May 27, 2007
See also: [Year C Archive]
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
John 14:8-17, 25-27
As I was reflecting on the Pentecost reading this morning, I came home from my pre-dawn walk to the morning paper’s headline, “if we don’t pray who’s going to?” While I have long heard that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is at the heart of the Bible-belt of the North, I was surprised that the article was not about a recent tragedy or act of violence, but the National Day of Prayer. I frankly didn’t even know that May 3 was singled out as this year’s day of American prayer and fasting. My own unawareness of the National Day of Prayer was, in my mind, highlighted by the fact that no local or national mainstream or progressive pastors or spiritual leaders were noted in the article. For the most part, we ignore or simply stay away from such acts of national piety, perhaps, because of their political and social conservatism and nationalism, but also because of our own unfamiliarity and mistrust of the fervent belief in the power of prayer that is exhibited at such events. Upraised hands and emotional prayer circles are just not our style!
While most mainline, liberal, and progressive Protestants have not abandoned the Day of Pentecost, each year many of us ask, “what are we supposed to do with a day that celebrates speaking tongues and miraculous divine visitations?” Although the one-dimensional, horizontal theology of nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant liberalism is on the wane, we are still suspicious of healings and cures, mystical experiences, and visions of the afterlife. We are also appropriately concerned about the conservative political and social agenda that is affirmed by the majority of Christians who call themselves charismatics or Pentecostals. Yet, mind-body medicine, near death experiences, and the growing interest in global spirituality, kabbalah, and Christian mysticism remind us that there is more to the universe than the rational world view painted by the Western Enlightenment, philosophers such as Kant, and popular progressive biblical scholars and church leaders such as John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong whose interpretations of scripture leave little room for the divine liveliness described in the gospel healing stories and the resurrection.
Pentecost calls us to believe “more” rather than “less” about divine activity in the world and our ability to experience God’s dramatic, as well as gentle, movements in our lives. Pentecost challenges us to become Progressive Pentecostals who expect great things from God and great things from ourselves.
Hold onto your seat! God is moving in our lives and in our world! Don’t put limits on the Spirit in your life! Expect quantum leaps of spiritual energy and lively manifestations of healing touch and social transformation! You will experience and do great things in your life! That’s the message of Pentecost for us today.
I believe that the theological naturalism that is at the heart of the liberal, mainstream, and progression vision of God and the world does not need to dispel cosmic mystery or deny divine transformational activity. Rather, theological naturalism awakens us to a world in which God is working in all things, inspiring, challenging, luring, and inviting. The omnipresent and omni-active God does not undermine the evolving order of nature, but calls the world to new forms of beauty, liveliness, and incarnation. This call is, for the most part, subtle, but it can be dramatic and surprising.
The universal God is actively and variably present throughout the universe. Miracles, “life-transforming acts of divine power and human partnership,” can change minds, bodies and spirits. As C.S. Lewis notes, there are “deeper laws” of nature than we can comprehend. Contrary to the reductionistic interpretations of scripture affirmed by many biblical scholars and theologians, the words of scripture as well as the insights of quantum physics and mind-body medicine suggest that we live in a world in which resurrections and dramatic spiritual experiences, exceptional as they may be, represent the deepest realities of the universe. Jesus, as Marcus Borg notes, was a spirit person who calls us to spirit persons as well. We can be channels, who mediate divine energy, in our own unique ways for the “mending of the world.”
Just think about the lively and transformative immanence of God, described by process theologians. God is moment by moment urging every occasion of experience toward a beauty and liveliness that fits God’s vision for its local and global companions. While the divine vision is always contextual and takes into account our own decision-making, it always pushes the world toward individual and communal solidarity, beauty, intensity, and creativity.
Despite our recognition of God’s dynamic presence in the world, how shall we read these strange Pentecostal passages? A popular bumper sticker, inspired by televangelist Oral Roberts, asserts, “expect a miracle.” Another bumper sticker challenges the reader not only to “expect a miracle” but, more importantly, to “accept a miracle.” Both of these bumper stickers invite us to embrace a world in which transformation can occur at any moment and in any context. In the gospel passage, Jesus makes astounding affirmation about his disciples, and presumably ourselves today - God will give us an Advocate, the Spirit, who will inspire and empower us to do “greater works than I [Jesus] do.” The God who is in Christ is also living within us, just waiting to burst forth in lively acts of spiritual transformation and reconciliation.
We don’t need to invoke supernaturalism to embrace the miraculous and wonderful world of God. Rather, we need to redefine such lively and traditional theological expressions in light of a deep naturalism and an even deeper commitment to prayer, contemplation, healing, and justice. While God’s vision for our lives is always contextual in our unfolding personal and global adventure, God’s aim for each moment’s experience and for our lives as a whole calls us beyond what the rationalistic and controlling mind can imagine. God calls, inspires, and energizes us to do great things, whether this means challenging injustice, comforting the dying, or healing the sick through laying on of hands, reiki healing touch, or anointing with oil.
As we ponder John’s vision of the Holy Spirit, we must remember that, for the gospel writer, resurrection and Pentecost, Easter and the gift of the Spirit, are intimately connected. On resurrection night, Jesus appears to his disciples, breathes on them, and proclaims, “receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:19-23) Every breath can inspire a Pentecostal moment, and every sigh can awaken us to God’s global and personal presence. As Romans 8 notes, when we experience God as our intimate Parent, God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit. When the words “abba” or “amma” emerge from depths of our lives, great things happen!
The universal spirit of God is both subtle and dramatic. Fire and wind descend upon the followers of Jesus. Utterly surprised by God’s presence within their lives – not beyond, but within their words and thoughts, they speak in unfamiliar tongues and strangers hear the gospel in their own language. Pentecost joins mysticism and reconciliation, spiritual fire and justice making. Profound spiritual experiences join intimacy with diversity. The Spirit who unites all things inspires diversity in experience, ritual, theology, and community. Young and old, male and female, alike embody God’s life transforming revelation.
Pentecost, like Easter, calls us to celebration – to fireworks, sparklers, and wind chimes; to dance and poetry and drumming; to laughter and amazement; to surprising words and unexpected embrace.
As theological naturalists, we need to let go of the “epistemology of control.” There are dimensions of life beyond every day experience that emerge both when we least expect it and when we prepare for it! We cannot control Pentecost, or predict the content or form of God’s spirit in our lives, but we can practice Pentecost. Indeed, prior to the Day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus prepared themselves to expect and accept God’s movements in their lives by “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:14)
We can open to God’s surprising Spirit moving in our lives by committing ourselves personally and in community to the following: contemplative prayer, sacred movement and dance, breathing our faith, listening to strange tongues and global voices, exploring reconciling behaviors, healing touch, and allowing ourselves to be surprised by a grace that invites us to become new creations as persons as a communities. We can awaken every morning and begin each service with the question, “what great thing will God do in our lives today and in this service?” and then open to the “spirit of gentleness” (Jim Manley) and God’s loving fire.
Today, in spirit of the Lancaster Intelligencer story line, we can boldly ask, “if we don’t pray, who’s going to?” Our own humility about defining God too clearly doesn’t need to get in the way of a vital prayer life. Our own sense of the omnipresence of divine activity need not lower the threshold of our expectations of God or ourselves, but can raise our awareness of God everywhere. Naturalistic theism, the vision of God’s ever-present and variable activity within the universe of our experience, need not deter us from boldness in prayer and openness to divine creativity, but can be an inspiration to experience God’s care in all things, and all things within the province of God’s care.
With such expectations, we might truly have a progressive Pentecost – mystical experiences, acts of power, reconciliation of the nations, and sustenance for every child. With God as our moment by moment companion, we can expect great things of ourselves and of our congregations.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and the author of several books.
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