Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; John 3:1-17
It was the first football game of my senior year of high school. We traveled west-by-northwest, paralleling the Louisiana coastline, to New Iberia, where that bottle of spicy Tabasco sauce in your kitchen cabinet was made.
Sometime during the first half—I can’t remember when—I was knocked unconscious. (It was the second of a half-dozen concussions I got playing football, which some people would say explains a lot about my behavior.) All I remember is that I came to at half-time, sitting in the visiting team locker room. My teammates were milling around gulping water. One of my coaches stooped low and said something like: “Are you about ready to rejoin us, Sehested!”
And I suddenly became aware that I had been quoting to myself, over and over again, the familiar line from the King James Version of John’s Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (3:16). It was as if I were chanting a mantra—something, anything, to bring me back to consciousness.
As most of you know, that line is part of the climactic conclusion to the story of Nicodemus’ night-time rendezvous with Jesus. Nicodemus, identified in the text as “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews.” Given the hostility of the authorities toward Jesus, Nicodemus preferred the cover of darkness for his conversation. Obviously, he was a dissenter from his peers with regard to this teacher from Galilee. His tone was respectful, even admiring: “We know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus sidesteps the compliment and gets straight to the point: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Or, in more accurate translation, “born from above.” Not born from the sky; but born from a place where human ingenuity and technological prowess are powerless to effect—born from a source which we do not control or manipulate.
Last week I began the sermon asking you to say what immediately and instinctively comes to mind when you hear the word “Pentecostal.” Most of the them were not complimentary. Our more refined religious sensibilities are a little troubled by the thought of exuberant emotional display.
I’m pretty sure we’d get the same results to the phrase “born again.” A large slice of the Christian community usually distinguish themselves specifically as “born-again” Christians—as opposed to others who merely claim to be believers (but probably haven’t really gotten saved yet). When the Pentecostals and the born-again-ers draw the boundaries of Christian faith, folk like us are liable not to be included. And in reaction, we have ceded to them the copyrights to two of our most important narratives.
In their defense, when our Pentecostal and born-again friends look at us they see Christians eager for bottom-line belief, cut-rate conviction and pain-free discipleship. Faith on the cheap. They see people who think Jesus was just engaging in hyperbole when he said that you must lose your life if you would find it. Instead of the trauma of transformation, a little therapeutic intervention will do. And my guess is that they are right about us as least as often as we are right about them.
Last week I mentioned that where Easter represents God’s Resurrection moment, Pentecost represents God’s Resurrection movement. Pentecost is when the disciples are invested with the power to live into this redemptive future. As is customary throughout biblical literature, fire and wind are images of the potency of God’s presence in the affairs of human experience. And there is a kind of violence to them, if you think of turbulence and turmoil and trauma as violent images. Pentecostal power is disruptive power. It is the kind of power that turns things upside down; that challenges the status quo; that speaks up even in the face of threat. Pentecostal power is risky business, and could even draw blood—though this power represents the willingness to shed our own blood rather than require it of others. In a culture consumed with demands for security, Pentecostal power seems reckless, foolish.
Pentecostal power harkens back to earlier narratives, like the call of Isaiah, where the invitation to faith appears in the fantastic vision of a six-winged seraph wielding a hot coal to the lips. There is a kind of searing to our customary hopes and dreams and presumptions. And sometimes it turns us into troublemakers.
In the church’s liturgical calendar, this Sunday we move out of the series of seasonal dramas into a period sometimes referred to as “ordinary time.” Since December it’s been one special event after another: First, Advent; then Christmas and Epiphany; followed by Lent, leading to Holy Week, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; and finally, Pentecost. But now that dramatic pattern shifts. Now comes the days and weeks of equilibrium. Some would even say, mundane living. It’s when the church calendar settles down and lots of people go on vacation. “After the ecstasy comes the laundry.” [The phrase is the title of a Jack Kornfield book.]
It’s not nearly as exciting to live into ordinary days. But that’s where we are. The outbreak of drama will ever be part of our communal vision: I hope to God that people will continue to be called to desert walks, like Kim and Annika did last week; to cross boundaries, which landed Linda in prison; to visits to Cuba, still considered our nation’s nearest, most hated enemy; maybe to kidnapping, even execution, in Iraq, like our Christian Peacemaker Teams friends endured.
But the fact is, the vast majority of our energy and time is spent deciding how best to live disarmed lives in the ordinariness of human life. I went to Iraq myself, but I am convinced that those of you who teach our children’s Christian education classes week in and week out make a more lasting contribution to the Beloved Community for which we dream. Linda’s jail term got more press coverage, but the fact is that her years of patient work partnering congregations here in the U.S. with others in Central America will bear a fuller harvest. Joyce has a wider audience for her stories on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, but her coverage of the same process in Greensboro will press us more directly to unearth the racial violence closer to home. And the work of Christians for a United Community right here in Asheville—with which several in this Circle are personally involved and all of us invested through our church’s financial support—most immediately poses the demand for transformation right in our own neighborhoods.
Don’t get me wrong: I hope we shall always foster a large and global vision for Pentecostal power. But if it has integrity, it will always be rooted in what William Blake called “minute particulars.” In other words, after the ecstasy comes the laundry.
It will mean, for instance, that we here in this Circle will constantly work at living unarmed lives with each other, even in the midst of inevitable differences of opinion. Even as we attempt to practice good stewardship of our common purse, I hope we will always remain open to considering options that run the risk of bankruptcy. I hope we will continue to find ways to surround our young ones with affection but also will challenge to live beyond their comfort zones. I hope we will always offer mercy to each other in the midst of failure, but never let such failures be the defining shape of our individual and corporate lives.
And when we hear the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I hope we shall urge each other forward and yell ourselves hoarse cheering each other on.
Even in the midst of our ordinary days I hope we will keep an eye out for that six-winged seraph circling overhead.
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Circle of Mercy, 11 June 2006
©Ken Sehested @ prayerand politiks.org