May we be empty

Burning Wood in the Campsite, courtesy of Henrik Pfitzenmaier via Pexels

A sermon on John 14.8-17 and Acts 2.1-18, for The Table United Church of Christ in La Mesa, on the occasion of Pentecost.

The passage we read from John happens in the “rising action,” as we build up to the crucifixion story.

Jesus has just washed the feet of the disciples, then we transition over to the last supper narrative—the same one where, in other gospels, we’re given an account of Jesus instituting the sacrament of communion.

Jesus foretells John’s betrayal of him, then foretell’s Peter’s denial of Him, then we get this story.

At Bible Study, ■■■■ described it as a sort of “changing of the guard”—Jesus is saying, “I am present with you now, but soon I won’t be, and instead you’ll have the Spirit. Don’t worry, though, it’s not a negative tradeoff. You’re upgrading.”

Jesus also alludes here to that thing we talked about just a few weeks ago, how Christianity is something to be lived as much as to believed.

Jesus says if you love me, if you follow me, you’ll do as I do; you’ll keep my commandments. And then he tells the Disciples that the Father — the “first person” of the trinity — will be sending the Holy Spirit to be their Advocate, to be in their corner, when He’s gone. The Spirit that, as I mentioned last week, Karl Barth calls “divine preparation for Christian life in its totality.”

“You’ve got to follow my commandments, but you’re not alone in doing this. I’m sending you someone who will help you.”

Then we transition to the passage in Acts. After the story of the ascension that we read last week, there’s a brief story about the disciples replacing Judas’ place in the 12 with a guy named Matthias, and then we get into this story.

The passage starts with “when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together at the same place.” At first glance that may seem odd. Aren’t the events in here the events that started the Pentecost holiday? That’d be like saying “and they were all celebrating Christmas together” in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, right? Like it wasn’t called that yet, was it?

But the reason that Pentecost is named as an existing holiday here is that it was a holiday before it became one in Christian tradition.

Pentecost means something like “the fiftieth day,” and it happens on the fiftieth day after the start of Passover. It’s a Christian reinterpretation of a Jewish holiday that went by the same name, though that holiday is now more commonly known as Shavuot.

As you can probably tell by the fact that I’m preaching at a Christian church, I am not Jewish. With some help from a Rabbi friend, I’m going to do my best to catch you up on what Shavuot is because I think it’s important to know the original interpretation of the holiday if we’re going to talk about the Christian reinterpretation of it—but please, don’t quote me on this; look up resources from actual Jewish people before you make too many conclusions about the holiday.

Anyways: Passover and Shavuot are closely related holidays.

Passover commemorates the Israelites’ departure from Egypt with the help of God, and Shavuot commemorates God’s giving of the Torah to the Israelite people, the law of God that serves as a guide to teach the way of life. The days between Passover and Shavuot are days of partial mourning, representing the wandering in Egypt, as the Jewish people prepared to receive the magnificent gift of Torah, of guidance, from God.

It’s traditional to read the book of Ruth on Shavuot for a number of reasons. Ruth’s story takes place around the same time in the calendar as Shavuot does, and it also includes a really profound story of someone—of Ruth—being open to receiving Jewish practices and the Jewish God as her own. Ruth becomes the first “convert” to Judaism, when she says these words to her mother-in-law:

Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you.
For wherever you go, I will go;
wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
and there I will be buried.
Thus and more may the Lord do to me
if anything but death parts me from you.

Ruth 1.15–17

Ruth sees the people of Israel, the God of Israel, and the law that God gave to guide Israel; She’s astounded by them, and says, I will do anything to have that. And her eagerness to receive that, to join that, earns her an annual place of remembrance in synagogues to this day.

Acts was likely written in Rome, sometime between the years 70 and 90 in the common era.

This is just after the fall of the Second Temple and the complete takeover of Jerusalem by Imperial powers. In the surrounding conflict, Christianity starts to separate from the Judaism in which it was born. It becomes a religion of converts rather than a religion defined largely by ethnicity. You can maybe imagine that the folks who remain who came from Jewish tradition might be inclined to start reinterpreting their scriptures and traditions in light of their new religion, finding ways to keep the things that raised them while being open to receiving the new religion they practiced.

And maybe, as they recount the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they remembered it with a special emphasis on its alignment to the holidays they grew up with.

While Shavuot represents the bringing of the Torah, the teachings of God that guide the Jewish people, Christians here are remembering the moment of Pentecost as the bringing of the Holy Spirit to guide the Christian people.

On this Pentecost, the disciples are all hanging out in the same place, maybe in the upper room where they had the Passover meal with Jesus. And all of the sudden, a sound comes from heaven like the sweeping of a mighty wind, and the whole house is just full.

Both spiritually full—full of the Holy Spirit’s presence—and physically full: the scripture says that the sound was so loud, people from all around heard and came to see what was going on.

The disciples start speaking in other languages given to them by the Spirit, and all the people around—regardless of their home language—can somehow understand them. Someone at Bible study mentioned it was like they somehow had Google Translate in their ears, like as if I were here speaking English but the native Spanish speakers in the room heard me speaking in Spanish, and the folks whose home language is Greek heard me in Greek. Each in their own language.

It’s like a reverse Tower of Babel moment. While at the Tower of Babel, God forces the people to go out and populate the earth by dividing them over language, at Pentecost, God brings the people together through a wild unity that happens regardless of the different languages they speak.

It reminds me of something I experienced a little over a decade ago, when I was working with this professor on a research project, studying political corruption in the Americas. We were traveling around Panama, visiting small towns and villages to gather documentation and interview voters before an upcoming election. My terrible Spanish was getting really pushed to its limits.

Our research questions left us mostly talking to working class people and welfare recipients—folks who typically spoke little-to-no English.

It was so mentally taxing to hear or read something in Spanish, translate it in my head, then have whatever academic thoughts I was having or come up with the questions I wanted to ask next, then translate those back into Spanish to ask the person I was interviewing or whatever else. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

It was absolutely exhausting.

But towards the end of that trip, we spent some time in Panama City. There, it wasn’t unusual to come across someone who would see my very pale skin and very blonde hair and pity me by switching over to English.

And what a relief! It felt like I was right at home, no longer a wanderer in a foreign place asking people personal questions about their voting history. I remember telling the folks I was with that Panama City felt just like being back home in LA.

I can imagine the visitors to Jerusalem must have felt something like I felt in Panama City; experiencing the comfort of home, even when far away from my beloved memory foam mattress.

The scripture tells us that everyone was perplexed when they realized that people with whom they’d previously struggled to communicate were suddenly speaking their native languages perfectly.

I imagine some may have immediately attributed it to the power of God, but others brought forward another suggestion—these guys are drunk!

I find that hilarious, for the record. I haven’t been drunk in quite some time, but as I recall, I generally get worse at English, not better at other languages.

But regardless, that’s the accusation, and Saint Peter—the same Peter who denied Jesus after they shared the Passover meal together—stands up to shut them down. “Everyone, come on, these guys aren’t drunk! It’s 9 am! We’re not at the drag brunch or something!”

“No, what you’re seeing now isn’t drunkenness, it’s what the prophet Joel foretold.”

Joel is a prophet who, like many prophets, accuses his people of straying from God’s ways.

But Joel doesn’t just condemn his people. He also prophesies his people will soon return to God and says that, when this happens, the heart of God will be accessible to all people.

“Your daughters and sons will prophesy

Your young will see visions

Your elders will dream dreams

Even the slaves, even the most oppressed, will bear the Spirit of God.

Here we see, again, a reinterpretation of Jewish scriptures in a Christian light — Peter is taking a scripture that his neighbors and co-religionists may have seen another way, and saying “this applies to the story of Jesus, too. We have received the power of the Spirit promised to us by the Father. Promised to us by God.”

Then he starts preaching this long and beautiful sermon about the story of Jesus and how Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to bring together those who are far off and those who are near.

And the scripture says that basically everyone who heard Peter’s sermon wanted to join in on the story, and 3,000 people joined the community of believers that day.

3,000 people, brought together by a small group of believers hanging out in a small mud-brick house filled with the Holy Spirit.

I am not what many people would understand as an “evangelical”—while I believe it is the obligation of Christians to bring good news to all people, I do not believe that good news requires we convince other people to convert to Christianity.

Still, I can’t help being fascinated by this story. Something happened with the disciples, and that something drew people in to become a part of the Christian family, a part of the Christian story.

And when I try to connect the “dots” that our forbearers left us here—when I look at this as a reinterpretation of Shavuot and of the story of Ruth; when I look at this as a reinterpretation of Joel; when I look at this as something written by a community in conflict separating from the people that raised them… I wonder if it’s about the choice to receive.

Empty and open to receive

A friend of mine who’s a Rabbinical student shared this song with me a while back, and I want to share it with you all, but here’s the thing: I absolutely cannot hold a tune. So I’m going to share the verse once, and then I need you to join me in singing along. Deal? Deal.

May I be empty and open to receive the light,

May I be empty and open to receive.

May I be full and open to receive the light,

May I be full and open to receive.

May I Be Empty; Batya Levine

One more time.

In the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot, the Jewish people are remembering the need to intentionally receive the Torah, the gift of God that guides them. And they remember the first convert, Ruth, who chose consciously to receive Judaism, its obligations, its people, and its guidance from God.

In Christianity, we think of the guidance we get from God as coming from the Holy Spirit. And I wonder if our Christian ancestors are telling us, “you need to be open to receive. You need to make the choice to receive.”

And when you do, you’ll be infectious. You’ll create a feeling of closeness that brings together those who are far off and those who are near.

Your young will see visions and your elders will dream dreams. And even the most marginalized and forgotten will receive the Spirit of God.

So friends, as we come to a close, can I leave that with you as an invitation?

May we be empty, and open to receive.

And also may we all come to the bonfire later. There will be smores.