Shuck and Jive

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost's Miracle--A Sermon

Pentecost’s Miracle
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Pentecost Sunday
May 27, 2012

Acts 2:1-12; 2:43-45; 4:32-35
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

…Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

…Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

In March 2011 the Jesus Seminar concluded a ten year study on the book of Acts. For ten years the fellows of the Acts Seminar have been sifting through Acts to separate the historical from the legendary. They will publish their findings in early 2013. The Jesus Seminar is not a particularly speedy bunch.

They did come up with some interesting conclusions regarding Acts from which we get today’s story of Pentecost. Acts has been understood and read as the history of the early church.

“Is it history?” asked the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. Answer:  Probably not.

It is fiction.  If the word fiction sounds too dismissive, John Dominic Crossan suggests "parable."

Jesus ascending to heaven?  Parable
Twelve (Male) Apostles? Parable
Receiving the Spirit at Pentecost? Parable
Preaching of Peter? Parable
Conversion of Paul? Parable
Journeys of Paul? Parable

The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts is a second century work, perhaps as late as 130 CE. One of the Fellows, Dennis Smith, presented a paper, "Top Ten Accomplishments of the Acts Seminar." Here are those top ten accomplishments:
  1. The use of Acts as a source for history needs critical reassessment.
  2. Acts was written in the early decades of the second century.
  3. The author of Acts used the letters of Paul as one of his sources.
  4. Except for the letters of Paul, no other historical source can be definitively identified for Acts.
  5. Acts can no longer be considered an independent source for the life and mission of Paul.
  6. Contrary to Acts 1-­7, Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity.
  7. Acts constructed its story on the model of epic and related literature.
  8. The author of Acts created names for characters as a storytelling device.
  9. Acts constructed its story to fit ideological goals.
  10. As a product of the second century, Acts is a historical resource for understanding second century Christianity.

If these scholars are correct then virtually nothing of what we read in Acts comes from historical memory. It is all a fabrication, drawing from available literature and legend to create a story of origins that suited the ideological interests of the author.

I think this is a big deal. I think it is a big deal for Christians to come to terms with their texts. I don’t think what I have said is particularly earth shattering to this group. You know how to separate legend from history. You know the difference between watching the news and the sci-fi channel.

Even though we may not know what exactly to do with these stories and with our entire tradition once we look behind the curtain, nevertheless, looking is liberating. When I grew up in church we needed to swallow this stuff. Christianity was based on believing six if not a dozen impossible things before breakfast.    If you didn't believe these things the problem was with you and your lack of faith.  Everything needed to be taken at face value from Adam and Eve to Jesus rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, and returning in the rapture, who knows, maybe this afternoon.

I don’t believe any of that anymore and I don’t think I am the worse for it. In fact, I think it is far more interesting to read these texts critically and try to find out what was behind them.   That allows us to connect on a human level with those who wrote these texts and understand why they wrote what they did. 

According to Acts, on Pentecost the twelve males were in a room and a tongue of fire lands on each one’s head. They begin speaking not in their own language but in the languages of everyone from every nation.  First the Jews then the Gentiles are part of this new, universal community that is based on sharing.  So goes the story.

One reason the author tells this story 100 years later is to show that Christianity is a gentile religion.  One of the messages is to assure the Romans that unlike Judaism, the Christians won’t be starting any apocalyptic revolts.

There had been revolts in 66-70, 115-117 and the big one between the years 132 and 136 was the Bar Kochba revolt. Simon Bar Kochba believed by many to be the messiah, the Christ, led a revolt against Rome to restore Israel. This revolt did not end well. The Romans crushed it killing over half a million Jews, almost decimating the entire population. It is not a surprise then that the author of Acts wants to distance the Christian movement from the apocalyptic revolutionaries.

One way to do that is to show that the apocalypse has already happened and that the messiah has already come. In chapter two of Acts, the author includes in the form of a sermon from Peter an apocalyptic text from Joel regarding the last days when the sun will be darkened and the moon turned to blood. The author has Peter say that this text has been fulfilled at Pentecost. The fulfillment is the speaking of all the languages of the world in a universal message.

The real Messiah, says the author of Acts through Peter, is Jesus who “you Jews” crucified. The author of Acts blames the Jews not the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus. Talk about revisionist history. Peter goes on to say that God raised up this true Messiah. The book of Acts is a conflict between the followers of Jesus and those who the author calls, “the Jews.”This is all fiction.  Obviously Jesus was a Jew as were his early followers.   It has had unfortunate consequences regarding Jewish-Christian relations up to the present time.

But what Acts is saying through the fictional character Peter to people in the second century is that revolution against Rome is a mistake.  Don’t follow these Messiahs. The true messiah, was killed, raised and his spirit is with us. By the time Acts is written, Christianity has become a gentile religion. Its message is one of accommodation to Rome as opposed to resistance.

According to the author, after hearing Peter’s sermon, everyone who “welcomed his message was baptized” and they shared all possessions, which is, of course, the real miracle. You get the sense in reading Acts that the author is writing about a time in which miracles of healing and raising to life, of sharing possessions, is long past. At the same time, this miracle of community and empowerment still yet can happen and indeed does in some degree in these house churches even in the author’s present.

This is survival literature.  How do you live under the shadow of empire?  How to live when occupied?  One choice is apocalyptic revolution. You see this present in the Apocalypse to John or Revelation, which is Christian apocalyptic literature. There were a number of apocalyptic sects, Christian and Jewish. The various Jewish revolts of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-136 form not the background but the foreground for this complex literature and the movements this literature reflects.

Acts took a different turn. The author of Luke-Acts downplayed the apocalyptic and had the fiery apocalyptic texts, like Joel, be fulfilled in the forming of the community. This fictional story of beginnings ended up becoming history. It paved the way several centuries later for Christianity to become the religion of the Roman Empire. One Empire. One God. It is the Luke-Acts narrative that forms the calendar for the church year, from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Advent again.

Of course there were many other movements that didn’t ultimately survive. If we want to know the diversity of origins we need to look at those movements. In June during our Thursday study group, we will be looking at those texts by watching a DVD series by Bart Ehrman entitled, Lost Christianities. That will begin Thursday, June 14th.

What do I take away from this?

I think it is good to look at our literature without necessarily having to believe it or praise it. We can seek to understand the authors of the literature to try to figure out what it was they wanted. For what did they dream? For what did they desire? To what did they commit their lives and hopes?  What was their struggle?  Then from that variety of literature, what can we take and use for today?

I have been a reading a book by John Michael Greer called Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong. The author traces what he calls the apocalyptic meme from the Zoroastrians to the present. Meme is a word coined by biologist Richard Dawkins. Like a gene in biology, a meme is a cultural unit that survives and spreads. The apocalyptic meme, according to Greer, is a posture that takes many forms, but the basic meme is that the world is evil and an age is coming in which it will be made right. Whether by God, or humans or a combination, this bad age will be overthrown, usually violently, and a golden age will come.

That meme certainly has found a host in Christianity. Not only in Christianity, other religions, including secular movements have been invaded by this meme. Everything from the Crusades to Marxism to Nostradamus to the Mayan calendar to UFOS to the rapture to people storing weapons waiting for the collapse of civilization to the New Age change of consciousness is a result of this meme. The basic meme is 
  1. the world is bad, so
  2. a new age is coming in which the bad whether they be political leaders, sinners or whoever are thrown out and
  3. the good folks will emerge and bring a golden age.

Greer thinks this is not reflective of reality but of an interpretation of reality.  It is the apocalyptic meme.   One thing that is true about all apocalyptic movements, religious and secular, is that they are all wrong. It would be good for us to recognize that. Greer writes his book in the hope that…
“…there’s at least a chance that the upcoming failure of the 2012 prophecy might encourage people to take a hard and skeptical look at the apocalypse meme itself, to recognize that longing for the annihilation of most of humanity has no place in an authentic spirituality, and accept that our happiness as human beings depends on how we choose to live our lives here and now, in this beautiful world on which we each dance for so brief and precious a time.” P. 178

With that in mind I read this text in Acts and celebrate Pentecost in a small way.   This passage is an exaggeration, a legendary, poetic, parabolic expression of the truth of our common humanity.   That is something to appreciate.  The image of hearing a common humanity in our own language and sharing what we have may not be something that happens suddenly or in the future or in a big dramatic fashion.  Perhaps  Pentecost happens in small ways each day as we open our own lives to the Sacred Spirit of life in and around us.

That is the miracle.