Pentecost 2021: A Sermon

Lessons (Ezekiel & Acts)

Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Now hear the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel’s vision: what a vision! I treasure the way it works from the hearers’ experienced reality. In v.11 Ezekiel recalls what the hearers have been saying: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” God hears that, takes that seriously, doesn’t negate it. The vision takes it as the starting point: OK, and here’s what the Lord can do with dry bones. The Lord’s Spirit comes, and where there was death and despair there’s now life and hope. And today we’re celebrating the coming of that Spirit that day in Jerusalem.

Today’s psalm celebrates the Spirit as a core expression of the Lord’s generosity. Let’s read vv.28-31 together.

28 All of them look to you *
to give them their food in due season.
29 You give it to them; they gather it; *
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
30 You hide your face, and they are terrified; *
you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.
31 You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; *
and so you renew the face of the earth.

The Ezekiel reading and the psalm are not a bad setup for the Prayers of the People. For better or worse, the prayers in the BCP use calm and measured language, which is sometimes just a veneer for Ezekiel’s hearers’ complaint: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The Lord hears, and again and again sends forth the Spirit to recreate, to renew. There are so many situations in which we ask “Can these bones live?” And the good news of the Gospel is a resounding YES!

That would be a pretty good place to end the sermon, but that would ignore an apparent tension in the other two readings that we may be familiar with.

The Gospel reading from John has a strong adversarial edge: the Spirit will come to “prove the world wrong.” The Spirit will testify; the disciples will testify. This isn’t sounding very good newsy. Done badly—and it’s often done badly—it makes us want to head for the nearest exit. And in the Acts reading we hear it happening: the Spirit arrives in a quite spectacular fashion, a large crowd gathers, and Peter preaches. Had we read a bit further we would have heard:

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know–this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. (2:22-24)

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (2:37-39)

“Prove the world wrong” indeed. But notice the crucial element back in v.6: “And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The Gospel, the good news, the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is heard “in the native language of each.” Like Ezekiel’s vision, the good news starts on the people’s home turf.

The tension I referred to: on the one hand, every individual and group has an inestimable dignity and worth. On the other hand, there isn’t an individual or group that escapes participation in our world hell-bent on destruction. The Baptismal Covenant includes both proclaiming the Good News (which necessarily involves proving the world wrong) and respecting the dignity of every human being. How does that work?

Pentecost provides an important part of the answer. Peter’s preaching is the second thing. The first thing is everyone hearing “in the native language of each.” Even with the Spirit’s aid that’s not easy. What’s easy is to use my language, my frame of reference, and demand that my hearers move over to it. What’s evangelical (Gospel-like) is to learn to use my hearers’ language, their frame of reference. So Peter in Jerusalem with a Jewish audience refers repeatedly to the psalms. Paul in Athens with a pagan audience refers to one of their altars and cites two of their poets.

We can notice what’s at stake here with the help of an interview with James Davison Hunter that came out this week.[1] He’s the sociologist who made the phrase “culture war” part of our shared vocabulary. Talking about the difference between political and culture war fights: “On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot.” Here’s Hunter on culture: “Culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. It seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word ‘culture’ is Latin: ‘cultus.’ It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universalizing. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it can’t be broached.”

The Spirit at Pentecost breaks that open: everyone hears in their native language. The Gospel is translatable, expressible in terms at home in every culture. And this in turn means that my culture’s assumptions about what is sacred are not the last word. Peter has to wrestle with this—that’s what his vision prior to preaching at the gentile Cornelius’ house is about.

13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:13-15) 

So, back to the language of the Baptismal Covenant, part of “the dignity of every human being” is that every human being, every culture, has something important to teach us about how to use words like “holy” and “sacred,” something important to teach us about the Good News. That too we learn reflecting on the Day of Pentecost.

The good news of the Gospel: these bones can indeed live, and God cares for us enough to tell us so in our own language. That’s news worth translating and spreading—and thereby encountering it anew.

[1], referenced 5/21/2021.

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