May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

We love happy endings, don’t we?
We love the bad guy losing.
We love the couple falling in love.
Disney movies, typically give us that joy.
Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.
Ariel and the Prince.
Beauty and the Beast.
But life isn’t always filled with happy endings.
Some insights take a little while to sink in.

And that is definitely true with something I realized about four or five years ago with regard to the Pentecost story. You know the details pretty well, as do many of our people: the disciples are gathered in the Upper Room (or at least in some room), waiting for the consummation of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit, when the earth shakes, the wind blows, tongues of fire descend, and they are emboldened to preach the Gospel first in Jerusalem and eventually to the ends of the earth. In other words, a dramatic event which transforms the disciples, solves their problems, and delivers a happy ending. Almost straight out of Hollywood, right?

Which is, of course, just what I get wrong. A happy ending? Given that all the disciples go on to face struggle and persecution and the overwhelming majority eventually endure martyrdom, “happy ending” doesn’t quite cut it. And as for solving their problems, it seems to me more that the Holy Spirit causes more problems than it solves. I mean, had they not been commissioned and equipped to go share the good news, they could have savored the truth of the resurrection for themselves, cherishing the pleasant memory of Jesus’ resurrected presence into their ripe old age. Instead, they are thrown out into the crowds – many of whom witnessed, if not participated in, the crucifixion of Jesus – to bear witness to a difficult truth. Yes, they preach and thousands respond, but never without cost.

And why should we expect anything different? Why, that is, should we expect the Holy Spirit to bring anything more than challenges and opportunities that, while significant and salutary, are nevertheless costly.

When Martin Luther revised – ever so slightly – the traditional “marks of the church” that he inherited, he added only one. In addition to the proclamation of the Gospel and the sharing of the sacraments, etc., that mark the presence of the true church, Luther added just one thing: struggle. If you are about the work of the Gospel, he reasoned (and had experience to believe), expect resistance/challenge/hostility.

Which invites us to cast the challenges that we have as individuals and as a congregation in a different light. Fidelity doesn’t inevitably bring success, just as often it brings struggle and hardship.
More importantly, though, it prompts us to view the work of the Holy Spirit differently. The Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but invites us to see possibilities we would not have seen otherwise. Rather than remove our fear, the Spirit grants us courage to move forward. Rather than promise safety, the Spirit promises God’s presence. Rather than remove us from a turbulent world, or even settle the turbulence, the Spirit enables us to keep our footing amid the tremors. Keep in mind that after the Spirit is given to Jesus at his Baptism, it immediately drives him into the wilderness. The same Spirit!

Like I said at the outset, I know this. And yet I forget. Or at least I yearn for something simpler, something a little more settled or reliable. And so I work and plan and pray and strive, not to avoid challenges, but rather to overcome them, hoping that when I’ve addressed the major challenges in front of me – whether personal or professional or congregational or whatever – then I will encounter some smooth sailing. But that doesn’t seem to be how the Spirit works.

In Tracy Kidder’s biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, he shares the story of one of the world’s truly remarkable persons, a doctor who had every single reason in the world to enjoy a profitable and meaningful medical practice in the United States yet who was so convicted by the need to address the world’s most intractable infectious diseases that he has spent his life in remote parts of the world striving to bring a measure of health to the globe’s poorest citizens that most of the world considered impossible. Laboring in Haiti, Peru, Cuba, Russia, and more, Dr. Farmer has often been hailed as a “wonder worker.” But the truth is that he simply did not give up but persisted, always seeing after some measure of success another challenge and possibility. And so when Kidder titled his book, he chose a Haitian proverb that has guided Farmer and captures the wisdom that, in this life and world, when you solve one problem, there is always another one waiting for you. The book is called Mountains Beyond Mountains.

Struggle is the word for us today on Pentecost, not simply that problems don’t go away, or that the meaningful life is spent in service and hard work, or even that the Holy Spirit sets challenges for us that are worthy of disciples of Christ. (All of which are true, by the way!) We can share the good news that the Holy Spirit continues to help us see possibilities where others see only problems and grants us the strength and energy to climb the mountains beyond that mounts with equal measures of confidence and joy and to the benefit of those around us.

Thankful to Rev. David Lose for his commentary on this text