This week we celebrate the beginning of the Christian Church, Pentecost. Among other things, Pentecost is a declaration that Christ’s relationship with his disciples, including us, is a new thing: one that transforms us and our relationship with the Divine in fundamental and lasting ways.
Pentecost reflects a new level of openness, of sharing, of vulnerability. A deeper bond has been created: binding us together and with God through the Holy Spirit that indwells each and every one of us. It is an affirmation of who we are and who we are to become.
Affirmation is central to our experience and mission here at ARK Church. We are affirmed by God, and so we are determined to be affirming, of all whom we meet. Affirmation is much more than simply saying “I accept you as you are and for who you are.” It is a commitment we live each and every day in all that we do, beginning with our commitment to being an “Open and Affirming Church.” As I’ve said before, affirmation is an action, a process: not a goal, not a state. And, unlike the word “acceptance,” the word “affirmation” does not imply that the other has to pass some sort of test for membership to be part of our community.
To affirm is to free the other from needing to meet our expectations. You can affirm someone even if they are not acceptable; in fact, we are called to do so since acceptance implies we’ve judged the other as meeting our criteria for membership within our group, as if our judgment matters more than God’s.
Affirmation requires loving The Other without judgment, and that means loving every aspect of who they are, and what they are. Affirmation frees The Other to continue the journey that their own relationship with the Eternal drives them to pursue. It is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all of the answers, and that The Other’s answers – and questions – deserve just as much respect and care as we expect others to show for ours. Affirmation is driven by our firm conviction that the Holy Spirit is available to all and that God is present in all of Creation. A conviction rooted in Peter’s words to that crowd of many nations on that first Pentecost: “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
… All Flesh.
So, it is our role, our responsibility, to discern God within The Other, because the scriptures say that God is already there, in the form of the Holy Spirit that binds us all together. And that this is true even if the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives manifests itself in ways that we are neither familiar nor comfortable with.
This is what Love is.
Pentecost says we are loved as equals with Jesus, equals with each other: we are no longer followers or servants. There can be no hierarchy of Divine (or Worldly) power or favor. And, we are responsible for our own faith and ministry; they are not subordinate to the will or faith of others.
We are sisters and brothers in Christ. The Holy Spirit guides and comforts us, binding us together in ways that will never be broken, nor forgotten. Through Pentecost, we are affirmed, and set free to walk the paths we are called to follow, responsible for our own journey; driven by the Holy Spirit to support and assist our neighbors in their own walk with the Divine.
We are called to love each other – because another definition of Love, and of affirmation, is that we are consciously placing the other’s welfare and best interests ahead of our own. We are acknowledging that our own happiness and wellbeing are meaningless unless The Other is also fulfilled in their own walk with God.
This is how Jesus loves us; and so it is how we are called to love others.
But, there’s more to the story.
In Acts 2, Peter is preaching to people of many nations: people coming together in Jerusalem to celebrate their shared love of God. Many of them would like to become one with the chosen people of God, but cannot do so because it involves conforming to Judaic law, which involves some serious social costs and even physical risk and pain (in the form of the surgery – done without anesthetics or antibiotics – that was required for gentile men to become circumcised).
So, the question the early church faced – as do we – is: Is this what God wants them (or us) to do? Do we need to conform ourselves to the expectations of others, or their law, to demonstrate that we are true believers? And, if so (or, if not), why?
Let’s think about that for a minute…
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is one where group membership – collective thought and action – are all that matters. The people speak, but no single human has a voice. They want to make a name for themselves as a people. They fear being scattered, they fear becoming individuals. Individuality is ignored, and even discouraged; not all that different from the faceless group of disciples when we first see them together with Jesus, at Cana. At the Tower of Babel, and in Cana, God does not speak to the people, doesn’t even warn them. The lack of individuality in both stories reflects a broken (or perhaps a better term would be “incomplete” or “unredeemed”) relationship with the Divine.
So, in both Babel and Cana, I see a metaphor for how not valuing our own particular individuality – or anyone else’s can lead to a celebration of our collective selves to the exclusion of all else: The people of Shinar built a tower; the Disciples got sloshed with the rest of the crowd.
And, like they did, we often forget we have our own individual relationship with God; and, we forget that God values us individually, not just collectively. We see God as distant, disconnected, and unknowable. We feel we have to “find God” – not realizing God is already here. And, thinking God is absent, we are blind to what God is doing all around us, and blind to what God calls us to do to meet the challenges that are all round us. We forget that God’s centrality in our lives cannot be replaced with our own hubris, nor is God’s presence erased by our fears or failures.
The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that our own destinies and value are not dependent upon ourselves, or each other, but upon God. We have no choice but to rely on the love God has for each of us. We must each have our own “faith-language,” or own particular vocabulary for comprehending and having a relationship with, the Divine. We cannot rely on someone else’s. We cannot be anything, nor accomplish anything, without God in our lives.
For this reason, it is important that we have our own individual dialog with the Eternal, our own personal faith. Our faith is unique to us: it defines our relationship with the Divine, and our relationship with those around us.
Our faith-language helps us to see the greatness of God. Through it, we realize that our own destiny, and our own identity, is a reflection of the special and unique gifts God has placed within each and every one of us, individually.
Now, Peter’s message on Pentecost is preached to people speaking many different languages, and they all comprehend his words as if he was speaking their own language – another metaphor. The message of the Gospel is for all people, it doesn’t matter who they are – or what faith-language they use. They will hear the Gospel, and this also means that God – and we – are capable of hearing and seeing The Other, too. We hear and see their individuality, and celebrate it, and accept it, and affirm it, because we all share the same Holy Spirit. We are all part of the same family of God. We are individuals, and yet we are also united through our faith, and through our membership within all that is part of God’s Creation.
To sum it up, one lesson we can find in Pentecost is that we do not need to sacrifice our own individuality to be followers of the Gospel, nor should we. We do not need to conform to the dictates of any human agency or group. The Gospel is meant for us to hear right now, for ourselves. No need to learn a new language, no need to conform to The Other’s rules. And, no need for them to conform to ours. They can hear the message Peter preaches just as well as we can, there is no need for us nor anyone else to interpret for them. And, when any one of us calls upon the name of the Lord, we are heard, no matter what faith-language we speak. We are joined together by the Holy Spirit in our love of a God who loves each and every one of us fiercely and forever.
Through Pentecost, Christ says “You are Those Whom I Love.” …We are valued by God for who we are as individuals, and yet also united with each other and with The Divine through the Holy Spirit.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, May 15, 2016 (Pentecost).
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)