Preached at St. Luke’s Brownsville, MD. Texts: Genesis 11, Acts 2, John 14
It’s great to be back at St. Luke’s today! Thank you so much for having me again and this time, I happen to be fortunate to bring guests with me as well! After I visited here the first time, my schoolmates at Seminary asked me about your community, and one of the things I mentioned was how you and an African – American Baptist congregation were doing some great work with the less fortunate in the area. I mean, that’s really living the Gospel! Any time two very different communities come together to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, I have to think that must be God had in mind when he sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples on this day almost 2,000 years ago.
Such a thing is all the more remarkable when you hear about how polarized our nation has become. This self-separation into different affinity groups has been made quite easy by the Internet, for we can pick and choose what things we read and the people we listen to as never before. We have reached the point there is at least one online community which shares your own individual opinion on just about anything! What we don’t realize is that, over time, if all we read or hear is just what we want to read or hear, then it becomes all too easy to dismiss everything or everyone else. Sadly, this tendency will also translate from online into real life. It’s much easier to hang around people who share exactly the same points-of-view as we do, isn’t it? And before you know it, the more and more we surround ourselves with these “right kind of people,” the more we push out everyone else. And if we are not careful, we can start to become afraid of others because we have stopped trying to understand them.
Fear can play out in cultural contexts as well. How many of us can think of things we did in our childhood that we wouldn’t begin to consider letting our own children do today? Or when people from different cultures or speak different languages come in to the neighborhood, we might begin to feel a little tense as the world that we once knew is slipping away. That makes us afraid too; and whether or not that fear is justified, it is something real and something to be addressed. It is easy to be afraid of people who are different and pressure them into acting just like us so we will not feel uncomfortable. But, if we do that, we forget that all of us in all our differences and diversity are made in the image of God.
In the Old Testament, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. The peoples of the earth migrated out to the east and decided they wanted to build a city and a tower with its top stretching to the heavens. Usually this story is used as a lesson to watch out for our pride so as not to put ourselves above God, but if you read the text closely, the Problem of the People who built the tower of babel was not necessarily in pride or in actually building the tower. It was why they built the tower. They wanted to stay in one place and build walls around themselves so they wouldn’t be exposed to anything more than what they already knew. Genesis 11 says, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower … otherwise we shall be scattered abroad across the face of the earth.” They chose to trust in their own understanding instead of trusting God who wanted them to be fruitful and multiply across the earth. So you see, the Problem of Babel could be read as a people giving into anxiety and fear and holding on tight as a world they once knew was slipping away.
Now mind you, there are times when fear is justified. Our Gospel lesson for today comes from what is known as the Farewell Discourses of John. Here, Jesus is sitting with his disciples giving them last words of instruction and encouragement before he is arrested and taken away to be crucified. I would imagine that it was finally beginning to dawn on the disciples that Jesus really was about to be taken away from, and it is no wonder Jesus says to them, “Don’t be afraid!” I mean, what do you do when you realize that your friend, your teacher is about to be handed over to the Romans like a common criminal? What do we do in those times when we feel like that God is nowhere to be found and we feel abandoned?
But … there is Good News … Jesus says to us, there is always someone there to bring us comfort.
In the book of Acts, we read of an entire roll call of people from all across the globe who have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot, or Pentecost. This is the giving back to God from the first fruits of our harvest, but more importantly, it marks when God gave the law to Moses at Sinai … and now, in the book of Acts, God brings us another gift. While Jesus’ disciples were gathered together in a room, a sound like a mighty wind came and tongues like fire descended on people’s head. The Holy Spirit came upon these people of God and they began to speak in other languages. Sometimes this story is called a reversal of the curse that came upon humanity at the Tower of Babel, but I would dare to say that’s not quite right. At Babel, God caused people to speak in different languages partly because they chose to stay put and build walls and towers for themselves. Now, if Pentecost were the reverse of Babel, people would find themselves speaking one language again, but that’s not what happened. At Pentecost, people find they are able to talk with people of different cultures and languages as if they were talking to someone they grew up with all their lives. It would be like going to France or China, and you would find yourself able to hear and understand what people are saying without having learned the first word. Instead of being driven apart, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit draws us together in mutual understanding. The Good News of Pentecost is that our fallen humanity is being restored by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is that same Spirit that moved over the face of the deep at Creation, the Spirit which caused Mary to become pregnant and bear the Son of God, and it is that Spirit who is now given to us.
Now some people in the book of Acts are not OK this development, for we read the group of disciples were accused of being drunk at 9am (which if we were living in my home of Key West, would be completely possible!). But Peter steps in and says to the crowd, “No these people are not drunk. This is the promise of God that was given long ago for as the prophet Joel says … “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh … and … everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved.”
At Pentecost, the Word of God is heard, the Spirit of God is given, and the community and communion which God desires for all of us is now made real. The day the prophet Joel spoke of is here, and it has dawned in the person of Jesus, whose passion and love and Spirit creates friends and family where only strangers stood before. The beauty of Pentecost is that by being united in Christ’s love we don’t have to all be the same living in gated communities and like islands unto ourselves.
Before he was crucified, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit will be the one to guide us into all truth and cause us to remember everything that Jesus said after he died. And when Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven, he gave us that promise again. When Jesus tells us the Holy Spirit will cause us to remember what Jesus did and said it is with the intention that in our remembering we will model our own lives and our own community to the way that Jesus lived and taught. If you read your Bible, you will find that anytime God remembers someone or something, God ACTS. He remembered his people in Egypt and sent Moses to lead them out of bondage and into the promised land. God remembered Noah and brought him and his family to safety and gave the promise of the rainbow.
As God remembers his people, we are to remember Jesus … how he lived, what he taught and what he did … as we remember Jesus like God remembers His people, we are to reach out those who are hungry, those whom society says are unwanted or not good enough, those who are cold and those who might be lost, alone and afraid. To step outside of the gated communities and towers with walls that we have built for ourselves and go out into the world proclaiming and showing the world that there is a God who loves us and cares for us. A God who wants us to realize that we all really do need each other after all.
It is no accident that we use the language of family to describe the fullness of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit … a divine community … a divine family. The fullness of our humanity is made known when we work and act as if we all love and need each other, just as the fullness of God is known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Genesis, we read of how God created Eve alongside Adam because God saw that it was not good for us to be by ourselves. We are created to live in community and communion with each other. The Good News I have for you today is that when we are living as the people that God has called us to be, we can set the world on fire just as surely as the fire of the Holy Spirit came down from heaven on that day.
There is more than bravery and boldness that comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit … Jesus said to his disciples, “Peace I leave you … my peace I give to you.” Sometimes it seems as if there is a lot of reasons to be afraid in this sad, tragic world we live in. It is no wonder that with all the wars and rumors of wars we long for peace. Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can know peace … and joy … and love. Because of the Holy Spirit, we know of the peace of God as something more than a lack of fighting or war or hostility … the peace of God that passes all understanding which Jesus promised is the peace that comes when we trust that God is in control. That God loves us. We rest in the assurance that God knows us, each and every one. And that God who knows us and loves us is always with us, and he will never let us out of the palm of his hand or leave us alone.
Here again the words of the Gospel … “If you love me, keep my commandments … and I will pray that the Father will send you another Comforter, who will abide with you forever. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled; let them not be afraid.”