One Diverse, Spirit-Filled People
Synopsis: Pentecost is about God reversing our human penchant toward empire and imposed uniformity. It’s the creation of one, diverse, Spirit-filled people through the creative outpouring of the Spirit. As our country is new gripped by racial turmoil caused by centuries of oppression, our churches need to be part of the solution and not only part of the problem. As at Pentecost, God’s Spirit is busy dismantling such human barriers. Following her lead will uncomfortably expose prejudices we didn’t realize we have but it will also liberate us through God’s empowering grace.
I draw our attention to the phenomenon where everyone heard what was spoken in their own native tongue on the day of Pentecost. It was a reversal of when God confused people’s language in the Genesis story of building the tower of Babel. What’s this all about?
The effort to build a great tower to consolidate all the people at Babel was the beginning of empire. Empires seek to impose uniformity including the uniformity of language. God, therefore, decided to confuse their language to thwart their efforts. Pentecost, in contrast, is about creating a diverse, Spirit-filled people where everybody hears perfectly in their own native tongue.
In contrast to empires that insist on hierarchical uniformity, the church is a Spirit-filled community of equals, no matter who we are or where we’re from. I learned about how empires operate during my mission assignment in the Philippines. The Spanish had conquered the Philippines in 1564 and ruled it for more than 300 years. They imposed Catholicism as the official religion and Spanish as the official language.
Filipino freedom fighters gradually drove the Spanish out at the end of the 19th century as they set up a national Filipino government. American warships then arrived and the Spanish preferred to surrender to the white Americans instead of the brown Filipinos. That in itself is very telling. An American-Philippines War ensued from 1899 to 1902. After the Americans defeated the Filipinos, they made the Philippines an American colony. They, in turn, imposed English as the official language of the Philippines.
I have always been impressed with the ability of Filipinos to speak different languages, unlike us Americans who struggle to speak anything except English. My Filipino friends could usually speak several Filipino languages, English, a smattering of Spanish, and another smattering of Chinese or other Asian languages. They weren’t afraid to try any language or even mix them together. To me, that’s the spirit of Pentecost.
At the dawn of the day of Pentecost, the small group of Jesus’ disciples are quietly gathered in Jerusalem as they wait and pray seeking God’s direction. Then the new day begins with an eruption of sounds from heaven, a strong rush of wind, and tongues of fire. Things are coming apart, breaking open. Yet, this is not chaos. Instead, it’s the creation of something new.
It’s like the first morning of all mornings at the dawn of creation when God’s Spirit swept over a formless void and created our world. The strange eruption on the first Pentecost Day is none other than the promised Holy Spirit as foretold by John the Baptist when he said that Jesus would baptize us with the Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). We now celebrate what emerged as the birth of the church.
We rejoice in the promise we find in this story and we wrestle with what it means for us, our church, and our world. We recognize that we’re a Spirit-endowed fellowship and we long to live into the creative power of this reality. Remember, this is the opposite of the imposition of an order and uniformity where we seek to force people into the straight-jacket of an imperial ideology and language.
Did we come to church this morning with the expectation that our sureties and lifestyles would be seamlessly confirmed? Did we come not quite knowing what to expect? Or did we come expecting the Spirit’s wind and fire to release us from the tyranny of our settled certainties and comfort zones? By now we should know that God’s Spirit is never predictable.
We might want to fasten our seatbelts as we negotiate this rush of creative wind. But it’s not always dramatic. Sometimes the Spirit comes as a beckoning ray of light inviting us to explore places we’ve never dared to venture into. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains:
When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power... Like Pinocchio, we move from wooden to real. We transform from hurt people hurting other people to wounded healers healing others. Not just individually, but history itself keeps moving forward in this mighty move of Spirit unleashed. The indwelling Spirit is this constant ability of humanity to keep going, to keep recovering from its wounds, to keep hoping and trying again.
This may be hard to recognize in our present political climate where things like racial and religious equality, justice for the poor, and caring for the earth are continually under assault. Living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone can feel like a huge stretch. Where is the mighty movement of God’s unleashed Spirit in the midst of all this?
We have all seen the horrific video of the white police officer in Minneapolis with his knee on the neck of George Floyd until he choked him to death. We now experience the protests that are sweeping through our cities. While we cannot condone the looting and violence of a small minority we can understand people’s pent up frustration and rage stemming from the many different forms of racism in our country.
Last Sunday I said that white Christian support for out president, the most racist president in modern history has clear racial overtones. How can our church be part of the solution and not only part of the problem. I also told us that as we have been working on this statement on full participation regardless of who we are as God’s children, our discussion focused almost exclusively on sexual orientation. Why have we not been equally concerned about the other forms of discrimination, especially white supremacy and racial discrimination? This will be part of our challenge moving forward.
The coming of the Spirit is about empowering God’s people to be about the task of creating and living into God’s purposes for us and our world. God’s Spirit relishes and creates diversity. On the day of Pentecost, a huge crowd of people soon gathered from every nation under heaven. What happened on the day of Pentecost was the opposite of any kind of empire, racism, or “Jerusalem first” movement.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the distribution of spiritual gifts for the purpose of building up the church and extending God’s reign. Again, the Spirit loves diversity and variety. The list of seven gifts mentioned is not exhaustive but instead indicates the wide range of gifts. In Jewish thought, seven is a complete number indicating fathomless possibilities.
There’s a trinitarian structure to his teaching. In the midst of all this variety there’s the same Spirit, the same Lord, and the same God. It’s the mystery of the one and the many. Just as the threefold nature of God is one, so the threefold manifestation of spiritual gifts, in a proliferation of different varieties, are one. Paul relates this to the church, which is also one and many. None of us are exactly alike and yet we’re all part of one body.
Our human tendency is to set ourselves apart from each other. That was the big problem in the church in Corinth and it continues to be a problem in our churches today. Several years ago, I returned to the traditional church I grew up in for my father’s funeral. That church has strengths that I can now appreciate better than when I was a teenager. They really support each other.
Yet their church has clearly defined boundaries, including race, and it would be difficult for anyone who didn’t grow up in it to ever fit in. Does our church also have spoken or unspoken boundaries indicating who’s in and who’s out? People pick up on such things and feel unwelcome no matter what our church motto says.
Thinking more broadly, the race, class, and power divisions in American society are also present and at times even amplified in our churches. This is what Paul confronts head on in the church in Corinth when he emphatically tells them, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
The Spirit’s already busy at work dismantling such barriers. Following her lead isn’t always comfortable and will expose prejudices we don’t even realize we have. Racism, sexism and homophobia are prevalent in our society. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all recognize such diseases to at least some degree in our own hearts and minds. We resist learning such things about ourselves but if we persevere we will be liberated through God’s empowering grace.
I’ve been around long enough to know that it doesn’t happen easily, not in myself, not in my church, not anywhere. Some people can especially raise our blood pressure and we pray for perseverance. This give us the opportunity to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).
 Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (London: SPCK, 2016), 146-147