Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sermon: “A Pentecostal Truth”, Acts 2:1-21/Numbers 11:24-29 (May 19, 2024 - Pentecost)

Today is the day that we remember the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples – the so-called “birthday of the Church”. And what a celebration it was! The Apostles started babbling in other languages, resulting in the crowd assuming they’re drunk, which in turn causes Peter to quote scripture at them and yell, “Nuh uh, it’s only 9am” – you know; just your average first birthday party. But seriously, we actually call Pentecost “the birthday of the Church” because it’s the point at which the disciples pivot from being Jesus’ sidekicks to being apostles with their own ministries. And while the “speaking in other languages” thing is a neat party trick, the Holy Spirit also gives the Church its *actual* first birthday gift on this occasion: a new sense of power and authority to create global unity through the gospel.

But this story isn’t quite resonating with me the way it usually does. This week has felt like it’s been less about unity and Good News and more about division – specifically the kind meant to keep others “in their place”. I listened as one person recounted their childhood in a segregated school system; I read about certain politicians trying to discredit our impartial judicial system; I filled out my mail-in ballot while wondering how much longer I’ll be able to cast my vote in this way; and, of course, I once again encountered that unending lament that outsiders are “ruining” Idaho and should go back to their home state.

As the Idaho primaries approach and another election cycle gets underway, unity is the last thing most of us are feeling. As many of us prepare for yet another season of worrying whether or not our rights will be protected, we feel more like the Israelites lost in the wilderness than the disciples celebrating the birthday of the Church. Instead of confidence and delight in the Holy Spirit, we feel longing and desperation for her.

Fortunately, we know that the Holy Spirit isn’t confined to the story of Pentecost. So we can look elsewhere in the Bible to find other stories about the Holy Spirit’s movement in and among humanity, stories that perhaps speak more authentically to our hearts today. In times like these, times that somehow don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot better post-COVID, the book of Numbers becomes especially relatable. It’s all about the Israelites figuring out how to be a community in the wilderness, recognizing that life and faith don’t stop just because circumstances aren’t what we wish they were. By the time we get to chapter 11, the Israelites are well past the honeymoon phase of their escape from Egypt. The novelty’s worn off. Life has shifted, and not in a way that they like. The people have been whining and complaining incessantly, and Moses can’t take it anymore. He doubts his ability to lead them, and he doubts God’s support. So, what’s God’s solution? God tells Moses to choose 70 elders to receive a share of the Spirit.

To understand the significance of this passage, we need to understand what’s actually happening here. Scripturally speaking, the giving of the Holy Spirit isn’t a mark of favor or a reward. When the Spirit descends on someone, it’s either acknowledging or bestowing authority and power that comes directly from God. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples in the form of flames at Pentecost, but that’s hardly her debut on earth. In the book of Judges, for example, the Holy Spirit descends on Samson and grants him literal physical power. In 1 Samuel, the Spirit rests on a young David and destines him to be the King of Israel. In Ezekiel, the Spirit comes to the prophet and gives him the authority to command life back into dry bones. Throughout all this, the Holy Spirit isn’t just handing out blue ribbons and pats on the back; she’s distributing God’s own power to humanity—divine power greater than we could possibly imagine.

But in the immortal words of Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We know that this divine power didn’t give Samson, David, or Ezekiel free reign to say or do anything they wanted, just as the Spirit poured out on the people at Pentecost isn’t a license to do whatever we please. God doesn’t just carelessly hand out power to amuse the faithful. The Holy Spirit grants human beings STEWARDSHIP of God’s power in times of transition and need in order to help us continue working toward God’s kingdom. Any authority we receive from the Holy Spirit is given for God’s purposes, not our own.

And as such, the use of this power is more of an obligation, even a burden, than it is a personal advantage. Following the Exodus from Egypt, Moses had been given authority so that he might lead God’s people, but the pressure was so overwhelming that he couldn’t do it alone—strong evidence that the power didn’t originate from within himself, but from God. Even on Pentecost, a day that we associate with triumph and joy for the Church, the Holy Spirit came because the fledgling movement was vulnerable. It needed the assistance of divine power to move from a fringe sect to a viable new religion.

The great truth of Pentecost is that the Church’s power is not our own, but God’s authority shared with us according to God’s will. We’re not charged to exercise dominance, but to practice stewardship. We Christians, as members of the dominant religious and cultural force in the Western world for centuries, tend to forget that. And as those who’ve benefited unwittingly for our entire lives from deep systematic inequity, we white Christians forget even more often. We’re obligated to use any power given to us by the Holy Spirit for God’s ends rather than our own.

If (well, let’s be honest: when) we use this power to act contrary to God’s will, we’re abusing power that isn’t even ours to begin with. And let’s be absolutely clear on this point: that’s not just a mistake; it’s a SIN. It’s taking that which belongs to God alone, that which has been entrusted to us, and profaning it in the worst possible way. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s violating the third commandment: if it’s a grave transgression to misuse even the Lord’s NAME, how much more must we diligently guard against abusing God’s divine POWER?

It’s absolutely imperative that we recognize this pentecostal truth. If we don’t understand the nature of the power we have, we begin to believe that we’re entitled to it. And when we see others with power that we think “belongs” to us, we become outraged. Joshua was scandalized when Eldad and Medad began prophesying in the camp despite not taking part in the tent ritual. The disciples did the exact same thing in the gospels – Luke 9 and Mark 9. If questioned why, they all probably would have said that these people just hadn’t gone about it the right way (or, in Presbyterian terms, that they weren’t being “Decent and in Order”, which is a GREAT smokescreen for stuff we don’t like).

I’m sure none of them realized that what they were actually upset about was “their” power being given to others. And yet, why else would they care? Why would it matter how and when the Holy Spirit rests on others unless God’s people were afraid that it would detract from their own authority? Joshua, who had been Moses’ assistant from the beginning, was uncomfortable with Eldad and Medad’s prophesying because HE was the one that deserved the Spirit’s power, he had EARNED it by virtue of his position and his “following the rules”, and they hadn’t. He, who was shortly to become the next leader of the Hebrew people, somehow didn’t understand that that’s not how the Holy Spirit works.

Every “-ism”, every systematic inequality in the world comes from a desire to maintain power over others—power that we aren’t even entitled to. If you don’t believe that our society is built on this addiction to power, think about it. Think about how willing Americans are to write a scathing Yelp review about a disrespectful employee (a person who “should” have less power) while blindly defending the questionable motives of our favorite politicians (who “deserve” power). Think about how willing mainline Protestants are to speak out against abortion while remaining silent when our siblings of color are suffering and dying from violence and racism every single day. All too often, we only care when caring helps us to preserve our sense of power over another group of human beings. And that’s entirely antithetical to the spirit of Pentecost.

Human power is designed to be a finite resource. Unions are portrayed as being antagonistic towards EMPLOYERS rather than unfair labor practices; “Affirmative Action” and “Title IX” are seen by many as an annoyance at best and a threat at worst; we’re not even comfortable having ranked choice voting because it would dilute the influence of the parties that are currently vying for power. But divine power is different. Like a flame, the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t decreased when it’s shared. The power that God offers to humanity for humanity’s sake doesn’t become diminished when it’s spread out. It becomes stronger, warmer, brighter, more enduring. But only—ONLY!—when we use it for divine purposes.

So we have a choice to make. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us and given us the same power that was given to Moses, to Joshua and Eldad and Medad, and to the Apostles. How will we use it? Will we guard it jealously, using it only for our own advancement, as Joshua tried to? Will we abuse it, as false prophets throughout the ages have done and continue to do today? Or will we use it without hesitation for the sake of God’s Kingdom, like Medad and Eldad? Will we share it, encouraging others who seek to follow God’s will, like Moses and the Apostles? Wonderful, marvelous, divine power has been given to the People of God. But with it comes the responsibility to turn the world upside down: to make the rough places plain, to lift up the lowly, to shine light into the dark places. It’s an overwhelming task, but it’s what we owe to God and to each other. So let’s do it together, one prophetic statement, one act of solidarity, one protest, one vote, at a time. Amen.

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