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How to Be a Pentecostal

June 10, 2014

“How to Be a Pentecostal” Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21 © 6.8.14 Pentecost A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve become convinced that it’s vitally important for our mission and personal spirituality that you and I become Pentecostals. This morning I’m going to walk you through how that might happen.

Before you decide you want the session to hire a different stated supply, let me say a bit more. I don’t mean the congregation should affiliate with a Pentecostal denomination and leave the PC(USA). The fact is that Pentecostal worship actually has little to do with the events of the Day of Pentecost as reported by Luke. All Pentecostal denominations are misnamed. Their practices and expectations of ecstatic prophecy, being slain in the Spirit, speaking in heavenly tongues are actually the phenomenon Paul dealt with in the church in Corinth. Luke talks about such mysterious occurrences, but that’s later in Acts, not in the text before us.

There’s no reason we can’t claim the adjective “Pentecostal” to describe ourselves. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the place to begin to find out how is the story of the tower of Babel.

That Genesis tale once functioned as an explanation of why there were so many languages. It was also a piece of PR for Babylon, celebrating the glory of the city and its temple towers, called “ziggurats.” The idea was that the building served as the gate for the deity to come through and meet with people. That’s what “Babel” originally meant: “the gate of God.” The Hebrews sarcastically connected the name, though, with their word that meant “confusion,” “balal.”

Whatever its original use, in the 10th century BC a writer we call the Yahwist reworked it to comment on how human beings everywhere, not just in one city, respond to the purposes of God. Or actually try to thwart them. He’s also interested in how language works either to promote or hinder community. That’s where the Acts text is going to plug in.

As Walter Brueggemann has observed, the purpose of God here is other than what we expect. We hear constantly that God wills unity, harmony, understanding, and peaceful cooperation. But in this story he scatters people intentionally. Why?

There are a couple of reasons. With everyone in one place, as the text says, the command of God that the whole earth be populated is not being followed. And as one commentator notes, without spreading abroad, human beings cannot fulfill their responsibility to be caretakers of the earth. In both creation accounts, the one written by the Yahwist in the 10th century and the one by priests from the 6th century BC, creation does not reach its full potential without human involvement. People are to be stewards of the earth; they are to till and keep it. They mirror God’s activity with his world. So, this writer notes, “for the builders to concentrate their efforts narrowly on the future of (only) human community places the future of the rest of creation in jeopardy. An isolationist view of their place in the world, centered on self-preservation, puts the rest of creation at risk. The building project thus understeps rather than oversteps human limits…’ (Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. I: 412).

The other problem with Babel-style unity is that it arises from an autonomous human agenda that doesn’t include God. Never mind that the tower was built for religious ceremonies. What the builders are interested in is an enforced conformity, a unity that excludes any difference that may threaten the security of the community. The writer knows that religion sometimes—often—does its part of contribute to coerced unity.

In such a regime, language becomes something like George Orwell’s “Newspeak” in his novel 1984. Diversity, creativity of expression, imagination in language is discouraged. Words are twisted to mean something entirely different than what they seem to communicate. As Orwell had it, “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength.” Language is used by oppressors to redefine reality. Or it’s used to mystify, as in a cartoon I once saw. A man is listening to a conversation between two other people in an elevator. They’re using highly technical language, the latest jargon: “Mind you, our specific modality can alter appreciably given the factors governing alternate diplomacy.” The listener thinks to himself: “I wonder if they talk like that when they don’t have an audience.” When language is used to obscure truth, hide facts, promote a self-serving agenda, it becomes an agent of sin instead of redemption.

Against that background, the Yahwist thought of the diversity of languages as a means to create alternative realities. Human beings can speak of things that are not and bring them into being simply with words. By talking, writing, singing, they keep hope alive. Is it any wonder that totalitarian societies are afraid of freedom of assembly and speech, while in democracies, those are some of our most cherished rights?

Pentecost was the unleashing of the power of God that created a universal community in which unity and diversity complement each other. Language was given back to humankind as a tool for redemption of all creation. This day signaled the eventual but certain defeat of those who use language to coerce, frighten, and oppress. Unity in the Pentecost community was based not on a self-serving agenda without God, but on a common commitment to God who sent his Son. As Calvin put it: “Al­though their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry ‘Abba, Father’”(Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: 104). Luke seems to make a special point of the diversity of the crowd, as he has them each in turn tell where he or she is from. Yet, as different as they are, they all understand the gospel in their own language. They have not only been given back language, but listening and hearing as well. Pentecost is nothing less than the reversal of Babel.

So what does any of this have to do with how to be a Pentecostal? Let me suggest first of all that being a Pentecostal means to use language redemptively and to listen sincerely. Language, as we have seen, has the potential to hurt or to heal, to clarify or to mystify, to oppress or to liberate. We are called to speak in such a way that re­lationships may be built and maintained, that people and societies may be led into wholeness, justice may be promoted, and comfort and hope bestowed. We’re to “speak the truth in love,” as the author of Ephesians put it. Being a Pentecostal means to rid our speech of language which demeans, stereotypes, intimidates or intentionally offends our neighbor. Language used by a Pentecostal, far from being incomprehensible, is supremely understandable. It opens up the way of communication and becomes a means of grace to those who hear.

So our speech full of grace. But we also listen sincerely and well. Isn’t it true that what we hear we filter through our preconceptions and prejudice? We also are quite often concerned not so much with what the other person is really saying, but what our response will be. There is a quip from back in the day that illustrates our listening problem. I can’t quote it exactly, but it went something like: “I know that you believe you understand what I have said, but I am not sure that what you heard is really what I meant.” Pentecost, however, was about really understanding and listening. The problem at Babel could well have been that people not only did not understand each other anymore; they didn’t listen, either! Pentecost calls us to listen with openness and a genuine desire to understand, even if we don’t agree with, the other person’s viewpoint. It’s vitally important, especially in this age when courtesy and civility have died, that people listen to one another. As Brueggemann has it: “Not listening is related to death in a relationship. To fail to listen means to declare the other party null and void. A society which suffers failed speech . . .cannot believe promises, cannot trust God, cannot be human” (Genesis: 103).

Next, being Pentecostal implies the affirmation and practice of unity that’s enriched by diversity. Unity is a good thing, but so are differences. They enrich the community. Pentecost envisions people united to fulfill the purposes of God for peace, justice, joy, caring, truly human life and the well-being of all creation. It’s unity that arises from common concern, not coercion. Diversity brings the creative tension that keeps that united community from becoming stale, entrenched, and committed to the maintenance of the status quo.

Finally, being Pentecostal means to nurture our imaginations. Peter called what happened on the day of Pentecost the dawn of a new age predicted by Joel the prophet. In that new era, sons and daughters would prophesy, young people would see visions, and older folk would dream dreams. There would be wonders to be seen that would point unmistakably to the presence of God. And people would be saved. Pentecost calls us to be open to the future that God is leading us into, to use the gift of language to call into being things that are not, to look at the community and world and our own lives and see new and fresh possibilities for ministry, growth, and wholeness. It calls us to believe that God will do wonders right in our midst as we call upon him to pour out his Spirit and bring Pentecostal power to bear on our speech, our hearing, our living, and even our dreams. As one blogger has said: “We don’t have any idea what the Spirit will do next, so let’s not pretend that we do, or try to limit our assumptions about what the Spirit might do. The one thing we know for sure is that the Spirit is bringing us toward [a] new creation, so whatever it is, it’s going to be good” (Danielle Shroyer, “You Don’t Take Pentecost Seriously”


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