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May 26, 2012
A week or so ago, I received an email from the publishers of an upcoming book about this congregation, asking me to write an epilogue. Now, you may not know that there is a book coming out about this Germantown Mennonite and our 325 year old history. But, it’s true—a former pastor, Richard Lichty wrote the story of this congregation, beginning with the first Mennonites in 1683, and ending shortly after our removal from the conference and denomination.
The publisher was asking me to write the ending, because they asked a few folks who were involved on a conference level to write the forward—it only seemed fair.
But as I’ve been contemplating what should be said and written—the ending of the story, the concluding remarks—it has felt less and less possible for me to write an ending. Because what is taking place in this congregation right now is far from an end. In fact, it feels very much like a beginning of something. And, I mean that in two ways—first, in the grand scheme of things, 325 years isn’t that long. It’s long in human terms—for those of us who can expect to live 80 years or so. And, relative to other congregations in our city, it may be on the older side, but big picture, 325 years is just an historic prelude. It doesn't determine where the story will go—our 325 year prelude sets a tone, creates an historic ethos, but does not give away the ending.
Also, writing an epilogue assumes that something has died, and must be grieved. And perhaps, depending on one’s perspective, this could be the case. But, what we know from taking the long view is that life is seasonal—what was full of life has to die, has to lay fallow for a season, in order for something new to come up. And during that fallow time, new seeds are planted—sometimes intentionally, and sometimes by chance or by a strong wind—and we never know what will come up when the spring sun greets the thawing soil again.
In our story from Acts today, we hear the account of Pentecost—when the Holy Spirit made her official debut (though she’d been doing a lot of behind the scenes work throughout history). Like many of our other Christian celebrations, Pentecost is a celebration that coincides with a Jewish observance. The “Pent” in Pentecost represents 50—50 days following Easter. The Jewish holiday that Pentecost coincides with is Shavuot, a celebration commemorating when God brought the Torah to the people of Israel, when they were assembled at Mt. Sinai.
That fact that it is Shavuot is important. It should not be lost in the excitement of the tongues of fire that descended on the followers of Jesus. The fact that the Holy Spirit makes her diva like entrance on Shavuot is important for a couple of reasons. First, it says something about the disciples. For the previous 50 days, they learned that Jesus was alive—resurrected in fact—and they spend a little over a month with him. They shared meals with Jesus, walked with him, learned from him again. And they heard Jesus’ words and instructions in a different way. Because, when he was alive, it was easy to take his life for granted. But, in resurrected form, they cherished his words, his life and his example in a new way.
After 40 days with this resurrected Jesus, the disciples met with him again, and asked him, “Abba, are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus, are you going to bring your people back together again?
And in classic Jesus-speak, he says, “It’s not for you to know right now. But know this—you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes up on you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then, Jesus ascends into heaven, before the disciples have a chance to ask any follow up questions.
So, for 10 days the disciples hung out in Jerusalem—waiting. Waiting for something they could not explain or for which they had no clarity from Jesus.
But while they were waiting, they were celebrating Shavuot. On this day they remembered when God sent the people of Israel the Torah, their most sacred scriptures, and the story of the birth of their people and faith. That day they celebrated their historic and spiritual prelude.
We don’t know what the disciples were expecting that day, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting a rush of violent wind, or tongues of fire to rest on them. And I’m positive they were not expecting to be able to speak another language.
The fact that Pentecost took place on Shavuot is also important because it continues the Torah story, but puts spins it off in a new direction.
Luke, the author of the book of Acts, does something tricky with this story deserves mention and reflection. It says in the Pentecost account that there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living there in Jerusalem. And each one heard a disciple speaking in their native tongue. There are 12 places mentioned in this text where these Jews were from—and, of course, we know 12 is important because that is representative of the 12 tribes of Israel, which the disciples longed to have gathered again. But if you look at the names of these places, none of them are the tradition tribes of Isreal. People are hearing in their native tongues from north, south east and west of Jerusalem. Those Jews from those far flung places certainly would not have been considered “real” Jews, or “good Jews” because they lived so far away from the center.
And it’s not just the Jewish people that are hearing in their own language. Romans and Gentiles heard the good news in their native languages. And, the people of Egypt—the nation that had enslaved the Jewish people—they heard the news too. In their own language. Some of the places listed—like Mede and Elam—had Jewish refugees several hundred years before, but the diaspora died out, and was enfolded into the larger population. They would not have been considered “true Jews”, the true people of God.
But yet, these are the people that hear the good news, that are amazed and confused by what they are seeing and hearing. These are the people that will become the future Church.
Building on the prelude of Shavuot, the people of God begin another chapter in the story of God’s mighty work with an unexpected group of people.
The story of Pentecost has come along in the church calendar as I’ve been sketching out this “epilogue” for the book that will be published about this congregation. These two stories connect. The Pentecost story speaks to us as a congregation, as a denomination, and frankly at an important time that is being called “Post-Christendom”. We have urges to write epilogues, to mourn the end of something, to grieve the passing of our greatness, but God’s spirit is stirring. We have anxiety about decline, fear about change, worries about how we can preserve the present, and prevent things from changing (yes, even in a progressive context we worry about this), but God’s spirit is winding up outside the walls of this church, building up into a rush of violent wind, that will tear down some of our structures. The church is worried about staying on message, but God’s spirit is coming with fire to dance on our heads and all around us, and that spirit will most likely give a new word, speaking it in a way that we and others around us can understand, if we choose to listen.
Pentecost was the first chapter of the church’s story, But the 21st century is not the epilogue. In fact, in the arc of history, we’ve only just begun. But, Pentecost sets a tone for us—one of grand scale and vision. It is beyond our own tribe and culture. It is beyond our own language. It’s beyond what we can even imagine. It goes beyond the walls we’ve guarded an preserved, and it goes beyond our own story. The Holy Spirit’s Pentecost comes again and again, surprising and exciting us.
Come Holy Spirit, come. AMEN.
What can I do?