Tongues of Fire, and of Air, Earth, and Water

(Pentecost Sunday: Psalm 19: 1-4, 7-9, 14, and Acts 2:1-13)

The movement that became Christianity could’ve died when Jesus died. It could have been a humiliating end to a failed messiah who was supposed to kick the Romans out of Judea and Galilee and bring God’s reign on earth. He was not supposed to get himself executed. So when he died, it could’ve ended there, like many other messianic movements at the time. But instead, a series of mysterious events gave this community new life. And they inspired others and grew into a movement that was later called Christianity.

This is a good time to say that the “Christian” little “Little Christ.” “Christians” were “Little Christlings.” And that was a derogatory term. It was a term that Romans used to mock these Jesus followers, who were obviously out of their minds to think that a Jewish peasant who was wiped out like scum had anything to do with God.  These “Little Christlings” withstood all kinds of mockery and violent persecution. They could withstand all of this and still grow throughout it, because of a series of mysterious events that animated the movement with an incredible spirit, a contagious spirit that would not die. It was a spirit of new life, of renewed life, of life much bigger than death, with the courage to love and to care and to go into the broken places of this world and find wholeness. This is a movement of restoration, in a fallen world, restoration of a way that is good and true, a restored relationship with our Creator, God.

Today we remember one of those mysterious events in which these budding Little Christlings blossomed: Pentecost. I retold the story for the kids, and we read the story from the book of Acts. So now let’s get deeper into what Pentecost can mean for us.

I want to focus on this theme of listening and language in this story and what that has to do with kinds of restoration that we need today. Two kinds of restoration: social and environmental.

Something like wind blew through, something like tongues of flame appeared, and the Holy Spirit came upon those gathered, and they began to speak strange languages. As they went out into the city, people from all around the world who were in Jerusalem heard them speaking in their native languages. We’re talking about more than a dozen different languages.

The Roman Empire dominated a huge variety of lands and cultures around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. These people then mixed with each other and traded with each other – some could travel around voluntarily if they could afford or others were forcibly displaced, as slaves or conscripted soldiers. So it was like a smaller globalized world around the Mediterranean.

In Jerusalem you had Jews who were originally from all kinds of different countries within the Roman empire, and beyond it actually – you had folks from farther east. It was a cosmopolitan city, it was a crossroads city, like great cities always are.

So, with this Pentecost experience, suddenly people from all around the world were speaking with each other and hearing each other as they shared about the deepest things of their hearts, about how they have experienced a restoration in their relationship with God, because they had encountered the wisdom of Jesus, and had encountered the Spirit that came with Jesus, that survived even the most heinous act of violence that people are capable of.

This is a Spirit that is bringing people together and helping them talk with each other and listen to each other. This talking with each other and hearing each other, this is showing us something about the kind of restoration that is inspiring this Jesus movement. Jesus said before the forces of destruction rose against him, “Oh, Jerusalem, if only you know the way of peace.”

The way of Jesus is that way of peace. Here with the Pentecost you have people who are truly talking to each other and listening to each other, trying to learn each other’s languages. When people do that, they have a hard time hating each other in the end, they have an easier time forgiving each other, and an easier time admitting the wrong that they have done. Now, I’m not about to make it out to be all kumbaya – I’m just saying the better the listening the less the hating.

So far, I’ve been talking about human relationships, about restoration in human relations, flowing from restored relationship with God – which is always something that is urgently needed. But I think Pentecost for the church in the 21st Century must have another level of meaning for us, which is about speaking and listening and restoring relationships with other-than-human beings. Hearing the languages of the earth, the languages of the other creatures of God’s creation.

Scripture tells us that all of creation tells of the glory of God and of the wisdom by which God creates the world, the laws and the principles that undergirds creation. Physics, biology, ecology, these are ways that people have learned to speak and to hear in the languages of Creation. And people from all eras who have lived close to the land in a respectful way, they also have found ways of speaking and listening to God’s creation.    Being able to listen and speak in this way is a matter of survival. Because when we violate certain laws and principles the consequence is catastrophe.

An important principle in Creation is balance. The physical world exists because elemental forces are in the right balance with each other. And the biological world – life – exists on earth because of a delicate balance between many different factors. One of those balances is the right mixture of gases in our atmosphere to keep temperatures in a good range for life.   Humans the last hundred some years have been throwing off that balance by taking fossil fuels from the ground, burning them for energy, and thus dumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At first we didn’t know it, but the scientists who listen closely to how the physical world works, who have figured out chemistry and thermodynamics, and who have been measuring climate very closely, they have heard the message loud and clear. They have shared that message as clearly and accurately as they can. It is up to us to hear it and respond wisely.

It’s intimidating, the idea of keeping civilization humming with different energy sources. It’s also intimidating, the full scope of climate change, the consequences of our throwing off the balance that keeps our life systems humming, all these extreme weather events, sea levels rising, polar ice melting, all of it.

But that’s why it’s important to bring in the Spirit of Pentecost. We can be restored with our God, the God of all creation.   The forces of destruction don’t win, that’s the good news. The Spirit of life survives and thrives and grows, life that is much bigger than death, that can give us the courage to love and to care and to go into the broken places of this world and find wholeness.

Thanks be to God.

Delivered May 15, 2016

First Congregational Church of Walla Walla

Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg

#CreationCare #HolySpirit #ActsoftheApostles #EarlyChristians #TheWayofJesus

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