The Spirit in a Time of Social Distancing

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Hamilton, a professor in ACU’s Graduate School of Theology, shared the following online Pentecost sermon that he prepared for Brookline Church of Christ in Boston. The sermon is based on Acts 2:1-21

By MARK HAMILTON

Over the past few weeks, we have learned a lot: new phrases such as “social distancing,” new ways to do work alone and in groups, new ways to worship together.  Although the past few weeks have exposed much of the longstanding madness of the world, from armed protesters at state capitol buildings to police brutality to hatreds petty and global, we have also seen glimmers of hope.  Yes, we have learned a lot, so much that it will require months of work if we are to learn anything at all.  

So it is altogether fitting that today the church should celebrate Pentecost, that day of mercy and wonder and learning.  We all know the story.  The followers of Jesus have seen him off, hanging on to his promise that they will soon receive “power from on high,” so that they can carry his message of hope to “Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.”  They wait for the kingdom to come to Israel, and not to them alone but to all the human race through them.  And now it is Pentecost, an old holiday going back to the story of the exodus and to the life of their remote ancestors who had escaped bondage.  It was the same festival they had celebrated every year of their lives, and yet it was completely different this time round.  And unlike the previous time they had gone to a holiday, there was to be no crucifixion, no radical disorientation, no loss of treasured hopes.  This time would be different.

Dr. Mark Hamilton

So that morning before lunch, the band of Jesus followers gathered, 120 strong.  Something was different.  Wind.  Fire.  Languages flying in every direction.  A man stands up: Peter, the one who had denied the Lord at the moment of his terrifying end.  Peter, the one with the natural leadership gifts and the impetuosity that often goes with them.  Peter, now the interpreter.

“These men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine a.m.”  Not perhaps a foolproof argument, but generally true and good enough.  This is something completely different, something you have heard about but perhaps forgotten.  This is what the prophet Joel was talking about.  And then his reflections on the wonder of it all.

Before we get to that, notice that Luke sets the stage just a bit more by telling us that before the church went to all the world, all the world had come to Jerusalem.  Luke reminds us that the Jewish diaspora, then as now, spread in every direction.  And then, as now, God had not forgotten the people of promise but had presented them with a new gift, which Peter will now tell them about.

Peter does this by making a simple move.  “This is not a bunch of drunks talking after filling up with cheap wine.”  “No,” he says, “this is what the ancient prophet Joel was talking about when he promised a future world of intimate divine communication involving all human beings.”  Joel, as the quotation indicates, was interested in several things.  First, he expected the outpouring of the divine, lifegiving Spirit that would create life for all.  Second, this outpouring would affect a wide range of people, making prophets out of “sons and daughters, young and old, bond and free.”  The sins of division and self-promotion that so infect the human race – our longstanding diseases that are so much more lethal than COVID-19 – begin to fade away.  Third, this new era will be one of salvation, whatever that means in various cases.  And fourth, as so often where the apostles are concerned, the assumption of this text is that God is now in the business of keeping old promises.

The sermon, of course, goes on from where we have read, as Peter deepens the audience’s understanding of what it means for God to keep promises by emphasizing that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah.  He shocks his audience by noting that they had made the most incalculably huge mess of things by killing the very Messiah they longed for.  Yet God does not allow death to prevail or the ancient promises to fall by the wayside.  No, God does the impossible and raises Jesus from the dead, defeating our worst enemy for the first time, but not for the last.  The resurrection of Jesus exposes human folly for what it is, a sickness unto death, a disease whose true nature we try to hide from ourselves.  But now we no longer can.  This Peter shows his audience.

So this is why, in their grief and horror, they ask, “what should we do?”  And this is why Peter answers the words many of us know, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For this promise is to you, your children, and all far away – as many as the Lord our God shall call.”  No matter how bad the screw-up, God’s desire to keep promises to save humanity and to give us true life triumphs over our failures.  God gets the last word, and it is in our favor.

Still, it’s good for us to collect some intermediate words along the way.  A few days ago, I posted to social media the question, “what are we learning during this time of quarantine?”  “No rants, please,” I asked, hopefully.  Friends did not disappoint.

The answers fell into three categories: family and friends, personal creativity, and self-care.  It turns out that our steady media diet of narcissistic leaders, amoral celebrities, and mindless consumerism does not reflect who we want to be.  The social distancing has given some of us just enough space to detoxify from all the nonsense, to listen to wiser voices than the masters of the dog-whistle rhetoric, and maybe, just maybe, to find our shared humanity.

Let me pass on my friends’ thoughts.  First, family and friends.  Rex draws our attention to sack lunches his church was making for hungry people in their community.  Chad remembers how connected all of us are, even when we find each other’s’ views incomprehensible.  Bio laughs about all the forced togetherness of parents and children.  Joni says that she has become aware of how little she really needs or wants.  And Darryl reminds us that the virus knows none of the boundaries that we foolishly try to impose on each other.  

Not everyone has such positive experiences these days.  We know that marriage and family counselors have a lot of work ahead of them, as do social workers and the police.  But for at least some of us – we pray, most of us – the social distancing is really a chance for drawing near to those we love most.

Then they spoke of beauty and creativity.  Berlin mentioned the extraordinary work teachers have done to convert a whole educational system from one time-honored mode of delivery to another, completely experimental one.  Carisse pointed to her beautiful flower garden – God’s creativity, as well as hers.  Paul wondered if perhaps we will now question more seriously the dogmas and prejudices that have weighed us down in recent years, whether religious or political or corporate.  Returning back to the previous normal may not be an option.  Maybe that fact is a great mercy in itself.

And then there are those who emphasized the need for self-care.  God knows we all need it.  Many of us have grown increasingly concerned about the mad politics of the past few years, the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, the alienation of the young (and many of us who are not so young) from our major institutions, and the coarsening of the public discourse rendering repair of those problems far harder than it needs to be.  As Frank puts it, we can build our hopes, not on what we do, but on who we are before God.  And my physician friend Keith notes that the key problem for every human being is what we do with our pain.  We can drug it, pretend it away, divert it onto others, or we can deal with it in a search for true healing.  Taking care of the deepest parts of ourselves matters.  

All of these answers say something to us today as we encounter the story of the first Christian Pentecost, when the church already had everything it needed: a risen Lord, a message of hope, an audience desperately seeking something better, and messengers willing to carry the good news regardless of the consequences.  That’s all we’ve ever needed, as we have learned again during this time of quarantine.  But perhaps there are other things here as well.  Let me suggest a few.

The first is that our faith is not really a timid little thing.  We have been conditioned by countless examples from our ancestors to regard it as such, to take it in small doses, with all sorts of precautions.  It used to be impolite to talk in public about religion, sex, and politics, but now all the reticence focuses on the first.  At best, talking about religion in public is a bit like talking about a hobby of stamp collecting or whittling – probably harmless but not very important.  

We know better of course.  We know that the message of the gospel is simply that all the powers of the world, external to us or inside our minds, need not control our destiny.  Scripture talks about salvation, which is both rescue from the power of evil in this life and rescue from the power of death itself.  It is here and now, tangible, real, and also in the future.  Both/and.  While it may be true that this life is not a rehearsal for the next, this is not all there is, either.

But there is more.  Part of the message of Pentecost is that God keeps promises.  God is not a distant taskmaster dropping meaningless laws on us, nor is God the great enabler in the sky, indifferent to the evil we do or the suffering we inflict or receive.  God makes covenants with human beings and keeps those commitments even when – especially when – humans fail to live up to our side of the bargain.  Our whole relationship with God and each other is an edifice built up by commitments we fulfill together, promises we make and keep.

In other words, and in short, Pentecost is about love.  I acknowledge that Acts 2 never uses the word “love,” but this is not the main point.  I acknowledge that love is a difficult concept, or rather the word names so many competing concepts that focusing on it risks our not really saying anything meaningful.  It’s not just that I can love my wife and children, love people I hardly know, and love a good Boston pizza, all with the same verb.  Obviously those are not all the same thing, vocabulary notwithstanding.  The most serious point is that true love seems to imply a whole set of obligations and commitments, which is why we name our most solemn commitments with such extraordinary phrases as “till death do us part” and “well done, good and faithful servant.”  We know that something huge is at stake.  

For the 120 who had received the Spirit because they believed in a reliable God, and the 3000 who joined them in belief on the first Pentecost, that something huge was a sense of who God, and therefore who they were.  They were not just peasants from Galilee who couldn’t speak Greek with a good urban Jerusalem accent.  They were not losers who had abandoned the Messiah – or called for his death.  No, they were recipients of longstanding promises.   They had encountered God’s surprising love for all. 

Now I wish I were clever enough to write a book called Love in the time of COVID-19, with all apologies to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.  It would not be about frustrated love but about fulfillment.  About justice for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, both the punishment of their murderers and a true wave of repentance and restructuring across our society.  It would be about families waving to their oldest members through the window of the locked-down nursing home, longing for the day when they touch each other again.  It would tell of husbands and wives reconnecting after struggle.  Of children asking their parents for help with homework in the middle of the day.  Of the first graders my sister teaches giving her a tour of their homes as they hold up the laptop and walk from room to room.  There are so many stories to tell, some serious even tragic, some lighthearted.  True love takes many shapes.

For the people in the second chapter of Acts and for their readers through the centuries, the story of divine mercy is fulfilled in a moment of wonder, of radical transformation.  But that moment of fiery tongues and linguistic pyrotechnics marks not an end, but a beginning.  We don’t always get the miracles, even when we want them.  But we do get the presence of the Holy Spirit, pointing us to Jesus the Risen Lord, and to God who raised him.  We bask in the sunlight of the God who keeps promises, even in a fearful time.  Amen.

Top photo credit: “Postcards for peace (sent)” by SaRaD79 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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