For those of you who haven’t memorized the liturgical year, this coming Sunday is Pentecost. That’s the tongues-of-flame-dancing-on-heads, mulitlingual, hey-are-those-guys-drunk moment that announces the Church is born because the Holy Spirit has moved in and decided to get sh*t done. It also pretty much kicks off the book of Acts (in the New Testament), in which Paul gets arrested a lot.
In the Church nowadays we often use this day as an excuse to wear lots of red and use fire imagery and, in some cases, serve cake in the morning because we’re adults and we can and because it’s the Church’s birthday. (Why does the Church never ask for DQ cake, is all I’m asking—it’s obviously the best choice of birthday cakes.)
My church has decided to use the opportunity to kick off summer schedule (one service instead of three) and change up pretty much everything. Now, you may have noticed, Reader, that I’m a creature of habit. I like knowing what to expect, I absolutely hate surprises, and I like having rules to follow so I don’t miss something important. This is totally antithetical to what the Spirit did and what my church is hoping the Spirit will do on Sunday. So it’s tough, for me, to look toward Sunday with anything other than trepidation.
It’s not that I don’t get what the folks shaping this experiment are trying to do; I do, I totally get it, and I was all kinds of moved as Interpreter was explaining it to me yesterday. But one of the things that I really tend not to like about God is that He is absolutely free to do some wacky and unexpected shit.
Am I alone in this? Or can I get an “amen”?
Here’s the thing—God is radically free. “Radical” is a word that doesn’t get used in many contexts other than “dangerous and psychotic” these days, which I get because it can mean “extreme” and that can be scary in the wrong minds. But its primary meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, at least) is “of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; original, primary.” It’s from Latin radix, root, as in of a plant. So when I say God is radically free, I mean that it is part of His nature, fundamental to His primary being, that He be free. And that kind of freedom means I don’t get to chain Him to the idea that worship of Him always has to look like my traditionally-minded 9 o’clock service, that I don’t get to shut Him up because He makes me uncomfortable, and that a group of apostles lo these many years ago didn’t get to say “that flame is too warm, try something else.”
This is not to say that I’m not also free to walk away from this relationship, or that the apostles weren’t free to turn down the gift of the Spirit. I am (even though it doesn’t feel that way a lot of the time) and they were, because another part of God’s primary being is love, and love does not cage another. It just doesn’t. Force is never part of love.
But it is to say that, no matter what happens this Sunday, I don’t get to tell God that He can’t do new things. I don’t get to say that God can’t use a drumset or put the pulpit against this other wall or have dancers instead of a choir or use blue cloth out of season (seriously, that’s a thing for me). This is mostly because I don’t get to decide everyone else’s experience of God, which is a very, very hard thing to realize. I like power—it’s hard to spot because I prefer to work behind the scenes and I’m very helpful, but just like I like rules for myself, I like to have others follow what I “know” to be right or just or whatever.
But when this Spirit came through and burned without consuming, the thing the writer of Acts focuses on is not that the apostles were then given all the answers and immediately set up the First Council on Church Policy and Correctness. The chapter instead describes everyone around the apostles being amazed because they heard their own languages; the piece of them that defined their earliest understandings of themselves was suddenly coming out from these bizarre fishermen and tax collectors and it was totally about what other people took away from it.
Then, of course, Peter gets his preaching on and the book continues, but there, right there. The Spirit is not waiting to set me on fire until I am comfortable with the heat, and God is definitely not hoping to to do so that I might be beautiful in flames. He wants to plunk me down in the middle of an awkward church service and make me talk to other people, His people, His beloved children who are also totally unsure of what the hell is happening. And that’s how God works, because He can, and because I don’t get to tell Him He can’t.
So this weekend I will worry, and fret, and pray, and scowl, and hope, and prepare—and on Sunday, I will be as totally unseated as everyone else, because in this birth of the Church God comes in the strong wind this time to announce without words that Jesus may have left, but we have work to do.
Erm. That kind of turned sermon-y, sorry. But think about it—whether you go to church or not, take the opportunity to let something shake you up. Sometimes it’s as tiny as getting a different type of latte based purely on the recommendation of a friend, and sometimes as huge as letting God use you as a mouthpiece for a bit. Open—which is painful, and frightening, I know—and trust that God’s got your back. Or, in this case, your head.
And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par′thians and Medes and E′lamites and residents of Mesopota′mia, Judea and Cappado′cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg′ia and Pamphyl′ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre′ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:7-12, RSV)