Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sermon: "Pentecostal Power", Acts 2:1-21/Numbers 11:24-30 (May 31, 2020--Pentecost)


Today is Pentecost. We’re all familiar with the account from Acts 2 that I read “In Other Words” a few minutes ago, where the Holy Spirit descends on the gathered community like “divided tongues of fire”. It’s a beloved story that we fondly call “the birthday of the Church” because it’s the point at which the disciples pivot from feeling lost without Jesus to taking ownership of their own ministry. It’s the point at which the gift of the Holy Spirit gives the community a sense of unity and agency.

But I don’t want to talk about that. This story doesn’t quite resonate with me today the way that it usually does. Today, the sense of triumph and celebration conveyed in Acts 2 rings hollow in my ears. Today, gathering virtually from our individual homes, watching bad news fill our tv screens and social media feeds, feeling hopeless in the face of systematic injustice, triumph is the last thing we feel. As we engage in difficult conversations about what we should be doing and comes next, we feel more like the Israelites lost in the wilderness than the disciples celebrating the birthday of the Church. Instead of delight and confidence in the Holy Spirit, we’re feeling 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.

The book of Numbers is all about painful transition, a theme that’s especially poignant in these “unprecedented” times. It’s about how to be a community even 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 stage 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; 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 directly from God. We all know that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in the form of flames at Pentecost, but that was hardly her debut on earth. In the book of Judges, the Holy Spirit descends on Samson and grants him literal physical power.[1] In 1 Samuel, the Spirit rests on a young David and destines him to be the King of Israel.[2] In Ezekiel, the Spirit comes to the prophet and gives him the authority to command life back into dry bones.[3] 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 Spiderman’s 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 all people wasn’t a license to do whatever we please. God doesn’t just hand out power willy-nilly 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. God’s authority had been given to Moses through the Spirit so that he might lead God’s people, but the pressure was so overwhelming that he couldn’t do it alone—a reminder 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 didn’t descend to demonstrate the disciples’ superiority; she 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 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 it 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 you, 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. If questioned why, he would have said that they just hadn’t gone about it the right way (or, in Presbyterian terms, that they weren’t “Decent and in Order”). I’m sure he didn’t realize that he was upset about “his” power being given to others in a way that made him uncomfortable. And yet, why else would he care? Why would it matter how and when the Holy Spirit rests on others unless Joshua were afraid that it would detract from his own authority? He, who had been Moses’ assistant from the beginning, was uncomfortable with Eldad and Medad’s prophesying because he 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, 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 the Church is 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 constructed so as to be a finite resource. Unions are understood to be antagonistic towards employers; “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 more than two major political parties because that would dilute the influence of those we already have. 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 Samson and Ezekiel, to David and Jesus, to Moses and Joshua and Eldad and Medad. How will we use it? Will we guard it jealously, using it only for our own advancement, as Joshua tried to? Will we use it for good, but not to its full potential, as the elders did? Will we abuse it, as false prophets throughout the ages have done and continue to do today? Or will we use it for the sake of God’s Kingdom without a second thought, like Medad and Eldad? Will we share it, encouraging others who seek to follow God’s will, like Moses? 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 protest, one vote, one act of solidarity at a time. Amen.


[1] Judges 14:5-6.
[2] 1 Samuel 16.
[3] Ezekiel 37.

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