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A Prophetic Community

May 26, 2015

“A Prophetic Community” Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-21 © 5.24.15 Day of Pentecost B and Presbyterian Heritage Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Southwest Georgia, where I grew up, is not prone to tornadoes and certainly not hurricanes. I don’t even recall a storm bad enough to topple trees in our yard. So my first experience with the power of wind was not until 1979, when I was 27. In that year, Hurricane Frederic struck Mobile, where I was on the staff of a church. I was a total coward; rather than stay with my parishioners and help in the storm’s aftermath, I boarded up the downstairs windows of my townhouse, filled my bathtub with water, and fled the city. When I returned, I found a hole in my roof, debris in the bathtub from which I had thought I would get fresh water, and broken upstairs windows. I actually was lucky; at least my home was not destroyed, and the church was still standing. But it was then that I learned to respect and hate wind.

Yet if the wind has power to wreak havoc and bring terror, destroying homes and taking life, it can also provide comfort. Who of us has not enjoyed a cool breeze that brings relief as it blows through a porch or across a deck on a sweltering hot day? Wind can provide power to pump water or grind grain. It can send a sailboat along on its way on the lake or give a boost to a jet in flight, putting us at our destination ahead of schedule. If wind can hurt, it can also help.

The same can be said for fire. A soldier with a flamethrower can devastate a forest or drive an enemy from a bunker. Firestorms from napalm or a nuclear blast destroy everything and everyone in their path. An uncontrollable conflagration spreads through the woods, started by a careless camper’s incompletely extinguished campfire or cigarette. A house burns in the middle of the night, and a family knows trauma, chaos, even death. It’s a lesson we learn early in life, whether from touching a hot stove or the stray coal on the hearth: flame is a force to be reckoned with.

But fire can also come to our rescue or be a friend. On a cold night, camping out, we’re warmed by its glow. A bonfire forms the focus for fellowship, as people gather around to roast marshmallows and sing favorite choruses. Romance blossoms by the soft light of a fireplace in a dimly lit room. Fire cleanses and renews, creates and strengthens. We welcome its presence.

Because we know about wind and fire, we read and hear the story of Pentecost with mixed emotions. There’s excitement, because we know the possibilities that may be made real. Yet there’s also foreboding. A full force gale sweeps through the room where disciples are gathered in prayer. Will they be blown away by the rush of mighty wind or as singer Van Morrison put it, “lifted up again” by it? Can they somehow give themselves to its power and be set free to go into the world like a ship liberated from the doldrums? And what about the fire? The blazing tongues that divide and sit upon each one present may engulf and consume or they may set hearts alight with newfound zeal.

As the story goes on, we know that for these who have waited and prayed, the time longed for has come; the promise given by their Lord and ours is fulfilled. They’re empowered and made articulate for the proclamation of the gospel. This wind and fire, this sound and fury which signifies everything, is for their good. In fact, it is for the good of all humankind.

With the mighty rush of the Spirit-wind and the resting of flaming tongues, the Church has been born. The disciples gulp in the wind like a baby taking her first breath. They’re warmed by the fire and revived as is a freezing hiker who finds shelter from a winter storm.

The sound draws a crowd, curious to see what all the commotion is about. The people in Jerusalem did exactly what we would do upon hearing some loud noise off in the distance. We start asking questions: what was that? Where is it coming from? Was it an explosion? A wreck? We might even go and see what had happened, phones at the ready to video the scene.

Once gathered, the festival throng from around the known world begins asking its own questions. Some are amazed and bewildered and want to know more. Others, sure of their own sophisticated wisdom, deride the believers and accuse them of drunkenness.

Who will stand up to address the crowd with its seekers and scoffers? John perhaps or maybe Andrew? Thomas or that new man, Matthias? We’re surprised by who gets up in front and starts preaching! It’s Peter, of all people! Peter, treasonous as Judas in his own way, faces the mass of humanity gathered there when he would not admit his association with Jesus to a servant girl. This once cowardly disciple had gotten back the gift of speech that was redemptive and powerful. The carcass of faith killed in a courtyard is given flesh and muscle and heart and mind by the Spirit. Dry bones do live!

Peter’s speech handles both the urbane scoffing of sophists and the bewilderment of those who see something truly amazing happening. I love the way he brushes off the charge of drunkenness. He simply says it’s too early to be drunk! What might he have said if the Spirit had come at Happy Hour or midnight?

The apostle’s response to the seekers in the crowd is somewhat more substantive. The proclamation of the gospel in the tongues of all those gathered in the city had created interest and wonder. But matters still remained unclear; the question lingered. What was all this about?

Peter’s speech, presumably in his native Aramaic, maybe in Greek, makes known the true nature of this event. What had been heard and seen was no less than the creation of a new community. A new day had dawned for humankind. A new world order which no government or army or corporation could create was inaugurated by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit. This was no less than an act of God who broke down barriers. No longer would possession of the Spirit be the privilege of an elite minority. Now anyone and everyone could and would be a prophet. Not just men or the old or the rich or the Jew. Also women and the young and the poorest slave and persons of every ethnic background. A world, a people, a community like no other had been brought forth!

We are heirs of that newborn community that grew up and gave birth itself to a new generation. We have inherited both in its nature and its mission. Today we celebrate the heritage not only of a particular denomination, but of the whole people of God. We no less than those first fire-touched disciples are prophets, whether younger or older, female or male, richer or poorer, whatever our background or vocation. We too are called to public ministry, to make clear to increasingly skeptical but sometimes curious folk what it is that God is doing in God’s world in the 21st century.

That you and I are and are called to be prophets means not so much that we foretell the future as that we witness to the mighty deeds of God. As we take up that mantle, we find ourselves part of a long line of those who spoke the word of God, even gave their lives for it. In our company are Moses and Elijah, Second Isaiah and Jeremiah, Hannah and Hulda, Miriam and Mary, Ezekiel and John of Patmos, Peter and Paul, and of course, our Lord himself. Their experience and example, the way they lived out their call, give us clues about our task today. They show us what it means to be a prophet, a preacher of the word.

Many things could be said about the gift and task of prophetic ministry. But I want to focus this morning on just one. It’s this: a prophet has a distinctive word to say that brings forth a new world. Such a word, of course, is not just pulled out of a hat, as it were. It is not just any word. It’s the word of God, the tradition passed down from generation to generation, yet surprisingly fresh for each new day.

The Old Testament prophets, for their part, called folk to renewed commitment to the covenant given to Israel through Moses. They reminded them of what God had done for their ancestors and insisted that God was acting once again for both judgment and salvation, calling to repentance and faith. From the words and deeds of God their mothers and fathers had learned to cherish, each new generation, with its unique challenges and opportunities, could find a starting point and an anchor, as well as a challenge and prod for the future.

The preachers of the early church, too, had been nurtured in the tradition of Moses and Jeremiah and Second Isaiah and Ezekiel. In the scriptures learned in the synagogue school, they found the promises which they believed were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The ancient tradition once again proved the indispensable starting point and rule for discerning what God had done and was doing. Peter’s action on the day of Pentecost was repeated over and over again. An ancient text came alive in a new situation and enabled people to make sense of a bewildering incident.

Today, we have the whole Bible, those writings in which the Church has uniquely heard the voice of the Spirit of God. In our Reformed approach to faith, too, we look to documents written over a span of centuries that are reliable expositions of what Scripture teaches. The Bible and our confessions form our tradition. We modern-day prophets need to know that heritage and how it helps us in 2015 and beyond. That way we will be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us both to the skeptic and the seeking person. We’ll be able to say with clarity what it is we believe when our children or our friends ask us about our values and our faith. We’ll be able to speak a distinctive word, corporately and individually, that separates our message from all the clutter of words of our age. That’s what the world is looking for: a word of clarity and conviction, help and hope, spoken with fervor and faith, hope and above all, love. Such a word is God’s Pentecost gift to each and all of us, as he calls us to be prophets.

That word of God to which we bear witness brings forth a world. A photography exhibit from the last century bore the title “I Dream a World.” That’s what we are about, too. We’re opening the window on fresh insights, we’re looking into a different order of things, we’re challenging the conventional wisdom. We dream dreams; we see visions. As we say “Jesus is Lord,” we mean no one else can claim that title in any ultimate way; no one else can demand our loyalty in the way Jesus can and does. Not the government. Not our work. Not spouse or children or friends. Not even the church. This hour of worship shows us who is really in charge. As we sing of peace and harmony among peoples, we are seeing visions of a world where people learn to settle their differences without resorting to violence. “O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways, where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise,” as a hymn writer put it in the late 1980s (Miriam Therese Winter, “O for a World.” [1987]). Ridiculous, say the scoffers; a fantasy! But we keep right on dreaming such a world because that’s the word of God. As we say “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven,” we tell of a personal world where guilt can be and is dealt with, where what is past is past, and the future is open. We proclaim the possibility that life does not have to be this way, we do not have to be this way, but rather can live as God’s own children, relying on his grace.

We dream a world, the world we find witnessed to over and over again in Scripture. And as prophets, we do not keep the vision to ourselves. Like Peter and all the others through the ages, we stand up and speak out; we tell the good news of what God has done and is doing, and we live the word we preach. Such proclamation attracts people who long to know wonder and mystery, who need hope, and who want to see people who are genuinely filled with the love of the One they say they follow.

Speaking to a group of Dominicans at their monastery in 1948, the philosopher Albert Camus pleaded for the postwar church to speak up. No doubt his words can challenge and inspire us today in a world full of violence, hate, and suspicion: “‘What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear…That they should get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of people resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally’” (quoted by W. Willimon, “Taking It to the Streets,” The Christian Century, 5.1.91: 483).

The gift of God at Pentecost was a Spirit that gave birth in wind and fire to a community that would change the world. A Spirit who enabled a people once huddled in an upper room to take to the streets with a powerful prophetic message that touched folk in their hearts. They did indeed speak out and many if not all, paid up personally.

The God of Pentecost keeps calling prophets, calling you and me, to such commitment, promising the power to proclaim a distinctive and healing word. Younger and older, richer and poorer, male and female, we take up the prophetic mantle, standing up, speaking out, seeing visions, and always raising hands and hearts heavenward as we pray: “Come, Holy Spirit”!

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