Preacher – Mark Chia
24 May 2015
“The Holy Spiral of God”
In Acts Chapter 2, the first disciples who were waiting patiently in the Upper Room, receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus. This Spirit gives them the power to speak in different, entirely foreign languages they’d never learnt and probably not even heard of before. This dramatically miraculous scene draws the attention of all the Jews who’d come from all over the Roman empire to celebrate the Pentecost, or the Harvest of Weeks. Having witnessed the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, Peter is inspired with the confidence and the words to preach his first public sermon, the gospel. He explains that the Messiah they had been waiting for all along was the same Jesus who lived, taught and healed among them; the one whom they arrested, tried, crucified, but who resurrected, and ascended to heaven. He calls on all who were present to repent, be baptised and receive the Holy Spirit. This is a message for the women and men who were present, their children and “for all who call upon the Name of the Lord”.
For many Christians, this is the first public preaching of the Good news since the Ascension of Jesus. And for many Christians around the world, across various Christian denominations, we regard this episode to be profoundly significant for a number of reasons.
First, it is seen as a reversal of the episode at the Tower of Babel in Genesis Chapter 11. Whereas the gift of tongues was used as a curse to demolish humanity’s singular ambition to reach heaven by their own power and efforts and “make a name for themselves [my words]”, this gift of tongues in Acts comes as a blessing and celebration of humanity’s diversity united under the Name of and Saving Grace of God. Whereas one symbolised men’s egoistic obsession with homogeneity and political power, the other symbolised a surrender to diversity and harmonising power of the Spirit. Such is the view of both evangelical in mainline churches and post-evangelicals across the theological divide.
Second, it represents the restoration of Israel’s broken relationship with Yahweh. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Gift of the Ten Commandments led to a bloody genocide led by Moses and the Priestly Levites which subsequently resulted in the senseless slaughter of 3000 Israelites “brother(s) and friend(s) and neighbour(s)”. At the Pentecost scene of Acts 2, the gift of the Holy spirit leads to the spiritual awakening of 3000 repentant Jews and Jewish converts who join Peter’s band of Jesus followers to form the new Jesus sect. And the result? It led to “fellowship”, “breaking of bread” and “prayer”, a community of love where “all the believers were together and had everything in common”.
Third, for the followers of Jesus, the Pentecost scene in Acts marks a new beginning, a reconfiguration in the way the followers of Jesus were to follow God, not by simply obeying the statutes of the law, but by listening and responding to the counsel, the comfort, and the movement of the Holy Spirit gifted to all who repent and are baptised. Instead of the Letter of the Law, which brings death, we are called to the Letter of the Spirit, which brings life. A transformation from a spirituality of obligations to a spirituality of empowerment, and responsibility, to be under Grace, that is, ruled by Grace, by lending ourselves as instruments of righteousness, as Paul so often reminds us to be.
All these ideas are foundational beliefs of any Christian, whether liberal or conservative, and I fully agree with them not just because I think they’re biblically defensible positions, but because they lead us in the way of love. Reaching a higher plane of spiritual awakening often requires rethinking, reworking and reestablishing our relationship with God in a new way. The trouble with stories like the Pentecost story is that the more familiar we are with it, the more comfortable we are with what it has taught us, and the less likely we are to learn new things. But if we are children of the Holy Spirit, born of the spirit, then I think we owe it to God to also keep our minds open, allowing the stories to remind and re-mind us. And so, let us read the scripture with new eyes.
In the prequel to the alleged ‘Birthday of the Church’, just one chapter before the Pentecost miracle, the apostles asked Jesus, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). What did they have in mind when they asked about the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel? Jesus himself never actually corrects them, but answers them in a roundabout way that makes them both right and wrong at the same time. Did anything which happened between Acts Chapter 1 and 2 change their understanding of the Jesus movement as anything more than a movement meant for repentant Jews? If you were Peter, would you have thought of the resurrection and return of Jesus anything more than a confirmation that the last days were neigh, that Jesus the true Messiah (of Israel) was about to lead them to the final victory?
In Acts Chapter 2 itself, we find ourselves at the spiritual centre of Judaism, a city filled to the brim with Jews and converts to Judaism, and members of the Jewish diaspora celebrating the festival of Pentecost, or the Jewish Feast of First Fruits, one of three major Feasts, the others being the Passover and Tabernacle. When the first disciples burst into tongues or “languages”, they broke out in the tongues of the Jewish diaspora for the purpose of communicating with the “God fearing Jews from ever nation under heaven”, or subsequently “Jews and converts to Judaism”. Peter addresses the Jewish crowd, he clarifies that the disciples were not drunk as “It’s only nine in the morning!” (Acts 2: 15), an insider cultural reference to the Jewish ritualistic restriction which prohibits wine before ten on the morning of the Pentecost. They do drink wine in the morning! There is actually a social message communicated here.
Then, as the Pentecostal scene unfolds, Peter relies heavily on Jewish historical and cultural references to King David as a source of authority, and presents Jesus, as it were, the new and improved version of David, the true Messiah who alludes to some form of final political resolution, to “make your enemies (a.k.a Israel’s enemies?) a footstool for your feet”. If anything, it was a oneupmanship between David and Jesus! Jesus as the completer of the Grand Narrative of Salvation for the Israelites. With this compelling message, together with the miracle of tongues, the Jews and Converts to Judaism present were “cut to their hearts”, repented, got baptised and joined Peter’s band of Jesus followers.
To be honest, the more I thought about it, the more disturbed I got. It occurred to me that it was not until much MUCH later in Acts 8 when Philip first preached to the Ethiopians, long after Saul-now-known-as-Paul’s conversion in Chapter 9, long after Peter’s vision in which God instructed him to eat unclean animals in Chapter 10 long after the endless debates among the early church fathers in Antioch in Chapter 11, that the Church as we know it, the Christian church as we now known it, and of which we are now a part of finally came into being. At the scene of the Pentecost sermon, in the minds of the original first disciples, was a very clear audience in mind, an audience of which none of us who call ourselves ‘Christians’ were a part of – at that point in time. It was far from being the ‘birthday of the church’. And let’s not even get on to the topic of LGBTIQ Christians!
But don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating the deconstruction and deposal of the Pentecost story. I do believe that the Holy Spirit brought about a public miracle, to bring about a divinely inspired spiritual awakening that allowed the first disciples, and its early converts, to transcend the boundaries of language and culture that so divided the nation of Israel. I do believe in the private miracle that transformed Peter, who went from cowardice to confidence, from weakness to wisdom, from self-preservation to sacrificing his life a martyr. I also believe that through the story of the early Jewish sect of Jesus resonates with our own experiences of spiritual awakening as Christians, of being cut to the heart and being born again in the life giving spirit of the divine.
Yet, while the spiritual awakening was real, it was grossly incomplete, or more accurately, in the process of completion. Granted the Holy Spirit filled the hearts of the first disciples and they were awakened to a new vision of God’s kingdom. Contrary to Peter’s sermon, which made it seem as if the grand narrative of God’s love story of salvation was complete with the ascension of Jesus, the story had only just begun. The story continues to develop and evolve in ways the followers of Jesus at the Pentecost at that point in time would on hindsight probably not recognise or accept. But why should we be surprised? If the Holy Spirit bring life, if it moves, animates and invigorates, if it rebukes and counsels and comforts, do we really expect the good news to stay the same?
But if the Story of the Good News progresses, what is the nature of this movement?
As children of 19th Century Enlightenment and Cartesian rationalism, we often see the movement of the Spirit as more or less a linear progression. That the movement of the Spirit is progresses to a certain endpoint, from point A to point B. Kind of like a journey, hence, the term spiritual journey. So for instance, such a conception of spiritual awakening has the idea of moving on, being beyond this or that. As if this were some kind of spiritual guru competition – I am more enlightened, more awakened, more transcendent, more whatever than you are. Such is one idea of progress, quite similar to the way the first followers of Jesus in Acts 2 conceived of their spiritual awakening in that place and time and society. But I think the Holy spirit moves in a slightly different way.
Father Richard Rohr, a leading advocate of Christian mysticism had this to say: “the litmus test that an apparently higher state of awareness is genuinely higher is that it always includes and honours all the previous stages. It is not either or but both and thinking” (The Naked Now, 118). But how can spiritual progress ever be both and when progression is always moving towards somewhere, from point A to B to C? How can we have a theology that at once promotes progress, as progressive Christianity so often does, and yet at the same time, claims to promote inclusivity? What model of spiritual progression allows us to be progressive and yet inclusive at the same time? What model of progressive Christianity allows me to move on from and yet accept Peter’s account of spiritual awakening by the Holy Spirit? In times like these, and in a church like this, we need a different model of spiritual awakening and how the Holy Spirit plays a role in it.
Maybe, instead of seeing the movement of the Holy Spirit as a linear progression from point A to B, we can see it as a spiral progression. Kind of like a funnel shaped spring, whose spiralled progression of circles is guided by the same geometric formula, like a magic ratio of sorts. So the levels are different but the formula that guides the spiral’s the same. And while from the human, horizontal view, point A seems distinct or ‘higher’ from point B, in fact, from God’s view, point A is contained within point B. It is but a series of concentric circles. There’s no difference at all!
For many lesbian, gay and transgender and straights folks here, coming to terms with your sexual identity may well be your Pentecost experience. I believe many who have walked through the doors of FCC and drank from the fountains of Living Water and LUSH can attest to the profound movement of the spirit. Many describe it as a feeling of ‘coming home’, hence, our FCC tagline, welcome home. We regale stories of the past, how we journeyed through the desert, how we built community and relationships, and found our own space. For many of us in FCC, we’ve been born again not once, but twice! First as a Christian when we were first ‘saved’, then as a queer Christian when we came home to our ‘self’.
Is there value in that? Yes there is. There is always value in reminding ourselves to be grounded, appreciate what we have, and to never lose the sheer grit and survival instinct that made us move mountains in the early days. I think part of the power of such stories is echoed in the Pentecostal experiences of the early followers of Jesus, who finally saw themselves within the grand narrative of Messianic salvation – for the Jews, that is. The coming home experience for queer folks is akin to Peter’s spiritual awakening, of having gotten ‘it’, seeing the whole story fit together, with oneself at the centre of the narrative.
But I also think that part of our struggle is that I’m not too sure if our grand narrative as a church has developed beyond our Pentecostal experience, whether on the private level or public level, individual or church level. We reconcile our faith and sexuality; we make some friends in church, then what? What can we offer the larger community? How can we live in a way that spreads the good news AND be the good news to others? How have we lent ourselves as instruments of righteousness, to bring an experience of godly love to the world around us? Peter and the early Jewish church did not stay put in Acts 2. Their spiritual awakening or understanding evolved and included ever-greater circles. So should we.
The Pentecost story is a story within a larger story. And I think if there is at least one moral of the story, it is this: it is less important what we believe than how we believe. It is less important what the good news was, but how we allow the good news grow in ways we do not expect. It is less important in asking whether we ‘got’ the Holy Spirit, as if it were an object to possess, but a force we align with, and a force, which moves along with us, as we seek to spread the good news as a community. We don’t just need the Gospel. We don’t need Gospel 2.0. We need Gospel 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, ad infinitum. We can’t be stuck at Acts 2, however enthralled we are of the image of overflowing with the spirit, the miracle of tongues and the confidence it inspires in us.
Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit desires to move and bring us closer to God. Let us neither run away or stand in the way. Let us, instead, be carried away in ever widening spirals of love.