What do the leaders of an oppressive system, an oppressive state, do in order to maintain control of those who suffer under their rule?
The first – and probably the most obvious answer to that question – is that the state will employ violence. In Jesus’ time, that violence most famously and most terrifyingly takes the form of the cross, a torturous way of killing a human being who resists the system or who calls the system in question.
The crosses that Jesus knew growing up, just like the cross from which he eventually hung, were erected in public places such as the gate to a city, and the dying person was hung low enough that a passerby could look them straight in the eye and see the fear and the agony there.
The message was clear. This is what happens when you resist.
A second possible answer to that question – and this is what I would like to focus on today – is that the state will do its best to nurture a scenario in which its citizens are fearful not just of the state but of one another, in which there is a culture of mutual suspicion. The state will encourage us to indulge the worst part of ourselves. It will pour fertiliser on our old bigotries, on the reptilian and tribal parts of our brain.
The state will invite us to say: I cannot trust you because you dress differently than me; because you speak another language; because you worship differently or you don’t worship at all; because you and I are different genders; because your skin is a different colour than mine, your passport a different colour than mine; because you don’t vote the way that I vote; because your Facebook feed looks different than mine.
The people who do not belong to my tribe, who do not look and act like me, are dangerous and suspicious. In a very real sense, they are less human than I am. I dare not talk with them, let alone work with them. And I need not mourn when the state sheds their blood. Maybe I will participate in that violence, maybe I will celebrate it.
Consider this tactic by an oppressive system. And then consider why Jesus and the movement that he began and the Spirit that he called into this world leaves such a system off balance and afraid.
What is it that happens on the day of Pentecost? What is it that happens in this story from the Book of Acts?
At one level, this is a story of something glorious and impossible happening. Fire, or something like fire (as tends to be the case when we describe mystical experiences, Luke, who writes the Book of Acts, is at or beyond the limit of words here) descends from heaven, it settles on the disciples, and they can suddenly speak in all sorts of new languages. And because of this mystical nature of this moment, the danger is in understanding it as something unbelievable or, at least, something utterly divorced from our own experience.
This is like a scene in Harry Potter, in which everyone abruptly has magic powers. It is really cool but it has nothing to do with my life or yours.
Let’s honour this text by pushing a little deeper.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when there is a reading in church that has the names of a whole lot of people or a whole lot of places, my eyes tend to glaze over. I sometimes suspect that the only one who is really paying close attention is the lector – there are some hard to pronounce place names in this list! But this is an instance in which I want to resist my glazedness, because these place names are a clue to the radical, the revolutionary nature of what the Spirit is doing here on Pentecost.
Here are people from all over: Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Egypt, Libya, Rome – the list goes on. Maybe we could recapture the holy and dangerous and subversive nature of this scene by imagining it in the present day. Some of the place names would be the same – the citizens of Egypt, Libya, and Rome are unchanged. But then let’s add Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Central Americans, North Koreans and Mexicans, Iraqis and Afghanis, folks from Portland and Deep in the Heart of Texas.
And maybe we could add in people who come not just from different places but who belong to different categories. In the crowd on the Day of Pentecost there are vegans and gun owners, environmentalists and transgender folk, lefties wearing sandals and conservatives wearing suits, Muslims and bikers and day labourers and musicians and bankers, people wearing pussy hats standing beside people wearing hats that say, “Make America Great Again.”
And suddenly, the Spirit like fire moves and all of these people are able to hear the Gospel. All of them are able to hear the good news, the story of Jesus in their own language.
The Holy Spirit shows up and things that divide us start to fall away. We are united by a love that looks like fire.
No wonder an oppressive system is afraid of this. This is dangerous stuff.
Today we are baptising Frances. And whenever I have the privilege of being present for the baptism of a small child, I think about an old classmate of mine who asked the question, “Why in the world do we baptise babies? They can’t consent, they can’t claim this faith for themselves. We should wait until they are grown up.”
My classmate did me a favour by posing that question. Because I knew that I disagreed with him – our own children were all baptised as infants, and Phoebe and I did and do feel good about that. But I realised that I had never really articulated why I thought that was a good and faithful practice. It certainly isn’t because I think that you need to be baptised to get into heaven or for God to love you.
My classmate’s question makes perfect sense for so long as we assume that baptism is, like so many things in our culture, an individualistic sacrament, that it is about me choosing Jesus, about me being saved. If that is right then, absolutely, we should wait until a person grows up and they can say “yes” for.
But my classmate’s question stops making sense the instant that we assume that baptism is a sacrament of Pentecost. That it is a sacrament that, while it focuses on one person and that person’s family, is about the entire body of Christ. In baptism, a love like fire comes down among us. And we say to Frances and to one another: you are not alone. You are not alone in the beautiful messiness of this life. You are loved. By this community, by God. Your creator has made you holy. You are made in God’s image. You are with us in the Body of Christ, a Body that extends across time and across space. We say hallelujah and the church across the world says hallelujah and the angels in heaven say hallelujah.
The seed for this sermon – the fire starter, if you like on Pentecost – was a reflection that I found on the website of the folks behind the Poor People’s Campaign, behind the Moral Monday movement. These are people who are working to resuscitate Christianity as a moral voice in America. Not a moral voice in terms of tut-tutting people about sexuality – we’ve had a lot of that – but a moral voice focused on remembering our duty to the poor, remembering the dignity of every human being, including those outside of our borders.
This is a dangerous holiness. No wonder the oppressive system fears it. The system knows that people coming together and working together will change the world. We saw that in our country achieving marriage equality. And we see it now in teachers fighting for dignity and a living wage, we see it in students saying no more, declaring that our national love affair with guns will not and cannot be worth more than their lives.
No wonder the system in which Jesus lived and his friends lived tried so hard to destroy it. But this faith like fire will not be destroyed. No wonder that oppressive leaders since then, having failed to destroy this faith, have tried to domesticate it. But this faith like fire will not be domesticated.
The Spirit is among us. Her fire is falling upon us, burning away those old fears which we have been taught. After the fire we see that we are free, and we see each other. A firm comes down which is like freedom, which is like possibility, which is like imagination, which is like love. After the fire we see that the things that separated us were never of God, and we brush them aside like ash. After the fire we see the full humanity of one another – including the one with whom we disagree, including the one who oppresses us.
After the fire we see that we are bound together in God’s love.