It was Pentecost yesterday; the 50th day of Easter. We wear red at our church to remember the tongues of fire coming down on the disciples. And it’s a day to remember the great diversity that God has made in this world, the many creatures and the many languages.
In our passage from John 14 read yesterday, Philip tells Jesus that he just wants to see God. Jesus response is pretty interesting, and so that’s where I went with my sermon.
Pentecost — Year C — May 19, 2013
Maya Angelou posted on Facebook this week, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” I needed this heartfelt reminder that we live in a world of abundance and beauty and of great variety opening up before us each morning. Birds and flowers and lakes and mountains. And God created all of it, even–as our Psalm informed us–that great Leviathan just for the sport of it, or, as the Message puts it, to be your pet dragon romping in the seas. Yet notice that the God of all creation doesn’t just fashion things and then walk away. The God of the universe provides for this creation. “All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.” God provides for this amazing creation. When God sends forth the Spirit—ruach in Hebrew, meaning “spirit, wind or breath”—the great variety in the world are created and have life.
Is it any wonder that on this day of Pentecost as we see God’s Spirit moving as wind and fire among the disciples that God’s message of salvation comes to all the people gathered in Jerusalem? Even more, the message comes not just in the local language—Aramaic—or the languages of commerce and government—Greek and Latin—but in a diversity of languages, a full representation of the world. While some thought that the second language skills of the Galilean disciples were enhanced by drinking some wine—which has not been my experience, by the way—it was God’s Spirit, God’s Wind, God’s Breath—“pnuema” in the Greek—that came to these disciples. It was the Holy Spirit coming to declare God’s love for all the world shown through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That declaration wasn’t just in the language of our schools and of our minds, but in the languages of our homes, the languages of our heart.
Just as God provides sustenance for the lions, for the rock badgers, and the salmon, God wants to provide life for us as well. The message of Jesus couldn’t be contained to the Jews living in the area around Jerusalem and up to Galilee. It had to be shared with the world.
This has become a bit of a thorny issue for some: how do we both live as Christians and share the good news of Christ while also respecting others and their religious beliefs? Living in a pluralistic world—and whether you like it or not, we do—can make us cautious and reticent in sharing our faith. Part of this comes from the fact that some Christians frame the question around the final destination of a person’s soul— they are doomed to hell unless we convert them to Christianity. Thankfully it is God who gets to determine all of that at the end of the age. But the response of many—and especially with those of us who worship in the mainline—is to espouse an almost universalistic approach with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality. We think that God can work in all the religions of the world and that in the end it doesn’t really matter.
But if it didn’t matter to God that the good news of Jesus be shared, then why did the Spirit come to the disciples on that Pentecost so long ago and give them this supernatural ability to speak in other languages? If the Parthians and Medes and the folks from Lybia and Crete didn’t need to hear God’s message, if they were just fine living their lives as faithful and devout Jews, why would the Spirit have come in that particular way? Surely the Spirit could have come and been with the 120 or so disciples gathered in that place without this tongues business. The Spirit could have invigorated their lives without the proclamation of God’s wondrous news. But God wanted the message of good news to be proclaimed to the whole diverse and wonderful world. And notice how this happens, the Spirit of God comes, the disciples speak in other languages, and then the crowd asks, “What does this mean?” Through their question Peter shares the message of Christ. Peter gives meaning to the experience, and the good news is shared.
In a few moments we will reaffirm our baptismal vows (with Brody and Liam who will be affirming them for the first time), and one of the questions we will be asked is this: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” If all we are concerned about is padding the numbers of our church, then this endeavor will ultimately fail. If all we are concerned about is doing good works without connecting them to our hope in Christ, then this endeavor will ultimately fail too. Instead we are to declare the Good News of God in Christ: that the God of the Universe, the God who created all, wants to take part in our story. God wants to show us how our stories become a part of the larger story that God has been telling since the foundation of the world. There is more to our lives than just the day in and day out, God brings about transformation in the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus both taught and healed; he shared the good news in word and deed. We are called to do likewise, to share our faith by what we say, and by how we live our lives.
But what about sincere people of other faiths? There is the famous story of the blind men in a village who hear there is an elephant nearby. They go out to it since they have never encountered an elephant before and each feels a different part of the elephant to explain it. “It’s like a pillar,” says the one touching the leg. “No, it’s like a rope,” says the one grabbing the tail. “It’s a solid pipe,” says the guy touching the tusk. They all go around describing the different parts: ear and belly and trunk as best they can. They get into an argument about it, each certain that they know what it is until finally a wise man comes by and tells them they are all right, that they have all just experienced a different part of the animal.
This story often gets told to show that God is revealed to everyone, that no single religious faith has the market on God. However, as theologian Leslie Newbigin declares, that misses the point entirely. If there was no wise man who has seen the elephant then they would still be in the dark, there would be no story. If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (as he tells the disciples in the verses just before our reading from John), then we, as his followers, have seen the full elephant. That does not mean we understand the elephant, nor that we have the market on what the elephant does or how the elephant works, but we’ve seen it. We can point to it.
That might sound arrogant to some of you. Notice that Philip says the thing all of us long to say, “Lord, just show us the Father.” In other words, “We really just want to see the elephant, Jesus. Could you help us out?” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” he replies. “Do you want to see God? Look here; I’m right here in front of you.” I think what would be arrogant is to say something like this, “What you’re touching there isn’t an elephant at all, it isn’t God. Let me show you what an elephant is really like; I’ve got it hidden under this tarp over here. For a small fee, I’ll let you take a look.” What Jesus claims, and what we as his followers declare, is that he is the full revelation of God, of the Creator of the Universe. What God is like, how God acts in humanity is shown in the person of Jesus. And we are called to share the good news.
That good news is this: God longs to be in relationship with each of us, to become a part of our narratives as we find our way into God’s story. The God of the universe is robed in majesty and honor and glory, and the Creator cares deeply about each one of us. So let us treat others with dignity and respect, working alongside them for the common good of our world, and intentionally share with them our faith journeys and the way in which Jesus Christ has brought us fullness of life. That is our call as disciples. That is our call as Christ’s body. Amen.