Pentecost B Sermon (2012)

The Day of Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21;
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


For the second week in a row I begin with a story from Christian writer Diana Butler Bass and her important new book Christianity After Religion.

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. This morning 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, that we may all be one.

That the world’s way of bringing peace is wrong, and still resists God’s way, is something else we noticed last week which is more explicit this week. Today’s Gospel reading from John 15-16 is the predecessor to last Sunday’s reading from John 17. We’re reading them in reverse order. But they are both from Jesus’ long farewell address to his disciples on the night before his execution. With that in mind, think of what Jesus says about the world being proved wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment. He himself is about to go on trial, be accused of sin, by supposedly righteous judges, and then be judged to the sentence of death. In other words, his own being judged as sinful by righteous representatives of the world proves the world to be wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment.

God’s verdict on our judging goes beyond, I believe, this one instance of wrongly judging Jesus. It is more fundamental than that. Jesus is talking about our age-old human way of keeping peace, right from the very beginnings of our species. Jesus became the scapegoat on the cross so that we might see that all the key ways for human beings to keep peace in a community involve a scapegoating process where the majority can see itself as righteous by accusing a minority or one person of sin and then carrying out a judgment against them. Sin, righteousness, and judgment. It is our basis for law. It is our basis for war. It is the basis of our ways to live in peace. While those ways may work for a while, the peace created can never last. Because our ways of trying to stop violence use violence. And they try to bring unity by dividing us into righteous and unrighteous. So our ways can never be the way to bring all of God’s children into the oneness of the Creator.

Another indication of this truth is the very title for the Spirit that Jesus uses in John’s Gospel. First, we 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 this morning? 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. 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 sin, righteousness, and judgment 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 in 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 and shamans 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 way of sin, righteousness, and judgment 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 us one human family, children of God. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 27, 2012

For further Pentecost reflections from the perspective of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, see the 2012 addition to the Pentecost B page.

1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening [HarperOne, 2012], pages 239-41. The reader may have noticed the disappearance from the story of the Catholic woman. I did cut Bass’s brief parenthetical note that she “was, by now, on the phone in another office.”

2. Mohandas Gandhi, from Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002], ed. by John Dear, page 79.

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