We Presbyterians know how to celebrate Easter. We dress up in our finest, we pack the pews, we enlist trumpets and timpani and we joyfully sing out "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." We dye Easter eggs and hide them for the children. We get the family together and enjoy a sumptuous meal.
We Presbyterians know how to celebrate Christmas. We decorate our homes, send Christmas cards to friends, pack Christmas boxes for people in need and, on Christmas Eve, watch shepherds in bathrobes and angels with floppy wings, and sing with exuberance "Joy to the World." We fly our children home from all over the world so that we can be together, we exchange gifts with one another, and enjoy a Christmas feast.
However, Pentecost is a different story altogether, isn't it? We Presbyterians are not quite sure what to do with this holy day. At Westminster, we are attempting to break the mold by highlighting rather than downplaying this important day on the Christian calendar. We encourage everyone to wear red and we create a Pentecost Event between services to remind us that this is a significant day in the life of the church and has been recognized by followers of Jesus for centuries. We have not yet convinced Hallmark to create a line of Pentecost cards and we have not yet agreed upon the traditional Pentecost meal, but plans are in the works.
Why do we pay such scant attention to Pentecost? Does it have anything to do with the fact that we mainline Protestants get a little edgy with talk about the Holy Spirit? Presbyterians in particular have an affinity for clearly stating what we believe. We like to scrutinize the Scriptures and nail down church doctrine. We have affirmations of faith, confessions of faith, declarations of faith, creeds and catechisms. We stress the importance of possessing knowledge of the Bible, knowledge about God and knowledge of the Christian life. And we strive for this knowledge in order to make sense of our faith. We do not want beliefs that are illogical and completely at odds with the contemporary understanding of the way the world works. We value intelligence and pride ourselves on being reasonable.
We Presbyterians like to do things properly. We disdain sloppiness and chaos, so we proudly strive to do things decently and in order.
Our worship services exemplify our modus operandi. The service flows in a logical manner: assurance of forgiveness follows confession, sermon comes after the Scripture reading. And not only does the service flow in a reasonable manner, it keeps things orderly. The worship bulletin spells out what we do and when we do it. The bulletin indicates when we stand, when we sit, when we speak, when we listen, when we pray and when we sing. This is necessary to avoid chaos. It would be annoying if everyone spoke at once. And we would not come back each week, if each Sunday we argued over when we were going to pray and how many hymns we were going to sing and which Scripture should be read.
However, there is also a potential danger in our reliance on reason and our desire for order. Reason often encourages detached observation and analysis. In the field of science that is an asset, but in religious faith it can lead to apathy. Doing things decently and in order can prevent chaos, but it can also put a damper on enthusiasm and spontaneity.
Luke tells us that ten days after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples gathered in a house in Jerusalem and both reason and order were swept away when a gale force wind blew the doors off. The tremendous blast swirled around the room whipping up everything in its path. The agenda for the meeting was sucked out the window and the minutes of the previous gathering were engulfed in flames. The wind filled the disciples' lungs and each one began to speak This was not a "Please raise your hand and be recognized" kind of discussion. Each one began to jabber at the same time and the noise spilled out into the streets. Passersby wondered what all the ruckus was about and were drawn closer to the house to see if they could decipher this cacophony.
To the untrained ear it sounded like babble. But then, a foreigner who had traveled a great distance to come to Jerusalem said, "Wait a minute. These men are Galileans, but this one is speaking my language." Someone from another country said, "Hey, this one over here is speaking Greek, my native tongue!" Someone else shouted, "I can understand this man perfectly."
Most of the bystanders were baffled and wondered what it all meant, but a few cynical people in the crowd sneered and said, "They're just a bunch of drunks! They're full of wine."
Peter heard the accusation and clarified what was happening. The disciples were indeed filled, but not with wine. It was God's Spirit filling them. The disciples were inspired and becoming passionate about their faith.
After this event, the disciples did not close the doors on the outside world and remain together in Jerusalem where they could sit around and share with each other how good it felt to have God's Spirit in them. Neither did they return to their former jobs, picking up where they had left off a few years earlier. Instead, God's Spirit blew them out into the world where they picked up the ministry Christ had begun and carried it forward. God's Spirit propelled them out into people's lives with a divine mission to fulfill. And these previously timid and unenthusiastic followers became energetic and courageous leaders determined to spread Christ's message of love, justice and peace. They taught the importance of loving God and loving others. They told of Christ's desire to liberate those who are oppressed. They shared God's vision of a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares so that people can live together in harmony But spreading Christ's message and living as he lived was costly The early Christians met a great deal of resistance and it cost some of them their lives. They did not simply comply with the power structures of their day. In fact, they were accused of trying to turn their world upside down.
Pentecost is such a critical day in the life of the church because it reminds us that just as a wild wind emanating from God filled the first followers of Christ with passion and purpose, God is eager to ignite willing souls today. Unfortunately, most Protestants in America resist God's Spirit because it often thrusts people into areas of controversy. When you side with victims of injustice, when you speak out against war, when you try to protect God's creation, when you stand up for human rights, defenders of the status quo will make your life difficult.
When the church expresses its willingness to tackle thorny problems, not abstract issues but concrete evils that are destroying people's lives, there are always voices screaming that the church is becoming too political. People will attempt to limit the influence of the church by declaring that people of faith have overstepped their bounds when we become involved in social issues. They say we are supposed to stick to spiritual issues. Implicit in such thinking is the misguided notion that spiritual concerns are limited to prayer, reading the Bible, evangelism and acts of charity. However, if you read the Bible, you discover that God's anger is ignited by injustice. The prophets rail against the people when the weak are oppressed by the powerful. Luke writes that when Jesus read Scripture in public for the first time, he read, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18) And when Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God," (Matthew 5:9) he was not referring to personal serenity.
God does not want us to be indifferent to suffering or spineless in the face of injustice. God seeks to inflame our hearts and to fire-up our souls creating in us a deep thirst for justice and a passion for peace. One of the most stinging indictments that can be leveled against the church is not that we are too political, but rather that we are indifferent to the pain and problems of the world.
Presbyterian pastor, Scott Black Johnston, tells of an event he attended last year hosted by Auburn Seminary. The event honored women whose lives of faith and action are changing the world. One of the honorees was Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney. She was recognized for a documentary film she produced about the African country, Liberia. The film is entitled "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." It tells of Christian and Muslim women who in 2003 took to the streets of that country to protest the terrible cycle of violence that was gripping their nation. There were rapes, kidnappings and massacres perpetrated by both the government and the rebel forces that were engaged in a bloody civil war.
These women dressed themselves in all white and took to the streets. They stood beside roads where they knew government officials would drive by, they spoke on the radio, and everywhere they went they spoke a language that seemed absurd to those in power. They spoke the language of peace. But in a few months, facing increasing pressure from this group of women and others within the country as well as international pressure, Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia, went into exile. He is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
In 2005, the people of Liberia elected a woman as President of their country, the first woman to be elected president by an African nation. International monitors said the election was "remarkably peaceful. When the filmmaker asked women what stirred them into action, some spoke of a deep yearning for peace. One talked of reading the Old Testament story of Esther, the queen who saved her people from the sword. Many others said that a spirit - a holy spirit - joined their hearts together and gave them the courage to speak.1
What would happen to you if you allowed God's Spirit to blow through your life and to light a fire in your soul? Would your friends shy away from you if became passionate about your faith? Would people think you had gone off the deep end if you became involved in issues of justice and peace? I hope that at least one person would accuse you of trying to turn the world upside down.
1. Scott Black Johnston, "In Our Own Language," May 31, 2009.
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