“Oh, No”.

Text: Acts 2: 1-21: Pentecost

 

 

Kate Huey wrote of our story from the Acts of the Apostles: it must have felt like creation all over again, with wind and fire, and something new bursting forth. Then there was the amazing linguistic experience of speaking in other languages yet being understood by people of many different languages and lands, the names of which represented the known world at that time and have caused no small concern to worship leaders in every time. No matter: in that moment, all the people were one in their hearing, if not their understanding of the deeper meaning of what they heard. Despite their differences, they could all hear what the disciples were saying, each in their own language. Fire, wind, and humble Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place.


 

 

I need to thank Tom Woodward, a retired Episcopal Priest, for sharing this exercise.  I want you to try and guess Robert Creeley’s title for this poem from his collection For Love: Poems 1950-1960:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit

 

for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places

 

Is Creeley’s poem about heaven?  Maybe “Eternity” came to your mind. But Creeley’s title suggests that from his perspective what he describes is far from a celestial vision: he calls the poem “Oh, No.”

 

I’ve heard it from many who question whether heaven as popularly  understood and described is any place they would want to be.  The whole idea of sitting in a nice rocking chair for eternity surrounded by family and friends all with the same innocuous smile on their celestial faces seems a bit too saccharine.   Creeley’s  “Oh, No” is a response to circumstances of boredom or death. What a shock it is to get the sense of the poem so very wrong.  But what’s worse is the tragedy that such dynamic, life-filled realities as resurrection and eternity can be so easily transformed by our religion into just their opposites! The dynamism of Pentecost has been domesticated by our culture. The peculiar power of Pentecost, which had to do with giving visible shape to the prophets’ vision of the people of God, is now heard in tamer tongues by the church and has become about the warmth and reassurance of individual spiritual reveries. But when Jesus speaks about the coming of the one called the Comforter or the Advocate earlier in John 14, he is not talking about a security blanket.

 

In his Gospel, John describes that presence as the Spirit of Truth. According to John, Jesus walks into the middle of the fear of his disciples and he breathes on them. It was that simple — he merely breathes on them. He does not change their outward circumstance, but he does transform their fear and their isolation into something quite different — and it happened in another more dramatic telling, according to Luke in the Book of Acts, as the disciples were gathered together they were overcome with a power they could only describe as a rushing wind or as tongues of fire.

 

Two of the events which prefigured the disciples’ experience of Pentecost — namely the scattering of peoples into different voices and rival communities in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and Ezekiel’s story of the resurrection of the bodies of the slain soldiers in the Valley of the Bones (Ezekiel 37) — help us understand the heart of its meaning: the tearing of human community through confusion or violence is being replaced with the gifts of wholeness and hope.

 

That vision leads us to the second image that is also important in our Pentecost readings: Paul’s celebration of the varieties of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:4-13.

 

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

 

These gifts are not merely an infusion of personal warmth to get us through the night; they are gifts for the building up of the community, for the overcoming of isolation and fear, and for making our life in the church the kind of experience for others which the disciples had discovered for themselves. Think of the poor and marginalized crying out, “Good God, it is as though they hear and understand us in our own tongue!”

 

It is clear that the feast of Pentecost is a political as well as a religious feast. It witnesses to the prophetic vision of a world made whole and a people made whole. After reading the prophets and after standing in the tradition of Pentecost, the crucial question about my life can never again be “How am I doing?” It is “How are we doing?” The “we” will always be composed of those most different or most isolated from us.

 

Pentecost challenges us to ask, “How are we doing? How are we connected? How is our life changing, together? How is the face of Jesus Christ reflected in all that?” How about those Mesopotamians and Cappadocians and Phrygians? Have you ever seen anything like it?

 

In Pentecost the fears of the present somehow get swallowed up in the hope of what we are privileged to seek — and the isolation we had experienced dealing with all those difficult differences has given way to learning to speak the common language given us at Pentecost. Howard Thurman, a black theologian who visited while I was in seminary wrote: Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. To paraphrase Robert Creeley:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit

in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will all be just itching
to get out of those chairs and into the streets
laughing and loving and doing whatever it takes …
for the long haul.

 

 

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