Sermon for Pentecost Sunday - June 4 2017

Sermon for Pentecost – Year A
June 4, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104: 25-37; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

Oh, that Holy Spirit – who knows what she might do?

We heard all those voices reading from Acts in different languages.  We heard about Moses and the 70 and about Eldad and Medad.  We heard about Jesus “breathing” the Holy Spirit into the disciples gathered in the Upper Room – a slightly different version than we get in the Book of Acts.

All these things of the Holy Spirit – and always a surprise, an unexpected turn.

What are we to make of it all?

Last week I watched a short video about young clergy who were invited to Canterbury to spend two months together. They were from all over the world – from Asia, Africa, the Americas, from Europe, and from the Middle East.  One of them was a young man from Kenya, I believe, and he was trying to understand how the churches in North America, especially our own Episcopal Church, could not only accept GLBT persons as members, but as priests and bishops, and even more, could bless them as married couples.

How can the Holy Spirit speak two messages at the same time? he asked. 

It would be so easy to say – as people, and even theologians, in both churches have – the Spirit is speaking one truth, but you’re not hearing it.  You’ve bowed to your culture, not to the Scripture, and not to God.  WE have it right.

That would be easy.  Sometimes, I’ve thought that about them, and I know they think that about us.  I’ve heard others say the same. 

But then I noticed something.  We look at the story of the disciples speaking many languages as a great miracle – the Spirit doing one great thing to these disciples.

But actually, the Spirit didn’t.  The Spirit gave it to each one to speak a different language.

So Peter, for example, would have spoken Latin, say, and Philip Greek, and maybe Nathaniel Parthian, and others spoke the languages of the Medes, the Elamites, Arabs, Cretans, Egyptians, and so on.  They each did something different, they each got a different gift from the Spirit.

Now, we presume they all told the same story, of course.  But if you were standing near to three different people speaking words you did not understand, all higgledy-piggledy, you might not think of the Holy Spirit, but of drunkenness.

Which is silly, and exaggerated, because of course they would all have realized that people from different places spoke different languages – just as we do – but even then, they might not have known what languages they were speaking, and to do it all together, kind of the way we did a few minutes ago, would have been confusing at the least, maybe a bit scary, even, and surely, the simplest explanation would be that the disciples were simply drunk.


But we do look at this event as an occasion where the Spirit did one thing, because that’s how we always have… and frankly, when I was studying Chinese and Mongolian and Russian, I would certainly have welcomed such a gift, I can assure you.  But, with the Holy Spirit one can never be sure – so she might have given me Farsi instead, just for the fun of it.

So let’s move on.  When Moses and the Israelites were wandering around in the desert, for months and years, everyone would take their problems to Moses – and he became very tired of this.  He told God that he wanted to quit – a sabbatical wasn’t going to be enough, he’d had it, enough, Genug!  Basta!  Sufficiente!

And God said, “Moses, you need help.”

“So pick 70 guys to help you out with all the daily stuff, and you can focus on the big picture.  Bring them out of the camp over here, and we’ll get this fixed.”

And we all heard what happened next.  The Lord “took some of the spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders….”  But then, we hear, “The spirit rested” on Eldad and Medad, who had not been picked.  This isn’t a case of the Lord taking the spirit and putting it on Eldad and Medad – this is a case of the Spirit taking initiative and doing the unexpected.

And that really upset Joshua, who wanted Moses to denounce Eldad and Medad for prophesying in the camp. “Stop them!” he demanded.  But Moses said No way, Jose, I wish everyone were prophets and that the Lord would put the spirit on all of them!

Does that, by the way, sound at all familiar?

It should:  In Luke[1] we hear that John reported to Jesus:  “ ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’  But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’ ”

And in Mark, he gives a slightly longer answer to John: “But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.’ ”

So it would seem that the Spirit acts as the Spirit wills.

But the basic question remains: Why would the Spirit give two different messages to different people in different places?

If God is one, how can this be? Does it simply mean that we are deaf to the true message, or is it really a different message? 

And if it is a different message and if it is God’s doing, or the Spirit’s doing, what does it mean?  And if it really is a different message, why would the Spirit do that?  What are we to do in response?

I think, we are tasked to find the deeper unity.

But what deeper unity is there when one hears “LGBT is bad, so stamp it out and punish those who practice that lifestyle” and the other hears “LBGT is fine, don’t worry about it, but welcome all.”

What possible unity is there?

The first step is to recognize that we have a tendency to think about our religious faith as presenting us with firm dualities – contradictions – where we must choose the right way and avoid the wrong way. 

All through the Bible we can find opposites placed beside each other: Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

We pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.  Jesus spoke of the kingdom of earth and the kingdom of heaven. 

We think these are immutable categories – unchangeable, eternal, and always separate.  We use these ideas as dividers – who’s in, who’s out – what’s acceptable – what’s not.  We missed the part where the whole letter to the Galatians was an attack on that practice.  We missed the part where Jesus wanted the people to understand that the kingdom of heaven was near, was within us.

I suspect that as the church became an instrument of the state, the regulation of the Spirit became a paramount concern.  There was an important conflict about the source of Christian authority – was it from Scripture and the Church hierarchy, or was it from the Spirit?  This was called “Montanism” and the church called it heresy – it was certainly disruptive of practice and ritual and theology – and did its best to stamp it out. 

Yet even today, we have multiple denominations that have formed because of what different people have considered to be Spirit-led truths.

I think that as the church evolved, and took in more Greeks and other Gentiles, some of the philosophical ideas that the new converts understood were introduced.  One of these was dualism. 

I blame Plato – it’s easy, and his ideas were pretty wide-spread.  One of his primary ideas was that reality was not what we see, reality lies behind what we see.  We see a chair, and we call it a chair, even if it has only three legs, or is made of metal or plastic, or it reclines or folds up…but Plato looked at all those chairs and wondered “what is CHAIR?”  The idea of chair is conceptual, with various and differing physical manifestations, none of which encompass the fullness of “chair.”  The Conceptual Chair is the eternal reality; the physical chair is temporary, ephemeral, breakable, and not reality, but merely appearance.

When you start thinking that the physical world is appearance and ephemeral and temporary and changeable, and not really real, then that which is not all those things must be real.  Earth itself becomes unreal, and immaterial; our bodies become immaterial – all that matters is heaven or the soul.

Paul didn’t see it that way; he probably knew the basics of Greek philosophy, and he wasn’t above talking about ideas within that framework – and that’s why he said “THERE IS NO LONGER Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.”

In Paul’s mind, duality is not a Christian concept.  ONENESS is.  Unity is.  Wholeness is. 

Christ came to earth as one of us to ensure that we could become one with him, as he is one with the Father, and to ensure that we could become one with each other, as he is one with us and the Father. 

The Holy Spirit is profligate with her gifts, because God’s grace never ends.  The Lord might have taken some of the spirit that had been given to Moses, but that spirit was enough for 72 other people.  The Spirit is enough for all – gay or straight, republican or democrat, Christian or Muslim, white or black or brown, humanity and earth, and earth and heaven … all the differences, all the dualities that we think divide us … are simply elements of our greater wholeness and our deeper unity.

We are one in the Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

And if we can’t find commonality with those who disagree, then we’re all just not looking hard enough. 


[1] Luke 9:49-50. NRSV.  See also Mark 9:38.

[2] Galatians 3:28

  January 2018  
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