Sunday, May 11, 2008

Acts 2
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Reading scripture on Pentecost may constitute cruel and unusual punishment. It is the scripture reader’s nightmare to be confronted with a list of unpronounceable place names and be expected to make sense of them. We applaud our brave reader.

If I was truly cruel, I would call on my favourite biblical scholar (Carmen) and ask her to clarify pronunciation, and maybe share a few words on the etymology of place names in Greek. But, I’m not cruel. The best I could do with my 20 year-old rusty Greek was ignore the pronunciation and satisfy my curiousity about the modern locations about these various places. Here is what I discovered:

Parthia (Iran)
Medes (Kurdistan and parts of Iran)
Elam (mostly Iraq)
Mesopotamia (Iraq, parts of Syria and Turkey)
Judea (Southern Israel)
Cappadocia (Turkey)
Pontus (Turkey)
Phrygia (Turkey)
Pamphylia (Turkey)
Cyrene (Libya)
Crete (Greece)
Arabia (Saudi Arabia)

The traditional take on this Pentecost gathering is people from everywhere were present for the birth of the church. And while this is certainly true—and we can then speak of the worldwide spread of the nascent church—it might be more helpful to take a step back and try to understand what else the author may be trying to tell us.

Tip O’Neill famously said: “All politics is local.” Luke, who famously wrote both Luke and Acts, may have said: “All religion is local.” What we are tempted to read as “everywhere” is, in fact, more like “your place, and your place, and your place over there.” This is local religion, not in the tribal or parochial sense, but in the intimate sense that it belongs as much on my street as yours.

Yesterday, I was listening to a call-in travel show on the topic of Rome. The caller was planning a trip to Rome with her 14 year-old son and wanted examples of interesting places to see. The expert immediately rhymed off the name of a church and said here is why: You enter a 12th century church at street level and then go downstairs. One level below is a fourth century church, well-preserved, and below that is a first century house church, which began as a typical Roman home. Three layers and two thousand years of Roman history in a single stop. I wanted to pull over and book a flight.

With the tongues and wind and flames the message began. From the waters of baptism the church was born, and the message was carried not to far off lands and hard-to-pronounce places, but to a house in Rome. A community formed and met in that house. The community expanded, and knocked down a wall or two, making the circle wider. Walls were reshaped into a primitive form we might call church, as kitchen table became altar and cup became chalice.

The journey from kitchen table to high altar, 20 centuries and perhaps 30 feet up, is not about the passage of time and the human effect on topography, but about the locality of our faith. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm but right here, at 33 East Road, where the communion table faces east to Jerusalem and makes a direct line from the day to Pentecost to today. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm, but in your favourite chair when you close your eyes to pray. It belongs in kitchens and cubicles and neighbourhood churches; our faith belongs wherever breath is felt and language is spoken and love is made known.


But there is more. The message that these woman and men carried home, the message of death and resurrection, the message of a world made-new, was neatly summarized by Peter that day: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The conclusion of the dreamed dreams and the clearest visions, the surest signs and loudest prophecy is the simple truth that God saves.

It points to another prophecy, this one found in Zechariah. The angel of the Lord comes to the prophet and shares this wonderful verse:

Not by might, nor by power,
but by my spirit, says the Lord.

It has a musical quality to it, and this is not an accident. God wants the prophet to make no mistake about the source of human transformation, about the source of change in a hurting world, about the presence of God in the midst of adversity. I commend it to you, the kind of verse that reminds us that we are never alone, and that the presence of the Spirit is ever near.

Not by might, nor by power,
but by my spirit, says the Lord.


The last word belongs to Jesus. In the moments after the betrayer has left, and Jesus has reminded Peter that he too is human like the rest of us, Jesus leans in and shares these words:

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [the Spirit] to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Today the Advocate has come. The Advocate has come to your home and mine, to this place, and the many places like it. The Advocate has come to hearts broken and minds confused, and to troubled places: to Burma and Tibet, to Oklahoma and Beirut.

The Advocate, the Spirit, is proving that power and might will not save us, only the Spirit of the Living God. The Advocate is speaking through the least and the last, speaking through unsteady voice and faintest whisper, speaking and saying “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Thanks be to God.


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