Ideas gleamed from Clay Nelson, John Shelby Spong,
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg
The splendid preacher Clay Nelson of St. Matthew-in-the-city, Auckland, New Zealand, opened me up to a new way of seeing Pentecost. Nelson tells this lovely little story written by fellow Kiwi Judy Parker, entitled simply “The Hat.”
A priest looked up from the psalms on the lectern, cast his eyes over all the hats bowed before him. Feathered, frilled, felt hats in rows like faces. But there was one at the end of the row that was different. What was she thinking, a head without hat. Was like a cat without fur. Or a bird without wings.
That won’t fly here, not in the church. The voices danced in song with the colours of the windows. Red light played along the aisle, blue light over the white corsage of Missus Dewsbury, green on the pages of the Bible. Reflecting up on the face of the priest.
The priest spoke to the young lady afterwards: “You must wear a hat and gloves in the House of God. It is not seemly otherwise.”
The lady flushed, raised her chin, and strode out.
“That’s the last we’ll see of her,” said the organist.
Later: The organ rang out; the priest raised his eyes to the rose window. He didn’t see the woman in hat and gloves advancing down the aisle as though she were a bride. The hat, enormous, such as one might wear to the races. Gloves, black lace, such as one might wear to meet a duchess. Shoes, high-heeled, such as one might wear on a catwalk in Paris. And nothing else.
Now some people might ask, “Is this a true story?” And I’d have to answer that this story is absolutely true! Now for some that answer might not be enough and they’d want to know, “Did this actually happen?” Well, I’d like to think so. But I doubt that it actually happened. But whether it actually happened or not, most of us know that the truth in this story lies in the power of metaphor.
Metaphor, which literally means: beyond words. The power of metaphor is in its ability to point beyond itself to truths beyond those that are apparent. And the metaphor in this story points us to buck-naked truths about tradition, worldly power, patriarchy, hierarchy, orthodoxy and many more truths about the very nature of the church itself and religion in general. And it doesn’t matter whether or not this actually happened or not. What matters is what we can learn about ourselves and our life together from this story.
The heroine in this little story demands to be heard as she puts all her listeners on notice that the Spirit of God is out of the box and wearing a hat. The story of Pentecost is just as stunning. Even though we’ve managed to pretty much domesticate the story by literalizing it and insisting that yes indeed Pentecost really did actually happen just as it is described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Pentecost refuses to play by our rules as the power of metaphor turns the Spirit of God loose on our silly notions about history.
Truth is as elusive as it is blatantly obvious and yet we continue to try to deny the paradox of truth. Truth is as colourful as the rainbows that stretch across the sky and yet we continue to try to limit the truth to the simplicity of black and white. All too often truth’s refusal to fit into our neat little boxes causes us to deny the obvious truth in favour of a truth of our own creation.
The story of Pentecost is a case in point. For decades historians, New Testament Scholars, and theologians have been telling us that the story of Pentecost is not history. Like all sorts of stories about the origins of things, the story of the church’s birthday is shrouded in myth and legend. That doesn’t make the story of the church’s beginning at Pentecost any less true, it just means that it isn’t history.
The book of the Acts of the Apostles, was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel According to Luke. We have no idea who this writer was, and the name Luke does not appear on the early manuscripts. The name Luke was applied much latter, by something called “tradition”. In those days ‘tradition” meant “the church”.
The Acts of the Apostles represents the voice of someone living in a community at the turn of the first century. The writer, let’s follow tradition and just call him Luke, the writer known as Luke writes a Gospel also now known as Luke, which tells the story of the life and times of Jesus as known by his community. Luke also writes the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the story of the early followers of Jesus, who managed to hang together after Jesus was gone and established a movement that changed the world.
Luke writes his account of the founding of this movement out of the context of his community and addresses the needs and concerns of his community. And in both the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts, the writer makes it clear that he is writing to a character named Theopholous, which in Greek means, Lover of God. Luke addresses his writing to a lover of God and right from the beginning he confesses that he is writing so that you may have faith. As lovers of God we read these ancient stories so that we may have faith. We do not read them so that we can know the history of events as they actually happened.
Marcus Borg suggests that in reading the stories in the Bible we must ask ourselves two important questions: 1) Why did the writers write the stories that they wrote? and 2) Why did they write them the way they wrote them?
When we ask those two questions about the story of Pentecost we begin to see all sorts of truths as we strip away the layers of tradition that have held this story captive to history for far too long. Why did the writer known as Luke write the story of Pentecost and why did he write it the way he wrote it?
I suspect that the answer to both of those questions begins to become clear when we pay attention to the story from the Hebrew Scriptures that is often told at Pentecost. Recorded in the Book of Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel would have been a familiar one to the people of Luke’s community. The story of the chaos that ensues as a result of humanity’s hubris contains truths about tribalism that would have been as familiar to a first century audience as they are to a 21st century audience.
The perils of tribalism which pits one people against another and one culture against another were ingrained in the religious traditions of the first century. The writer of Acts uses the story of Pentecost to point to the truth of the Jesus experience. Their experience of Jesus with his radical ideas about a loving God, lead the early followers of the way to a new understanding of faith. Empowered by Jesus full embodiment of love, the early followers felt compelled to share their experience. Faith did not have to be lived out in fear, even in the face of death. Being faithful was not about being exclusive or tribal, for love knows no boundaries. It wasn’t even about religion which is so often used by the powerful to oppress the powerless. Faith was not about purity but compassion, healing and justice. Faith didn’t need to be destructive if it heightened our awareness that the creation of which we are a part is an interconnected web.
Sadly over the years all too many Christians have seen the story of Pentecost as simply a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. But here we have so much more. In the Tower of Babel we have a story speaks to the origins of a kind of chaos that is the result of human arrogance. This chaos leads to disaster. And the response of the people is to adopt a kind of tribalism where eventually only one tribe becomes the chosen people. The chosen tribe then chooses to exhibit a kind of uniformity which defines who is in and who is out.
Boundaries are established. The religious practice that emerges strives for order and uniformity. Order is established and the faithful are encouraged to live within the rules. But in the Pentecost story the chaos and disorder is not created by humans but by God. The Pentecost story is about chaos and disorder; about God who is running amok. Boundaries are crossed. Taboos are broken. Suddenly, like the rush of the wind young people have visions and elders have dreams; dreams and visions that threaten the established order.
Luke’s story speaks directly to his community which has become accustomed to a religion that is a product of its culture; where faith reflects the values of the tribe. Religion is used to give members of the community a sense of who was friend and who was foe. It played to their fear of others who were beyond the tribe. It grounded their xenophobia and ethnocentrism in righteousness. It served as the glue that told its adherents who they were and who they weren’t. Religion gave people an illusion of living in an orderly and predictable world.
Outside the boundaries of their religion was a place of chaos. Its inhabitants were judged to be demonic or subhuman. In the early history of Israel those who worshipped gods outside the culture were labeled idolaters. Identifying idolaters gave the faithful of the local religion a target for their contempt and hostility and someone to blame for their disappointments and failures. Along comes Jesus who challenges the status quo along with the powers that be who maintain order by force of might. Violence, greed, and force become the tools to the Pax Romana, which insisted that the way to peace was through force. First you conquer a people, then you wield your power over them to control them so that you can tax them and the status quo is the only kind of peace one can hope for. And along comes Jesus who points to another way to peace through justice. People want to believe they want to follow Jesus but their fearful of the chaos that might ensue. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Chaos is frightening.
Into that mix the writer of Luke offers his story of Pentecost which displays the Spirit of God at work in the midst of chaos. The followers of Jesus are calling their communities out of the constraints of the religious practices of their day.
The Pentecost story reflects the early Christian understanding of Jesus as a leader who didn’t just address the Chosen People but who engaged the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, and the Samaritan leper.
Luke, in the telling of the story of Pentecost, already knew that Christianity had spread to the edge of the known world and to its very centre in Rome. Christianity had already transcended tribe and tradition. Jesus inspired a religion of the poor and the powerless without an enemy or enmity and yet inclusive in its membership.
Christianity was as outrageous as a woman who wore a hat, gloves, shoes and nothing else. Sadly, it didn’t take long for the early Christians to try to put the Spirit back in the box.
The story of Pentecost shows the Spirit of God out of the box, prancing about in the town square and intoxicating the people with the sheer beauty of her audacity.
Luke’s Pentecost story served to remind those first Christians of the Jesus call to diversity. That call to diversity has the power to contradict the power of the status quo of tribalism that was exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel.
The followers of the Way are able to declare that in Christ there is no East nor West, no North nor South, no Jew nor Gentile, no man nor woman.
Luke has crafted the story of Pentecost that declares that in Christ there is no longer Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, Asisa, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the ports of Libya around Cyrene, nor even Romans. All are one as Christ is One.
In Jesus the followers of the way are challenged to think beyond tribalism, to dream dreams and see visions.
Luke’s Pentecost story calls us to a similar awakening.
An awakening that begs the question: What kind of Pentecost stories are we called to craft?
Can we 21st century followers of the Way produce Pentecost stories that will boldly declare that we are one with our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Taoist sisters and brothers, and what about atheists, agnostics and all the poor and the powerless?
I hope that the audacity of God’s Spirit can call us out of our status quo religious practices that keep us from exploring the wonders of the chaos that lies beyond our established religious order.
Imagine a 21st century Pentecost where rather than speaking in languages that we’ve never understood before, we begin to listen to those who we’ve failed to understand before.
Imagine a 21st century Pentecost where Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists, Baha’is and adherents of all sorts of native religions that we’ve never heard of begin to listen to one another.
Imagine an audacious Spirit calling us beyond Christianity’s exclusivism.
Imagine a vision of Christianity that celebrates not denigrates the truths of the worlds great religions.
Imagine a vision of Christianity whose first impulse is to listen rather than speak; a Christianity that is willing to share its truths in a spirit of co-operation without an emphasis on conversion.
Imagine a vision of a church full of curious Christians, who share a goal of dialogue that seeks not just to create new Christians, but to learn from other religions so that we can become better Christians and those with whom we listen and speak might become better practitioners of their faiths.
Imagine a vision of Pentecost where the wind and the fire represent God out of the box.
Do we have the courage to strip ourselves of the trappings of status quo Christianity and venture out into the world free of the taboos of tradition? Do we have the courage to listen and learn from the truths of other tribes? Do we have the wisdom to embrace divinely inspired chaos? Some dreams and visions have to be believed before they can be seen.
If the Reign of God is to be realized in all its chaotic splendour, we must put on a new hat, and strip ourselves of the ethnocentrism and chauvinism that cloaks our faith and walk brazenly down the aisle.