The Day of Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21;
Rom. 8:14-17; John 14:8-17 (25-27)
THE POURING OUT OF SATYAGRAHA ON PENTECOST
Last week we continued the theme of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, teaching us new things. I shared how dealing with my mother’s death was part of new ways of understanding God’s promises about the afterlife — namely, that the emphasis isn’t on there and later as much as here and now. It’s not as much about God taking us to somewhere else after we die, as it is about God’s Spirit dwelling in us in the here and now, calling us to new life in the present.
Today, I’d like to continue the new teachings that I believe are from the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And I begin with a story from a book that Church Council is beginning to study, which I mentioned a couple weeks ago. It’s Diana Butler Bass’s important book Christianity After Religion, where she tells this story.
As the end of Lent 2011 neared, I went to my local bank to deposit some checks. Three tellers were working that morning, all women. One woman wore a pale ivory hijab as a head covering; the second woman’s forehead bore the dark red mark known as a bindi; the third woman had a small crucifix hanging around her neck.
I walked up and laughed. “You all look like the United Nations of banking!”
They exchanged glances and smiled.
“You are so right,” said the Hindu woman. “You should meet our customers! But we cover a lot of languages between the three of us.”
It was a quiet morning. They wanted to talk. I said something about being a vegetarian for Lent. The Hindu woman wanted to give me some family recipes; the Muslim woman wanted to know more about Christian fasting practices.
I shared how we had dedicated Lent that year to eating simply and exploring vegetarian foods from different parts of the world. “When we eat Indian food,” I explained, “we try to talk about the church in India or pray for people in India. The same for African and Asian and Latin American countries.”
“What a wonderful idea!” the Muslim woman said. “We need to love our traditions and be faithful to our God; but we teach the beauty and goodness of the other religions too.”
Her Hindu colleague chimed in, “That is the only way to peace — to be ourselves and to create understanding between all people.”
. . . I glanced at my watch. I needed to get to an appointment. I thanked them for their insights.
“I would wish you a Happy Easter,” I said hoping they would hear the sincerity in my voice, “but, instead, I wish you both peace.”
I started to walk away when the Muslim teller said to me, “Peace of Jesus the Prophet. And a very happy Easter to you.”
And the Hindu woman called out, “Happy Easter!”
When I reached my car, I realized that I was crying. I had only rarely felt the power of the resurrected Jesus so completely in my soul.1
The power of the resurrected Jesus. Last week we spoke about that power as Jesus prayed that we may all be one. Today we see that power in action as the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus comes on Pentecost to reverse what happened at the tower of Babel — that story in Genesis 11 in which human pride, as they build a tower to the heavens, leads to the division of peoples into cultures and languages that spread across the globe. In Luke’s telling of Pentecost he would have us see the beginnings of Jesus’ power to heal those divisions. With the miracle of being able to understand one another despite the barriers of differing languages, the Holy Spirit launches God’s power to reconcile us, to bring us into unity. Our persistent human thinking in terms of us vs. them is to become simply Us.
That the world’s way of bringing peace is wrong, and still resists God’s way, is something we can glean from that title for the Holy Spirit that we’ve been highlighting: Advocate. The Advocate is more than a teacher of God’s truth through the ages. It comes to teach us first and foremost how that Us-Them thinking needs to be redeemed into Us-thinking. Our ways of judging other people needs to yield to humbly taking responsibility for our own sins.
To catch the full import of that title Advocate, we first need to ask, Who is Satan? Because in the biblical world, Satan is the title for the Accuser, the person who brings the accusation of the many against the one. Then: Who is the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel Reading? The Greek word behind Advocate is the title in the Greek world for the Defender of the Accused, the person who defends the one against the many. Satan, the Accuser; Advocate, the Defender of the Accused. God’s Spirit of Truth is the force who works to help us to see a more ultimate way to peace, one which is not based on our human brand of accusation, of sin, righteousness, and judgment.
Obviously, two thousand years later much has gone wrong. Many who profess to following Christ still cling to the old ways alone, especially in the public, political areas of our lives. So I finish today with the signs of hope I see. One is provided by Diana Butler Bass’s story about the women of different faiths coming together in Jesus. I’m not being naive here that religions have not also been a huge part of the problem. Religions are as caught up in the human peacekeeping ways based on us-them thinking as much as any other element of human culture, perhaps even more so. But religions also contain the experience that helps provide the way forward, namely, the experience of God’s Spirit as the basis for our oneness. Since Jesus Christ, we have the means to sort through our false gods of division and to zero-in on the true God of Love, who is the true foundation of our unity. The women at Diana Butler Bass’s bank give testimony to the Holy Spirit blowing us in this way.
For me, another clear sign of hope comes through the irony of God raising up a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who was a Hindu and remained a Hindu. I’m talking about Mahatma Gandhi, who said this, among many other things, about Jesus:
Jesus expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God. It is in this sense that I see him and recognize him as the Son of God. And because the life of Jesus has the significance and the transcendency to which I have alluded, I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world, to all races and people.2
We might ask, So why didn’t Gandhi simply convert to Christianity? But I think the better Pentecost question would be, Why should he have to convert? Why should he have to change religions? Why should he have to play into religion into the negative ways that bring division? Did Jesus come to offer us a new religion to add to our ways of dividing into differing cultures and languages — the Tower of Babel reality? Or did he come to help each of us within our own religions and cultures to find the one true God of unity? I think that Pentecost shows us the latter. We can welcome, as many Christians are coming to do, the diversity of religious practices that help lead to the experience of our oneness in God. Christians are learning from Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims the effective religious practices of how to become closer to the God of Jesus Christ. That’s the Pentecost pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all peoples, so that their experience of oneness transcends their many languages and cultures.
Finally, the greatest sign of hope to me is how Gandhi helped deepen our understanding of the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate. He had his own name for it in Sanskrit: Satyagraha, he called it, which translates as Truth Force. Satyagraha moved him and many millions of people over the last century to learn Jesus’ way to peace through loving, nonviolent resistance to evil. Like Jesus on the cross, in this way to peace we risk taking that old us-them thinking on ourselves in order to reveal its futility, its wrongness, and offering instead God’s way of grace and forgiveness. Pentecost is Satyagraha poured out on us so that we may bring peace to our lives as family members, co-workers, neighbors, citizens, and, yes, as both Jesus and Gandhi compelled us to do, as children of God — all of humanity, children of God. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Faith Lutheran, Saginaw, MI,
May 14-15, 2016
1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening [HarperOne, 2012], pages 239-41.
2. Mohandas Gandhi, from Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002], ed. by John Dear, page 79.