“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Acts 2:1
I was going to title this post “The Summer of Our Discontent.”
For various denominational bodies, late spring and early summer are seasons for gathering “all together in one place.” United Methodists conference together, Episcopalians and Baptists convene, and Presbyterians generally assemble (or assemble generally). Long-time participants in these gatherings and others like them might say, with a cynical wink, that, except for the “all together” part (and the being “in one place” part), these meetings are a real blast—productive, enjoyable, edifying . . . . . . Not.
The recent United Methodist General Conference, for example, was regarded by both participants and observers as emblematic of the church’s deep-seated woes: a bloated bureaucracy too unwieldy to do much good; back-room deals (still? really?) that always breed bitterness and disgust; a growing distrust of leadership at all levels; an aging membership tone-deaf to the pleas of the young; intractable theological disagreements that align with partisan political commitments. The damage assessment continues to be broadcast far and wide, much of it startlingly ungracious.
Catholics, too, in their own way have experienced a similar disassembling in recent weeks. The contraception controversy has exposed divisions that run deep. Public discourse — all the words, words, and more words that have filled airwaves and op-eds, blogs and Facebook newsfeeds seem only to have entrenched the separation and the mutual suspicion.
We all might as well be speaking other languages.
Which of course is what the early followers of Jesus were doing at another strange gathering described in the book of Acts. Whatever historical event lies behind Luke’s account in Acts 2:1-21, his story is rich with symbols meant to convey the Spirit’s power (not the people’s cleverness or their programmatic skills) in bringing unity and understanding. The Pentecost story is compelling for many reasons, not least for what it echoes (and what it subverts) in Israel’s history. i.e., the curse of Babel. Even its use of humor is theologically instructive: No, these people are not drunk; even rowdy Galileans wouldn’t start imbibing this early in the day. But to those with ears to hear, this “babble” is the word of the Lord (vv. 15-17). Communication — unity and understanding — has indeed been restored.
And it’s the gatherers themselves, in themselves, who also make something known of God’s redeeming work in the Spirit among the early Christians: they’re from all across the Empire and from among all kinds of ethnic communities. They also seem to be from other historical eras since, as some scholars point out, the Medes hadn’t existed as a people for more than half a millenium. Here in Jerusalem, fifty days after the Passover, Peter proclaims, echoing the prophet Joel, that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people and that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 21). Everyone. Luke’s vision of the restoration of Israel is scandalously inclusive.
Last weekend I attended a very different kind of assembly, one not often noted for anything very “spiritual”: a law school graduation. I was struck by a couple of things. First, the repeated charge to the graduates that they seek justice for the poor. This challenge was not preachy but playful and inviting; it was not framed as something to consider in addition to (pro bono) one’s “real” work as a lawyer. Second, the list of names of the graduates read something like the “table of nations” from Acts chapter 2. Where Luke mentions Parthians and Elamites, Mesopotamians and Cappadocians, the candidates for juris doctor included Africans and Nicaraguans, Asians and Eastern Europeans. I’d like to think that the work these new lawyers will be given to do will be shaped by a vision of scandalous inclusion–the idea that everyone they meet bears something of the goodness of God in them.
Yet I don’t want to press this comparison too far. A law school graduation ceremony is just a law school graduation ceremony. But the diversity of those graduates, who will be bound together by oaths they will take and by a common cause they will participate in, is not unlike diversity in other contexts. In the Church, for instance, we do not gather merely to celebrate our diversity (despite what well-meaning worship planners often think). Rather, the Spirit gathers us in all our rich diversity for the common work and witness we share — the missio dei in the world.
In truth, Pentecost is not the complete reversal of Babel. We still can’t understand each other; we routinely miscommunicate; we gather and we gripe, betraying the unity Christ has called us to as his Body. But the good news of the Acts 2 story, the good news of all our gathering “together in one place,” is not that the Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Church. We assemble to be dispersed, to be mistaken for the drunken fools for Christ that we are, to speak and to act not by our own wits, thanks be to God, but through the Spirit’s life-giving power so that everyone, everyone, who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.