Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Act Up--A Sermon

What a worship service! We had with us Retta B and the Blessed Hammond Trio. They raised the roof. We read 1 Corinthians 13 in a number of different languages (Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, Finnish, Italian, and Sign) all at once. We sent off our youth with the Appalachia Service Project, partook in communion, and I preached this here sermon.

Act Up
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Acts 2:1-21

John Henson, Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures (New York: O Books, 2004), pp. 233-4.

It was the spring holiday, and they were all there. It was just like a hurricane sweeping out of the sky. You could hear the noise all over the house. Sudden streaks of light darted about and lit up one friend after another.

They were all filled by God’s Spirit, and she gave them the ability to communicate in new ways.
There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem at that time, from every country in the known world. The noise attracted a big crowd. It was strange that, though they spoke different languages, they could all understand what the friends were saying.

They found it incredible and said, “They’re ordinary working people from Galilee! How can they communicate with us? They’re talking about he exciting things God has been doing, and we can understand every word, just as if we were hearing it in our own language!”

(There were people there from the countries round the Persian Gulf and further east, from the Celtic lands, from north Africa, Arabia, Crete, and Rome, as well as from districts nearby. Some had been born Jews, others were Jewish converts). They were impressed and confused at the same time, anxious to know what it was all about.

Some thought the whole thing funny and said, “It looks as if they’ve had a few drinks!”


This was the cue for Rocky to stand up where he could be seen, with the other eleven special friends around him. He shouted to the crowd, “My own people, and everyone here in Jerusalem, if you listen carefully, I’ll explain what’s going on. We haven’t been drinking; it’s only nine in the morning! What Joel said in his book is coming true:


‘One day,’ says God, ‘I will fill every living thing in a special way. My Spirit will move your children to speak for me; she will excite teenagers with new ideas and give old people dreams about the future. Even those who have no rights, my favorites, will be full of me and speak my words. There will be earth-shattering events. The sun will be eclipsed and the moon appear red, as signs of God’s coming among us. Then anyone who acknowledges God will be healed.’



The Jesus Seminar completed its ten-year project on the book of Acts. The goal of the Acts Seminar was to determine what in the book of Acts could be historical. Along the way, they might make some good guesses as to when it was written and its setting. This is part of the larger project of Christian origins. When did Christianity start and how?

It appears that Acts is a second-century work, perhaps as late as 120-125. It is mostly fiction and legend. Its purpose appears to provide a storyline for the beginning of the church and to legitimate power structures in the second century. It was pretty effective propaganda. It worked. The church has taken Acts at face value and has regarded it uncritically as history.

Liturgically and theologically, we have embraced Acts and its timeline in the church year. We even call Pentecost the birthday of the church, as if it all happened this way. Scholars are inviting us to rethink Acts and Christian origins. Some people embrace this task. Others find this knowledge a threat.

Our story today—and it is a story, a legend, a fiction to be totally blunt—is nevertheless, a great story. It begins after Christ ascended into heaven (which should be a clue that we are in the realm of legend) and the apostles (twelve males—after Judas’ betrayal and death they choose another by lot) meet in a room.

It is Pentecost which is a Jewish holiday, fifty days or seven weeks after Passover. The Jewish Tradition is that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Pentecost. So we have the author of Acts who was also the author of the Gospel of Luke, continuing the process of Christianizing the Jewish holidays.

Passover that commemorates the escape from slavery in Egypt becomes the death and resurrection of Jesus. The receiving of the Ten Commandments in the Wilderness on Mount Sinai and delivery of this Law by Moses becomes the arrival of the Spirit in a room in Jerusalem and the preaching of Peter.

We have the twelve males—officially sanctioned authoritative apostles led by Peter who possesses the keys to the kingdom—all together. Noticeably absent from this list of apostles is Mary Magdalene and other women who followed Jesus. The author of Acts is about legitimizing authority as it is playing out in the second century. He is looking back and telling the story in a certain way.

They are all together. A violent wind, another word for Spirit, blows through their midst and tongues of fire appear on their heads. We may remember the words of John the Baptist who earlier in the Gospel of Luke said that one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He was referring to Jesus and now this is that event of baptism.

Here is the magic. They all start speaking in different languages. This is not speaking in tongues. This is not glossolalia that we find in Corinthians. These are real languages that people can understand. So Jews who are dispersed all over the known world, who happen to come to Jerusalem, can hear what is being spoken in their own language. Everyone wonders how it is that these locals from Galilee are able to speak all these foreign languages and telling the news of “God’s deeds of power,” says the text.

Some scoff and say they are drunk. This gives Peter the opportunity to preach and offer the official version of the events. Peter tells them that this is the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, when the Spirit will be poured out on all people
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old mean shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves,
Both men and women,
In those days I will pour out my Spirit.
The idea is that this day is “those days.”

Peter then goes on and preaches that Jesus was predicted in the Hebrew scriptures to die and to be raised up and to be seated at the right hand of God in the heavens and from that seat he pours out Spirit that they all are witnessing that day. He implores them to be baptized in the name of Christ and receive the Holy Spirit and have sins forgiven. We are off to the races. Christianity has begun, according to Acts.

Then 3,000 people accept the message and devote themselves to the “apostle’s teaching.” The author of Acts wants to make sure that amidst all of this wild pouring out of the spirit that it is still going through channels. This is the continuance of brokered religion in a Christian form. The apostles even perform signs and wonders.

The people are so happy that they live together and hold all things in common. They sell their stuff and give the proceeds to whoever has need. Apparently, that didn’t last long. You get the sense that the author of Acts is pointing back “to the good old days” when we used to do that.

That was before the Tea Party got a hold of them and said the apostles were socialists.

I think there are some cool things in this story. Even as we deconstruct, there are good things to retain. I like the idea of the message being delivered in many different languages. Rather than force people to learn the dominant language, the text speaks of the message of love, liberation, and hope in all languages.

I was wondering what that might look like today. When do we see a message of love, hope, and peace transcending our language barriers and uniting humanity? I celebrate and honor those who work hard to transcend religious, ethnic, and political barriers to find things human beings hold in common.

Whether this work is with peace groups, NGOs, governmental agencies, environmental or religious organizations, it is not easy work. There are powerful forces that work against them. But they keep at it, working for peace, cooperation, and healing between and beyond borders. There are literally hundreds of thousands of these organizations, millions of them, working for positive change in our communities all around the world.

I love the work of Playing for Change. This organization works to connect people through music. This is from the introduction on their website:
Playing for Change is a multimedia movement created to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music. The idea for this project arose from a common belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people. No matter whether people come from different geographic, political, economic, spiritual or ideological backgrounds, music has the universal power to transcend and unite us as one human race. And with this truth firmly fixed in our minds, we set out to share it with the world.
The second thing I take from this story is the pouring out of Spirit on all people. No barrier here. No channels either. Spirit is unexpected. Young old, women, men, poor, rich. Spirit takes no notice of the color of our skin, our level of education, who we love, what language we speak, how we approach the mysteries of the universe. Like a wind, Spirit disrupts and shakes us and draws out of us what we never knew we had in us.

The most rewarding thing about ministry is being able to watch and participate in people’s lives as they are able to find a voice or a passion or see them connect their voices and passions with others.

This text Acts of the Apostles is called Acts for a reason. They acted. They did stuff. While I think we are all apostles, we show it by acting. We need people to act.
  • Act on behalf of justice and peace.
  • Act on behalf of others.
  • Act on behalf of forgiveness.
  • Act on behalf of reconciliation.
  • Act on behalf of love.
  • Act on behalf of neighbors.
  • Act on behalf of enemies.
  • Act on behalf Earth.
  • Act on behalf of people and creatures we don’t even know.
  • Act up.
I am pleased that our youth are going to act up this week. We are sending them with our blessings to Leslie County, Kentucky with the Appalachia Service Project. They will spend a week in partnership with others making homes safe and dry. They will be making connections with people they don’t know. They will discover things about themselves. They will be overwhelmed with need. They will be blown about by Spirit.


Who knows? They may even prophesy and see visions. The gift of youth is idealism. Youth can see what should and shouldn’t be. Prophesying is telling the truth. It is speaking clearly in the midst of delusion, fabrication, and denial. We should encourage idealism. Life experience can squelch it soon enough. We need those visions of justice.
  • Of lions and lambs together.
  • Of all people living lives of meaning and contentment.
  • Of homes that are dry and safe.
  • Tables filled with good things to eat.
  • Children safe and cared for.
  • A vision of suffering transformed to joy is a truth that needs telling.
Reinhold Niebuhr called this vision "sublime madness.” The madness of Spirit. A madness that humanity needs. He called the illusion of perfect justice a valuable illusion. He concluded his book Moral Man, Immoral Society with these words:
“…justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.”
He goes on to say:
“The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.”
There will be plenty of people who will squelch your sublime madness with reason. That’s guaranteed. But those who have always given us hope have been tinged with sublime madness.

They are the prophets who see visions of justice.
They are the ones possessed by Spirit.
They are the ones who dream and who act on those dreams.

Matthew Fox reminds that the “they” is “us”.
We are all called to be prophets.
That calling is to interfere with injustice.
That is the baptism of fire and Holy Spirit.

Where is Spirit calling you?

Act up.
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