Genesis 10:32-11:9; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13;
I shared a thought recently with our men’s group that I’ve been puzzling over since my father passed away. Even in his last months, my father loved watching Gunsmoke. I couldn’t stand the show growing up, old-fashioned black-and-white westerns.
Matt Dillion, the US Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, was a strong silent type of man, bringing order to the Wild West. Dillion was a loyal friend with a benevolent heart, regretful when violence was needed. He was steadfast, even-tempered, honest, incorruptible, and dedicated to the cause of bringing order to the “untamed wilderness.” It has dawned on me that my father, a small-town Presbyterian pastor highly regarded in his community, was also a benevolent man with a bit of Puritan longing to bring good order to the world. I can see what he admired about Marshall Dillion.
My sister had become my father’s caregiver in those last months. My father was a staunch advocate of CNN, and my sister, for Fox News. Gunsmoke kept the family peace, and she took up knitting. Sometimes we comprised and tuned into M.A.S.H. After I had spent half a lifetime in the real American West, I understood, with an almost gut-level revulsion, that those lily-white stories were demeaning to the first inhabitants of the West. However, I had a troubling revelation in a moment of sanctimonious grumping.
So, how did I escape when my family acquired two televisions? I watched Star Trek on the downstairs TV, playing in the captain's chair! Captain James T. Kirk. Replace revolvers with lasers, and a Western becomes science fiction. There are notable differences. In the ’60s, the script permitted Kirk more emotion than Marshall Dillion’s archetypical mid-century male. Airing amid the American civil rights movement, Kirk was now surrounded on the bridge by racial and “alien” diversity. One well-known episode sparked outrage when Kirk kissed a woman of another skin color — green. Substitute a trans character, and The Trek might be banned in some Florida classrooms today.
The point I’m driving at is that my father and I admired our heroes because of an in-cultured version of what it meant for us to be good, successful people. The magnanimous white straight male, the goal of the Anglo-Christian life, was in the center chair leading the cast to a better universe.
In his book After Whiteness: A Theological Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings describes a new faculty interview at an unnamed divinity school he served (1). The seminary’s stated goal was a diverse faculty. Two candidates were interviewed for a highly specialized faculty position in original language textual criticism. One was a white male, the other a black female. The woman brought a much-needed spirit with exceptional qualifications. “She wanted to talk about herself as integral to her work” as an original language specialist, “specifically about the racial condition of the West and how ancient texts and modern interpretations play into that condition."
The male, however, brought something even more compelling. He was a brilliant scholar, to be sure. He was also a tall, young dark-haired baritone, “perfectly groomed and suited as a professor in the middle of a celebrated career.” At one point in the interview, the committee asked about his year and a half studying in Germany. He said, “My seminars in Germany were ‘no holds barred,’ vigorous debates about the highest technicalities and most important ideas in my field.”
Jennings writes that the candidate put together the fragments of the ideal Western scholar — 1.5 years in Germany — even though born and raised in America, he somehow spoke with a subtle German accent — master of his corner of theology and biblical languages, blue suit, brown wings tips, slow speech, legs crossed, quiet confidence and comportment. Never mind the dubious help of a ‘no holds barred’ spirit in forming pastors, the faculty smiled and laughed with him as if they were meeting Captain Kirk himself. He got the job, of course, and Jennings, the black scholar of African studies, admits with self-aware frustration that he couldn’t help but admire the power of that interview too.
This isn’t a sermon about critical race theory, though it could be. I’m talking about idolatry (1 Cor. 12:2). There is, of course, nothing wrong with that which is admirable in our culture and our heroes (2). We should not be ashamed of who we are unless, as Toni Morrison once said, “We can only be tall because someone else is on their knees.” The problem at the heart of misplaced desire is, time and again, a singular vision of what it means to be truly human; typically, it is the one embedded in us without our permission by the majority demographic. The sin is becoming afraid of, or ashamed to be, Other. At Pentecost, this disease can be healed.
I came to the remarkable conclusion just recently that I have heard the story of Pentecost wrong all my life. I imagined the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples and, though they preached in different languages, all heard as one. King James English. Of course, that’s not what the text says: “How is it that we hear each of us in our native language?” (Act 2:8). Likewise, I read the Tower of Babel story in Genesis as if God’s curse on the tower builders was the unwanted multiplicity of humanity (3). No, in Genesis, multiplicity is first (Gen. 10:32); that is God's gift. We hear this affirmed so beautifully in Paul; there are many gifts, one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4). God throws down the tower builders’ desire to gather all in one place, culture, and language. The Holy Spirit doesn't reverse this; Pentecost affirms the God-given dignity of difference when those differences are rendered toward the good (1 Cor. 12:7).
When humanity gives birth to an "ism," or an Empire, we build a tower of culture, put one particular image of ourselves at the top, and rank all those lower as lesser. We impose an artificial uniformity on God's given diversity (Sacks). And every once in a while, God comes down, laughs, and throws the whole thing to the ground, which is precisely where we are supposed to be because that's where our God, our universal God walks in the cool of the evening breeze, hidden beneath the particularity of each human soul. On Pentecost, the One who occupied the center chair of our faith has been taken into heaven. We are not permitted, however, to take our seats there ourselves, though we try. Instead, the Spirit has come, blowing us into the world, blessed to be a blessing.
Jesus, whom our faith and joy desire, is unlike us and, in that unlikeness, affirms the dignify of difference. Jesus was a first-century Jewish teacher, not a Christian, who spoke Aramaic, grew up and died in the poverty of ancient Galilee. The church, empowered by the Spirit, is called to be the people gathered around the broken and risen body of this particular Jesus (Jennings). And in so doing, we are freed to behold the world and the church as it truly is: an astonishing, kaleidoscopic multiplicity of life and beauty, languages and culture.
Who is the Holy Spirit? The Lord and Giver of Life. In Acts, the Spirit is the one who sends the disciples to be with lands and folks with whom they’d rather not. When I left home, I ended up in Chicago. The big city was unlike my rural life. It took years to love public transportation. At one point in Chicago, I thought, I’ll go anywhere now but California, that land of fruits and nuts. In California, I heard the call to ministry. Here I am, Lord, send me, but please not to Texas. I am a graduate of Austin Seminary. I’ve decided to stop tempting the Spirit. When I first moved to California, I was terrified to go to the mall. There were more languages in one place than I had heard my entire life. It was Pentecost at Macy's! I now understand this is the beauty of God’s creation, where no wildflower or blade of grass is the same. The church for whom that beauty is joy can heal the world.
— Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, Pentecost, 5/28/23, SLO UMC
(1) Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), chapter 1.
(2)This spirit is missing in the confrontational approach of some Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consulting, such as Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility. The hard learned lesson of pastoral work is that people can not hear you when they are walking away from you.
(3) The title of this sermon is taken from Jonathans Sacks book: The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised edition (London: Continuum Publishing, 2002). Chapter 3, The Dignity of Difference: Exorcising Plato’s Ghost has provided an important way forward for my reading of these texts. See also, Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019).
Photograph CBS via the Getty, from the New Yorker
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” ― Acts 2:11
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” ― G.K. Chesterton
Although Luke’s description of the early church in Acts 2:41-47 is surely idealized, it is as important for us now as it was in the first century or the eighteenth of John Wesley. Rather than looking for the latest technique, technology, or celebrity consultant to save us, the heart of our work is doing what the church, at its best, has always done.
Acts 2:41 "So those who welcomed his message were baptized … 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."
The church described here is a local fellowship of followers of Jesus with a self-sustaining structure dedicated to works of devotion and mercy. They do so in a spirit of gladness and generosity. Where these are found together, the church lives.
And the Lord added to their number …
As the narrative of Acts demonstrates, the first Christians were invitational people, repeatedly blown by the Spirit beyond the boundaries of their fears. Yet, part of the invitation is that what people saw and heard in them was attractive: “Awe came upon everyone,” and they inspired “the goodwill of all the people.” Today, We live in an individualistic, secular culture closed to the possibility of transcendence, where Christians are known for their judgments. Opening hearts with shared wonder and being an invitational community known by our love is 21st-century evangelism too.
1) Dedicated to works of devotion and mercy:
John Wesley spoke of the church's works of devotion to God (piety) and compassion for those in need (mercy) as the “means of grace.” It is “the walk that Jesus walked.” The means of grace are the time-tested ways Christian hearts have encountered the Spirit of God as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. A well-meaning United Methodist Bishop, Bishop Reuben Job, recently rebranded Wesley’s third general rule from “attending the ordinance’s God” or “the means of grace” — to “staying in love with God.” The language is undoubtedly more winsome, but given our penchant for loving in our image, there is no shortcut to staying in love with all that God loves than the regular disciplined practice of “the means of grace.” The method in Methodism is inviting folks into these places and letting the Spirit do God's work in them.
2) With a spirit of gladness and generosity:
A constant emphasis in Wesley’s writing is that amid works of devotion and mercy, we meet God’s universal life-affirming, forgiving, and sustaining grace. When we accept and live into this gift, we grow in love or ‘holiness’ and share ‘the mind in Christ Jesus.” Such hearts will bear the marks of the spirit, Gal 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentlenesses, and self-control.” The spirit is not in us if we are church with divisive and resentful hearts.
3) A local fellowship with a self-sustaining structure:
The radically communal structure of the church described in the book of Acts does not fit our day and age; church order changes to fit the social context. Elsewhere the NT notes historic offices in the church (pastors, bishops, elders, deacons, evangelists, teachers, etc.) that have been maintained in various ways in continuity with the earliest traditions. The point is, however, whether we like it or not, the church must have a competent, self-sustaining structure to persist; yet this “institution” only exists to serve the fellowship in worship and mission to the end of being people with Christ-like hearts. In his sermon On Zeal, John Wesley addresses the common problem of misplaced religious passion and points out that we should be most “zealous" for the things most central. Our order only exists for the sake of being shaped by the love of God for the love of humanity.
Select Quotes from John Wesley
On the church ordered for love:
7. Lastly. If true zeal be always proportioned to the degree of goodness which is in its object, then should it rise higher and higher according to the scale mentioned above; according to the comparative value of the several parts of religion. For instance, all that truly fear God should be zealous for the Church; both for the catholic or universal Church, and for that part of it whereof they are members. This is not the appointment of [mortals], but of God. He saw it was “not good for [humans] to be alone,” even in this sense, but that the whole body of his children should be “knit together, and strengthened, by that which every joint supplieth.” At the same time they should be more zealous for the ordinances of God; for public and private prayer, for hearing and reading the word of God, and for fasting, and the Lord’s Supper. But they should be more zealous for works of mercy, than even for works of piety. Yet ought they to be more zealous still for all holy tempers, lowliness, meekness, resignation: But most zealous of all, for that which is the sum and the perfection of religion, the love of God and [humanity]. From Sermon: On Zeal
On the means of grace:
By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to [us], preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace. I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian Church for many ages,—in particular by our own Church, which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace, and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of [Christ]: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying [God’s] grace to [human soul’s]. From Sermon: On The Means of Grace
On true religion and how we get there:
16. True religion is right tempers towards God and [people]. It is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence; gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow-creatures. In other words, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbour as ourselves. 17. It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us, that we love [God] and love our neighbour as ourselves. Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow-creatures. The love of Christ constrains us, not only to be harmless, to do no ill to our neighbour, but to be useful, to be “zealous of good works;” “as we have time, to do good unto all men;” and to be patterns to all of true, genuine morality; of justice, mercy, and truth. This is religion, and this is happiness; the happiness for which we were made. From Sermon: The Divine Unity of Being
What is Methodism?
“What is Methodism? What does this new word mean? Is it not a new religion?” This is a very common, nay, almost an universal, supposition; but nothing can be more remote from the truth. It is a mistake all over. Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion … is “no other than love, the love of God and of all [humanity]; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us,—as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every [person] on earth as our own soul. This love is the great medicine of life; the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world; for all the miseries and vices of [humanity]. Wherever this is, there are virtue and happiness going hand in hand; there is humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering, the whole image of God; and, at the same time, a ‘peace that passeth all understanding,’ with ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ This religion of love, and joy, and peace, has its seat in the inmost soul; but is ever showing itself by its fruits, continually springing up, not only in all innocence, (for love worketh no ill to his neighbour,) but, likewise, in every kind of beneficence,—spreading virtue and happiness to all around it.” From Sermon: On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel, Near City-Road, London
On our attitude towards non-Christians:
Let it be observed, I purposely add, to those that are under the Christian dispensation; because I have no authority from the word of God “to judge those that are without;” nor do I conceive that any [person] living has a right to sentence all the [non-Christian] and [Muslim] world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to [the One] that made them, and who is “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” who is the God of [all others] as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that [God] hath made. But, meantime, this is nothing to those that name the name of Christ … unless they have new senses, ideas, passions, tempers, they are no Christians. However just, true, or merciful they may be, they are but Atheists still! From Sermon On Living Without God
On the problem of loving only those folks like ourselves.
Luke 10:37 Go and do thou in like manner—Let us go and do likewise, regarding every [person] as our neighbour who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts, into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between [one person and another], and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other. From Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
1 John 4:21. And this commandment have we from him—Both God and Christ; that he who loveth God, love his [fellow human being]—Every one, whatever his opinions or mode of worship be, purely because he is the child and bears the image of God. Bigotry is properly the want of this pure and universal love. A bigot only loves those who embrace his opinions, and receive his way of worship: and he loves them for that, and not for Christ’s sake. From Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
Quotes have been edited for modern language use.