory of an exalted Jesus instead of the scandle of humiliation. Jesus is the way to the Father that makes us look into the “shit, straw and hay,” as Bono put it (look here).

    Ok, and that last bit about the enemy and how certain we want to be about what Jesus looks like, or what he doesn’t—that reminds me of something I read from Rowan Williams’ newer book, The True of God: “Only as each different ‘other’ becomes a friend and a member of the Body can we discern how the unity of the Body will look; we do not begin with a blueprint which is to be forced on the stranger, or even a timetable and a programme for how they must accept the gospel. It is a matter of look at the stranger with candour, patience and hope, in the trust that our common destiny can be uncovered by the grace of Christ.” (p.27) I think that says everything I tried to say, but he said it much better. It’s all about patience, and the hope that sustains the patient evangelical gaze at strangers, and those strangers we call enemies… those others who threaten life as we know it.

  • 4 Eric Lee // Mar 24, 2006 at 11:55 am

    Isaac,

    Cool stuff. Where is that bit from Kierkegaard from? That sounds a lot like what he is saying in Practice in Christianity, but the terms he uses there over and over again are “loftiness” (for exaltation) and “lowliness” or “abasement” (for humiliation). He says that to think we have to choose between Christ in his loftiness or Christ in his abasement is the wrong choice—the choice itself is Christ.

    That’s a sweet Rowan Williams quotation! Thanks for sharing.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 5 Eric Lee // Mar 24, 2006 at 11:58 am

    That last part about “the choice itself is Christ” sounds weird. It’s not the choice ITSELF that is Christ, it’s that Christ is the choice we must make, in Christ’s entirety. Kierkegaard is all about the “halt” and abrupt changes, about Christ presenting this halting choice that we must make. He argues this all against Hegel in mind, which talks about God working out God’s salvation in history slowly over time, little by little (I think). There’s a bunch of endnotes where the Hongs (the editors of this Princeton series) talk about these sections as jabs against Hegel. They don’t say ‘jabs’, but you know. :)

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 6 isaac // Mar 27, 2006 at 5:01 am

    Eric,
    The Kierkegaard quote is also from Practice from Christianity. But I don’t have the book in front of me so I can’t give page numbers. I have to admit, I found the passage as I was reading Bultmann’s commentary on the Gospel of John! Yeah, I still read Bultmann when I get a chance. That existentialism draws me right in. All that to say, I’m sure the differences between my “exaltation” and your “loftiness” are from different translators.

    On Rowan Williams. Seriously, every passage is right on the money. Pick up any book and you’ll see.