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Bewildered by the Spirit

San Williams

May 19, 2013
Acts 2:1-17

05-19-2013 Sermon Welcome to the bewilderment of Pentecost.  Richard Pervo, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, rightly observes that Pentecost is the most titillating and least comprehensible episode in the whole book of Acts.  Everything about Luke’s description of Pentecost is perplexing, confusing.  In short, we’re bewildered by it.

Luke begins simply enough, telling us that on the day of the Jewish feast of Pentecost the disciples were all together in one room.  But from that point on the story loses coherence.  Suddenly there is great commotion, noise, confusion—the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire, uneducated Galilean fishermen suddenly becoming multi-lingual speakers.  The episode ends with Peter’s strange speech about people who see visions and dream dreams.  No wonder, then, that Luke tells us the crowd was bewildered, everyone perplexed and amazed.

To be honest, I suspect that many of us here this morning have ambivalent feelings about Luke’s description of that first Pentecost. Obviously Luke didn’t get our Presbyterian memo about doing all things decently and order.

Let’s face it, his wild, disorderly account clashes with our Presbyterian temperament. We can’t help it if we inherited the stiff upper lip from our English side, frugality from our Scots side, practicality from our Dutch Calvinist side, deliberate intellectualism from our French founder, John Calvin, a university-trained lawyer and scholar.  So when we come to the day of Pentecost—the day when the winds blew and tongues were spoken and crowds fervently fell on their knees in the first mass conversion.  This is, well, not our style.

But on second thought, perhaps a little bewilderment is exactly what we need.  What we need, Luke must have known, is for God’s Spirit to shake us out of our complacency, to shatter our limited view of reality.  Our best poets know the transforming power of bewilderment better than most of us do.   The poet Fanny Howe, for example, in an essay titled “Bewilderment” declares “What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work…” Later in the essay she says, “..bewilderment begins to form for me, more than an attitude—but an actual approach, a way—to resolve the irresolvable.” 

Christian Wiman is the former editor of Poetry Magazine and author of the new book My Bright Abyss. In that book, Wiman argues for poetry that fires our imagination and opens up a vision of reality beyond ourselves. He declares: “I believe in visionary feeling and experience…I also believe that visionary art is a higher achievement than art that merely concerns itself with the world that is right in front us.” 

“What might it mean,” he goes on, “to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us.” 

Friends, surely that’s what Luke is attempting to do. Luke’s description of Pentecost is visionary art at its highest. Through bewildering symbols and a cacophony of singsn and wonders, he’s drawing us into something larger and more wondrous than the world that is right in front of us—the world known only through our senses, and defined by the evening newscast.

Have you heard of the famous prayer associated with Sufi Muslims?  They whirl about a room while repeating the prayer:  “O Lord, increase our bewilderment.”  The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who was about as different from a whirling dervish as one can imagine—must have had something similar in mind when he wrote in his book on discipleship:  “‘Discipleship is not limited to what we can comprehend; it must transcend comprehension…Bewilderment,” declared Bonhoeffer, “is the true comprehension.” 

And that’s surely why that at the first Pentecost the disciples didn’t say matter-of-factly, “Oh, good here’s the Holy Spirit.”  No, the Spirit came upon them like a violent wind blowing through their lives, and like transforming fire dancing over their heads, and they found themselves speaking in ways they had never thought possible, and they found their lives drawn into a meaning so wondrous that it filled them with new resolve and purpose.

It sent them out to proclaim and live out the vision of God’s Kingdom that Jesus had embodied. Accordingly, these spirit-filled disciples started sharing their material possessions, feeding the hungry, taking care of the poor, breaking bread together with glad and generous hearts, showing God’s love to all people, and adding to their numbers.  

So what does Pentecost mean for us decent-and-orderly type Christians?  I doubt—although anything is possible—that we’ll suddenly shed our Presbyterian stripes and start speaking in tongues and falling down on the floor like a congregation of Holy Rollers.  But we can pray that the Holy Spirit will increase our bewilderment, that it will make us less certain about what we think we know, and more open to dreaming dreams and seeing visions–dreams about God’s love embracing and transforming the whole world and bringing all its people together as One.

Presbyterian friends, even if it rubs against our Presbyterian grain, let us welcome the bewilderment of Pentecost. To confess bewilderment isn’t an admission of futility, but an acknowledgment that there are mysteries. There is more to life and the world than we have yet seen or fully understood.

Come, Holy Spirit, come.