Friday, March 19, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

Here's what I'm hoping for. I've got a Pepperdine Bible Lectureship sermon five weeks out on Acts 2. I've been dwelling in this text for the better part of three months. I'm trying to let the text form me, work on me. So, I'm trying to live in its rhythms. I'm memorizing it. Speaking it out loud. Praying with it. I'm trying to let it interrupt me.

I want to let you look over my shoulder some as I do this work. I'm hoping even that things you see will fund my preaching imagination, or that you can push what I'm seeing even deeper. I know this assumes a readership, or people who might be interested in more than just my latest thought structured by a Dylan song. But for the handful of you that might be out there, here we go.

Today, two things strike me. And they are related. This is a Holy Spirit text, not so much the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the promised Spirit comes in Acts 2 with a violent wind and divided tongues of fire. This is striking language to me. And it goes with Peter's use of Joel as he begins his sermon.

Joel is not a happy book. All kinds of catastrophic things happen in Joel. The day of the Lord is not a company picnic. Joel's vision is that the world has to be leveled before a new one, a world created by the outpouring of the Spirit can happen. Peter's sermon, in essence, says that we are living in the hinge of that moment--the death of one world, the emergence of another. This is why repentance is a necessary component of the new world. And the Holy Spirit, the power for a new world. And baptism for the forgiveness of sins, a recognition of our complicity in the old arrangement of things. This constitutes the response of an eschatological people convinced that an old world is being blown to bits, and a new world is emerging.

It takes a violent wind and tongues of fire to overcome a world divided by old and young, Jew and Gentile, male and female. It takes a violent wind to uproot business as usual to create a new human family that encompasses "every nation under the heavens." There are too many places in the world given to us by principalities and powers to divide us, to make us many. It takes a violent wind to disrupt business as usual, to level the playing field, so that a new family can emerge.

This is one of our texts. Not so much the Joel part, but certainly the be baptized part. It's, therefore, a text that we have neatly tucked into our way of seeing things. It's comfortable. It's more like a gentle breeze than a mighty wind. I think the sermon has to recover some of the violence of this text. I'm hoping that the question of the crowd, "Brothers, what should we do?" can be the question of the listeners. And for that to be the case, it must first become my question.

I have placed myself on Peter's side in the sermon. In my imagination, I stand with him. I need to place myself in the path of the violent wind. Come, O Holy Spirit.


Warren Baldwin said...

I haven't thought of the catastrophic events in Joel that this text connects to. The "mighty wind" is a powerful thought here, too. We often preach this text, as ironically I am this Sunday, to nice 11 year old kids who we judge to have reached the age of accountability and are ready for a good baptism sermon like this now.

But there is so much more behind this text. The violence, the change, baptism.

Interesting that Jesus told the disciples to repent after Pilate's action and the tower fell. Were the disciples responsible for those things? What did they have to repent of or for? Systemtic evil?

Maybe we still have many Joel-like features even today. I'm reading some books now on the communist revolution through Stalin. Estimates reach as high as 80 million killed by the communist machine. Then 50 million in WW2. On a smaller scale - probably a million in Iraq over the last two wars. We are seeing our own catastrophic times and perphaps we can repent of "our complicity in the old arrangement of things" that should have been abandoned long ago.

Make sense? Over 2,000,000 German women were raped at the end of WW2 as retaliation to Hitler. Who says, "I'm sorry; I repent?" Alexander Solzhenitsyn did, but I don't know too many other Christians who have. Whose responsibility is it to repent for that? Who was told to repent after the tower fell?

Anyway, your article sparked some thinking on my part. Good post.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Warren

Jeff said...

Mark -

As I was reading your post, I was reminded of the recent violence and destruction in Haiti and Chile and the contrast between them.

I like your assessment when you say that our current world must be leveled before a new world of the Spirit can be rebuilt - true on so many levels, whether as individuals, communities of faith, or societies at large. One of our problems, perhaps, is that the disruption of God in our lives tends to look a lot more like the earthquake in Chile (damage, but most structures standing and intact) than it does like Haiti (everything completely leveled and in disrepair, from the President to the beggar on the street. It reminds me, in ways, of Kuhn, in that paradigms don't really evolve, so much as they are replaced through complete revolution and replacement - Copernicus didn't improve on Ptolemy, he replaced him completely.

In my own life, I think it's fair to say I attempt an integrative approach with God - that is to say I take the things I'm doing and try to bring in God where it seems convenient. This seems very different to me than the verse 37 response, which I've recently begun to interpret as an "oh crap" moment, where the Jews Peter is speaking to suddenly are convinced that the world they'd grown up with has just come apart. I often don't allow the violence of God's word shake me hard enough to get everything to topple down - rather if there's any destruction at all, it's patched up rather quickly and I'm back to producing the best wine in South America within a year or so - business as usual.

This "What shall we do?" question isn't just about this moment of being cut to the heart, then, but is really the central question of the Gospel, and the Gospels - "What then shall you do with this man they call the King of the Jews?" As I've reflected on them over the past few months, it is the single question that seems to sum up what each of the Gospel writers is getting at. They're not just giving stories and information about Jesus, but narratives designed to put us in the place where we have to respond, to take sides, to declare that we stand with the crowd calling "Crucify!", or with Peter saying, "You are the son of God." Even when we try to be like Pilate and wash our hands of the whole thing, Jesus places the decision back on us - is that your own idea, or what others have said about me?

And so, as I read the text this morning while not listening to the preacher, my mind returned again and again to the idea of response - as you've asked before, "What's this thing going to look like?" When you're completely destroyed, you have a lot of choices about how things are going to look compared to the case where you just try to stuff the new in with the old. There's something very liberating - relieving, even, about that. But it still comes at great cost... "This is a hard teaching... who can accept it?"

Mark Love said...

Jeff, the verse 37 moment is the moment in the text. And I think it's a little stronger than oh, crap. This Jesus...attested by handed over to be crucified at the hands of those outside the law. Crap, indeed.

Jeff said...

Mark -

Completely agree that it's stronger. I took the liberty of making it PG, but in more intimate company might have let the R rated version slip out.

To me, today, this whole line of thought has been a reminder that I need to have more "oh ****" moments where the wind, or earthquake of God renders my life empty, broken, and ready for rebuilding.

If the message of Jesus is real and relevant to me, "what am I gonna do?" needs to be a question that hits me a lot more often than it does now. It isn't just the question of this text, or of Scripture, but the question of my life. What am I gonna do, and probably more importantly, what is He gonna do to me?

JNW said...

"Oh Crap" seems to be right in line with what we've been learning with PMC. And when it comes to being a part of a congregation it has often seemed more like Haiti than Chile; a leveling of the older order so a new one can rise. It's been an Acts 2 journey for some of us. When it hits you what God has done and is doing and might continue to do you find yourself asking "what shall we do?" and it's not a comfortable feeling when you see that the world as you have known it must die in order to be a part of the new world God is creating. Scared *#(!^@#! kind of stuff. Looking forward to hearing you at Pepperdine.