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Sermon by Ben Rudeen Kreider: Like the Howling of a Fierce Wind
The Membership Commitment of Columbus Mennonite Church begins simply and beautifully – The Spirit calls us from where we are…
Of course – it doesn’t stop there – but it does start there. Here. Where each of us are – in our different places…
As a newcomer to Columbus, a few weeks into my internship here with you all, I am beginning to figure out where I am. I discover via trial and error which roads connect to what, where is bikeable, walkable or drivable, where to get food, whose names go with which faces and stories in this church.
But this morning we are all here in this sanctuary, waiting, singing, praying, each in our own voice, placed in the pews and on Zoom, calling out to the name of the Lord.
The Spirit calls us from where we are.
The gathered Jesus-followers we meet at the beginning of our passage have been in Jerusalem. It was here that they met their resurrected Lord and friend. In chapter one of the Acts narrative – Jesus has left them with parting words that still ring in their ears:
“…for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…”
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And so, they have turned their eyes down from the sky where Jesus has just been taken up– and they descend the Mount of Olives, to a room in Jerusalem where they are gathered. There we are told, they “constantly devoted themselves to prayer.” This was not just the 11 disciples – but a crew of “about one hundred twenty persons” – men and women and all kinds of folks.
They get on with their business – in the wake of Judas’ betrayal and death they have a painful absence in their midst. Their process of discernment was to pray together and then cast lots. The lot landed on Matthias and he became one of the twelve. And as we encounter this group in Acts 2, they are gathered together for Pentecost Day.
Pentecost is a Jewish harvest festival, also called the Festival of Weeks, scheduled fifty days after the Passover, marking God’s gracious gift of the Torah to the people of Israel. There were Jewish people who spoke many languages from many lands across the scattered diaspora of the Roman empire. They both lived in Jerusalem and have traveled back for this Jewish festival. Similarly, these Jews following Jesus have also come together out of faithfulness.
The Spirit calls us from where we are.
I was asked this week, “How do Mennonite Christians experience the Holy Spirit?” In churches I have been a part of, there has been a high level of emphasis placed on communal discernment. In recognizing that the Holy Spirit is at work within each of us, we take time to sit around tables and listen and figure out together how God might be stirring us to act. This can be a beautiful thing as communities build power amongst themselves to work collectively. I can imagine you might be able to think of such moments in the life of Columbus Mennonite Church. And this kind of discernment can be slow.
What happens in our Acts 2 passage is not slow at all. Verse 2 jolts us
– “And suddenly there came a sound…”
Something happened that no formal process could contain. There were no membership guidelines to take up or to rescind, no resolution to the revolution that would erupt into their midst.
There was just that sound.
Like the howling of a fierce wind. Like the rush of a violent wind. And it filled the entire house, where all were sitting, and fiery tongues of flame rested on each of them.
As Mennonites we value nonviolence, but don’t be nervous about this forceful Spirit that comes both in power and in intimacy to those in Jerusalem.
Although the Jesus followers had experienced the resurrected Christ in the preceding days and had been gathering faithfully, praying together when he left them in body…our text makes no mention of their receptivity or responsiveness to the outpouring of the Spirit upon them in this moment. It just happened.
By the power of God’s gracious loving Spirit, they began to speak. Not in their own languages. Not in the Aramaic of Galilean inflection that rolled so easily off their tongues, but in languages of “every nation under heaven,” they spoke.
We aren’t given in our text any specifics about what they were saying. All we know is that they translated and proclaimed God’s deeds of power so that those outside that room might also hear. The holy cacophony that erupted was not of people shouting over each other in the same language – but was an outpouring of diverse languages - all testifying to the power of God. As one commentator puts it, those filled with the Spirit are speaking “not in the language of empire - but in the language of the people subject to empire.” For three straight verses our text lists out the far-flung places from where people have come and now hear words spoken in their own native language. These lands listed stretch from modern day Italy and Libya, Egypt to Iraq, Syria and Turkey and Israel and Palestine.
To be human is to be intimately bound up with language, with communication, whether spoken, signed, typed, drawn, or shown. Our mother tongues are those songs, stories, gestures and acts of love that our dear caretakers surrounded us with from our earliest days. We yearn for benedictions that will wrap us in love in the twilight days of our life. Language, in all its forms, is life – and its meaning is tied to place, people, story.
I am not good at learning to speak new languages. During the year I lived in Honduras with Mennonite Central Committee’s SALT program, hard as I tried to progress in my Spanish, friends would say to me – “Ben, you are speaking Spanish words, but we can tell you are still thinking in English.” Indeed, I was.
It is so hard to learn a new language. Self-forgetfulness seems crucial to get over those initial hurdles. Discovering a love for the language means finding unexpected joy in its rhythms, history, and people. And following our scripture text in Acts - baptism into the Holy Spirit’s tongue-loosening power is the most direct path to fluency.
The Spirit calls us from where we are…
And that means that the Spirit of God needs to be able to speak to us in the language we call our own.
Last weekend, I traveled with other CMC folks to the Special Delegate Assembly for our denomination, Mennonite Church USA. The most intensely discussed item was the Resolution on Repentance and Transformation. Written by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group, this resolution apologized for past harms to queer folks, rescinded the Membership Guidelines that had previously punished pastors and congregations who performed queer weddings, and implemented formal representation for queer folks in denominational leadership. While Mennonites emphasize the priority of the congregation in how we organize ourselves, this resolution was setting the Mennonite Church as a denomination on a path to LGBTQ inclusion.
A week ago today, as the votes were being counted for this resolution, we sang songs as we waited tensely for the totals to come back. Groups turn to what they know in times of waiting or stress. But I found myself wondering what it would have felt like to just sit there… in the murmuring and whispering, the rustling papers and anxious shifting, the audible praying and the centering breaths.
We return to what is most familiar in times of uncertainty. In our text, the Jesus-followers living in the wake of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, were also dwelling in uncertainty as they prayed and gathered together. Even when we want to rely on the things that seem tried and true, the Spirit is filling the houses where we sit with holy fire, dancing above and within us.
The Resolution for Repentance and Transformation passed 55% in favor, 45% against.
For many years, our denomination has not formally acknowledged the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on queer people, gifting them for ministry. So even though this resolution’s passing brings joy, it may also be a sorrowful joy, as we think all those folks forced out, excluded, dismissed, and wounded by the church. Yet it matters, that we as a denomination extend not just apology and lament, but also blessing and joyful support to the work of the Spirit in our queer siblings who have preached and prophesied, who have testified in their lives to the goodness and power of God. I give thanks for that work here at Columbus Mennonite. I give thanks for queer friends, seminary colleagues, and siblings in Christ who help me see God.
Those watching and listening in Jerusalem tried to make sense of what was unfolding. Some sneered…saying that noisy shenanigans was the work of drunk folks, filled with new wine. Peter offered a defense against this claim of drunkenness, with a dose of humor, for it was only nine o’clock in the morning and the Holy Spirit was the only thing being poured out.
Peter then launched into his own long sermon, which we heard only just the beginning of today. He quotes the prophet Joel, describing the inbreaking and apocalyptic day of the Lord where God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh.
We may be tempted to hear such a text as a sort of divvying out of holy power, spread around to all sorts of people. But this inbreaking of God’s good news transforms the human hierarchies which seek to dominate and exploit. The young see visions and the elders dream dreams, gender identities are no limit to whom the Spirit gifts, the oppressed in particular, prophesy, because of the outpouring of the Spirit upon them. This is the Lord’s great and glorious day! Our conceptions of literacy and ability, gender and status, fluency and freedom, are reworked and reimagined, scoured and melted by the fierce wind and flickering flames of the Spirit.
Like the crowds drawn together in Jerusalem because of a holy noise, whether we are from Cyrene or Cincinnati, Cappadocia or Columbus, we can testify that we have heard those around us speaking God’s deeds of power.
Of course, the Spirit’s work goes beyond just speaking. Peter’s sermon continues in Acts chapter two, and it’s a beautiful sermon, telling the story of Jesus life and resurrection by God’s power. The Spirit continued its work, not just in the ecstatic early morning multilingual proclamation and Peter’s scriptural speech, but in what followed – some three thousand folks joined the fold that day, and they broke bread and prayed, they sold their possessions, and distributed to all who had need. They sought the goodwill of all people.
This too was, and is, the Spirit’s work, embodying the kin-dom of God.
We don’t do this journey alone. A community of faith is itself a gracious gift. God’s outpouring of the Spirit enables all people to hear the goodness of God, from the richness and beauty of where they are.
A church awash with prophecy might be louder and messier than we are prepared for. A priesthood of all believers might mean we have to look around and listen more carefully. But we need our children’s prophecies, our young folks’ visions of God’s goodness, and our elders’ dreams of peace for those future generations. For with the Spirit is joy and life, creative power that made and remakes our world over and still broods within each of us. By the power of the Spirit, again and again, the love of God is translated and retranslated, communicated to each community to hear and see and touch and know as their own.
The Spirit makes possible the gift of community. This is not about building some perfect church, but it’s about a people on fire, a world awash in the gracious, loving, and holy Spirit of God.
Pentecost is a powerful and intimate miracle and community is a gift of grace.
Because we belong to God, the Holy Spirit is a gift to us all. Thanks be to God.