The Rev. Canon Michael Wyatt, Ph.D.
The glorious feast of Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, but it would be better to think of it as the day of the Church’s christening, since it is the day of its baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire, that is, the day it takes on its name and commission. Luke carefully built the Book of Acts to parallel the Gospel he also wrote, in order to demonstrate that what Jesus was in the world the Church now is in the world. So he shows the same Spirit that descended on Jesus to empower him for ministry at his baptism now anointing Jesus’ followers. This simultaneous downpour of fire and eruption of praise not only galvanizes an anxious and disoriented gathering of companions, it forges them into a single spiritual household that held all things, even their reason for being, in common.
From that day to this, Luke would have Christians understand that we have been entrusted with the same mission that Jesus had, and that we are to live having this, and no other, reason for our life. In fact, were we like those effervescent energetic ecstatic men and women Luke depicts on that first day of Pentecost and in the days that followed, we would want our actions to be recognizably those of our Lord, so that to see us is to see Jesus, whom to see is to love, and whom to love is to follow, and whom to follow faithfully, Luke would assure us, is to become effectually; and we would want that recognition to come not only to those who already know the story, but vividly to those who know only us, whatever their religion, so that seeing us, they see Jesus, and seeing Jesus, they praise God for these mighty acts.
So, today let’s consider becoming Pentecostal. Luke tells a story about the God we claim to know and the mission we claim to have—both of these are ours because they are Christ’s. These are topics worth our time, potentially troubling the waters as we try to navigate through fleets of other faiths.
The God we claim to know through Jesus is the one God, Creator of heaven and earth. We know monotheism refers to the assertion that there is only one God, but we function as if we think it means that there is only our God. The profound insight of the Jewish people, which Luke builds on, is that there is only one God who presides over all humanity. Isaiah called the Persian monarch Cyrus, God’s Messiah, the Anointed. This was not God’s repudiation of the people of Israel, but the people’s affirmation that there is no God but God. Isaiah saw that even a Gentile can fulfill God’s purposes, and proclaimed that the God active in the history of his people is the same God active in the history of all people, because there is no other God.
Luke, the Gentile author, grasps that this proclamation, arising from Judaism, is the only one that can claim his allegiance, not the stories of the provincial competitive—and therefore false—gods of paganism. He affirms the global scope of God’s power and activity, known to him in Judaism and in Jesus, over and over. When Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus’ adulthood, he names the historical moment by listing the monarchs of the known world; this is a moment in world history, not an episode in Judaea. When Luke describes Paul’s visit to Athens, he shows him interested in the worship life of that city and coming to the wonderful recognition that, since amid all the altars and idols, there is nevertheless an altar to the unknown god, therefore, the Athenians in fact, by acknowledging the unknown, already worship the Most High, the beneficent Creator. And in the episode we heard today, when Luke tells the story of Pentecost, the praise of God is heard in all the native languages of the Eastern end of the Mediterranean basin—and Luke is careful to list more than twelve, as if to assure us that this is far more than twelve disciples burbling with new speech.
The sound of Pentecost is the burst of many tongues, but the miracle of Pentecost is the reverberation in the ear of each listener, who heard in his or her grandmother’s tongue the mighty acts of God. Take this in. This is incontrovertibly for Luke the demonstration that there is no God but God, who distributes humanity across the globe, and to whom all humanity attributes praise in their own native language. Notice that all recognize the excited exalted speech of the disciples as the praise of God—not a new proclamation that God exists, not the invocation to worship a new God, not even the injunction to convert to adherence to the true God, but the praise of the God of mighty acts and deeds of power, the God they also adore.
In fact, the entire event that day is for us the warning that we start at the wrong end. I lightly said we might consider becoming Pentecostal. Any one of you who know this story knows that no consideration entered in. The acts of God are not our project; the power of God is not our enthusiasm. Who here can summon a mighty wind? Who now can place tongues of fire on their own heads? Who speaks languages never learned? And even if we knew similar conjuring tricks, we cannot turn the world upside down as the apostles did, since the world is not ours to turn. In every one of these images Luke shows that all is in God’s hands, who acts to make us what we cannot imagine we might be, who loves us before we know what love is, who moves heaven and earth to assure us that God’s sovereignty is not limited to our territory.
The modern age is more skeptical and cautious about divinity. You might believe that God is at best a mental image, as multiple and various as our species’ restlessness, and as such personal and particular to each one. You might believe that your true allegiance is only to that psychological dynamo, of which there might be as many as there are human beings, all equally loyal to their own internal configuration.
Do not confuse the location where God is met with the reality that God is: the ancient pagan misallocation of the holy—the Holy is this stone, this grove, or this grotto. In our own day, we are tempted to believe God is this or that aspect of the psyche, this archetype, that constellation. Human beings, like any domestic beast, recall by association, structure our lives into patterns, respond to reinforcement. But the feed-sack is not itself edible.
William James spoke of God as the MORE that extends beyond our psyche, but which our psyche is nevertheless open to and rooted in. This, for him, was enough for the scientific study of religion: we have in us psychic structures aligned towards what is greater than our self, that effectively latch on to that MORE which has tendrils in our soul, but whose power in our soul demonstrates its extension beyond us. That is WHERE God is known in us: it is the location of our connection, the portal. It is a myopic scientist that then decides that these spiritual powers, which anyone who has been in their throws testifies to coming from beyond the self, are somehow circumscribed and defined by the self—even more, are somehow no more than the self. This is confusing the temple with the LORD. It is still idolatry, even when a psychic structure has replaced architecture of stone and gold.
The comprehensible god, the god of my construction, the god of my convenience and utility, the god by which I order the selfish and specious niceties of my psyche, that god is a sign that I am a polytheist—because it is of these mental constellations that we say “my god” or “your god” or “their god,”—meaning solely the inflated notion of what we admire and fear and covet. This is a tactic by which we disallow that we human beings have business with each other, that our lots are cast together on this tormented planet, that we share a future of common terror or of common hope. “Your truth,” “my truth,” “their truth”—this is the same resentment and refusal that anything that matters to me might be beyond my grasp, that anything that I depend on might be beyond my control. To prefer the describable and manageable and deployable—the domesticated household god—is to prefer polytheism and to abdicate the power of monotheism, truly understood, to take us beyond our self. Monotheists acknowledge and affirm that we are part of something greater than our self, something greater than our understanding, precisely as the universe transcends our comprehension. We can no more evade our God than we can escape our planet—and we set up little gated communities oblivious to both at our peril.
Monotheism is not a sensible notion of our own, not an opinion to be debated, not a hand-me-down threadbare article of religion. Monotheism is what we affirm as Christians. Monotheism is the terrifying understanding that the one God is the sole God of all Creation, that all who bow down in sincere worship of the One who created all that is adore the Only One Who Is; there is nothing else to worship in Spirit and in Truth. Monotheism lays on us an unsuspected discipline: when we quibble and quarrel and accuse others of worshiping another god, it is our monotheism we disavow. It is we who blaspheme by saying there is another god to worship, that sincere believers follow some other god. All true worship, all surrender to and praise of what creates and guides, is the worship of the only God. There is no other god to worship.
God comes to us; God initiates: this we see in the Pentecost story. We wait; God arrives. But we only wait because God has already arrived and turned our heart and soul in the direction of the Godhead. How could we who live not be oriented to the source of life, not perceive that we arise from that, depend on that?
To this point we have brooded over the God we claim to know. What are we to make, if this is true, of the message we claim to announce? If all know God and there is only one God, does that leave us with anything to say? This must simply follow from our understanding of God.
On Pentecost, all present heard good news of the mighty acts of God in their own tongues. We know we witness to the one God, not when we announce we are doing so, but when the stranger says, “I hear you proclaim the mighty acts of God.” It is the corresponding testimony of the stranger that confirms for us whether or not we are proclaiming the one God, otherwise we merely tread bare the grass circling our own field. The sheep not of our pasture, who neither smell nor sound nor look like us, but who lift up their head when they hear the voice of the shepherd for whom we also listen—that is the one who might witness correspondingly and convincingly to your proclamation of one God. I neither inhabit nor manage their story; I must listen carefully and humbly to hear how the God I worship is recognized by them.
Please understand: I do not mean that the particular narratives of each religion will receive full and unqualified affirmation of each other. We Christians assert things about Jesus that no other religion can accept, just as we stop short at the boundaries of other religions. But to the extent that every religion is an attempt to bring humanity into alignment with what undergirds all things, which brings them into being and sustains them, and for the sake of which we surrender the greed and aversion that propels our self-delusion and increases suffering—to that extent, we must incline our hearts towards each other to hear with sympathy and interest the mighty acts of God among a people of strange speech. Even Christianity acknowledges that Jesus Christ gathers us, not for himself, but to present us to God, and that both his teaching and his redemptive work was to break down the barrier between humanity and God.
We cannot know what aspect of our proclamation will be heard as good news, as God’s mighty deeds of power, by one whose affections and allegiances are formed far differently than our own. Religious worldviews are incommensurate; we cannot lay them side by side and find that they cover the same ground and have the same shape. However, if I am grateful that God has known me by name and sustained me in the wilderness, it is ingratitude to hide that. If I am joyful that the lovely reckless Jesus walked among us, touching the expelled and teaching the arrogant, it turns joy sullen to hide that. If I am encouraged by the fierce dove of God into taking flight towards other horizons not my own, it is devilish and devious to bind that. I am compelled to speak by this gratitude and joy and courage, convinced that I must witness to the activity of God in my life, knowing what is precious to me. What more can I hope for but that my words will engender gratitude and joy and courage in others, as they recognize God’s hand in me, who hear my testimony as a sign that God is merciful and is kindly bent to ease us?
So, we stand therefore between unknowns. On the one hand, true monotheism affirms the God that stretches beyond any horizon I recognize, the sole God of all humanity. On the other hand, my witness always waits for the corresponding recognition, which I cannot predict or control, as those also moved by the God that moves me distinguish in my story, but hear in their own native tongue, God’s deeds of power. To be aware of our fallible limitations is to find our self resting in God’s sovereignty!
This humble position is not a counsel of despair. What Christians assert is that the Holy Spirit makes us one. The Spirit, who was in Christ Jesus, is his gift to us. This is our warranty, God’s pledge to us. What is poured out on us is the same spirit poured out on Jesus, the same Spirit of God that undergirds and unites all things. God’s Spirit makes cosmos, humanity, persons, all one, because the one Spirit is present in all. The coherence we strive to construct by extravagant and indemonstrable claims, the stability beyond the self that we try to root in the self, is already assured us by the interpenetrating work of the Holy Spirit, who is the love that flows between the Eternal Source and the Only-begotten Word. You say: there is no proof of this! I say, “Yes, Amen, Hallelujah! Thank God it is beyond our proof, otherwise it would be another device of our own.” The proof lies solely in the new life that arises from our surrender and praise and faith—all the gracious gifts of God, who created us, and sustains us, and sanctifies us, to whom we give glory this day and forever.