Toorak Uniting Church

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Moving experiences

Joel 2: 28 – 32   Acts 2: 1 – 11   1 Peter 2: 4 – 10
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
23 May 2010

After the death of Jesus we find the disciples huddled together in a house in Jerusalem. Scared of the authorities and uncertain about how to proceed from here, they play safe: They lock the doors and make sure they stay out of the way of authorities possibly wanting to persecute them.

They listen to the stories of the women who found the tomb empty on Easter morning. They go down themselves and discover that, indeed, the tomb is empty. They hear how two of their friends believe they encountered Jesus on the way to Emmaus. Finally they experience Jesus’ presence inside the locked room blessing them and encouraging them to go out to tell the world about his life, death and resurrection.

At the Jewish feast of Shavo’t, also known as the festival of weeks when the first fruits are brought to the temple in joyful procession and the giving of the law on Mount Sinai is celebrated, 50 days after the women first returned with their amazing story, they are however still in the same locked room. Still playing safe it seems, paralysed by fear and insecurity they do very much what we do on a Sunday morning: They pray, they talk and they enjoy the fellowship of likeminded people.

And then a storm breaks. A storm pulling at the locked doors of the room they are in. A storm that tries to pull open the closed doors of their hearts, and breaks them open to liberate them from the fear and insecurity that holds them captive and let the Spirit in. A storm that helps them find the courage to let go of their inhibitions and reservations and venture out to share their story.

People from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. People from different backgrounds and cultures, old and young, learned academics and hands on tradesmen, men and women. And somehow the disciples manage to communicate with all of them. Whatever it is that breaks forth from their hearts, is something that everyone understands.

Luke tells us they speak in tongues. A concept most of us, in our denomination, are not too comfortable with. It reeks of Charismatics and Pentecostals, of chaotic scenes and over indulgent emotionalism, of disturbance of proper Church practices.

What happens on that first Pentecost day is pretty chaotic, and very emotional and it sure disturbed the order of the first meeting of Christians.

So what happened? Was it a miracle? In all religions there are reports on this sort of reversal of the babylonian confusion of language where people are profoundly moved by what they identify as divine energy and find themselves uttering words and sounds outside our day to day language experience to express something beyond their own understanding. For a while, in the eighties, I was involved in a Charismatic Ecumenical group in the Netherlands and received the gift of speaking in tongues. I have never used it in Church, but it has been helpful in my private prayer practice and I used to use it singing and praying the children to sleep when they were younger. The absolutely loved the peaceful energy it conveyed.

In their enthusiasm the disciples may not have been able to get the words out straight and stumbled upon this ancient religious form of communication. They may even have been familiar with it from other religious traditions or sources. It is even possible Luke is not only referring to the inversion of what happened at Babel, but is also implicitly putting the disciples up there with prophets, mystics and see-ers of other religions and traditions he knows and his largely Greek/Roman audience may have known as well.

And then again it may simply have been that joy, power and energy don’t need words to convey themselves clearly. Enthusiasm radiating from top to toe probably looking very much the same in any language.
With someone here knowing a word of Greek, and someone there who knew a word of Phoenician they probably were well able to figure out what was going on. ‘What does he say? Can you hear it? Do you understand Arameic? Just a few words, but I think what he is saying is...... Whatever went on, that square was buzzing that morning.

Some don’t like it. And who would blame them? What are these people doing? Incoherent, overcome with emotion, tears running down their cheeks and gesticulating with arms and legs all at the same time the exuberant enthusiasm must for some have looked quite scary. People aren’t usually that exuberant in the morning.....

Peter sobers up a bit after those depreciative comments and manages to become somewhat more coherent about what they have experienced. He starts with the prophets, and says: ‘Remember the prophet Joel and how he says there would be a new beginning, that God was going to kindle a new and sacred fire in us? Well, it’s happening! Jesus, whom we followed and whom some of you knew, has turned what we thought we understood about the world, about life and death, on its head. He was put to death, but somehow we encountered him since as a living presence and now, suddenly, a holy storm has broken into their lives.

His enthusiasm is contagious, people want to join, become part of whatever it is that’s happening to them. ‘What should we do?’ they ask. ‘How can we become part of what is burning within you, the energy and power radiating from around you?’

‘Make a fresh start’ says Peter, ‘throw off the shackles. Open the doors of your heart. Let the Spirit blow through you. Let yourselves be baptised to indicate that you want anything that has a hold on you, anything that prevents your life from reaching its full, God intended potential, be washed away.
Let yourselves be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to indicate you want live under a new and different brand name, the name of Christ.

We don’t know if Peter really preached the sermon Luke has handed on to us, or even that his report describes the events in a way that is, to our modern standards, historically fact. It is in fact highly unlikely that this is the case. Something happened though. Something fairly shocking and miraculous caused a total shift in the behaviour and understanding of Jesus’ friends some time after his death. Something they connected with the festival of shavo’t, and the stories that were connected with it in their lectionary readings at the time. Harvest and first fruits, the giving of the law, God’s descending amongst his people in fire and wind, the story of the Babylonian confusion, the story of Ruth and the inclusion of the nations in the people of God, it is all there in the story as Luke tells it. And much more. Connections to scripture and beyond radiate out from the imagery and language he uses in every direction. Something I become aware of with every successive year I have preached on this passage. It is so rich there is no end to the connections, references, implicit or explicit in this text.

And yet there are still other ways in which scripture speaks about the Holy Spirit at work. Other ways in which Jesus’ followers try to put their experience of the working presence of the Spirit into words and metaphor.

The letter of Peter, (which may or may not have been written by Peter himself), speaks about living stones. Which is a contradiction in terms. Living stones are as impossible a concept as cold fire, or black snow, or dry water. Per definition stones are dead, cold, hard, rigid, while life is warm, soft, fluid, and constantly transforming. Life gives love and receives it, feels pain and joy, things stones per definition can’t.

Living stones are an impossibility and that’s exactly why the author uses the metaphor when he is trying to convey how the Spirit works. Where Luke uses the image of the fire that doesn’t consume his readers will have been familiar with from stories about Moses and his people traveling with God, the author of 1 Peter uses another metaphor, connecting his image to the psalms and the prophets. It is impossible and yet......

Jesus the corner stone. Thrown away by people. ‘What he wants is impossible’ they said, ‘we don’t want to know about it’ and they killed him for it. But from the cold, stark, lifeless reality of death, life has resurfaced. The stone that was thrown away has become a cornerstone of a new, living temple. A place where the life of those who want to follow Christ can be transformed by the power of the Spirit, where they can be nurtured and inspired and together be a place for God to manifest in love, wholeness peace and justice.

I am not sure if you know the television cartoon Barbapapa, but that’s what came to my mind when I was working on this sermon. Barbapapa and Barbamama have barba children and a barba house. They can change into any shape they want and together they can become a ship, a house or whatever they want to be, or need to become.

Gathered together here this morning it is perhaps hard to imagine a storm like that could break in our lives and fill us with the exuberant enthusiasm Luke waxes on about. We are perhaps not as afraid as those first disciples were but certainly we are insecure about how to proceed into the future with the public side of our faith. We are all people who have encountered the Lord in some way or other in our lives, otherwise we wouldn’t be gathering here, and we probably all would consider ourselves open to the Spirit if only the Spirit would communicate clearly and succinctly about what she is expecting from us. And if it was within our abilities we would probably all be prepared to give whatever it was a try at least. But what? And how? There are too many forces pulling in opposing directions when it comes to discerning what options there are and apart from that: with dwindling financial resources, decreasing numbers and an increasing age profile it is not clear, should we be able to agree on what needs to happen next and come to a new inspiring vision, if we would be able to actually give this vision the hands and feet it needs.

And that’s where most of us prefer to stop thinking, if we ever even allow ourselves to get that far. Because we don’t want to be negative. Because we don’t like that feeling that what is dear to us is under threat. Because we prefer a smile to a sigh. Because we don’t like to be disturbed, or unsettled.

What if the storm that has broken in our life is exactly in the things which we are trying desperately to ignore? That from which we are hiding, that which we have locked our doors against? What if the situation we find ourselves in as a Church, as TUC is Spirit induced and designed to liberate us from something that may have become too comfortable and safe for our own good? What if it is there to force us to move, to make us shift, to open our hearts and minds again and in a different way to God in Christ? Wake us up to the fact that we’ve been asleep for a long time and that something altogether new is waiting to happen? And trying to create space for us to actually be exited about that?

Congregations around the synod that hit rock bottom seem to share an experience I know from the context of spiritual direction. Often it is in the desert, in the wilderness, in the place where everything what made life safe, comfortable and familiar falls away, that miracles start to happen and new life breaks forth. The place of darkness and death the place where recreation and transformation originates from.

The Church is in transition. A transition that is as dramatic and important as that first transition two thousand years ago. And it has been in transition for a while. TUC is in transition. Not only because I am leaving and the ministry situation will dramatically change, but because this Church is not what it used to be in the seventies and eighties. It has changed. It is changing. A storm has broken during your life time and mine and the Spirit is pulling and pushing us. Where, and how, we will only be able to discern with an open heart and mind in and through prayer. By trying to fit into each other as living constituent parts of the body of Christ. Called whoever and however we are, old, young, male or female. Even if we are prickly and frustrated, perhaps feeling we are unappreciated parts of the furniture everyone takes for granted, or youngsters who don’t really see why we should keep the institution going anyway.

We have to believe that somehow, the Spirit is at work, even here, even now. And that we can feel her breathe if we but open our hearts and minds and stop holding our own.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2010

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