Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Acts of God
Acts 2:1-12[1]
Over the last several months we’ve all witnessed a wide variety of events in our world that we tend to categorize as “Acts of God.” “Acts of God” include things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. At one time, the phrase would have made sense, because most people probably didn’t understand the natural causes for catastrophic events. When the Vesuvius exploded and destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, it had to be an “Act of God” because people didn’t understand the forces of geology. When an earthquake destroyed the medieval city of Lisbon in Portugal, it had to be an “Act of God” because people had no idea about the movement of tectonic plates.
In our world, most of us are familiar with the phrase “Acts of God” because insurance companies use it to describe any number of natural disasters that they exclude from your coverage. But nobody—well, perhaps I should say almost nobody—believes that these events come directly from God any more. We know that a hurricane occurs when a low pressure system hits warm water and starts spinning around. We know that a tornado is the product of warm air hitting cold air. We can basically explain the natural causes of all of these “Acts of God”—so that they really don’t seem to fit into the category of “Act of God” any more. In a very real sense, I think we could say that describes much of what has happened in our world. Much of what at one time would have been attributed to some mysterious or miraculous “act of God” now has a completely rational and natural explanation.
This shift even affected the way we practice our faith. One of the traits of the Reformed branch of the Christian family is an approach that is reasonable, seeking to explain all things spiritual in terms that everyone can understand and grasp. And so the sermon became the focus for Christian worship instead of the Communion table. In the Catholic Church, the whole point of the service is the mass, the miracle by which the material elements become Jesus’ own body and blood. It is a great mystery, not to be explained, but to be experienced. In the Reformed churches, however, the sermon became central to worship, because the point of worship is to explain all things related to faith. And yet, the audacity that presumes we can explain everything—even matters that the wisest of sages would recognize belong firmly in the realm of mystery—leaves little room for wonder, for awe, for faith, and perhaps even for God.
In our lesson from Acts, which tells the story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the response of the people who witnessed it was not one of calm, rational understanding, but rather they were “bewildered,” “amazed and astonished,” and “perplexed” (Acts 2:6 ,7, 12). This event, which I would consider a real “Act of God,” was beyond their ability to comprehend or explain. It left them in a state of confusion, as the lesson puts it: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12).
Most of us don’t like what we can’t understand. We feel uncomfortable with confusion. And so someone may object that the story goes on to tell us that what Peter did was precisely to “explain” this event. And you may also insist that the “miracle” of Pentecost was that the language of the Apostles was fully intelligible to people of many different dialects. I wonder if part of the problem with our churches today is that we insist on keeping God firmly within the box of what we can understand and explain. But surely we don’t want a God who keeps everything nicely and neatly in the realm of what we can explain over Sunday School refreshments? What kind of a faith is that? How in the world does that motivate us to live for the peace and justice and freedom of God’s realm in a world that is so unfree and unjust?
None of our attempts at rational explanation can change the fact that the event of Pentecost itself is something astonishing.[2] And so it seems to me that one of the lessons of Pentecost is that when “God happens,” it will be something astonishing, like Pentecost itself.[3] If we want to see some genuine “Acts of God” in our midst, we need to be prepared for some amazement, some confusion. If we want our faith to be something living, if we want our church to be alive with the power of the Spirit, we have to expect that it will only happen to the extent that the God of Pentecost comes to us and shakes things up and blows things around.[4]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/12/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Unruly Spirit,” The Christian Century 110 no 16 (May 12, 1993): 515: “If the speech that comes forth from believers is intelligible, it is simultaneously incredible.” She goes on to observe that we tend to want to tame the “unruly Spirit” of Pentecost by either individualizing it or institutionalizing it.
[3] Cf. Jim Callaghan, “Windblown,” The Christian Century 117 no 17 (May 24-31 2000): 597.
[4] Cf. Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, “The Wind that Blows the Doors Off,” Journal for Preachers 26 no 4 (Pentecost 2003): 56, where she says, “This wild Spirit wind of God … toppled all human understandings of who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who is worthy to proclaim the Gospel and who is not. … because of this wind, everyone in that room who thought they had God all figured out and safely circumscribed in their neat and orderly theological boxes, saw the doors of those boxes completely blown off.”

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