Sunday, May 20, 2018
Full Service Audio
If you were in Toronto on Friday, May 4th you know the awesome power of wind. Those of us at our Sing Out concert could hear the wind howling outside. It was almost being like Point Pleasant Park in Halifax in the middle of a hurricane. Things were blowing around: street signs, debris, branches and trees down. It caused havoc! There is nothing quite like the power of wind, because you don’t see where it is coming from and you don’t know where it is going. It is a force and it can literally blow you away. I listened very carefully yesterday, as I am sure all of us did, to the Royal Wedding in Windsor, and the great bishop, Michael Curry, preach. In his sermon, which I think surprised everybody, he mentioned the power of fire, and how in a sense love is fire. Fire is a powerful force; so too is wind. At Pentecost, fire and wind were present.
The wind is what I want to emphasize this morning because, if you look at mythology throughout history, wind has been extremely important. In Tibetan mythology, what is known as “ Bon” is one of the great forces of the universe. In Hinduism, “Vayu” is a great force of wind that changes things. In Japanese culture, “Godai” is a powerful force of wind. In Greek philosophy, the five elements include wind. In the Bible and in the Babylonian world, there was earth, wind and fire. It seems every culture, mythology, and philosophy wants to capture the power of wind because wind animates so much of what happens on Earth. We would hardly have travelled had it not been for wind blowing the sails of ships, even thousands of years ago. We would not have flight if wasn’t for the power of wind and the lift that comes from it. We wouldn’t have a lot of our energy, as witnessed in windmills and the mills that we find in fields driven by incredible turbines. Even the Earth and what is known as Aeolian process, where wind shapes the Earth, moving around the soil on the surface of the planet. We don’t give it much thought, but it is a process that is continually at work. The power of the Aeolian wind!
It is not surprising that biblical authors wanted to capture the language to describe that wind. Even at the very beginning of the creation of the world, the word “wind” was used. In Hebrew, it is “ruach” – the wind and the spirit of God. The two are used interchangeably. The wind and the spirit blew upon the waters and created the world. From the very beginning, the notion of our existence is due to the power of God’s wind and God’s spirit, moving, shaping, creating, and empowering the world. They speak of the power of God!
There is a wonderful African story that I learned when I lived in Cape Town. It is the story of the King of the Jungle. There is a lion in the fields of Kruger Park. The lion is grooming and preening and saying to himself “Ah, it is just wonderful being the King of the Jungle. No one can touch me! It is just glorious being a lion! I am the King of Everything!” After a few minutes, the lion hears this buzzing sound: A bee is hovering above his ear and swirling around his head. The lion swipes at it with his paw, and its tail again and again, but the bee is persistent. Then the bee stings the lion in the eye. The lion starts to cry and complain. The bee flies away and saying, “Ah, who is the King of the Jungle now?”
Then the bee alights on the long grassy plains and thinks to itself, “It is wonderful being the King of the Jungle!” when the wind starts to blow leaving the bee holding on for dear life, because it cannot fly in the force of the wind. The grass continues to sway, and the bee is thrown to the ground, crushed by the wind in the grass. A voice from the sky says, “Okay folks, who is the real King of the Jungle now?” This is a reminder, say the Africans, of the power of God, and to not take it for granted or belittle it, and to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. A brilliant lesson!
When those first early Christians gathered together in an Upper Room, they had a similar experience. They were caught up in festivities known as the Feast of Weeks. It is one of the three great Jewish festivals, along with Tabernacles and the Passover. The Feast of Weeks is the celebration of the delivery of the law to Moses on Sinai. It is a time when the people of Israel give thanks for Moses, but most of all, give thanks for the law. It is expected at the time that if you lived twenty miles or less from Jerusalem, you had to go to the celebration for the Feast of Weeks, but people actually came from all over the known world. It was a tremendous gathering where loaves of bread were made, and bushels of barley were presented to God. It was a time of thanksgiving and praise for the power of the law. It was party time!
As they are gathered in this Upper Room we are told they suddenly experienced this phenomena of wind and they felt the power of fire, something that in their experience only life and nature could replicate. This wasn’t just wind; this wasn’t just fire, this was the Spirit of God. This was the Spirit that had created the world. This wasn’t an ordinary moment; this was the ruach coming back to visit and empower them.
Why is it important and what did it really do? Well, there is no doubt about it, it defined who the Church was and would become. It is very hard to know when exactly the Church began. There are many debates about this. Did it begin with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist? Or when Jesus was in the Temple and started reading from the Prophet Isaiah? Perhaps when the women discovered an empty tomb and that Jesus was raised from the dead? Or with the great commissioning of Jesus to his disciples to go into the world and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit? Did it begin at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon them and empowered the disciples to go into the streets with the Word of God? It is a moot point when it began. The more important point is how was the Church defined by this moment at Pentecost? From the very origins, from the very beginning of a gathered community in Jerusalem, it is defined by being a spiritual body. By being empowered by the wind, the ruach of God, it was a spiritual moment.
I don’t know, but you young people can tell me whether you hear this a lot, because I sure as heck do. I hear a lot of people telling me that they are spiritual but not religious. How many times have you heard that one, right? I hear that ad nauseam! I say that, because I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what that dichotomy means. I suppose I am a religious person because I do certain religious things. I have feasts and festivals and times of worship and places of prayer, just as Muslims have Ramadan right now, or Jews have the Feast of Weeks or Tabernacles. We all have our moments that are religious in that sense. But to suggest that one is spiritual but not religious seems to me to misunderstand the whole power of what animates religion in the first place – and that is the life and power of the Spirit of God! There can be no true Church without the power of the Spirit. If there is power of the Spirit, then to be a believer one by definition must be spiritual. It is the power of the Spirit that moves, that animates, that instructs, and that corrects us. It is the power of the Spirit that teaches and guides us. It is the power of the Spirit, as Michael Curry said yesterday in his sermon in Windsor that gives the fire of love. It is a false dichotomy to say someone is spiritual and not religious. To be truly religio means you truly have to be spiritual. It is the foundation that defined what the Church was from the very beginning. It was there at its very genesis, and it created, it informed, it molded and it shaped the Body of Christ.
The problem lies in the fact that we Christians have not taken that Spirit seriously enough. The problem rests actually with those who purport to be religious, but have not taken into consideration the power of the Spirit, who somehow think that religious association, affiliation or practices on their own are sufficient. Maybe that is why people say, “I would rather be spiritual than religious.” Maybe it is because they see the absence of good spirituality, empowered spirituality in the life of believers. Maybe we need to do an audit this Pentecost and say, “Are we truly open to the power of God’s ruach, God’s Spirit?
It is also a form of deliverance. When those first disciples gathered in the Upper Room, they must have been terrified. They had witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus and they wanted to tell everyone about it, but they had no power to do so, and no words to speak. They were just like everybody else gathered in that room on that day, partying and having a good time. But something more was going on. They were amazed and perplexed, we are told. Uncertain and frightened. People around them were so amazed by what happened they said they must have been drunk. Now, I don’t know about you, but usually one doesn’t associate a great religious experience with being drunk. We tend to think of it as being very proper and straight and orderly. For those early disciples who were touched by the power of the Spirit, they had something that gave them such overwhelming joy, such an overwhelming sense of power and purpose, that it was as if they were inebriated. As Peter said in his speech later on, “How could they be: it was early in the morning and the bars weren’t even open!” No, they were overwhelmed by the joy and the power of the Holy Spirit, and it so moved them, so changed them that it was as if they had already had the joy of a few drinks. That was the power of Pentecost! It delivered them from their fear and sorrow.
Late last night, I was watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live. It just so happened that Dwayne Johnson, one of my great heroes, was actually the co-host, along with Tom Hanks. They were hilarious! They said that they felt it was necessary that the two of them run for the Presidency of the United States of America. Dwayne Johnson, who has been a great footballer, wrestler and movie star, felt he might do this, and there was a lot of humour. One thing people don’t know about Dwayne Johnson is that he has suffered greatly in his life. He has suffered from depression, and personal problems associated with that. While he might be big and physically strong, without God in his life, he said, he would have no purpose. It is that sense of purpose and that sense of power that God’s wind gave to those disciples in that Upper Room. It was as if wind had blown through them and changed them, clearing out all the bad, and replacing it with the power of God. It changed them just as the wind changes the surface of the Earth.
This was also a fairly diverse group. Not only would it define the Church, not only would it deliver the Church, it was also a sign of the Church’s diversity. Here’s another thing that gets under my skin these days. Another idea that I hear is that we live in a pluralistic world where everything is now different. You have heard me say this before, but I want to repeat it again. I am not exactly sure how that makes much of a difference or that our world is any more diverse than it ever was at almost any time in history. How ludicrous is it to think that we discovered pluralism? It is bonkers, frankly because as today’s Scriptures tell us: Faithful Jews, from all over the known world, because there was still more to be discovered, came into Jerusalem. They came from Phrygia, and I want you to take a mental picture of this for a moment. On the northwest, is Phrygia, between the Baltic and the Mediterranean; on the northeast, is Parthia, south of the Caspian Sea and slightly to the east of Azerbaijan, Persia. And then southeast to Elam, at the top of the Persian Gulf and southwest, to Cyrene, which today is Libya. This is an enormous geographical region. From all of those and everything in between, including Rome, which was further to the west, people had come to Jerusalem that day for the Feast of Weeks. When they got there, the Spirit breathed on them.
“There, to those people, those who had gathered in the Upper Room were able to speak to them in their own language.” It is hard to know precisely what that means. Was it what is known as “glossolalia”– a gift of tongues? Was it the ability to understand a language that would be common for people who lived in that area, particularly because of the influence of the Greeks? Was it by the power of God speaking to them directly? It is hard to know. What we do know is when the wind of the Spirit blew, it didn’t matter where these people were from, they heard it and believed it in such a powerful way that when they went back to their homes they were changed. This is the great window of the faith. Whether it is North Africa or Persia, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, or the Middle East, it makes no difference. Race makes no difference, language makes no difference, and culture makes no difference. The power of God in the Spirit is testimony to the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ.
Many years ago, and again watching the royal wedding yesterday with everyone talking about who the designers of the dresses were, and who made what fascinator; it was all kind of fun, wasn’t it? Not that it meant anything to me, but I thought it was interesting. I remembered something that Hardy Ames (who was the designer for many years of the Queen’s outfits) said. He was being interviewed on ITV in the UK by an American reporter. “Don’t you think the Queen tries a little hard to be with-it?”
He said, “With-it? She is it!”
Never mind being with-it, it is not as if the Church has to try somehow to be pluralistic or has to work hard at being diverse, as if somehow that is the requirement of our age. It is it!
When the Spirit created the Church and when the wind blew through the Church, it blew in such a way that all the people who heard it understood its power, its wisdom and u its source. This Pentecost, may this Spirit define us. May it change us, and may it unite us in a path for pluralism. Amen.