Wind and Flame
On Thursday afternoon I stood on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse with several dozen other members of the clergy at a press conference and rally to demand that Senator Rob Portman vote no on the American Health Care Act when it comes up for a vote in the Senate. To any seasoned observer of the political landscape of our nation, steeped as we are in cynicism and ideological gridlock, it seemed like an uphill battle, if not a quixotic charge at a whole brigade of windmills. We all know where Mr. Portman stands on these issues, and he is not going to be swayed by reasoned arguments or moral suasion. We were surely wasting our time.
But the headline speaker at the press conference was Dr. William Barber, one of the founders of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and a powerful Pentecostal preacher. He had flown to Columbus to participate in this action, having just got out of jail for an act of civil disobedience in Raleigh. He stood at the podium, a towering hulk of a man, and called us all to believe that the improbable can happen. That change is possible. That miracles are possible.
Because of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove, because of the account of Jesus’s baptism, when the Spirit descends upon him in that form. But the manifestation of the Spirit that Luke recounts in chapter 2 of Acts bears little resemblance to a meek and peaceful bird with an olive branch in its beak. The Spirit that comes at Pentecost is more like a fierce bird of prey, an eagle or falcon swooping down, inspiring fear in the hearts of the rabbits, mice, and lesser birds upon whom her shadow falls. Luke describes the Spirit’s coming as a violent rush of wind and a fire that sweeps through the room where the disciples are gathered and divides into tongues of flame that settle upon each of them.
If you have ever been anywhere near a tornado or hurricane or forest fire, you can imagine the fear that this advent must have inspired. Then, as if the wind and flame are not enough, this motley group of Galilean peasants and fisherfolk begin speaking in languages that none of them has ever heard before, let alone studied, so that pilgrims visiting Jerusalem from all over the Jewish Diaspora can understand them clearly.
We may have become so familiar with this story that it fails to impress us anymore, but that is not the case for these witnesses. Luke says the crowd is “bewildered” and “amazed and astonished” (vv. 6, 7). In our day “amazing” has become almost as commonplace and annoying an overstatement as “awesome,” and it usually indicates delight—“That ice cream cone was amazing!”—but here in Acts it’s not an unambiguously positive feeling. The amazement and astonishment of the crowds is more akin to religious awe and terror than delight. These people feel like the rabbit under the shadow of the diving hawk.
The pilgrims are gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, or Shevuot, a Jewish observance originally tied to the cycles of the agricultural year but that by the time of Jesus has become a celebration of the giving of the law. With that in mind, it would be helpful to recall the phenomena that accompanied that event, as described in the book of Exodus. Before God delivers the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah to Moses, God descends on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the Israelites. In Exodus 19 we read, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.… Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently” (Exod 19:16, 18). The coming of God, at Sinai or in the upper room, is nothing to be sneezed at.
On Easter Sunday I preached a sermon called “Earthquakes,” and talked about the way the resurrection serves as a seismic event in individuals’ lives, in the church, and in history. I commented that if the resurrection does not leave any rubble in its wake, if it does not disturb and disrupt your life, you probably haven’t really experienced it. The same can be said of Pentecost. The wind that sweeps through the room is a terrifying gale; the flames that settle on the disciples’ heads have the capacity to start a great conflagration. In fact, the group empowered and emboldened by this wind and flame will be accused just a few chapters later of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Can the same thing happen in our time? Can we turn the world upside down? As I stood on the steps of the Statehouse on Thursday, I wondered about the likelihood of Rob Portman changing his mind about health care. On Friday, as I read and watched the news that President Trump is withdrawing US participation from the Paris climate agreement, I wondered if we will ever stop speeding toward the brink of environmental ruin. As I have learned the details of Trump’s proposed budget, with its needless increases for military spending and draconian cuts to social programs that benefit the poor, I began to wonder if our country and the world can survive his presidency, let alone make any progress on behalf of justice, human rights, and ending poverty. The forces arrayed against the church seem daunting, sometimes nearly overwhelming. It seems foolish even to ask if we have the capacity to turn the world upside down.
And on our own merits we don’t have that capacity. Peter and James and Mary and Paul didn’t have that capacity, either. What they had was the wind of the Spirit pushing them along and the flame of the Spirit burning in and through them. Last week we heard Jesus tell the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they received power from on high, so that’s where we find them as this passage opens: gathered together, waiting and praying, not knowing quite what to expect but preparing themselves to act when the time came. When the Spirit blows like a gale through the building and kindles holy fire within them, they surrender to her wildness and let themselves be swept along wherever she will take them. That is what turns the world upside down.
In John 3 Jesus says of the Spirit that the wind blows where it will, and we would do well to remember that we cannot exercise any control over what God wishes to do in the world. Our choices are to join in the movement or stand clear. God desires our cooperation, but will not wait for us to get our act together. God is perfectly willing to act outside the boundaries of what we consider orthodox or acceptable. When we cooperate with the Spirit in her work, we get to be among those who are turning the world upside down—we get to play a vital partnership role in that world-flipping—but we must remember that the power belongs to the Spirit, and if we hold back she will turn to another quarter to find partners and we will miss out on the adventure of a lifetime.
On Thursday evenings our Bible study group is reading and discussing Weird Church, the book that members of the Council of Ministries and a few others studied during Lent. The authors of the book talk a great deal about churches’ need for discernment to discover where God is already at work and to join in. The Holy Spirit is not at rest—the wind is always blowing somewhere; the fire is always at least smoldering, ready to leap into full flame when the time is ripe. Our task is to find where it’s happening and make ourselves available for the Spirit’s purposes. Like the disciples, we need to be waiting, praying, listening, and watching, ready to spring into action when we see the Spirit moving.
During our discussion the other night, we decided that one of the tasks of UBC or any church moving forward into the future is to distinguish between what is essential and what is peripheral. The non-negotiable elements of church, such as worship, service, hospitality, and so on, may get expressed in different ways in different times and contexts, and our task is to decide what is an essential function and what is a dispensable form we use to carry out that function. Our tendency, unfortunately, is to identify the form with the function so that we can’t imagine carrying out the function in any other way. Worship is essential, but singing hymns with piano or organ accompaniment may not be. Maintaining community and practicing hospitality are essential, but having a fixed location and owning a building and grounds may not be. Distinguishing in this way between the necessary and the optional will help us open our minds to new and unfamiliar—in other words, weird—ways of being church that might work better in the coming years.
Discussing these issues led us to another, broader question: “What is the purpose of the church?” We talked about it for a while, and I heard some very good answers about love, inclusion, community, and so on. But I was looking for something that took in all these elements and more. The simplest formulation I have yet been able to come up with for the essential purpose, the raison d’être, of the church is twofold: the church is to be a colony or outpost of the kingdom of God and a delivery system for the gospel. I believe that these twin purposes cover a lot of ground, and therefore can serve as the touchstone we need to help us differentiate between what is essential and what is not.
To say that the church is an outpost of the kingdom, or reign, of God is to say that our purpose is to live out the principles of God’s reign in what is essentially enemy territory. Right in the heart of the Domination System, the church is to embody the justice, compassion, equity, and reconciliation that Jesus came to live and teach. The church is to live by the values of God’s reign—the countercultural values of servant leadership, sharing, debt forgiveness, and radical hospitality. That’s what the Jerusalem disciples did in the wake of their Pentecost experience. That’s what led to the charge that they had turned the world upside down.
To say that the church is a delivery system for the gospel is to say that the things we do and say, every activity we pursue and stance we take, must reflect the good news of Jesus Christ. If we do anything that fails to communicate the gospel or, worse, that serves as a stumbling block to others’ being able to hear and receive that good news, we must eliminate it with extreme prejudice. It means, further, that our goal should be to remain flexible and lithe, never becoming wedded to any one way of carrying out our task of communicating the gospel. The moment any of our methods or tactics becomes ineffective or obsolete, we should jettison it in favor of something that does the task better.
That’s what the Jerusalem disciples did after the Spirit’s wind and fire overwhelmed them at Pentecost. The traditional name of the book of Acts is the Acts of the Apostles, but it’s really the Acts of the Holy Spirit, who repeatedly eliminates obstacles to the spread of the gospel and the advance of the reign of God. The disciples have to continually reassess their methods, presumptions, and prejudices as the Spirit leads them out of their safe and familiar enclaves into encounters with Hellenists, Samaritans, God-fearing Gentiles, and finally full-on pagans, demonstrating at every turn that the gospel, the kingdom, and the grace of God is for everyone. Every one. No exceptions. No exclusions.
The song the Found Cats sang earlier captures that point explicitly and profoundly. Gays and lesbians, demagogues and thespians. Sex offenders, tax collectors, war vets, and rejects. Blue collars, white collars, warmongers, and peaceniks. Meat eaters and wife beaters. Racists and sadists. Xenophobes and chauvinists. Foreigners and aliens. Artists and pornographers. All and sundry. Every single one is invited to breathe deep the breath of God.
Some of those mentioned in the song may feel right to us. We may identify with one or more of those categories ourselves. Others we may find questionable, even offensive. Why should a sex offender or a homophobe be invited to breathe the same breath of God that we breathe? We might add still other groups not mentioned in the song. Terrorists and arms dealers. Patriots and pension stealers. Republicans and Democrats, Trumpists and Bernie-ites. Israel and Palestine, Wolverines and Buckeyes. Breathe deep the breath of God. Get swept up in the howling wind of God’s Spirit. Be consumed in God’s holy flame. Come from east and west and north and south to feast together at God’s banquet table. With us. All of us. Together. No exclusions, no exceptions.
Talk about the world being turned upside down!
As I stood there on the steps of the Statehouse Thursday afternoon, my cynical side was doubting that anything we could say or do would ever convince the Rob Portmans and Donald Trumps and Paul Ryans of the world to support universal health care or fight climate change or value the welfare of the poor over tax cuts for the rich. But as Dr. Barber continued speaking, I felt something loosen up inside, and hope started to win out over cynicism. In his soaring yet grounded rhetoric he told the Pentecost story and called on all of us to go out into the world and speak in tongues. Not the unknown tongues of ecstatic worship, but the nearly forgotten tongues of morality and religion, of right and wrong, of sin and virtue. He encouraged us to speak the truth and not shy away from naming evil when we see it. He said he could feel the wind of the Spirit blowing, and he urged us to raise our sails to catch that wind and let it carry us along into the future of God’s desiring. To surrender ourselves to God’s plan to turn the world upside down. As he spoke, I could begin to feel the wind blowing myself.
Can you feel that wind today? Can you see the flames of the Spirit dancing about this sanctuary? Do you hear the wind blowing through this community? Listen! That’s the breath of God.