“Upon All”

How have you encountered God this week? What did you see, feel, or hear that suggested God was near, God was at work? I am going to pause and leave a bit of silence for us to think this over. Then, I’d love to hear a sentence or two from you. How have you encountered God this week?

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

Seminary professor Matt Skinner begins his commentary on our passage from Acts with these words: “If a roomful of people given the ability to speak foreign languages sounds electrifying, try imagining a church-ful of prophets.” Prophets, in the biblical tradition do not predict the future. Instead, Skinner observes, they “show how present events might connect to God and God’s purposes.” In today’s text, Peter modeled the role of a prophet. As the wind rushed, the fire blazed, and the tongues jabbered, he was faced with a question by those gathered. “What does this mean?” they wondered. Skinner writes:

Another word that captures what Peter describes and does in Acts 2 is interpretation. He makes sense of the crowd’s experience…. Peter also refers to a community full of visionaries and dreamers. He is not the only one equipped to make meaning. That work belongs to all who receive the Spirit, both then and now. Our churchly Pentecost observances fail if they create nostalgia instead of equipping interpreters or prophets.[1]

God pours out the Spirit of the risen Christ on all flesh: that is the message of Pentecost. It turns out we are a church-ful of prophets. Prophecy: that’s what you were doing a few moments ago when you described your encounters with God. I know, I know! Sometimes questions, doubts, and disbelief are all you and I have when it comes to our encounters with God. And yet, we are prophets—both authoritative and uncertain. With humility and honest struggle, we interpret God’s dreams and visions for humanity and the earth.

The symbolism of the Pentecost story may lead us to believe that God works in obvious and dramatic ways. And yet, even those observing the wild events of that day were not sure if they should attribute this happening to God or too much wine. They had to ask, what does this mean? Wind, fire, tongues—these are metaphors, I think. God sounded like the rush of a violent wind. God’s warmth, light, and energy looked and felt like a fire that set each person ablaze in their own way. The divine presence created such deep connection and communication between people that it seemed as if all barriers of language and culture had crumbled. God’s spirit is powerful, and at the same time, often subtle. There is always room for doubt. Is that really God? How would we know? What does it mean if it is?

In Leaving Church Barbara Brown Taylor describes the spiritual journey that led her away from serving as a parish priest. She loved her work in a large urban congregation, where she specialized in ministry with the sick and dying. And yet its demands overwhelmed her. She was exhausted—physically, emotionally and spiritually. She decided she needed a change of scenery. So she moved to small, quiet rural parish, in a community where she and her husband could buy a farm. After several years; however, she found herself completely worn out again. She realized then that the problem was not a particular church or position. Instead, her exhaustion had to do with the way she understood and lived her identity as a priest.

Underneath her distress, she realized, was the Church’s own identity crisis. It was not only Taylor who needed to “leave church,” but the Church itself. She puts it this way:

A friend of mine, who was for a time in charge of continuing education at a seminary in lower Manhattan…[reversed] the usual polarity between the school and the city. Instead of inviting people to General Seminary to learn about God, Harry invited them to stay at General Seminary while they learned what God was doing in the city. After days on the streets and nights at the theater, the pilgrims returned to the seminary to process their encounters with the divine. The clear message was that God did not live at the seminary.

God lived in the world. The seminary existed so that people had a place to try and make sense of their experience in the world, as well as a community to support them while they did. In the seminary library, they could find helpful field guides written by earlier seekers. In the classroom, they could learn useful language for what they had experienced, along with tested methods for discerning what was life-giving from what was not. In the refectory, over second and third cups of coffee, they could hash out honorable ways to respond to what they had experienced, and, in the chapel, they could voice their gratefulness for all of this to God.

Taylor concludes:

If churches saw their mission in the same way, there is no telling what might happen. What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastised for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church? (p.221-222)

The church was born with an outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh. We are a community of prophets, interpreters. We are ordinary people who go out into the world with eyes and ears open, asking one central question again and again, in ever changing ways. How are we encountering God?

Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2837