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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Communication and Pentecost
distributed 5/22/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri, in memory of the Rev. Bob Clark. Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

Pentecost -- coming up this Sunday -- is often called "the birthday of the church." By the standards of one of my good friends, though, that can't be the case.

"Birthdays are better than Christmas," she says, "because I don't have to share mine with anybody!"

Pentecost doesn't fit that standard. It is not an occasion to say to ourselves, and those around us, "Hey, look at us! We're almost 2,000 years old! Come tell us how special we are, and bring presents!" Pentecost, properly observed, shifts the focus to God.

In this time of great global crisis, a time of unprecedented ecological devastation and social turmoil, Pentecost is a vivid reminder about what it means to be a faithful church. Two pieces of the old story stand out.

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The story of the first Christian Pentecost is told in chapter 2 of Acts. The Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance in Jerusalem with a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire dancing above the heads of Jesus' followers. The Spirit-filled Christians, speaking in a multitude of languages, burst into proclamation about God's deeds of power. Peter uses the attention generated by this remarkable event to deliver a sermon which led to the baptism of 3,000 folk. It was quite a day.

The speaking in tongues part is definitely Pentecost's claim to fame, but if the focus stays on the ability to babble, then we miss the point. (See 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, where early Christians had already missed the point.) Two aspects of that amazing outpouring of speech are necessary for the church to get it right.

1) The message is intelligible to a diverse audience of outsiders.
I can think of two ways that the multi-cultural crowd in Jerusalem could have made sense out of the Pentecost proclamations.

(a) The hearers could have been inspired by the Spirit, so that they could interpret the rough language of the Galilean band. That might not have been too difficult, since the foreigners had come to Jerusalem and probably understood some Aramaic. They were, after all, able to decipher Peter's mono-lingual sermon.

(b) Or, as we read, the speakers were inspired to use languages from around the Mediterranean world. They used words and concepts familiar to the audience. They were inspired to reach out to others. They did not use the language of Jerusalem, hoping that others would understand, but were empowered to communicate directly and clearly.

In the spirit of Pentecost, the faithful church needs to drop the in-house jargon and obscure traditions which may (but only may!) have meaning within the community, but which are senseless to those outside the church.

There are examples that are easy to lampoon, such as the hymn that starts, "All hail the power of Jesus' name! Let angels prostrate fall; Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all." But more generally, we're not communicating when we quote scripture to those who don't care about the Bible, when we don't interpret words like sin and salvation, and (in a self-referential critique) when we make a big deal out of bizarre old events like Pentecost.

The Spirit-inspired church of today needs to learn the lingo of many age groups, and diverse cultures. We need to become more fluent in the words and concepts of science, economics, sociology and psychology. Going beyond words, we need to "speak" through contemporary forms of music, video, and artwork. We need to speak in service and witness and action.

And, in the most dramatic challenge to our self-centered notions of church, we need to recognize that the most authentic and compelling witnesses may not be those of us who are part of the mainline, established, and traditional churches. The wonderful document from the World Council of Churches, Together Toward Life, speaks of a shift from "mission to the margins" toward "mission from the margins" where those we have considered on the periphery are speaking words of truth that we of the privileged world find hard to hear and understand.

2) The message announces God's realm breaking into today's world.
The other remarkable thing about that first Pentecost is that the message proclaimed in many languages had important content. They spoke of God's deeds of power, and the hearers "were cut to the heart."

A church in the spirit of Pentecost will be bold in speaking about how God is at work in the critical issues of today. That church will show the contrast between God's realm of shalom, and the "worldly" world of violence, exploitation and injustice. The faithful church will be compelling in both its prophetic critique and its joyous alternatives: relationships are more important than possessions; community is more just and fulfilling than obscene inequality; sufficiency and simplicity are better than affluence and cheap energy that poison the planet.

A meaningful proclamation of the Gospel invites and entices big choices. Where will we center our lives? How will we help bring life and justice to all of our neighbors -- globally, in coming generations, and of all species? How will we resist and reject abusive power, seductive lies, and systems of destruction?

It is not enough to translate a meaningless message. No matter what words and images are used, too many churches offer shallow or distorted proclamations: psycho-babble about self-actualization, or the perverse promises of a prosperity gospel, or an other-worldly personal salvation, or just the institutional maintenance of friendly church communities.

In the spirit of Pentecost, the church will speak in a way that can be understood, with a message that is profound, joyous and transformational.

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There have been many reports recently about the dramatic decline of the institutional church in the US. "Nones" and "nopes" -- those who don't identify with any church labels -- are becoming dominant religious categories.

That worries me. Not because preserving the institutional church is so important, but because the word may not be getting out about God's realm. The church may be fading fast because we're not putting forth a meaningful message of transformation, healing and justice.

Pentecost is an occasion to evaluate the church. If we're speaking truth to power, if we're proclaiming genuine alternatives, if we're claiming where God's realm is present among us, then Pentecost can be a time of celebration. But if we're not offering an intelligible and powerful message well, then we'd better look around and see where else the Spirit is blowing today.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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