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Sermon – May 23, 2010: Not on My Own Authority

Sermon for Sunday, May 23, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Not on My Own Authority

Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 14-17; John 14: 8-17

When I get to the local cell phone store the woman is already serving a customer, an

older guy with gray hair and glasses. She’s explaining something to him–it seems like he is

trying to set up a new account or a new phone or something. She sets him at a table and

tells him to enter some numbers and excuses herself to come wait on me.

She is on the computer asking me questions and things, and we both overhear the

old guy in the rear of the room sounding baffled. She looks over. “What’s the matter?” she

asks, and the guy sheepishly–because he seems like a nice man and he knows it’s my

turn–admits that he can’t do this programming thing. So she calls out to him, to coach him,

and asks, “What’s your PIN?” The man looks up and says “Nineteen fifty-six.”

“Nineteen fifty-six?!” I think to myself. This old guy’s a year younger than I am. I

look at him more carefully, trying to notice how young he really looks, how relatively unlined

his face is, and another customer comes in. This is a man about our age, I’ll say now. His

hair’s thin on top but still dark, his face is deeply lined, he’s wearing glasses. She tells him

she’ll be with him soon, and she and I get through most of our business, but I still have a

few questions but think, “Hey, I sort of interrupted that other guy when I got here, and I can

wait a few minutes while she takes care of this man”–because he says it’s a billing question

and I reason that it can’t take forever. And it doesn’t take forever, but yet another man

comes in in the meantime. He’s young-looking, trim and wiry, and wears his hair just a little

long, but it’s all gray. He’s no kid either, and I don’t get a chance to see what’s going on with

him because it’s my turn again, and he is still there when I leave.

I’ve noticed something by now. The place doesn’t have any customers who aren’t

middle-aged, at least not most of the time. The generation for whom cell phones and all that

stuff is second-nature doesn’t do business like this, they go on line–probably from their

phone–and make decisions and purchases and get the information they need. That works

for them. They speak a language of symbols and abbreviations and numbers which

doesn’t make sense to me, or to the guy born in 1956, and all the gray-haired guys who are

taking advantage of this new technology still go to a physical place and speak with a human

being face-to-face. That’s how communication happens for us. The nice lady at the cell

phone store speaks our language.

The miracle in the Pentecost story is about people from all over the world

discovering that the good news of Jesus Christ is in their language. It gets communicated to

them, it reaches them, the message makes it across that barrier of strangeness and being

foreign and they’re given the opportunity to believe.

I don’t come from a tradition of charismatic gifts like “speaking in tongues” so I may

have this wrong, but if I do, I think most people have it wrong. The people who call

themselves “Pentecostals” because they speak ecstatically in a moment of spiritual

enthusiasm seem focused on the speaking. The phenomenon of tongue-trilling and

vocalizing unintelligible torrents of sound is an authentic sign of spiritual transport, known in

Islam and other traditions as well as in Christianity, and maybe that’s what it sounded like in

the room with those disciples at the first Pentecost.

That, however, is not the miracle. The miracle of the first Pentecost is not for the

disciples and it’s not to the disciples. It’s given to the passersby who encounter the event,

and it is for them. Each of them hears, in his own language, the good news of what God has

accomplished. That’s the point of Pentecost. Pentecost is about the revelation of God in

Jesus Christ bursting the bonds of particular time, place, culture and custom and finding its

way, by God’s supernatural intervention, to a wide world of those among whom the

disciples have gathered. It’s not really about the speaking so much as it is about the

hearing. It is the hearing which God achieves, by a miracle.

We know that the sudden speaking of the disciples wasn’t a matter of this one

speaking that person’s language and the next one over speaking this person’s language,

matching speakers inside to hearers outside one-to-one. Then the miracle would be one of

focus, of each stranger’s ability to distinguish the words he understood from all the ones he

couldn’t understand. There are others present who hear what’s going on as ravings, as

babblings, as senseless excitement. Those are the people whom Peter addresses

afterward, the people who can only think that the men making that uproar are drunk.

Some of that crowd will be converted secondhand by the miracle combined with

Peter’s preaching. Those aren’t the same people, however, who immediately get the

message of salvation, and who are so astonished at hearing the good news of Jesus Christ

come to them the way it does that they ask, “How is it that each of us hears in his own

language?” How indeed? It is the power of God to overcome obstacles and defy

reasonable expectations which connects those individual souls from all over the world with

the salvation accomplished for them by God.

We don’t need to read this story and get distracted by thinking about speaking in

tongues. We need to read this story and see that what God does is take advantage of

disciples gathering together, and people with an interest in God–because all these

outsiders are interested enough in God to have made long pilgrimages to Jerusalem for a

festival–in order to bless the people who are looking for God. The disciples are even

made to look foolish–people think they have been drinking and it’s midmorning–but that

doesn’t matter. Foolish-looking disciples, disciples who aren’t making much sense in human

terms, disciples who don’t know what they’re doing–God can still use them to bless people

outside the building who want to be blessed by God.

Does that make it more clear that there’s a miracle at work? When we think of it in

terms of God doing the world some good through followers of Jesus Christ getting

together, forming a congregation to mark a holy day, does Pentecost become more

astonishing? When we gather we know it does us good. It’s good to worship God and

keep our perspective by recognizing that we aren’t the greatest power there is, and keep

up our hope because we remember that God loves us. It’s good for us to encourage one

another by showing up, and showing that it’s important to attend to God–to reinforce the

damped-down flame of faith which has sent some soul to worship, who draws strength from

the faithfulness of others at worship. That does us good.

There may even be some mystical sense in which outsiders, passersby, people at

a distance are encouraged by believers getting together to believe together. A bigger

miracle comes at Pentecost, and that is that God outgrows the old holy day and God

outgrows the old holy people and God finds a way to reach people where they need to

be reached. Believers show up and God does the rest, and to some of you that may not

sound very responsible but it gives me hope. God is responsible, after all. That’s one of

the things which we believers who show up believe.

The reading from John’s gospel is about Jesus promising the Holy Spirit to the

disciples, and that involves miracles again. Jesus’ followers will perform miracles, those

who pray in the name of Jesus will get astonishing results, and again it is a matter of

miracles, of exceptions God makes to the way things usually go. God overrides the

common pattern of creation for God’s purposes, and the part the disciples seem to have in

that is merely to be receptive to God’s spirit. In other words, the disciples in John’s gospel,

just like the disciples in the book of Acts, become the occasion for God to do something

God wants which is something the disciples couldn’t do at all on their own.

God’s spirit is at work in the world. Even Jesus, in John’s gospel, is careful to

distinguish his own efforts, his own initiative, from what God is doing. He’s doing what God

wants, saying what God wants said. He does not act on his own authority–as the leader

and model for disciples he makes it clear that God has a way for the world to be, and it is

the part of those who take Christ’s part– it is us to us disciples–to accept that God will work

through us. That doesn’t give us much control to command, but neither does it give us much

power to prevent. The gift of discipleship is humble trust, and steady effort, and the payoff

for God is sometimes–in God’s time–for miracles to occur, which witness to who God is

and what God has done. Even what Jesus says in John’s gospel, which sounds like a

guarantee that we’ll get all we want through prayer, primarily is aimed at how our surprising

and surpassing works, and our faith in prayer, testify to the goodness and greatness of

God.

We would like to control the spirit, and the popularity of Pentecostalism for some

people must have to do with the joy of being able to elicit evidence of a divine world. The

true message of Pentecost, however, is that God’s spirit goes where it will, to achieve what

God intends, and that God can use even our weakness and confusion to put the spirit to

work, provided that we continue to meet together in response to our faith in God.

 

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