Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022 (Part Two)

Karoline Lewis suggests, in Sermon Brainwave podcasts, that we preachers need to “pick our Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost. In light of the significant differences between the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, that suggestion makes good sense. Nonetheless, it also strikes me that the accounts have something significant in common.

Both the Acts 2 account and the Johannine story have the same basic players in narratives involving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, we are reminded in clear and graphic terms that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and suffered a gruesome and guilt-wracked death. In the Johannine account, we read about the Paraclete after Judas has exited the scene to hand Jesus over.

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Peter preaches his great sermon in Acts 2. Yet, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. This is the same Peter who declares in the Johannine account that he will go and die with Jesus. Yet, when crunch time arrives, he declares with the same vehemence that his is not one of Jesus’ disciples. This is the same Peter who gets a great deal of bad press from Paul in Galatians. And this is the same Peter who needs rehabilitation and a new vocation in John 21.

The other disciples are also present in each of the scenes. These are the ones who questioned, doubted, and resisted Jesus’ message. They didn’t get it, even though others did. They jockeyed for position and power. They wanted to call down fire from heaven on recalcitrant Samaritans. They wanted to shoo away the needy and vulnerable from Jesus’ care and attention. They were flummoxed by the bread and terrified by the storms.

Whether we are in the Book of Acts or the Gospel of John, these are the folks who serve as the foundation of the Christian movement. They don’t seem to be the best choices for the job.

There is this old joke. Jesus has just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is hanging out with some angels on the clouds. They are looking down upon the earth.

 One angel says, “Lord, that was amazing; we thought you were a “goner”. We thought it was over. But then, you rose from the dead. You trampled death under your feet. You’ve defeated Satan! What’s next?” Jesus answered, “I left a handful of people who really believe in me, and they are going to tell the world about me and make disciples.”

The angels were stunned. They simply stared at Jesus. The silence got to the point of being uncomfortable. Finally, one angel tentatively asked, “Lord, what is Plan B?”

Jesus answered, “There is No Plan B”.

If I am going to preach on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in some way this Sunday, then certainly I need to make some choices. But if I’m going to focus on the ones whom the Spirit fills and sends forth into the world, I don’t need to make such choices. In each account it’s the same motley crew that makes up the first generation of the Church.

That fact gives me great hope — not because of the motley crew, but because of what the Spirit can do with such a questionable lot.

The institutional Christian church around the world is in deep distress at this moment. The Russian Orthodox church is a willing tool of the Russian imperial project (and hopes that project can be a tool for the resurgence of that church). The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in conflict and controversy after an independent report detailing the amount and frequency of sexual abuse on the part of SBC clergy and the lengths to which the church bureaucracy has gone to cover up both the abuse and the scandal. Already that bureaucracy is trying to tell us that there’s nothing to see here, but there is.

The statistical connection between White Christian evangelicals and both White Christian Nationalism and fostering gun violence is clear and shocking. No matter what other variables might be involved, the Evangelical movement is deeply implicated in the violent, anti-democratic, racist project that animates the current ideological Right in the United States.

I wish that my own theological tradition and its institutional expressions were exempt from the disaster and decay. The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is urging an LCMS college to take the opportunity during their presidential search to restore a theological commitment to white supremacy and political quietism. While he doesn’t use those words, that’s the impact of his instructions. There’s no concern about making the LCMS White again. The task is simply to keep the White people in charge.

The ELCA faces a developing crisis around the actions of the bishop of the Sierra Pacific synod. A report has come out in the last few days that details patterns of racism, abuse of power, and cover-up. The bishop in question has doubled down on the rightness of their actions and is supported by the majority of that synod’s governing council. In spite of the fact that the report recommended formal disciplinary action by the denominational bishop, that denominational bishop left the decision to resign in the hands of the alleged perpetrator. Now, the shit has hit the fan for the denomination. I suspect that the resignations which result will be multiple.

The ELCA’s largest seminary, Luther, has its own controversy. Students, joined by some faculty and staff, are pressing the seminary to engage in the process to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary – an institution that formally and fully welcomes, embraces, and includes members of the LGBTQIA+ community as students, faculty, staff, and candidates for rostered ministry. The seminary administration has engaged in bureaucratic sleight of hand and behind the scenes power plays to suppress this conversation and controversy. But the issue is not going to go away quietly, even though the end of an academic term may give the seminary a bit of breathing space.

I rehearse the previous paragraphs in part to get some of this garbage out of my brain for a few moments. As I reread this brief (and tendentious) account, I am tempted to despair of any hope for the institutional church. I, too, would like to know if there’s a Plan B. And I sigh with the knowledge that there is not.

Then I look in the mirror and am reminded that this is not merely about that terrible Church “out there.” I am ashamed of large parts of the institutional church at this moment. I also know that at times that church has had good reason to be ashamed of me as well. Just as I bemoan the self-serving mediocrities that we find in leadership in my own and other denominations, I remember that I have spent time as a similar self-serving mediocrity when faced with real challenges in the church and the world. The brickbats I throw at church leaders routinely bounce back and hit me as well.

I don’t remember this merely to write off the bad behavior of the institutional church under the cheap grace of “all have sinned,” etc. No, church leaders and structures are currently accelerating the already troubling decline in church structures and systems we have know for several generations. The prediction that the ELCA may disappear as a functioning entity by 2050 seems more real and likely at this moment than it did a year ago.

All that being said, I think about that first Pentecost and the characters who were filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the real miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit can take such characters and build a church at all. If that is the real miracle of Pentecost, then that miracle is not a one-off affair. Instead, that Pentecost miracle continues to happen day in and day out, week in and week out, in our communities of faith. I know many, many competent and committed Christians who engage in works of justice, love, and mercy in the name of Jesus. But even the best of us are broken, fallible, and afraid. Yet, the Spirit continues to build and to use the Church.

The Book of Acts reminds us, of course, that some sorting is necessary for the life and health of the Church. We should never preach the joy of Pentecost without recalling the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira, for example. I suspect that many of the leaders I mentioned above will not be part of how the Church moves forward in mission, in light of the mistakes and malfeasance of the past and present. But the Spirit will find others to take up the cause.

Here, perhaps, is the place to move to the Romans 8 passage. Whether we describe the Spirit in terms of Acts 2 or John 14, the result of that endowment is the courage to live and act as children of God, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” God sends the Holy Spirit so that the Church may continue the work of Christ in the world and to do “greater works” still. That all happens, not because anyone is particularly competent or qualified. Rather, that all happens because the Spirit makes it so.

There is hope for us yet.

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Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022

If there is any historical moment that demands some homiletical work on the ethnic diversity in Acts 2, this is the time. The “Great Replacement Theory” of White Supremacy is in the headlines. States continue to pass laws banning the discussion of racism as a central feature of American history under the façade of opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory. White Christian Nationalism is no longer a construction of the lunatic fringe, hiding in the intellectual and informational shadows. It is now a talking point for a number of local, state, and federal candidates for elected office.

These ideas are embodied in individual and institutional lives, and on the basis of these ideas, people are being murdered.

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We all know that we prefer to gather with people “like us.” That’s been demonstrated in numerous psychological and sociological experiments and studies. The “us” that we are “like” is a socially constructed reality. Race, class, gender, generation, national origin, political affiliation, and other differences are things that at some point did not exist as they are now. Therefore, these realities were created, not discovered. What can be made can be unmade as well, even if that unmaking is difficult.

We prefer to gather with people “like us” especially when that gathering supports and enhances our self-interest. We tend to gather in ways that promote our power and privilege. Then we tell stories to account for the “like” and “unlike” we have constructed – stories that root our power and privilege either in our natural superiority, the natural inferiority of the “unlikes,” and/or some combination of both. The historic construction of Whiteness in the Enlightenment era West is a textbook example of the formation of such a story.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 is all about embracing and celebrating our God-created differences. It is a text that rejoices in all the “unlikes” who hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Temple that day. I would encourage you to read and reflect on Eric Barreto’s article at enterthebible.org as you prepare for this Sunday. I want to engage in a bit of that reflection here as well.

“Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease,” Barreto writes, “when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses,” he argues, “are earnest but fundamentally misguided.” I’m not so sure about the “earnest but misguided” piece.

I have served my entire adult life in a denomination which has expressed that hope for the disappearance of differences in a variety of ways. There was a time when my denomination aspired to have one in ten of its members to be BIPOC (although the term wasn’t current thirty-five years ago). What we should have known and only gradually admitted was that this was an assimilationist and colonialist strategy.

The ten percent solution, if it had come to pass, would have provided an ideological salve to the consciences of White Lutherans who knew that our segregationist history and practices were contrary to the inclusive nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This solution would have been just enough “diversity” to meet our institutional needs but not enough to bring about even a small bit of transformation.

An incarnation of this Whiteness protection strategy was the effort to launch and plant ethnic-focused ELCA congregations in communities of color. These projects were required to conform to the standards of the White power structure of the denomination and to operate according to the neoliberal economic model of financial self-sufficiency within three years (or else). Those congregations formed in economically oppressed communities that could not meet the financial independence standard were either shuttered or regarded as embarrassing liabilities.

I write this as one who has participated in efforts to achieve the ten percent solution personally and institutionally. As a denomination, we now know better – at least in theory. We would be well-served to make financial and institutional reparations to those communities which we sought to exploit for our own emotions and ends.

I could rehearse much more history regarding our failed and disingenuous efforts at racial “reconciliation,” diversity training, additional efforts at institutional representation, corporate repentance and apology, and shared leadership. These efforts have not all failed or been unconsciously cynical ploys to make our White selves feel better. There has been some good mixed in, but on balance we have failed as a denomination, judicatories, congregations, and individual White believers.

Barreto encourages us to allow Pentecost to “help us think differently about difference.” We humans prefer to gather with people “like us.” But the mania for monoculture is a mark of sin, not a sign of the coming Reign of God. “Simply, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world,” Barreto writes. “At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences,” he continues, “but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.”

Barreto disputes the reading of Acts 2 that regards the event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11. He argues that such a connection misreads what happened in Genesis. The “confusion” of languages was not a punishment for the arrogance of the Tower builders. “Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures?” Barreto asks. “That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so,” he continues, “and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.”

In fact, the gift of the multiple languages in Genesis 11 protects the Tower builders from themselves and their own hubris in seeking to become like God and to take heaven by storm. This is the conclusion of the Primeval history that began in Genesis 2, when the man and the woman, desiring to be like God, took the fruit and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the uniformity of language and the collective arrogance that uniformity facilitated which was the danger in this text.

Difference is not only good (indeed, it is). It is a way that God saves us from ourselves, from our sinful desire to create a god in our image rather than to live as those created in the image of God.

Barreto asks an important exegetical question. If, in fact, Pentecost reversed Babel by undoing the multiplicity of human languages, why then did the listeners in the Temple hear the gospel, each in their own languages? And, I would add, why is that diversity of ethno-linguistic groups so lovingly detailed in the text if the purpose is to wipe out that diversity? “Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?” Barreto asks.

His answer is worth quoting. “Perhaps because the writer of Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God’s commitments to our differences” (my emphasis added).

I like that phrase, “God’s commitments to our differences.” If God preferred to gather with those “like God,” then God would spend eternity enjoying the diversity of the Triune community. God must like diversity, otherness, difference. Otherwise, there would not have been a Creation. No finite creature can be “like God” in any substantive way. We can and do reflect the image and likeness of God, as human beings. And, miracle of miracles, we each do it in a different way!

Therefore, we humans would most fully reflect the image and likeness of God by gathering with people who are not “like us.” I cannot reflect the image and likeness of God by myself. I can only do so in the company of others who are not me and not like me. Yet, we White Christians continue to gather in our segregated congregations and to act as if it’s all good.

“I think this is one of the most powerful messages of white supremacy,” Robin DiAngelo writes in Nice Racism, “there is no inherent loss in leading a segregated life.” I can live my entire White life with no significant interaction with BIPOC people. And I can live that way under the impression that nothing is missing or deficient. “Most white people will go from cradle to grave with few if any authentic sustained cross-racial relationships with Black people,” DiAngelo continues, “and not see that anything of value is missing” (page 83, my emphasis).

I can only plead guilty as charged and work now to do better because I know better. I’m not doing very well, and neither is my denomination.

“Lots of Christians hope to transcend ethnic division by erasing ethnicity,” Greg Cary writes in his online comments for The Christian Century. “’I don’t see color,’ some will say. But Acts sees in color and values ethnic difference,” Cary continues. “Acts imagines unity that embraces diversity rather than bleaching it out. The miracle of Pentecost is not that one language brings everyone together. It is not that everyone learns English Aramaic,” Cary concludes. “It is that all the people hear the gospel in their own languages.”

The texts for the Day of Pentecost and for the Sundays following will offer the opportunity for sustained reflection on God’s delight in difference and our calling to embody and enact that delight as followers of Jesus. I will seek to lift up those opportunities, and I hope you will partner in that effort.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2021.

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