Having the Answers

May 23, 2021

Series: May 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Acts 2:1-13

Today's Sermon


"Having the Answers"


Acts 2:1-13

          1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

          5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

“Having the Answers”

            Today is the last in our series on so-called Christian values, in which we examine what we may have been led to believe is central to the faith.  As we come to a close, today’s topic is knowing it all, “having the answers” I’m calling it.  Somewhere along the way being Christian became associated with thinking you had the answers.  Moreover, people who went to church were supposed to have it all together.  Is this so? 

          Take knowing. I think what draws many to spirituality is the search for something.  People have a sense, an inkling, an experience however formed or unformed, a question about something more.  They’re looking for meaning, purpose, a deeper reality.  How did movements of searching become establishments of certainty?  Of course, there are moments to declare who you are and what you’re about, but to be too cavalier about this is folly.  For goodness’ sake, a seminary degree is called a “Master of Divinity!” as if you could ever master God.  Even the most convicted among us must recognize that all our speaking about God is approximate.  In reality, people who speak too casually about God always make me a little nervous, as if they know the mind of the universe.  Remember what God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4).  I don’t believe Christianity is about having answers as much as carrying good questions and seeking good ways of being. 

          Similarly, Christians should not consider themselves perfect or even finished products but works in progress.  I know we’re pretty relaxed around at this church, and yet I wonder how many people feel as though they must “put on a face,” lest someone think they don’t have it all together.  We do live in an area in which there’s pressure to maintain a façade.  Do any of us really have it all together?  Jesus himself said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”(Mk. 2:17).  The church is not for those who are well.  I’ve mentioned before hearing someone talk about belonging to a tradition that had fairly strict rules about entry.  You had to give up this and that before becoming a member, and the irony to that person was the very thing he would have needed to give up those things—a supportive spiritual community—was that which was being withheld.  We don’t have all the answers and we don’t have it all together.  We seek and we strive.

          This is how it has always been.  I recently came across a marvelous observation, though I’ve lost track of its source.  It stated that the Hebrew Bible is extraordinary because it is the rare example of a people telling their story not through rose-colored glasses, but in a manner that recorded their failings as well as their triumphs.  What an act of self-reflection, of authenticity, of open seeking and striving rather than the stridency we so often see? 

          The very birth of the church, which we celebrate on this day of Pentecost, is a faithful example of how to be faithful in the face of not really knowing.  People gathered from all across the globe, from places whose names (Phrygia, Pamphylia, Capodocia…) send shivers down the spine of any lay reader.  They gather in in the wake of uncertainty—their Lord has been taken, crucified, and now people have begun to experience him appearing to them after his death.  They come together in prayer—that’s the first clue—and “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:2-5).

          This Spirit gives them the ability to understand each other, and what is their response, but to ask, “What does this mean?” (v. 12).  How many times do we feel pressured to show up and declare that we know what something means (even if, in truth, we’re not so sure)?  Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.  Argue your point.  Never change your mind.  Don’t give an inch.  We show up to gatherings to convey and convince.  In contrast, those who gathered at Pentecost chose instead the vulnerability of curiosity.  Now, who’s more courageous?  Rather than standing up, one after another and telling everybody what it meant, and what side to join, they asked together, what it means, because of coursethey didn’t know. 

          They didn’t have the answers. What they had was each other and an openness to the Holy Spirit.  Together they held a common question, and a common faith that they could figure it out together with God’s help.  In the face of a scary time, they chose each other.  That is a choice people can be making in every moment.  In every moment, in the face of every frightening reality, we can choose to come together and ask with open hearts and minds, what it means and how should we respond.  Or, we can merely give into the loudest voice in the room, the one who seems uninterested in anyone else’s language. 

          That brings us back to how the Pentecost moment might speak to our present moment.  There is an old notion that people suffering from depression are more likely to fall prey to self-harm as they start to feel better, and their energy returns.  Data, in fact, refutes this—it’s always good to check your illustrations before you give them.[1]  Still, I wonder if there is some truth in it as a metaphor and a warning for what it’s like to emerge from a shared trauma, such as a year with COVID.  I say this because of what I am starting to see as we emerge from the pandemic.  In fact, one of the physicians in the congregation shared in worship last week about the uptick in violent injuries they’re seeing in the emergency room.  It makes sense – people have held it together for well over a year now, yes to varying degrees but most to some extent. Now, as things continue to open up and improve and the weight starts to lessen, people are going to have feel more room and permission to vent their frustrations, their grief, even if they wouldn’t necessarily call it that.  You watch and see how along with relief, how anger emerges, as people inflict the pain they’ve felt on others.  I’ve even felt it in the smallest of ways as people ask, sometimes almost with a tinge of anger in their voices, “Why haven’t more people come back to church!?” which is an expression of grief over what has been lost.  Someone told me this week there’s even a term for this, “cave syndrome,” which you can read about inScientific American.[2]

          In the face of such loss and uncertainty, as we emerge, can we have the courage of our forbearers who in similar circumstances received the blessing of understanding one another and ask together, okay, so what does this mean?  And, instead of choosing anger and forced certainty, can we simply choose one another?  That’s what’s so perfect about the imperfect Pentecost moment, the founding of the church.  The people didn’t agree on a set of doctrines yet. They didn’t set standards for entry yet. They chose, simply and profoundly, each other and the guidance of the wisdom of the Spirit. 

          Jesus said that he had to go, in effect, to make room for the Holy Spirit to come, the one Jesus called The Advocate (Jn. 15:7).  Now, this flies in the face a little of classical Trinitarian theology, in which all three persons of the Trinity are always at work together, but how many of you come here for the classical Trinitarian theology?  No, of course not, you come here to be together and ask, cloaked in the strange experience of wind blowing through these windows, a fittingly tangible sign of the Spirit, and asking with kindred seekers and souls, “What does this mean?”  As the great Henri Nouwen puts it, “Without Pentecost the Christ-event – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on.”  However, through the Pentecost, “The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so that we can become living Christs here and now.”

            What does this mean for us?  Well, let’s find out.