Sunday, June 8, 2014

Practicing Disorganized Religion (6/8/14)

Practicing Disorganized Religion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 8, 2014
Pentecost Sunday

On the day of Pentecost the entire group was together.  A sudden noise from above, like the roar of a strong rushing wind, filled the house in which they were sitting.   Phenomena resembling jagged fiery tongues appeared.  One of these settled upon each person.  All were filled with Holy Spirit and, all, directed by the Spirit to give utterance, began to speak in foreign tongues.  Among the residents of Jerusalem were devout persons from every country under the sun.  In response to the noise a crowd flocked together, for each and every one of them heard these people speaking in their native languages.  In absolute bewilderment they exclaimed:  “Aren’t all these people who are speaking Galileans?  How can it be that each of us is hearing our original language?....

All were bewildered and perplexed, constantly asking one another, “What is going on?” although there were some who made fun of the whole business by announcing, “They’re full of cheap wine.”

At that Peter took his place with the other eleven apostles and addressed the crowd in a strong and solemn tone….

“Save yourselves from this unscrupulous generation….”

Those who accepted Peter’s message were therefore baptized.  On that day God brought three thousand persons into the community….

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, cultivation of unity, their meal, and their prayers.  Awe overtook everyone.  The apostles became the agents of numerous portents and miracles.  All the believers remained together and shared everything.  They would sell their goods and property and distribute the proceeds to everyone on the basis of need.  Every day they met together in the temple and ate in homes, taking their food with happy and sincere hearts that were filled with praise to God.  Everyone approved of them, and the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.

Galatians 3:28
You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.

Most of my worship services are based on themes that I choose.   For my first ten years or so of ministry, I preached from the church lectionary, the texts of scripture assigned for each Sunday.    Then for various reasons, I decided to preach on themes of my own choosing.     But on big Christian days, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, we connect with the tradition. 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, from which we get the word Pentecostal.    It is the celebration of Spirit.  My early years were spent in a Pentecostal church.   It could get exciting at times.  People spoke in tongues.  In fact, there was an expectation to be baptized by the Spirit and speak in tongues.    Other gifts of the spirit included interpreting tongues as well as healing.    The emphasis was on the spirit.    The services weren’t quite so orderly, but there were people in charge and they were skilled in bringing things back to order. 

The speaking in tongues was not speaking in a different language.   It was gibberish or from the insider’s point of view, spirit language.  It wasn’t Hebrew or French or Swahili or something.  It consisted of sounds you created yourself, or the spirit did in you.  The technical term is glossolalia.   The Apostle Paul speaks about glossolalia in his letters.   He is a bit reserved about it.  He acknowledges that it is a gift of the spirit, but insists that interpretation of tongues needs to accompany it.  

You can imagine a wildness to these early communities.   Think of a spontaneous, non-hierarchical spirit fest of healings and people dancing around and casting out demons and healing and partying on.    This would be a vehicle for those on the margins to participate.   Slaves and women and the impoverished could be slain in the spirit and for a moment be equal to masters and husbands and the wealthy.  

One could imagine that it could be empowering for some.  It would also be disorganized.  It would be chaotic, perhaps even dangerous.   It would come and go, like the Gospel of John reporting on Jesus: 

The spirit blows every which way, like wind:  you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.   John 3:8

One could also imagine a need to control this in some way.    There would be some suspicion.   What is the message being communicated?  Who is in charge of the message?  Will this movement make good citizens?  Is this disrupting the social order?  

There is a tension in these early communities, and throughout history, between spirit blowing where it will and the need to keep spirit on message.    The Apostle Paul as we read him in his seven authentic letters plays both roles.  At times he is wild, breaks rules, comes up with marvelously egalitarian and border crossing sentences like these from Galatians 3:28:     

You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.

And at other times, he is stubborn and picky and tells people they aren’t doing it right.   Women, cover up your heads.   Don’t speak in church.     Paul is all about telling people what he thinks the message is.   Paul embodies both wildness and control.   We all do in some way, right?   We have both superego and id.

By the time we get to the Book of Acts, we are 70 years after Paul’s letters and 80 to 100 years after the death of Jesus and the events that Acts is supposedly reporting in this second chapter.    Shelly Matthews of Brite Divinity School wrote a commentary on Acts this past year called Taming the Tongues of Fire.    She makes the case that the author of Acts created an idealized history of this early movement taming the wildness of the movement and making it palatable to the sensibilities of Roman elite.  Acts is the Karl Rove of the New Testament.  Acts makes sure that the Holy Spirit stays on message.

This second chapter of Acts is in the form of a report on the manifestation of Holy Spirit.   Notice how orderly it all is.  There isn’t a wildness about the arrival of the tongues of fire that symbolize spirit.  The apostles are waiting in a room.  There is a great rush of wind, but the apostles, 12 of them, not 37 or 186, but 12 an orderly number, receive the tongues of fire.   The twelve apostles are all men.  Mary Magdalene is not one of them, nor are any other women or men with whom Jesus spent time. 

When they speak, Acts is careful to say that they are not speaking gibberish, but they are speaking languages that while unknown to them are known to those who are listening.    Those listening hear clearly the message each in his or her own language.     Critics of the apostles say they are drunk.  This might have reflected a legitimate criticism of the early Christian movement.  Early Christian gatherings like gatherings in Roman society were meals.   Meals consisted of food and wine, maybe lots of wine.    Jesus drank wine with his friends.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.    These spirit infested wild meals that Paul wrings his hands over in First Corinthians were more common than not. 

Acts wants to communicate to Roman elite society that Christianity is not about disorderly conduct with slaves and women speaking out of turn, disrupting the social order and folks getting a bit tipsy for Jesus.    It was orderly and on message and men who were in positions of authority that was handed down by Jesus himself ran the show.  Peter was the spokesperson.    Peter gives a sermon about what this all means.    The sermons in Acts sound the same regardless who is speaking.    These sermons are the words of the author of Acts placed on Peter’s lips and other characters in Acts.    They are salvation history sermons.    Tragically, they blame the Jews for killing Jesus.    Acts does this to get on the Romans good side at the expense of the Jews.  By the time Acts is written, Christians and Jews have separated.   That the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is historically inaccurate of course.     Jesus was a Jew killed on a Roman cross.    This reality is turned around.   I am not kidding when I say Acts is the Karl Rove of the New Testament.   

The Acts of the Apostles has been regarded as the history of the early church.  Pentecost is even called the birthday of the church.    This is an idealized history.  This is how a second century author wanted us to understand this early movement.  His own reasons are pressing in the second century.  He wants the Romans to appreciate Christianity as a socially upright movement, unfairly criticized, and not to be confused the more “rebellious” Jews.  Acts tames and blames. 

This may be disconcerting.   You may ask, “All this celebration at Pentecost is a celebration of an idealized history, not the real thing?”   I offer that we can be celebrating the real thing, that is Spirit, but we hear that Spirit by reading against the grain of our received text. 

We need to read our texts critically and as Shelly Matthews writes in her book, Taming the Tongues of Fire, read them against the grain.    We do that by asking impertinent questions such as why are there twelve male disciples and why do only they speak for Spirit?    Then we start to ask if the author is writing against a more non-hierarchal, egalitarian movement by writing the story in this way. 

A second century critic of Christianity, Celsus, accused Christians of being harmful to the social order and said that Christianity was made up of

"only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts.” 

Celsus also admonishes the Christians to serve in Rome’s military and to take office in the government, assuming they were not.    While Acts is earlier than Celsus, that critique of Christianity as anti-social and anti-Roman order was probably present in the time of Acts and probably accurate.   It was also a movement made up of people on the margins.  This was consistent with the movement that centered around Jesus.  Jesus, we should never forget, was executed for sedition by the Roman government.    It is likely that those early Christian communities were far more wild than Acts paints them to be.   

The first thing is to read our foundational myths with a critical eye, against the grain.  Then ask, what then can we celebrate when we celebrate Spirit?    Now, I am not saying that everything Acts reports is bad news to reject.   I love the idealization of the early communities that shared everything.    It is not likely that that was universal.   That is idealized history.  Nevertheless, that did, I think, reflect at least in part, in some communities, an egalitarian movement over against the dominant society.    I also like the idealized message in which voices of justice, love and peace that transcend language barriers are heard by all, and once heard, people are motivated to act as Acts proclaims.   Against the grain and even with the grain, the Book of Acts inspires.

Two words to describe early Christian communities would be diverse and disorganized.   Think of Occupy Wall Street.   Think of the variety of movements and organizations for environmental causes, LGBT rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and labor movements.  Some of them fly and fall and then start again in a different place.    They are all over the place. They compete and disagree and evolve and die out and resurrect.   Spirit is messy.  It blows where it will. 

We like orderly stories.   We want a narrative.  We create idealized histories of our own individual lives as well as our collective lives.    While we need to do that we also need to recognize that we are doing that.  Life is far more messy and complex.  Spirit is more wild.  

That is what I need to hear.  I like to control things and keep Spirit on message.    That is not bad.  It keeps the trains running on time.   But idealizing our history can leave people who don’t fit the narrative too well, left out.      

I am thinking about the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that begins next weekend.   It is an orderly event. Everything is timed to the minute.  The Holy Book will be Robert’s Rules of Order.    It is a context that does allow for many voices who will want to be heard.   Voices that have been long silenced.   Voices that have been tamed, blamed, and dismissed.    The task will be to listen.  To hear them as disconcerting as they may sound and as disruptive as they may be to our own understanding of our story.  

Voices will be speaking for the recognition of love between people that the dominant society has long dismissed as irrelevant.    I think those voices are speaking from Spirit.    Spirit calling us to act.

We will hear voices of those who have been oppressed by those who we have regarded as friends and whose oppression is connected to us.   It is complicated.  It is messy.  But even that is not an excuse to dismiss the voice of Spirit and not to act on behalf of justice.

We will hear voices on behalf of Earth groaning under the weight of the toxicity of our energy consumption, voices on behalf of those sold into slavery today, in this modern world, voices on behalf of death row inmates, voices on behalf of animals suffering in factory farms, voices on behalf of victims who experience the terror of  drone strikes that supposedly stop terrorism, voices of victims of sexual violence in the military, voices of victims of gun violence, and the list goes on.

I don’t say this enough, but I am glad to be a Presbyterian.    We have a lot of problems, but we do try to listen.    I am hoping for a Pentecostal uprising, a messy wild spirit fest, in which those without voices speak out and we hear them in our own language and our hearts are moved to act.     I hope that happens not only at General Assembly but here in this congregation and in our larger community.    

I hope we embody the words of our own Brief Statement of Faith and receive Spirit’s courage:

to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
     to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
     and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.


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