Pentecost Sunday B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
‘There was a sound like the rush of violent wind that filled the whole house.’ “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). Sounds crazy. Yet I wonder, did those extraordinary events happen only once, and on that particular day, or did the disciples see something existing behind the veil of everyday life, a part of the reality unfolding and continuing to unfold even now? I ask you, would this story matter, either to us or to young Natalie, who confirms her faith today, if it were only the former?
The Day of Pentecost was a eureka moment for the disciples. Their great discovery adds to our own understanding of how to live the good life that is our birthright as children of God. The Holy Spirit is like wind and fire. We are, all of us, flickering with the heat and flame of the burning bush that Moses saw from the corner of his eye. We have but to turn aside to see it.
The Book of Acts tells us there were 120 Christians hiding in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus was arrested, including many women. They were an utterly unprecedented and egalitarian community without exclusive boundaries of race, class, or gender. They were a transgressive community, breaking deeply held religious and cultural norms; a new community without walls was being born!” They were also wanted criminals, co-conspirators of an executed political instigator. They were 120 people who knew they had failed. They were counting all the ways they had ignored, misunderstood, dismissed, rejected, and betrayed Jesus when he was alive.
Their great discovery was that God didn’t care about all that. Instead, the undying life revealed in Jesus was now their life too. ‘Give me all your failures and I’ll give you a new life,’ Jesus said. Your body is the temple of God with power to heal and to burn away the old afflictions that haunt us. Mission-impossible became mission-possible. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples went into the streets to proclaim the good news.
Their great discovery was good news for them and for us—but it wasn’t entirely new. A thousand years before, at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, (in 950 B.C.E.), the shekinah (or glory) of Yahweh descended and filled the temple like a thick cloud of fire from heaven (1 Kings 8:10-13). Centuries before that, fire and cloud had filled the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 40:34-35) during the Exodus. Now on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13) fire descends from heaven, not on a building or a place, but upon people! All peoples, of every nation, may receive a sign of this Spirit in baptism (Acts 2:38-41) to become living stones of a new sanctuary.
The disciples discovered the temple of God is the human person. They discovered, or more precisely they re-discovered, “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; and Ephesians 2:21-22). They discovered each of us has a standing invitation to become the very Body of Christ alive in the world (1 Corinthians 12:14-30).
Natalie, we can point literally anywhere and everywhere for examples of people whose lives are transformed with an indelible dignity and grace by unity with God. You may have heard about the diary of Anne Frank. She was just 15 when she died. Fewer people know about her adult counterpart, Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943) who died at Auschwitz at the age of 29. Her diary and letters are published in a book called, “An Interrupted Life.” Etty Hillesum shows us how to live the good life, even in the most extremely violent and evil situations.
Living at the Westerbork transit camp, first as an employee of the Jewish Council and later as an inmate, Hillesum did everything in her power to help others. Etty discovered that her relationship with God deepened in the last two years of her life through solidarity with those who suffered, and more surprisingly, in her attempt to love God even in her enemies as Jesus did.
Etty wrote, “I kneel once more on the rough coconut matting, my hands over my eyes, and pray: “Oh, Lord, let me feel at one with myself. Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love… Then it won’t really matter what I do and where I am. . . .Etty discovered what the first disciples had discovered that enabled them to come out from hiding and enter the streets through participation in the undying life of God. She wrote, ‘By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich [life]. . . . We could fight war and all its [banal, evil outgrowths] excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live. . .Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.’ (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 70, 96, 155, 95, 164, 185, 198, 218.)
The great shekinah fire and wind of the Holy Spirit transformed fearful fugitives like Etty and the first disciples into bold public witnesses. Nevertheless, some will say they were foolish. Some accused the disciples of being drunk. Yet we have seen a deeper and more lasting truth in Christ Jesus. We are all “walking around like the sun” as the famous Christian monk and theologian, Thomas Merton says. The gospel is not a fire insurance policy for the next world, but a life assurance policy for this world. To be fully alive we must not suppress the shekinah fire of the human spirit but to be that fire.
Natalie, this Pentecost fire of hope and new life is kindled in us as we bring everything to Jesus—our strengths and weaknesses, success and failures, our pride and our shame—put it all on the altar along with the rest of our offerings. God will transform it. God will redeem it. God will set it on fire to bless, purify and dedicate the living sanctuary God has prepared within you to heal the suffering world.