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Pentecost Sermon: The Spirit and the Empire

May 26, 2015

1195_star_wars_empire_needs_posterEzekiel 37:1-14          Acts 2:1-21


Have you ever felt like the world you live in is a kind of enormous system… and you are powerless and helpless to change anything… and the best you can really do is survive, make do?… Have you ever felt angry at the system?


If you have, I think you understand the word ‘empire’ and what it means to live in an empire. It may not be the Roman Empire or the British Empire… In the Old Testament the name that meant “empire” was Babylon. We might have other names for it today.


I want to explore today the way in which “empire” lies in the background of our Pentecost texts…


At Anzac I often hear discussion about what would have happened if some empire had taken over NZ – the German or the Japanese. Of course if it did happen it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened to New Zealand. We imagine the trauma that it would create to have your whole way of life taken over by another culture.


But as I was reflecting on the Valley of Dry Bones I was reminded of the background to Ezekiel. His country had not merely been invaded by a foreign power, many of his people slaughtered. The bulk of the population had been captured and been transported thousands of miles away to Babylon. They were not merely occupied. They were exiled… exiled to a place where there was no realistic hope of return.


The shame was total… it was an experience like death itself. The people were at a point where they could see no future. They were no longer a people. And in this context Ezekiel has this vision in which God calls him to declare a word of hope to the dead bones… “You will live again” is basically the word. And then Ezekiel is asked to call upon the breath (breath = spirit in Hebrew) of God to breathe life into Israel again. Dead people can’t raise themselves..


So the people of Israel are given a promise of life and then the power of God’s Spirit. God breathes them to life even though they are surrounded by a great immovable system of empire. Ezekiel’s vision has them come alive again from nothing… Standing again as a people whose very existence depends on nothing but a word of hope and the breath of God.


God says you can live in the shadow Babylon. You don’t need infrastructure. At the very least at the most fundamental level… all you really need is the breath or Spirit of God and the assurance of God’s word of hope.


Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel? The name Babel is a thinly veiled codeword for the empire Babylon. It’s one of those ancient myth-type stories in Genesis. In that story the people say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” Let’s secure our power…. And God looks down we are told and seeing this attempt to develop a single system of power with a single language decides that something needs to be done about what we might call empire. So God scatters them and creates many languages and cultures. God sets them free from this unified and controlling system of power represented by Babylon. It’s a myth which critiques empire (as well as telling us how languages began).


Why did I tell you the story of the Tower of Babel? Because some people have said that what happens in the Pentecost story when the breath of God is described as a mighty wind and people of many languages are gathered together again is a kind of reversal of the story of the tower of Babel. But that’s not really what happens. What happens at Pentecost is not the end of many languages and the re-establishment of a Christian empire. No, no… It’s a celebration of the diversity of languages. Suddenly, by a miraculous sign of the breath of God… people of many different languages don’t lose their languages and start speaking one common language. No, they understand each other each in their own language. No longer do they have to speak Greek to communicate in the empire. They are freed in this moment from the language of the empire to communicate in each other’s languages. The story is about diversity of culture – not as a problem to be overcome… for it need not be a barrier between us, but as the environment in which we learn to communicate. The languages, the cultures, are a divine gift, just as it is in the ancient story of Babel – freedom in spite of the power of empire. Cultural diversity is God given.


So if the story of the Dry Bones is all about the Spirit empowering the people to be themselves, to have the hope and courage to live God’s difference in spite of the system in which they live. Pentecost is about God’s difference is expressed in cultural diversity in spite of the system: Cultural Diversity versus Empire.


Now I don’t know of anything quite like Pentecost in the history of the church since Pentecost. There may have been special occasions like Pentecost. But by and large when Christians get together from different cultures and language groups the business of understanding one another is much slower and challenging.


But it seems to me that Pentecost is a sign that this process of understanding people of other languages and culture is at the heart of what the Spirit does – breath of God does. … It’s no coincidence that the virtues that are needed to submit to another culture and learn another language are not unlike what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. If you’ve ever had to, or chosen to live in another culture and learn another language those are the qualities you will have needed.


Rev Tokerau Joseph from First Church spoke at the recent meeting of Presbytery. And there he issued a called to become what we believe we are: a cross-cultural church. We believe (in theory anyway) that the gospel of Jesus breaks down barriers between cultures. And yet look at the churches in New Zealand. Most of them are homogeneous – all more or less the same culture. We gather with those like us. Here in Caversham, we have a predominantly European congregation and an hour later there is a Samoan congregation in the same building.


The empire would simply solve this problem the easy way – actually the violent way. The way of empire is when the dominant culture controls the relationship and the smaller group just has to fit in. The spirit of Pentecost would call us (better, empower us) to submit to other cultures, to take a slower path to understanding, but one which celebrates the culture and language of the other person.


In New Zealand I think we can be grateful for the Treaty of Waitangi. Because it creates a space for the slow path to communication and understanding. In a way it reflects the justice of God. There’s no guarantee that the Treaty will not be abused in the process. But the Treaty calls on those who believe, not in the power of empire and mono-culture, but in the power of God’s Spirit; it calls on those who are empowered by God’s spirit for a life of patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control as Maori and Pakeha journey together in community in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Apparently the old-fashioned sermon had three points – like God. So let me add a third to finish. First one – the Spirit empower a community to live in spite of the system. Second one – the Spirit creates communication between diverse cultures in spite of the monocultural system. Third point comes from the lectionary reading from John’s gospel which we didn’t read and I’ll just touch on it. John 16 Jesus is promising his disciples that when he is gone, God will send the Spirit and in verse 8 he says

And when the Spirit of truth comes he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Prove the empire wrong… prove the system wrong… In a nutshell the Spirit speaks truth to power… and will do so because the empire will see another way living and moving in its midst. People who are no longer dry bones, but people who live and communicate differently – a different kind of righteousness. This is good news!

Come Holy Spirit, blow through us your people!

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