Text: Acts 2:1-21
Have you ever wondered why geese fly in the “V” formation? For years, specialists in aerodynamics wondered the same thing. Some years ago, two engineers calibrated in a wind tunnel what happens in a “V” formation. What they discovered is that each goose, in flapping his or her wings, creates an upward lift for the bird that follows. When all of the birds do their part in the “V” formation, the entire flock has a 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone. And so it is that each bird depends on the other to get to its destination. Observers have also noted that each bird takes a turn at being the lead bird. And the strong birds encourage the weak with their incessant honking. If a goose becomes ill or exhausted, a stronger bird drops out of flight with it, and, together, they find a resting place. The strong bird stands patiently by, guarding, until the weak one once again gains strength to fly.
This aeronautical engineering feat, which birds have divined over the ages, is a nice visual illustration of the concept I want to explore in more depth today – transcend and include. At its heart, transcend and include is another way of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When we are able to maintain our own wholeness, yet transcend existing boundaries to create a new communion with others, that resulting communion is something new and it contains potential that the initial separate entities did not. The V formation is a simplistic example of that, but when the birds form a V for flight, they don’t cease to be individual birds with strengths, weaknesses, color variations, and identifiable characteristics. Instead they become a powerful whole that is capable of things the individual birds cannot accomplish. They transcend their own abilities without losing any of their individuality. Transcend and include.
Today, we celebrate Pentecost. For Christians, Pentecost is a holiday (holy day) on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus. Before the events of the first Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called “the church.” Thus, from an historical point of view, Pentecost is the day on which the church was started and is commonly referred to as the church’s birthday.
So what does the word “Pentecost” mean? The English word “Pentecost” is a transliteration of the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fifty.” It comes from the ancient Christian expression pentekoste hemera, which means “fiftieth day.” But Christians did not invent the phrase “fiftieth day.” Rather, they borrowed it from Greek-speaking Jews who used the phrase to refer to a Jewish holiday. This holiday was known as the Festival of Weeks, or, more simply, Weeks (Shavuot in Hebrew). This name comes from an expression in Leviticus 23:16, which instructs people to count seven weeks or “fifty days” from the end of Passover to the beginning of the next holiday.
Shavuot was the second great feast in Israel’s yearly cycle of holy days. It was originally a harvest festival (Exod 23:16), but, in time, turned into a day to commemorate the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This day became especially significant for Christians because, seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, during the Jewish celebration of Shavuot/Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the first followers of Jesus, thus empowering them for their mission and gathering them together as a church.
So by now, I hope you are wondering what geese flying in “V” formation have to do Pentecost. And furthermore, what do both, geese flying in formation and Pentecost, have to do with the theme of “transcend and include,” a theme I set forth last week for my sermons this month?
In preparation for this sermon I made the statement in an email sent out to each of you that “the idea of transcend and include is the next frontier for the Christian church and for all religious institutions if religion is going to survive in our world.” I also said that the Pentecost story offers us a glimpse into what it means to transcend and include; and that, as I see it, the church today is standing in urgent need for a modern day Pentecost. So, let me explain what I mean.
We are living in a time when religion serves as a great divide, especially among the three Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For all the talk of interfaith dialogue, at least among some practioners of faith but also by academicians, sociologists, and researchers, it seems that we are still intent on separating ourselves from one another. We have yet to learn the value, and I would go so far as to say God’s design, to live as one humanity, as one commomwealth, as one people of faith who follow different expressions of faith. Instead, what we have learned is to separate ourselves by fearing our differences and protecting our territories.
It is in light of this that I am convinced that if the human race is to survive religion we must approach it as geese do their journey from one destination to the next—flying in “V” formation. We must transcend our individual attempts at understanding God and recognize that we are at our strongest when we include all people whom God has poured out God’s spirit on—Christian (including the Southern Baptist), Jew, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, Hindu, Buddhist—you get my point.
For our time, what I believe this means is that we have to trust that our fellow faiths are also flying in the true direction, and that we are all together a flock. That when one of our traditions is solid and clear in a direction that works toward the kingdom, that we all follow that. And when one of our traditions falters, and struggles to redeem or retire old ways of thinking, the others step forward to help lead and create “draft” or uplift for the others. It is, like the first Pentecost, the moment of recognition that we are one even in our differences. It is the moment when we recognize that God’s spirit is upon all flesh—even flesh that doesn’t look like ours. It is true that each bird depends on the other to reach its destination.
The question I asked the lectionary group this week was, “What might the Pentecost story look like now?” Immediately, someone said “the Olympics” and specifically the unity of the games. With that another person recalled the Olympic story of American athlete Jesse Owens and German athlete Luz Long. The story goes like this.
It’s 1936 and the Olympics are being held in Berlin, Germany. Favored American athlete Jesse Owens was nearly out of the long jump competition after qualifying began. He fouled on his first two jumps. With just one jump remaining, Luz Long, a German long jumper who was Owens’ toughest competition, introduced himself. After watching Owens’ first two failed attempts and studying the flaw in Owens’ technique, Long approached him and offered a suggestion. To play it safe, he told Owens, make your mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there. Owens used the advice and qualified on his last jump.
Later that afternoon, Long’s fifth jump matched Owens’ 25-10 in the finals. But Owens went on to win the gold medal with a final jump of 26-5 ½ on his last jump. The first to congratulate Owens was Long. Owens would later say in telling this story, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler [who had hoped to prove his theory of Aryan supremacy at the games]. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Today, we know that this story is more myth than truth. Jesse Owen’s would later admit that he had not met Long until after the competition. But as we like to say here at Pullen, “just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” It is true that Jesse Owens and Luz Long shared a friendship after the 1936 Olympics—a friendship that would break the barriers of two countries who saw each other as enemies. Luz Long died in 1943 while fighting for Germany in World War II. A final letter he wrote to Jesse Owens reads, in part, “Someday find my son…tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth.”
On Pentecost, the Spirit empowered all those present. Symbolically, the miracle of Pentecost reinforces the multilingual, multicultural, multiracial mission of the church. It painted a picture of how things can be. We are to be a community in which all people are drawn together by God’s love. As Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one.
I want to posit the idea this morning that if Pentecost were to happen today it would again reinforce the multilingual, multicultural, multiracial mission of the church; but it would also present the urgency of a mission for the church to transcend and include beyond these boundaries. Today, we are a Baptist church who celebrates strong affiliation with ABC and with the Alliance of Baptists. Those communities reflect our identity, in most cases our values, and in all cases our desire to follow the example of Jesus in the world. But if Pentecost were to come this morning, I believe that list of our affiliations would explode. We would receive the gift of the spirit to see that all those present are inside the circle. Does that mean that our Muslim sisters and brothers would suddenly proclaim Jesus? No. But it might mean that we could truly see the stories of Jesus talking with and feeding and healing non-Jews, even enemies of his own nation-state, as the pattern for our own V formation of faith. If Pentecost were to come this morning, I think we would hear in the Hebrew prayers of our family at Temple Beth Or the heart of the Gospel.
I do not pretend that this is easy or without conflict. Every time we reach across the divide in attempts to transcend it is messy and thorny and sometimes hostile. But I want our congregation to struggle with this basic concept – that if we are not willing to transcend our own identity as Baptists, or as Protestants, or even as Christians, we can not experience the Pentecost of our day.
And so you might ask, “Where do we start?” It is certainly doubtful that our Buddhists friends at the Kadampa Center are gathered this morning waiting and hopeful that the Pullen folks will come over and ask them to join a new and exciting V formation. I honestly can’t tell you how we get from here to there – I believe that is a part of the mystery of the spirit. But based on my recent interactions with the Muslim community in particular, I can tell you that any progress we make toward transcendence must begin with relationship. Maybe the best way that we can, as a Christian church, truly celebrate Pentecost is to take fifty days and truly focus on building relationships with people of other faiths. Again, you might ask what that looks like?
Maybe we take fifty days in this season of Pentecost and we invite the Imam back to not only preach but to lead us in a worship that includes the traditions, rituals, and teaching of Islam. Then we invite Rabbi Dinner to do the same. Or maybe we ask if our congregation can join the congregation of Temple Beth Or at one of their Sabbath services. Maybe on occasion we could explore the sacred writings of other faiths as our central texts for worship. Maybe our beautiful chapel could become a sanctuary—a safe place—for Muslims to pray. Maybe we begin a Sunday school class for atheists (maybe we already have that).
It seems that the church today is in danger of not living out the mission of the first Pentecost. We are still divided according to language, race, ethnicity, and sanctuary. Pentecost challenges all of us to examine our own attitudes in this regard, to reject and repent of any prejudice that lurks within us, to transcend those limits and open our hearts to all people, even and especially those who do not share our language and culture and our way of experiencing God. This is not easy. But it is, I believe, the central calling of the Christian church today. I believe that in this moment we are living the mission of this one Christian church in Raleigh, NC might be for us to drop out of the V formation and sit with our Muslim sisters and brothers—not because they are weak but because they are vulnerable. I wonder if an experience like that might help us to better understand and own just how important our own faith, Christianity, is to the human “V” formation. For each depends on the other to reach its destination!