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The chaos of Pentecost

By Charles Qualls

Let me remind you of a story I love to tell now and then. This year on Pentecost, it seems fitting for some reason.

A man was deserted on a remote island and stayed there by himself for 10 years. One day, a ship had strayed from its lane and came close enough to the island for him to flag it down. The ship’s captain came over to him with a small rescue party in a little boat. The captain assured the man that he would be honored to get him off the island and headed toward home. “But first, I’m curious. You say you’ve lived here alone for 10 years. Can you show me where you’ve lived and how you’ve gotten by?”

The touring party went over to a little grove of trees. There above the ground were three huts or tree-houses. The man said, “This has been my home. I’ve lived up there safely for most of my years here. The one over on the left is my church where I worship.” Then the captain asked him what the third building was? “Oh, the one on the right over there? That’s the church I used to go to before the split!”

For many of us, the Pentecost account in Acts 2: 1-21 is a strange story. Or, at least a story with some strange imagery we are not familiar with. There is a loud, rushing wind. Tongues of fire dance about and people are depicted as speaking in tongues. Then, there is much made over the fact that for the first time here locally many who show up are hearing the proceedings in their own native languages.

Verses 5-13 draw upon Genesis 11:1-9, most scholars believe. God is depicted as having upended the Tower of Babel and given people an array of languages and ways. Now moving forward, a scattered and diverse Creation would inhabit the world because humanity was trying to become a “god” unto itself.

In Acts, as the new church gathered, it is as though God’s relationship with humanity had now matured, especially in light of Christ’s recent departure back to Heaven. Now, God was the God of one people. But they would be a diverse people and God would reign over all and with all. No longer would any ethnic people, or faith group, have the market cornered with God!

What did it all look like? The Acts story here says that onlookers assumed these people were drunk. That is often how we react to people who are different from us. We don’t know what to do with the diversity, so we characterize it strongly. Peter stepped up and spoke, so that he at least tried to catch the spectators up to speed. Instead, this was the presence of God doing a surprising thing just as God sometimes does.

How can we receive the power of the Pentecost story and take it seriously for today’s times? How can we receive the power of the same Holy Spirit — the real point of the Pentecost story — and take it into our lives for the serious living of our Christian faith?

God breathed the Holy Spirit into humanity so that we would be empowered to be more like Christ. It was intended to guide us and to shape our living. We didn’t get the Holy Spirit because we had somehow won a cosmic spiritual lottery. It wasn’t given for our spiritual entertainment, nor so that we could be more “blessed.” We got the Holy Spirit because we are to live in ways that reflect Christ. We got it because none of us would succeed in becoming good enough by our own efforts nor by our birthright.

Diversity in the Church is restored here, along with the coming of Holy Spirit in Acts 2. We can’t ignore that. We don’t get to have one without the other. It means, in part, that we who want to navigate the murky, complicated waters of race, ethnicity, politics and culture that we find ourselves in today will not do so with hatred nor by walling ourselves off. The Spirit is so that we can be more like Christ in our diversity.

One person has said that Christ spent His time with the same kinds of people that a lot of us have spent our entire lives trying to avoid. At Pentecost, that diversity was recognized at the same moment as the power came to the Church.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.