Signs and Wonders


A sermon preached on May 11, 2008, Pentecost Sunday (and also Mother’s Day), based upon Acts 2:1 – 21, (22 – 47), entitled “Signs and Wonders.”

Insofar as this is Mother’s Day as well as Pentecost, I begin this morning with a story I came across testifying to the reality of the spiritual realm that arises from the deep connection that exists between mothers and their children. A man writes:

“Back when I was five years old, I suffered a near-fatal accident. I lay between life and death for three full days. No one, including the doctors, knew if I would awaken from my comatose state or not. On night three, my weary mother finally left my bedside at the hospital and went home to get some sleep. About three that morning, while wide awake, she heard me calling to her from the hallway outside her bedroom. “I’m okay, mommy! Don’t worry.” The phone rang a few minutes later. It was my dad telling her that I had just awakened and was calling for her.” (found on internet)

There are countless others stories like this one.The next story I want to tell doesn’t involve mothers, but it also points speaks to the power of the Spirit. It’s a well-documented story that comes from the life of a Spanish explorer named Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. During the first half of the sixteenth century, De Vaca was shipwrecked and stranded on the what would become the coast of Texas. Fearing murder at the hands of hostile natives, he hid, along with two fellow survivors, in a pit they dug, where they spent several cold winter nights sleeping naked. They had lost everything, and yet mysteriously they underwent a remarkable transformation, emerging from that pit with spiritual power to heal. On their way westward, their fame spread ahead of them. The natives would bring their sick, and de Vaca and his friends would heal them, and they were thus able to travel unharmed. Eventually they made their way back to Mexico City, the seat of Spanish civilization in the New World, where there were doctors trained in the European techniques of the day. Here de Vaca evidently lost his power to heal, succumbing to the beliefs of his contemporaries regarding what was, and what wasn’t possible. (Larry Dossey, MD, Healing words, pp. 88-89)The most illuminating words about the nature of the Spirit were said by Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, who had been drawn to Jesus by the “signs and wonders“ that were present in his ministry: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)  Like the wind, the Spirit is invisible, beyond our control, and mysterious. Sometimes you can see its effects, but the thing itself always remains invisible.

The Episcopal priest Alan Jones made a helpful observation when he said that the Spirit is most present at three open spaces in our lives. “In the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”  De Vaca and his mates discovered themselves in a situation absolutely unpredictable, beyond their control, and full of risk when they were shipwrecked on the coast of Texas.

This also describes the situation in which the first small band of Christians found themselves in Jerusalem at the outset of the day of Pentecost. They had recently arrived in this big, strange city. Their leader had been brutally murdered, and they could be next. And then weird stuff started to happen.

Using poetic language to describe what is ultimately indescribable, the author of Acts tells how suddenly something like “tongues of fire” descended upon each of these open, empty believers, filling them with spiritual power that allowed them to do that which they shouldn’t have been able to do — various “signs and wonders,” including the capacity to speak directly to the thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem that day from other nations who spoke different languages from those they themselves spoke. Peter stands up and quotes from the prophet Joel, who spoke of a day that would come when the Spirit would be poured out upon all people, bringing forth dreams and visions and prophecies. To many people present the “signs and wonders” taking place were undeniable — the kind of compelling stuff that makes a person stand up and pay attention — and by the end of the day the numbers of the believers had swelled from a few dozen to three thousand persons. At the end of the second chapter of Acts we read how signs and wonders were commonplace in this new community, and people were inspired to share everything they had.

We are told that there were some present that day who witnessed what others saw, but did not acknowledge that any “signs and wonders” were taking place. These skeptics interpreted what they were witnessing as just so much early morning drunkenness. Their view of the world wouldn’t allow them to acknowledge what was actually happening. They were the ones who were accustomed to being in control and liked being able to predict exactly what would happen next. They were the resident, establishment people accustomed to having their own language spoken. They had a lot to lose were they to accept the validity of what was happening in this subversive spiritual movement.

And so our story shows us that there are ways of looking at this world that block the movement of the Spirit — that keep people from recognizing the signs and wonders.

One major obstacle is presented by a world-view that simply refuses to acknowledge a spiritual reality beyond the physical, material realm. If something can’t be examined by scientists, then ispso, facto it doesn’t exist. This is the point of view that has increasingly dominated western culture over the last few centuries, ever since what was called the “Age of Enlightenment.”

Another world view that blocks the Spirit is a religious belief system that has become “fossilized”. Where once there was the Spirit, now there is only the stuff people created to try and contain the spirit. It involves becoming overly attached to an institution — to the status quo, which is unfortunately where spiritual movements all tend to end up. This resistance to the Spirit can take the form of fundamentalism, where the Spirit is evicted in deference to a set of rigid laws.

But the Spirit can also be blocked by a tired, worn-out, we’ve seen it all before form of religious belief (often found today in “mainline” churches), where God and the Spirit are relegated to the role of nothing more than the “original clockmaker,” who in the beginning got things rolling and then pretty much went on a permanent vacation.

Bono said that religion is what you are left with when the Spirit has left the building. In order for religious institutions to maintain order and hold onto their power it is necessary for them to take the attitude that everything God had to say back was said back in the “old days,” and yes, it can be very confusing trying to understand what God had to say back then, so that’s why you need us, the professionally trained leaders of the institution to explain it all to you.

I had a conversation with a couple of women this past week who described precisely this kind of experience in Bible study years ago that pretty much turned them off from Bible Study for years to come. The pastor leading the Bible study essentially said that the verses they were studying didn’t really mean what they seemed to be saying, and in order to understand what they were really saying it was necessary to have attended seminary like he did, and since these women had neither the time nor probably the intelligence to go to seminary like he did, they were better off keeping their noses out of the Bible and leaving its interpretation to him.

The description of the first Pentecost called to mind a fascinating book (“Under the Banner of Heaven”, by Jon Krakauer) I just finished reading on the history of the Mormons, a group I knew very little about prior to reading the book. At the risk of presenting myself as some kind of expert on Mormonism after reading one, assuredly, biased book, nonetheless I will plunge ahead to offer my take on this faith that is the fastest growing religion in the world.

It started off in the early 1800s with this charismatic personality, a young man named Joseph Smith living in New York State, who claimed to have received certain revelations directly from God. He shared his revelations with others, and along the way, various signs and wonders were experienced that got people to stand up and pay attention: further visions, dreams and prophecies that foretold coming events, miraculous healings — that sort of weird stuff. Similar to what happened at the first Pentecost, the number of Mormons grew so rapidly that within just a couple of years there were ten thousand of them who were generously sharing pretty much everything they had with one another.

Now as an outsider looking in, much of the belief system set forth by Joseph Smith on the basis of his revelations strikes me as downright wacky, including his assertion that one of the ancient tribes of Israel somehow migrated to America centuries before Columbus. Crazy stuff, (though I know that there are people who would say the same about things I believe.) I found myself asking, how could people believe this wacky stuff?

Beneath the wacky stuff, however, the most significant belief Joseph Smith put forth — the one I believe mattered most — was a simple but compelling conviction that God talks directly to people, right now. That revelations from God are not restricted to long ago Bible times, but that God continues to reveal God’s will to people in the present. That God is very much involved actively in the day-to-day affairs of humans. Joseph Smith’s movement invited people to stand tippy-toed together to watch for whatever surprising thing God would do next, to embrace the conditions that provide space for the Spirit to move — the unpredictable, the out of control, the risky. In doing so they opened the door to all kinds of spiritual phenomenon — signs and wonders — in a way similar to the sorts of experiences that people were having back in the earliest days of the Church. And where signs and wonders occur, people stand up and take notice.

So hear me out: in order for the Spirit to move, in a certain sense the specifics of a person’s beliefs doesn’t matter, as long as the person is open to the signs and wonders that originate from the invisible spiritual realm. Signs and wonders have occurred and continue to occur in various religious traditions throughout the world, from Native American Shamans to Mormons to Pentecostals to Hindus to whatever.

But here’s the irony regarding how religions work: those early Mormons were very impressed by the signs and wonders, which in turn led them to conclude that this weird stuff was evidence that the specifics of Joseph Smith’s wacky belief system were true. So as time passed, and the signs and wonders died down, the belief system became rigid, fossilized.

Thomas Acquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, spent his life thinking through the logical implications of the belief system of his Roman Catholic Church. He wrote thousands of pages of theology. Late in his life, however, Acquinas had some kind of mystical experience, a direct encounter with God and the power of the Spirit, which led him to give up writing, and to say that all he had written before was just “so much straw.” Having experienced directly the spiritual realm, he realized that no belief system could come any where close to capturing it.

So in one sense it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we believe in a spiritual reality and the possibility of making contact with the Spirit. But in another sense, it is very important what we believe.

The Spirit is energy, and that energy can end up moving in destructive paths if it isn’t guided by Jesus. For instance, there are certain fundamentalist Mormons who believe that polygamy, and the oppression of women and children that it can breed, are essential parts of the belief system, divinely ordained by God. They also believe that God is racist, that non-white people are inherently inferior to white people. These are beliefs that have strayed far from Jesus.

Religious belief that encourages self-righteousness, that sets up walls that separate people, that encourage violence are not in tune with Jesus.

And so on that first Pentecost, the apostle Peter, after quoting for them the prophet Joel, proceeded to tell the gathered crowds about Jesus.

Clarence Jordan formed a Christian community in the middle of the 20th century in Georgia that was ahead of its time in terms of American culture, but downright old-fashioned in regard to replicating the radical equality that was present in that first Spirit-inspired, Jesus-centered Christian community. (It was Clarence Jordan who shepherded the man who started Habitat for Humanity.)

Clarence told a story (that I heard Tony Campolo tell) of a time he was invited to preach at a revival meeting at a little hillbilly church way out in the country. When he got there and stepped out into the pulpit, he was surprised to find a packed church with black and white folk all sitting together. This was, you recall, the south in the 1950s, well before the civil rights movement had gotten very far.

After the meeting was over, he asked the old hillbilly preacher how it had gotten this way. “What way?” the hillbilly preacher asked.

“You know, black and white folk together.”

“Oh, well, a few years back, the preacher, he died, and we didn’t have no preacher. So I said, ‘I’ll preach.’ And the deacons, they didn’t have nobody else to preach. So they let me.

“On my first Sunday, I got up in the pulpit, I opened up the Bible, and I came to the place where brother Paul says,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free, but you are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Galatians 3:28)

“And I preached it.

“After church was over, the deacons, they took me into a back room and told me they didn’t want to hear no more preaching like that.” “So what you’d do?” asked Clarence.“I fired them deacons! If the deacons aren’t going to deak, then fire fire em, for God‘s sake! Once I knew what bugged them, I kept after it. I preached that church down to three people. And then it began to grow. But it wasn’t me. It was the holy spirit.”

He evicted to fossilized belief system and created room for the Spirit to move.

Although we are a part of an institution that often clings to a fossilized system of belief, here at the Parsippany United Methodist Church we are trying to be faithful to Jesus, who declares that there’s always room in the circle. Who knows what surprising thing the Spirit will do next as the walls come tumbling down.

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