Sunday, May 28, 2017

All of Them Filled

Acts 1:1-8; Acts 2:1-21
June 8, 2014
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis

[After our Scripture reading, we will all read aloud a portion of the Pentecost story, in our own voice at our own pace. Each of us reading, but not in unison.]  

As a child, growing up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, this story was very familiar to me – particularly verses 1-4. We used to joke about how, if a Pentecostal Holiness person dropped her Bible, the spine was broken so that it would hit the ground and automatically open to Acts 2. But, honestly, we mostly read verses 1-4. In fact, I think many of us memorized Acts 2:4, second only to John 3:16 – and a close second! We read this verse and memorized it because it was, for us, the proof positive that everybody was supposed to be “filled with the Spirit” and “speak in other tongues.” 

As an adult, living and working in the Presbyterian Church, I have found numerous persons who have had various encounters with the kind of experience that my Pentecostal roots would talk about. Some have had that deep abiding sense of God’s presence in a way that was very palpable and life-changing. Others have had the experience of ‘speaking in tongues,’ which is one of those things that you can hardly understand, much less explain to someone who has not been there. Others actually admire and have a longing for the kind of zeal and zest that Pentecostals have – the enthusiastic worship and the boldness for evangelism. And even the most starchy and anti-Pentecostal Presbyterians among us at least appreciate that, in some way, we are supposed to be a church that is “filled with the Spirit.”

So, this morning, I’d like for us to spend time with our Pentecostal brothers and sisters in the first four verses of this story as we ask, “What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit?”
This story begins with an incredible phrase, which as close to literal as possible reads: “In the fulfilling the Day of Pentecost …”.  It is a very awkward phrase, which most translators and commentators simply treat as a calendar reference, like,  “When the day of Pentecost had come …” That makes the story more readable, but I believe that we lose something powerful about this story when we translate it that way. The narrator says that what happened that day in Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the Day of Pentecost. So, before we read on, we should make sure that we know what the expectations were for the day of Pentecost, in order to see what exactly is fulfilled by this story.

The Day of Pentecost was an annual Jewish celebration and began as a harvest feast. Back before Jerusalem became a large city, with lots of people living there, the people of Israel were mostly agrarian people, farming communities with large, family-owned fields. As subsistence farmers, the city was not where the people lived. It was where they would gather on occasion – perhaps to worship, perhaps to decide matters of the common good, or perhaps to visit the market to barter and exchange goods. One reason people would make a pilgrimage to the city each year, was for the Feast of Pentecost, also known as the “festival of weeks.” The word Pentecost is based on the word for “50,” because after the celebration of the Passover, the people would count of 49 days – that is seven weeks or seven sevens – and the next day, the 50th day, they would celebrate. It would be about the time that the grain had been harvested, so they would bring two loaves of bread, which the priests would ‘elevate’ and wave around as part of the celebration. It was a reminder of how dependent these farming folk were on God’s gifts of rain and sunshine, in order to have as successful harvest.

Of course, anyone who has ever farmed knows that farming is a perilous activity. One can depend on rain and sunshine, but not always in the right proportions. Flood and drought mean that every now and then a crop is ruined. And when one’s crops are sustenance crops, it is a tragedy. Food is scarce, prices are high, and one has nothing to pay anyway, because the farm is all one has. So, you mortgage, sell, and many folks eventually lose their land and become landless squatters. It happened a lot, which is why the celebration of Pentecost was not just a liturgical event. It had ethical implications. In the book of Leviticus, where the instructions for how to celebrate Pentecost correctly are given in minute detail, the tone changes to the responsibilities of those who are enjoying a full harvest: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

So, the practice was that when the harvesters would walk through the fields gleaning the wheat and gathering them in sheaves, the landless folk would be waiting. After the harvest, they would go on the land and anything that remained or was dropped was theirs to keep. (That is where the phrase “2nd Harvest” gets its meaning.) What the celebration of Pentecost said was that the reapers were to reap in a way that the poor and landless would have plenty and not scarcity. They were not to reap efficiently, but sloppily. If they dropped a sheaf, they were not to go and pick it up again. And there was no protest – “Hey, but that’s MY wheat!” because the Lord God had given them the land and the dirt and the rain and the sunshine.  The liturgy, then, gave the people the right disposition for their ethics. If you thank God for the abundance, then you have no claims for hoarding. Be generous as God is generous.

That’s what the Day of Pentecost was all about – recognizing that every good gift comes from God and then turning around and living with that kind of grace. So, when the narrator says that what happened in the book of Acts was “the fulfilling of the day of Pentecost,” it means that it is more than a “spiritual experience” or a liturgical moment. It is the realization of a community that is given to grace, where the laudable phrases of our worship are not empty but filled with meaning by living toward justice.

By the time we get to verse 4, when the narrator says that “all of them were filled,” now we have some content for what that means. Each person in that house was an embodiment of that Spirit of justice, mercy, and grace. Each of them found their tongue and began to speak – as the crowd later attests – of the mighty deeds of God. The narrator later describes the community as a community that held all things in common and where nobody was deprived of anything. What it means to be filled with the Spirit is to participate in that fulfillment of God’s vision for justice, security for those who have food insecurity. It is a way of living that sees everything as a gift from God, not so that we can say, “See, God provides for us and not for you,” but that we can say, “God provides for us, so, here, now God provides for you.” It’s radical because we like to think that we are self-made people and that everything we have is ours alone and woe be to anyone who tries to say otherwise. Perhaps one reason why this Spirit blows in with such force and power is because it is radically changing our psychology and our sociology. Everything is God’s. Including me. Including all that I have. And including those who are without.

May God’s Spirit blow into this place, transforming us into the kind of community that lives toward a grace-filled justice. May we say, on this day Pentecost is fulfilled and each of us is filled with that Spirit. Amen.

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