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“What does this mean?” | 23 May 2021 | Pentecost Sunday
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-10 Acts 2:1-13
Speaker: Joel Miller
The experience told in Acts 2 is remembered as a beginning.
It’s the day of Pentecost, one of three big pilgrimage festivals that brought Jews to Jerusalem, fifty days after Passover. Just as importantly for those in this story, that period of time was one of tremendous unknowing. One among their ranks, within the inner circle, had betrayed them and their leader. The person they had formed their lives around was dead, and although many of them had encountered Jesus in resurrected form, he was still gone, and there was no clear path forward.
The first chapter of Acts deals with these two matters. The disciples witness the resurrected Jesus taken up into a cloud and out of sight, gone from their midst. And the extended group that had been devoted to Jesus’ way, about 120 people we are told, men and women, choose another leader, named Matthais, to replace Judas.
Acts chapter 2 begins: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” And they..all could very well imply those 120 we were just told about. It’s a decent sized group, perhaps about the same size we are this morning, with our technological version of “all together in one place.”
What happens next is remembered as a beginning: A sound like the rush of a violent wind; divided tongues of fire appearing and resting on each one of them – each and every one of them. And then, as Acts describes, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the spirit gave them ability.” And unlike the ecstatic experiences of speaking in other tongues no one else can understand, like that described in 1 Corinthians 14 and the more recent Pentecostal movement, these other languages were actual human languages.
All those devout pilgrims from all corners of the ancient world who had made their way to Jerusalem for the festival hear the words these people are speaking, and understand them perfectly in their own native language. At which point the story launches into one of those Biblical lists of names that the lucky scripture reader of the day is never quite sure how to pronounce, to which my advice is always the same – just say it confidently and we’ll believe you. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, the list goes on. Everyone, in their own language, is understanding exactly what this bunch of Galileans are proclaiming, which makes it all the more interesting that the first thing that comes out of the listeners mouths as they look around at one another in amazement is the question “What does this mean?”
Well they knew what the words meant they were hearing. We were just told that. But really, what does that mean?
At a minimum, one would hope it means that the movement and institution that grows out of this event, the church, would never engage in anything even close to resembling settler colonialism, where we go to claim other people’s lands, convert them to our culture, and make them speak our language, so we can teach them what we know about God. Because this founding story of the church is all about other people coming voluntarily toward the group that represents the church, and those church people, inspired and energized by the Spirit, speaking the language of these pilgrims and seekers, converted toward their way of communicating, opening up the possibility of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural Hallelujah. How different would the church and this world be if the church had paid closer attention to the meaning of its own creation story?
This is a creation story, a birth story, a new beginning. And beyond that minimal takeaway of church as a peaceful distribution of Spirit, I’m also interested in the way this serves as a marker in time. Because along with it being the beginning of something, for those who experienced it, it was also just another day. A day preceded by other days, and followed by other days. In continuity with the past and the future. And at the time, probably just as bewildering for those gathered in that room as the previous 50 days had been, filled with unknowing, likely the question burrowing its way into the minds of those inside house, the same as the one on the lips of the pilgrims outside the house: What does this mean?
It's only in retrospect, looking back at this event with the perspective of time, that we can say what this means, that the church has got its start.
This angle of how we mark time and assign meaning to events is one I am carrying with me into the Sabbatical – which, if you haven’t yet heard, starts really soon. Like, in an hour an half!
I’ll be looking at ways we mark time through ritual, inspired by how we do this well for children and youth, and not so well for adults.
There are experiences we go through in adulthood that give us a pretty clear sense of before and after: A marriage or divorce, the birth or adoption of a child, the death of a spouse. A move for a job we’ve been pursuing. A cancer diagnosis. Retirement. Before. And after. These are a mix of things we choose and things that happen to us; a flame we carefully light and tend, or a rush of wind that comes in uninvited and scatters all the papers we had carefully organized on the desk.
Either way, just because they happen doesn’t mean we know what they mean. And not in a deep metaphysical sense, but in the sense of how one part relates to another. How the before informs the after, and what the after needs to hold on to and let go of from the before, in order to be a new beginning rather than just an ending. As in Acts, just because we live through a creation story doesn’t mean we actually know what we’re doing.
And, more to the point, lots of life’s transitions have no clear before and after markers. How do we honor these smaller seasons of creation that feel much more like the blurry line of fall giving way to winter, or winter transitioning to spring? Rather than instantly speaking a new language deemed profound by those eager pilgrims listening in, we more often mutter our way into an occasional new word that eventually adds up to a phrase whose meaning we still may not know.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has a beautiful line that relates to all this, using this metaphor of language. It comes from his book God in Search of Man:
In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase (p. 174).
I’ll say that again because the first time I encountered it I think I read over it about five times before it sunk in:
In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase.
Now I love Heschel and I love this quote, but I’ve also talked with enough people who might qualify as reaching the peak of years, or at least close to it, who say something to the effect of, you know, when I was younger I thought
I’d have things figured out by the time I reached the age I am now. To which most of them also add, But I think I know less now than I did then.
We accumulate experiences, relationships, and occasional insights which amount to something like scattered syllables.
Or, to borrow another metaphor from today’s readings, the Ezekiel passage, scattered bones across a valley. What might hold these bones together into a whole? Where are the ligaments, muscle and tendons, that turn scattered bones into a living being? Or, to go back to Pentecost and Heschel, how do these syllables and words come together so they mean something to ourselves and, bonus, others?
Taking our cues from Ezekiel and Acts we can say that parts coming together to make a whole, and the presence of meaning, is always a gift of the Spirit. It is the breath of God, the wind of God that stirs our scattered selves and brings together disparate, previously unrelated parts. In God, as displayed in Jesus, endings and beginnings hold together as one whole, death and resurrection are part of the same movement of the Spirit. Even a crucifixion story can become a creation story.
And as these scattered syllables find their way into a phrase or a sentence that has meaning, a hypothesis I’m taking me into this Sabbatical project, is that rituals provide the punctuation. Rituals that name and acknowledge and mark, rather than being one more syllable to make sense of, provide something like a comma. They give us a pause to catch our breath, to recognize a before and after, that also hold together as one.
Even this experience from Acts 2 as we observe it ritually each year on Pentecost Sunday, is a way for us to claim that the church was not and is not a creation out of nothing, existing apart from other creations, but that we are more like a phrase in a longer sentence that God is speaking. And even if our individual lives don’t make sense to us, perhaps it is because we are simply a syllable of a word of that phrase, and we can’t understand ourselves apart from the larger movement across time.
I’m looking forward to carrying these ideas into the Sabbatical project.
Thank you for being the church. And even if we don’t always know what that means, thank you for continuing to ask the question: What does this mean?