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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 05/27/2012

The whole universe was in a hot dense state
When 14 billion years ago expansion started, wait!
The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall, we built the pyramids
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery
It all started with a BIG BANG!

If you watch the show you recognize it.  If you don’t, you just think I’m crazy.  It all started with a big bang.  James D.G. Dunn, a prominent New Testament scholar who has written three door stop volumes on the development of early Christianity, calls chapter 2 of Acts, Luke’s version of the big bang and I think that’s a good way to think of it.  As far as the church goes, what happened in Acts chapter 2, what happened on that first Pentecost, was what set things in motion and brought us to where we are today. 

We might take the existence of the church for granted, but think about it.  You start with Jesus, a preacher/teacher/prophet in the first century who develops a following but who winds up executed in humiliating fashion as a common criminal.  Some of his followers then claim that he was raised from the dead, an outrageous claim, but he only appears to a relatively small number of people, none of them significant.  You’re then left with an unimpressive group of his followers who continue to make claims about him but none of them are people of power or authority or influence.  So what were the odds that we would still be sitting here as followers of Jesus 2000 years later, that over 2 billion of the earth’s roughly 6 billion people would call themselves Christians? 

Something happened, and in Luke’s telling of it it’s this story of a sound like the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire and people from every nation speaking strange languages.  We call it the coming of the Holy Spirit and it represents the big bang that triggered all that was to come, the empowerment of this unlikely group who would change the world.  Something happened, or else Jesus would not have been long remembered and Pentecost would not represent the big bang that started the church.  But there was an experience, one that was recognized as the movement of the Holy Spirit among and within those people, movement that did indeed change the world.

Something happened and that really can’t be disputed; our presence here is evidence of it.  But what was it?  What was that big bang all about?  The Bible talks about them being filled with the Holy Spirit, but what does that mean?  As soon as we start talking about the Holy Spirit things get vague.  The Father and the Son are not necessarily easy to wrap our minds around, but I think we do better with them than we do with the Holy Spirit.  Spirit talk has never been easy, then or now. 

For us, we talk about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we talk about being guided by the Spirit in what we do, we talk about discerning the movement of the Spirit in our lives, but what does all that mean?  It’s all kind of out there.  We church people pretty much accept it and move on, it’s how we talk, but it sure isn’t easy to explain.  It’s like when I hear people described as “spiritual but not religious” I don’t know what that means and I’m not sure they do either.  I tend to think that it’s mostly an excuse not to go to church, but I don’t know.  Again though, apart from just accepting it, it’s hard to talk about spiritual things.

When we hear the Pentecost story I think we tend to focus on the wind and fire and the speaking of strange languages because those are what make the story memorable; but they’re also what can make the story somewhat foreign to us.  Wind and fire and speaking strange languages are all evidence of what we might call an ecstatic, sort of otherworldly experience of the Spirit.  Maybe you’ve had that kind of experience, I certainly don’t doubt that they can happen; but for most of us Lutheran types, we can be rather skeptical about all that, or at least think that it’s not about us, it’s not our expression of spirituality even if we might not be sure what our expression is.  Maybe it can even make us think that our religious experience is somehow inadequate because these things don’t happen to us.

To get at the Holy Spirit, we perhaps do better to consider the speech of Peter in this story.  In this speech, the first of many attributed to him in Acts, he is not speaking in tongues, he’s not speaking any strange language; instead, he’s speaking a language that they understand, and he’s making connections.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter is able to imaginatively connect Old Testament prophecies with what was happening to them at that moment and also with what had happened previously.  The spiritual gift given to Peter and to others was the ability to connect the dots, to begin to make sense of events that on the surface of things, didn’t seem to make much sense.  It’s not the only gift the Spirit gives but it seems to be the one Peter received and it fits in with what Jesus said would happen. 

In the gospel lesson today Jesus tells his disciples that, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  The big bang of Pentecost can be seen as the awakening of imagination among the followers of Jesus so that they began to see the truth of all that had happened to Jesus and that continued to happen to them.  It enabled them to make the connections and to tell the story of Jesus in ways that would enable others to see and imagine the truth of Jesus and the way that they were able to do that really is quite remarkable.  Such work was and continues to be the work of the Spirit because the truth of Jesus does have to be imagined.  It’s not immediately and logically apparent.

Lest you think I’m dabbling in heresy here, Martin Luther, in a different way, pretty much said the same thing.   A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away some of you may have memorized Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:  “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth…” it goes on but that’s the gist of it.

By my own understanding or strength, I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord.  I can try as hard as I possibly can, but I can’t do it.  Faith is the gift of the Spirit.  When the Holy Spirit arrived in the big bang of Pentecost, Peter and all those gathered there were set free from being trapped by their own understanding and strength.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit they were set free to imagine a truth that reason and logic could never prove.  They were set free to believe the truth of Jesus Christ. 

I think imagination continues to be the work of the Spirit.  The Spirit that moved through the early church and which had inspired those who wrote the Old Testament enabled them to put their experiences of God into words.  Inspired by the Spirit, they imagined reality differently.  In our time though, we hear “imagine” and we think “made up” and therefore not true.  It is quite the opposite though.  Imagine means to receive and entertain visions of reality and truth that are outside the accepted given, in the words of Luther, outside and beyond our own understanding or strength.  How else can we get at the reality and truth of God?  Many people these days reject God or faith of any kind because it isn’t logical and reasonable and we’re never going to win that argument because they’re right.  The conversation needs to change because it’s not about logic, it’s about imagination.  It is the same Spirit that produced the big bang of Pentecost and inspired the early church who enables and empowers us to receive and imagine the truth that saves us.

The Holy Spirit sets us free to imagine.  It sets us free from a flat, literal reading of the Bible and the world, a reading that confines us to our own understanding and strength. Led by the Spirit though, we enter the imagination of all the witnesses before us, the imagination that is God’s imagination, imagination which is the truth that saves us.  In the words of the prophet Joel, words that Peter cited, “Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams,” and it all started with a big bang.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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