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A Body In The Spirit Is A Body That Cannot Be Controlled

Acts 2:1-21, 42-47: When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people.    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.    Your young will see visions.    Your elders will dream dreams.

18 Even upon my servants, men and women,        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,        and they will prophesy.

19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above    and signs on the earth below,        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

20 The sun will be changed into darkness,    and the moon will be changed into blood,        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

One of my teachers in seminary, Willie Jennings, had this quote about Pentecost that I think really gets at the heart of our Scripture today. He said, “A body in the Spirit is a body that can’t be controlled.” When the Holy Spirit arrives, chains break, prison walls come crumbling down, and the disciples are so filled with enthusiasm that people think they’re drunk. There are these patterns or structures in this world that hold people in place. Some of those are literal, physical structures, some of them are notions of polite behavior or conversation, but when the Spirit comes all of those structures start moving, they don’t seem so necessary, our lives don’t have to slot into prefabricated categories. A body in the Spirit is a body that can’t be controlled, that’s free to improvise, to surprise, to get caught up beyond itself. The Spirit is like a fire, burning down whatever’s holding us back, and inspiring our love for each other and for God.

Maybe you know the opposite feeling, that your life is on autopilot? Like you’re living in a movie montage? You go to work or school or on whatever errands have to be done, and there’s always more to be done, you carve out whatever little moments of rest you can for yourself. Maybe you have thoughts or dreams of what could be different, of what you’d really like to be doing with your life, or who you really are even though you don’t get to be that person in public yet, but maybe one day…I think this is why so many people think about moving or making some change in their lives after a vacation. There’s this instinct that says “Oh that’s really vapid, of course life can’t be like a vacation,” but I think what’s also happening is that for a brief moment the inertia of the day to day is broken and when you’re out of those patterns you feel like you’re allowed to imagine others.

There’s a story earlier in the Bible about these patterns called the Tower of Babel. Just as a refresher, in the Book of Genesis, there’s a king named Nimrod and in his time everyone spoke with one language. So he gathers people together and he gets everyone to make bricks so that they can build a tower that goes up to heaven. The image is of a Babylonian ziggurat, Nimrod is the king of the first empire. And God’s like, “this is no good,” so God scatters the languages so that people can’t understand each other any more. And the idea is that this is where all the various nations of the earth come from, all of the various kingdoms who will spend the next centuries conquering and warring with each other.

This is a fable about how creation gets divided up. Instead of a garden where everyone has everything they need because everyone is sharing everything, empires divvy up the world into networks of trade organized by borders that teach us who we are. And so even the words we use, instead of connecting us to each other, giving us a means of sharing our innermost selves and desires, become markers of alienation. Our attempts to reach out to one another only compound our loneliness.

And in a world that’s divided up this way, some people have more than enough of what they need, while others don’t have anything at all. And so loneliness and isolation are tied up with material pressures. You’re already tired from work, and now your car needs to be fixed; but you don’t talk about it because you don’t want to complain, so that frustration just festers. People are so impressed with that degree you have, but your student loan payment just weighs on you. So you take the second job, you forego going out with friends, you cancel that vacation, you just keep going because this is the way life is.

But on Pentecost, when the Spirit starts moving, God rewrites the story of the tower of Babel. All of the people who were there, from all over the world, heard what the disciples were saying in their own languages. The Spirit didn’t require everyone to understand the one master language, the Spirit helped them to hear what they needed to hear in ways they could hear it. And the Spirit moved the disciples out of the room where they’d been hiding so that they could bring that good news to their neighbors. Where there was alienation and isolation, where there was fear and loneliness, the Spirit brings communion. This will be a theme throughout the Book of Acts: Phillip will be on his way somewhere else, and will find himself talking with a eunuch from Ethiopia on the side of the road. Paul will be in Athens and he’ll see a shrine to an unknown God, and he’ll say, “Let me tell you about this unknown God.”

As lonely as so many of us are, it turns out that there are opportunities for communion all around us. Where the powers of this world have said, “Stay in place, this is how it has to be” the Spirit says, “No no no, have visions, dream dreams. Get caught up in the deepest desires of your hearts, don’t let this world snuff them out because you’re not the only one who wants things to be different. In fact, most of us do.”

And so speaking in that way draws people together so we can share dreams and visions. “The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” When the Spirit spoke in people’s intimate languages to the desires of their hearts, it draws people to each other. This is also one of the themes of the Book of Acts. The early church in these stories didn’t just say “Cool, let’s just let things grow organically and we’ll see what happens.” They knew that so many of our habits and instincts are formed by the patterns of this world. The Spirit helped them to realize that if they wanted to create a different kind of community, they needed to build new patterns. And so in a later chapter, they’ll elect deacons to make sure that when they gather everyone gets food. They built a structure that helped people find intimacy together rather than the usual patterns that makes us lonelier.

And this was important, again, because the things that make us lonely aren’t just linguistic or psychological. They’re economic. The reason some people might not imagine that they could dream dreams, the reason some people might accept that they don’t get food at a gathering, is because the world is divided up into people who have plenty and people who have to scrape by. And so in these new patterns, the Spirit moves the early church to hold all things in common.

The day of Pentecost has its name from the number 50, because we celebrate it 50 days after Easter. And that parallels a Jewish holiday, Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks or the Festival of the Reaping, which occurred 50 days after Passover and in Jewish tradition is associated with God giving the Torah at Mount Sinai after the Exodus. In the Jewish mystical tradition, some Rabbis were interested in that number 50, which they said was related to a law called the Year of Jubilee, which you might have heard of before. But just as a refresher, the year of Jubilee was a time where after 49 years, on the 50th year, the land would lie fallow, slaves were freed, every debt was forgiven, seized lands had to be returned, and resident aliens were given the status of citizenship. There was a general reset of the patterns that bind people’s lives. So just as in the Exodus, God freed the people from slavery to Pharaoh, and then 50 days later gave them the Law so they would have a rule for how to live in freedom, the Jubilee was supposed to reset all of the little tyrannies and debts that build up over time to trap people.

So 50 days after the resurrection, the Spirit comes and makes Christians start sharing all things in common. Pentecost is a Jubilee story. The birth of the Church is the beginning of another Jubilee. Church is an invitation to remake the patterns of this world, to dream dreams, and have visions of what our lives could be like together if we shared our gifts and our needs with each other.

We can continue to be that kind of people. We can get caught up in the Spirit. We don’t have to let the powers of this world control our bodies or our imaginations. But we have to do that together. The Spirit does speak through the apostles at first but the work of the church very quickly diffuses. The Spirit does not create a community of technocratic experts engineering spiritual experiences for the masses. The Spirit creates a movement of people holding all things in common.

Friends, I wonder, right now, what debts do you need cancelled? What lack is weighing you down? What gifts do you have to offer? What are the patterns or routines that have you lulled to sleep and what would you do if you truly felt free? Maybe that’s a way for us to approach this Summer together, as routines shift, as kids get out of school, as many of us travel and are in and out of our usual routines. Maybe this is an opportunity to make new connections, to explore new gifts, to make your needs known, to let yourself dream dreams.

The Spirit is still hovering over these waters, stirring us up. We don’t have to accept the patterns of loneliness that keep our lives on autopilot. We can step across Babel’s fractures toward each other. We can get caught up in the love of God. We can reach each other where we think we’re most isolated. We can care for each other where we feel most alone. We can hold in common what’s weighing us down. We can burn down the dividing walls, break chains, we can ask for more. Our community doesn’t have to accept the world as it is, because in the Spirit we are joined together as a body and a body in the spirit is a body that can’t be held down, can’t be held in place, can’t be shamed into alienation and compliance—a body is a Spirit is a body that cannot be controlled. Amen.

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