The Walls Came Down in Jerusalem
Listen to this account – it was an extraordinary day! People were again gathered in Jerusalem from many nations for a major Jewish festival. This time Shavuot (shoo-us), or Festival of Weeks, held 7 weeks after Passover as a celebration of First Fruits and also of the law given to Moses. And again, into the ordinary patterns of celebration, God intervenes. This time the presence of God comes with the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon all of Jesus’ followers empowering them to speak in ways that all those gathered with many languages could hear. And the walls that separated them by language, by nation, or by ethnicity came down in Jerusalem that day as they all heard the story of God’s mighty acts in Jesus. The walls came down.
It must grieve God that even after Pentecost, the church has continued to build walls. We are silo-ed in our denominational houses over differences in belief and practice, even in a country where our congregation comes from many different denominations and faith traditions. Jesus prayed that we would be one. The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us. And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we focus so much energy on the things that divide us rather than living and loving as followers of Jesus together.
SEGREGATED HOUR. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Dr. King confronted the church on that 50 years ago – and yet it is still true. Even in congregations like ours, which value our diversity, we find subtle barriers that separate us. Tribalism infects us with fear of those who appear different from ourselves. Race is a social construct – certainly not something that God thought should divide us or we wouldn’t have Ruth in Jesus’s genealogical line. Jesus prayed that we would be one. The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us. And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we instinctively focus on the 1% of genetic makeup that is different instead of the 99% of our genes that are common among all human beings.
UMC. In the United Methodist Church there are conversations right now over differences in belief about full inclusion that may lead to a division into different strands or different denominations within the Methodist Church in America. Seventeen Conferences in Africa just rejected an amendment to our denominational constitution that would value all persons regardless of gender and name them as created in the image of God. But so did the Annual Conference immediately South of us – The Illinois Great Rivers Conference, and quite a few conferences in the US. And the attitudes behind this division may split the church. Even among Methodists, who a group founded by the Wesleys to bring more inclusivity and revival in the Church of England, we ignore or set aside Wesley’s words from his sermon, “Catholic (Universal) Spirit.”
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.[i]
Jesus prayed that we would be one. The Spirit came at Pentecost to tear down the walls between us. And still….. (pause and shake head) …. It must grieve God that we Methodists still seem so clueless about living as people of faith together in the world.
We seem to have forgotten that Day of Pentecost. Forgotten the power of God that blasted down walls that day. Forgotten that barriers of language were overcome, barriers of national allegiances were overcome as fellowship was restored once the walls were torn down.
Even with reminders in many of our own lifetimes.
Berlin. Do you remember the tearing down of the Berlin wall? In 1989, the wall that had divided families, a city and a country came down. It had stood since 1961, an ugly concrete scar across the city of Berlin. And on November 9, 1989 the wall began to be torn down.
South Africa. In 1994, Apartheid, a harsh system of repression and separation by race, ended in South Africa. Three years of negotiation led to a point where the barriers were removed, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and in a democratic election, Nelson Mandela was elected the President of South Africa – their first black president.
That Pentecost Power set loose in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago is still running loose in the world, tearing down walls.
You have probably noticed that there are still walls. We keep finding them blocking our way. Even with the power of the Spirit, Sophia in the original Greek,doing her utmost to destroy those walls – there are still walls. And part of our calling is to TEAR them down. KNOCK them down. And we can’t do it without the Spirit.
If we had read the next part of the 2nd Chapter of Acts we would have heard Peter preaching. Remember Peter? The guy who promised to never desert Jesus by denied him three times because he was afraid of the accusation of a maid that he had been with Jesus. THAT Peter is now standing up in front of God and everybody telling the story of Jesus and defending the acts of the Spirit that they had just experienced. THAT Peter has changed – is empowered and unafraid because of the presence of the Spirit within him.
FOR US. The presence of the Spirit alive and at work in us can give us the courage to follow the path of Jesus in the challenging moments – the courage of a Peter or Andrew, of Chris Gueffroy – the last person killed trying to cross the wall, of Ronald Reagan who challenged Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace–if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”[ii] Or of Nelson Mandela who never gave up on ending apartheid saying famously, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” We can have that kind of moral courage – the presence of the Holy Spirit helps!
If we read the rest of the book of Acts, we find a deeper truth. The power of the Spirit is multiplied when we work together to break down the walls. The early church had people who did things individually, but together they changed Rome. Together Christianity was tolerated and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Together they spread across the world.
And together, we can tear down walls. That’s what love does, especially when we work together.
HYMN. “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no south or north – but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”
Together we can create a diverse community where all people, all languages, all cultures are celebrated. Diversity makes us healthy. It’s proven in biology. It’s proven for communities. Diversity makes us healthier as a community. The churches that are vital in their communities are almost all churches that are diverse in many ways.
Actually, this Pentecost Power is about relationships. Relationship with God as we are brought closer to the holy as the Holy Spirit dwells in us. And it is about relationships with others as the presence of the Holy tears down walls that divide, and gives us the wisdom and strength to continue that work in our lives.This is our church – with the Holy Spirit in the middle of the family circle – in the middle of us all.
Our prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit,” which we will share in as many languages as are among us at this moment, is a prayer for the Spirit to come to empower us as individuals to speak out against injustices and tear down walls. It is a prayer to let God fill us so we can push past our own prejudices – a prayer to change US. It is a prayer for power as community to respect and protect others—a prayer to change the world..
Veni Sancte Spiritus. (Latin) Viens, Saint-Esprit. (French) Komm heiliger Geist. (German) Ven, espíritu santo. (Spanish)