a theophany for us all

Sermon 5-31-2020

Acts 1:1-11

How’s your waiting and watching going, friends? Any glimpses of the Spirit while you’ve been on the lookout this week? I have not felt the Spirit compel me into all the world, yet, but I have sensed her movement: the first lightning bug showed up in my yard the other night, which always makes me think of the Spirit’s fiery presence. And our Coordinating Council’s conversation last week, the ways they considered and discerned how to practice our love of neighbor by continuing to meet from a distance until there is very little chance that we’d do harm by our gathering felt, to me, like a Spirit-led process. When I shared our decision on social media, it was picked up as a really helpful metric.

Have you noticed the Spirit swirling around anywhere in your life this week?

It might help to have a refresher on what the Spirit does…which is a LOT. Scripture is not of one mind about the nature of purpose of the Holy Spirit: the RUACH, or BREATH of GOD shows up in the Old Testament, hovering over the waters at creation, rested on the people God called to be prophets, comforts, fills, compels, translates, motivates, and moves us. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that came upon Mary, the mother of Jesus, and caused her to conceive.

And Jesus’ own ministry got kicked off when the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came down from heaven and alighted on him at his baptism.

The Holy Spirit is evasive and mysterious, the part of the trinitarian God about which we have the least understanding but perhaps the most interaction. Pneuma, the Greek word for Spirit means “spirit” but also “wind” and “breath.” The Spirit also shows up as FIRE.

And that’s what we get here in Acts 2, the story of Pentecost. You remember that Jesus has ascended into heaven, and has commanded his disciples to sit tight and wait for the Spirit to show up before they do anything else. And that’s what they’re doing. So they were all together – some 120 of them – when the day of Pentecost arrived.

Pentecost was a Jewish holiday, the Festival of Weeks. It was a harvest festival, and it also marked the reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The disciples were gathered together on this day of celebration, this day of remembering when God had made God’s self known to God’s people through the law.

Do you remember that story of Moses going up to receive the ten commandments? Remember how dramatic that scene was? The people are traveling together until they finally reach Mount Sinai, and God tells Moses to instruct the people to purify and prepare themselves because he is going to come down and show himself to them. God is going to reveal God’s self to the people. And this is what that looked like:

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.

Thunder. Lightning. A thick cloud and a loud trumpet. The Lord “descended in fire” and the whole mountain shook violently.

When God shows up in scripture, it is an Event. These scenes are called “theophanies,” or “divine showings.” When Luke recorded the scene at Pentecost there in the house in Jerusalem and eventually out on the city streets, he is reminding us that this, too, is a theophany. This is God showing God’s self. This is an inbreaking of the divine, a momentous occasion of the Creator crossing boundaries in order to show Herself to the created.

And so, here at Pentecost, when the disciples are all gathered together, having been instructed – like Moses instructed the Israelites – to prepare, wait, and watch, God SHOWS UP with the RUSH of a violent wind, filling the entire house. And there’s fire here, too: divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue of fire rested on each one of them.

That detail always catches me up short: what’s with the flames on peoples’ heads? I know that these theophanies are full of sensory details – that when God chooses to show God’s self to God’s people, things get loud and hot and chaotic. All of these scriptural descriptions include details about what it LOOKS and FEELS and SMELLS like to experience God’s presence. So I understand that the Spirit’s inbreaking at Pentecost was loud and chaotic and felt like nothing those first followers of Jesus had ever experienced before. I understand that Luke was intentionally reminding his readers of God’s breaking in at Mount Sinai. I understand that we are to recognize what a momentous, incredible moment this was in the course of God’s relationship with humans.

But I don’t understand what those tongues of fire were about. At Mt. Sinai, there was lightning in the sky, and the mountain itself was wrapped in smoke because God showed up “in fire.” But what does it mean that at Pentecost, the fire separated into tongues and took up residence on each individual person?


Pentecost, Jesus Mafa

This time, as I read and studied the scripture, I learned something new that blew my mind. New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen has noted that on ancient Roman coins – coins that would have been in circulation during this time – Caesar’s image is imprinted on the coin. And in that image, a divided tongue of fire appears on top of Caesar’s head. The fire was meant to be a sign of royalty and divinity. The tongues of fire there on top of Caesar’s head were meant to convey to anyone who held or used that coin as currency that Caesar was the Son of God.

We might assume, then, that the Spirit showing up in tongues of fire that settled on the heads of every person present there in that place is meant to convey that every person present there at Pentecost was, in the dramatic theophany and revelation of the Holy Spirit’s inbreaking, caught up in the mysterious relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; that every person there because inextricably and unmistakably filled with the Divine, each one marked forever as a Child of God.

What a revelation! And, remembering all the work Jesus has done to prepare his disciples and friends for this moment – declaring that this “other advocate” will arrive to claim them, teaching his friends that in this Spirit, they will do even more and greater acts than he has done, promising over and over and over and over that the relationship between the Father and the Son and these beloved friends cannot be destroyed…well, it sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?

That the Spirit’s arrival cemented the promised relationship and identity of these tiny humans as part of the Divine Trinity. Those who had waited so patiently, in such trust and faith, are now not only swept up into God’s work but gathered in, claimed and identified as CHILDREN OF GOD, filled to the brim with the fire and breath of divinity.

I’ve been thinking about that breath of divinity this week, the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being, the Spirit that inspires and convicts, the Spirit that enlivens us and fills every inhale and exhale. We are created beings, gifted with breath, sustained by the Spirit. Breath is a sacred thing.

We know that. We understand how essential breath is to life. It is why the way that COVID-19 kills is so terrifying: to have our breath taken away as a virus attacks vessels in our lungs and restricts our airways is horrific. You’ve probably seen the images of what it looks like for patients to be on ventilators, forced to resort to allowing machines to breathe for them. It is deeply disturbing, because breath is life. Breathing is so elemental, so essential, so automatic and endemic to what it is to be human. Our breath connects us to our identity as children of God, people of the Spirit.

And so it is even more deeply horrifying when brothers and sisters are killed – not by a virus – but by fellow human beings who intentionally place a knee on their neck for nine minutes, snuffing out life by refusing breath. When Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd this week, he attacked the breath, the Spirit. Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe,” were literal.

Chauvin KNEW Floyd. They worked together as bouncers at a local restaurant for many years. And still, Chauvin could not manage to see Floyd as a fellow human being gifted with life and breath by the same creator that had endowed him with the same. He shut off George Floyd’s breath with impunity. This, friends, is what blaspheming against the Spirit means. This refusal to honor the sacred, divine breath of another is what Jesus said entails, in Mark 3, eternal guilt.

Those tongues of fire that descended on each person at Pentecost are still here. We don’t always see them, and, sometimes – especially when we are bound in the sin of racism and white supremacy – we actively deny their existence. But each and every person has been gifted this grace and power of spirit-breath. Each and every one of us is made in God’s own image, and each and every one of us is somehow bound up in the mysterious relationship of Father-Son-Holy Ghost. The story of Pentecost is the story of humans getting swept up into the divine.

I wish I knew the setting for WebEx that could create a tiny, divided tongue of fire on top of every one of your faces here on my screen. I am not quite that technologically advanced, so I am imagining it. I invite you to try it, too: every precious person on this screen, every beloved neighbor and stranger we meet on the street, every single human being is walking around all the time with that flame of divinity hovering over them, that breath of the Spirit sustaining and enlivening them. Every one.

I believe that if we knew that – if we were able to receive the blessing and grace of being created beings who are constantly trailed by this flame of divinity; if we took to heart this bedrock fact of our own identity as children of God – then perhaps we would be quicker to acknowledge that it is true about every other person, too. I doubt that Derek Chauvin understands his own identity as a beloved, created child of God filled with the breath of the Spirit: how could he, when he is so quick and willing to stamp out that divinity in another? I know that receiving the gift of the Spirit – in breath or divided tongues of fire – is difficult for me to do, too, and I know that my reluctance to receive my own identity as a child of God prevents me from acknowledging, respecting and greeting that image of God in others.

And so, friends, may we receive this gift of Pentecost: that we are beloved, Spirit-breathed, children of God. May that truth sink deep into the sinews and bones of our being. May we allow the grace of God’s love to transform us into people who see the breath of the Spirit and the tongues of divine fire in every other Sister and Brother, people who stand up to demand that God’s creation be treated as sacred and divine in every time and place.

May it be so.

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