"All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability."
May 21, 2021, Words By: Joey Ager, Image By: unknown
In name of the Holy Spirit of grace, In name of the Father of the City of Peace, In name of Jesus who takes death off us, Oh, in name of the Three who shield us in every need, If well you have found us tonight, Seven times better may you leave us without harm, O bright white Moon of the seasons.
This prayer was collected by Alexander Carmichael as he travelled the Western Isles of my home — Scotland — in the 19th century. Carmichael sat, it is said, around peat fires and listened to Islanders recite the poems, songs, prayers and blessings they had learned from their ancestors.
These were not the prayers of the established church in Scotland.
They were drawn from an oral tradition that had survived underground since the Celtic Christian tradition was censured 1,200 years earlier in favor of uniform Roman practice and theology.
The effort to bring the spirituality of my ancestors under the control and uniformity of Rome is one example of the imperialisation of the church that took off in the fourth century with the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great.
Shortly after legalising Christianity in the Roman Empire, Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, the first gathering of church authorities that set out to formally settle church controversies over the deity of Jesus, the date of Easter and other issues.
But Constantine’s stake in this council — and arguably his conversion itself — wasn’t just theological; it was tied up with the political desire for state stability, control, and his own power.
The council produced two outcomes:
- Enforceable consensus around doctrine written in one language
- The exile of heretics.
All around our communities, in myself, and in our churches, we continue to be held captive to this imperial dream — unity, control and stability through enforced uniformity.
Here in the US, it is enshrined on Caesar’s coin: e pluribus unum. In a political culture riven by purity, heretics are exiled. Theology is too often a pitched, but ultimately Pyrrhic, battle to define the orthodox and win the favor of power.
The story we tell this week, however, dreams a startlingly different dream.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit and Her tongues of fire come gushing out, provoking the people to tell stories in a multitude of languages, confusing and perplexing everyone who gathered to see the commotion. Some even accused them of being drunk at 9 a.m!
This story renounces the imperial dream in three ways:
- It’s a vision of multiplicity (‘how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’)
- It’s a vision of a wild Spirit that cannot be wielded or controlled (‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind’);
- It’s a vision that gives the power to speak the truth into the hands of the young, the old, both men and women, and enslaved people (‘Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit’).
2:2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
2:3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
The illusion of human control is gone. The wild Spirit in Her fierce multiplicity is poured out.
So what does the story of Pentecost tell us about our work as peacemakers? This week, I am reflecting on three commitments.
First, the commitment to seek out and notice the Spirit that is already out there, causing people to become perplexed, giving power to all to speak the truth, and bringing Life to dry bones. This commitment has vast implications for mission. I cannot ‘bring’ the Spirit anywhere; instead, we can seek the Spirit in her wildness. With this posture, may we renounce the hubris of Empire that claims to bring Spirit by our swords and in our words.
Second, the commitment to long for Oneness without violence and exclusion. The multiplicity of the Spirit’s poured-out-ness doesn’t negate a desire for one-ness. Instead, perhaps we are being called into a deeper ‘Oneing’: a process that begins by meeting one another where we are at. In the reading, a tongue of fire first rests on each of those gathered individually. Julian of Norwich wrote that ‘the love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person.’ May we truly see this One-ing.
Third, the commitment to lean into orthopraxis. At Pentecost, those who are speaking in many languages are telling of ‘God’s deeds of power’ – instead of reciting doctrine, they tell multiple stories of God’s action. This multiplicity does not set the community up for a purity fight – but honors voices and experiences in their distinction, particularity and context. As we all learn to move from theory to practice, may we tell multiple stories of the Spirit’s action among us.
Dwelling Among Us
A Celtic Prayer May the blessing of light be on you - light without and light within. May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire, so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it. And may light shine out of the two eyes of you, like a candle set in the window of a house, bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm. And may the blessing of the rain be on you, may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean, and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines, and sometimes a star. And may the blessing of the earth be on you, soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day; and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it. May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God. And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly. Amen. Scottish Blessing