Coloring Outside the Lines

Sunday, May 28, 2023
Numbers 11:24-30 & Acts 2:1-13
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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On Thursday I took our daughter to the Grand Rapids airport, and she started her journey from western Michigan through Chicago to Zurich and finally to Ferrara, Italy, where she’ll be until early July. I’m really excited that she has the opportunity to experience a different part of the world with some other Spartans. Seeing the world in a new way is a special part of life, and this is one of those moments in life where it’s great to do it if you can. She’s got some interesting school work ahead of her — introductory Italian and sustainable food and culture, where I’m pretty sure they’re just eating good Mediterranean food. I think they’re also going to check out some interesting places like Venice and Florence along the way. Lucky her.

In 1999 I had the opportunity to study abroad as well. I spent around five months on the north side of London. We only had classes from Monday through Wednesday, so that meant regular four-day weekends spent exploring London, taking short trips around England, and even quick trip to tour Ireland. We were at Oak Hill Theological College, and their terms included a break that lasted almost a month.

Back then you could purchase a 21-day Eurail pass which allowed us to travel throughout western Europe by train. In that time I made it to Amsterdam, Brussels, Interlochen and Bern in Switzerland, Munich, Vienna and Salzburg in Austria, Venice, Florence, Rome, Nice on the French Riviera, and Madrid. I think I lost 15 pounds on the journey because we barely had enough money for the hostels and basic food, but in Madrid we stayed with a family I knew from my days at Camp Judson, and I’m pretty sure I gained those 15 pounds right back over those three days. Spanish food is delightful.

This was long before cell phones, so we depended upon guidebooks like Let’s Go and Lonely Planet to give us the basic information about where we were going. They offered phone numbers for hostels we could book when we got to town, attractions that were inexpensive or free (we really needed that because we were living off of baguettes and cheese), maps of the city, warnings about petty crime — basically everything we needed to know to backpack through Europe. This was also before the Euro, so we were constantly exchanging the little money we had in each country. Pounds turned into francs, then into marks, then into lira, and then pesetas, and so on. I actually told our daughter before she left that I really had no idea how to do the kind of travel she is doing because she has access to her phone, to the Euro, and to the internet. I hope it’s far less complex than when I did it!

The people I traveled with were not particularly fluent in any language except for English. I could do some basic Spanish. Another had some German up his sleeve.  This is another way the guidebooks were helpful. They offered basic sayings in each language. I became decent at apologizing in many languages — “I’m sorry that I don’t speak French/Dutch/German/Italian. Do you speak English?” And fortunately, most did speak English well. (I did learn how to ask for pistachio ice cream in French because that seemed important…je voudrais une glace à la pistache, s’il vous plaît. Merci beaucoup.) Priorities.

One of the major challenges of travel is language. If we cannot communicate with each other, everything becomes difficult. It’s harder to get where we need to go. It’s harder to fit in. It’s a challenge to get what we need. But, when someone can understand us? It’s like finding a new best friend. There is connection. There is a sense of place. There is belonging.

I share this story not just because I’m feeling nostalgic about the glory days of college — the freedom to learn, to travel, to explore the world — but also because today is Pentecost. It’s a Sunday we mark every year in the life of the church because it is the day the church was born. As Luke tells it in the Book of  Acts, faithful Jews from all over the know world — from east of the Euphrates to Rome itself — have gathered in Jerusalem for a festival, The Feast of Weeks. It is a multicultural scene with varied languages and customs all gathered to give thanks, only to have their world turned upside down by connections made through the Spirit giving language to the previously timid apostles.

Today I’m hoping we can hear this familiar story with fresh ears because it’s a story that should not be heard as a cold, academic exercise. It’s a story that should not be heard as ancient history. No, we need to enter into this story because what happened there and then launched the project of the church that is still happening here and now in and through us. To quote Fred Craddock, “We must let the story have its way with us.”[1] It’s a story that begs us to enter into it. It’s a story that challenges us to be open to newness and even to disruption.

So, I invite us to enter this story with our imaginations together today.

It had been fifty days since the disciples had encountered Jesus risen from the dead. That time of Passover had been such a jumble of emotions for them. They followed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, looking more and more like the Messiah, only to have the week descend step-by-step into darkness. Following the Passover meal, the disciples followed Jesus to Gethsemane and saw him arrested. One-by-one they backed away, hoping to save their own skin. Peter slunk even further and further away, denying that he was with Jesus three times. Those who could bear it, mostly the women of their group, bore witness to Jesus on the cross, breathing his last. They watched him be laid in a tomb. They saw it sealed.

Then the glorious day of resurrection happened, Sunday marking a new day, a first day of a new creation. Jesus was dead but he was now alive! He came in and out of the midst of his disciples. He ate with them. He prepared them for what was coming. And then, forty days after he rose, he left them, ascending to be with his Father. He had told them to wait for the Spirit to come, and so they did. All the while, new crowds were coming to Jerusalem, this time for the Feast of Weeks. This festival took place fifty days after the Passover, which is when they would have offered the first fruits of their harvest to God. The Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival, where people thanked God by bringing loaves of bread and animals as an offering. It was one of three required pilgrimages for able-bodied Jewish men, so Jerusalem was buzzing with activity once again.

The disciples were gathered in a room, still waiting for what Jesus promised them just before he ascended. He told them not to leave Jerusalem and wait for what God would do. “John baptized with water,” Jesus said, “but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:6). On the Day of Pentecost — Pentecost being the Greek word for fifty, as in fifty days after the Passover, as in the Feast of Weeks — the disciples were huddled together, still waiting.

Suddenly, a sound like a mighty wind came from heaven, overwhelming them. The house was filled with the sound. The sun beamed through the windows, and each one felt themselves illuminated, their hearts aflame in a new way with the love they experienced as they followed Jesus. Their mouths opened, adding to the holy clamor in the room.

Suddenly, there was speech to what they were thinking.

Suddenly, there was understanding.

Suddenly, there was boldness.

These “once timid disciples found their tongues to proclaim the truth of Christ.”[2]

This was not how the festival usually went. Their entire existence was turned on its head. While normal had gone out the window the second Jesus called them to follow, this was a whole new level of disruption for them. The ecstasy of the Spirit filling them drove them from their hiding place. The sound of the Spirit was audible not just to the disciples. People who had gathered for the feast throughout Jerusalem heard it too. Just like we would do if there was something unusual happening — like an eclipse — people left their houses and gathered where there was space around the Temple. People looked at each other in wonder. What was this sound? What was happening? Do you know what’s going on? they asked one another.

Into these questions, these once-fearful disciples had entered. As they found their ways to the crowds, their tongues were loosened to hear the truth about Jesus. Unlike my linguistic challenges when traveling through Europe, language was no longer a barrier. People looked at these Galileans — fishermen, taxmen, regular people — and heard them speaking about this person named Jesus who was God’s Son, who was the Messiah, who was crucified, who didn’t stay dead but rose from the grave, and who now offered the way to transform life totally. This was all so unexpected, the crowds proclaimed that these disciples had too much to drink and were just blathering nonsense. They were coloring outside the lines.

Into this space Peter spoke. His tongue was loosened to speak truthfully and freely about Jesus and about how everything was now different and about how what he had done could change your life…and your life…and your life. That this same Spirit that empowered them could empower you, if only you’re open to it.

If we were there on the Day of Pentecost, I wonder what our response would be. I suspect most of us — myself included! — would be skeptical. We would eye the disciples and then walk away, whispering, “Well…that was weird.” And we’d do that because it defies our expectations about how the world works. It challenges what we think is possible.

We heard earlier the story from Numbers 11 where a similar scene happens, this time with a gathering of seventy elders and Moses. God descends on their gathering, speaks to Moses, and then God’s spirit causes the seventy to prophesy. Two men — Eldad and Medad — hadn’t gone to the gathering, and yet the same thing happened to them in the camp. They, too, were prophesying. It defied the peoples’ expectations. Even Joshua, who was Moses’ second in command,  was upset about this. “Stop them,” he said. This breaks the rules! This colors outside the lines!

We are a logical people, and I love that in us. But God operates not only in logic and order. God also operates in imagination and miracle. God made the picture on the coloring sheet, but God also colors outside those lines to good ends for all. Think of all the stories of the miraculous in the Bible — creation out of nothing, crossing the Red Sea, healings, water into wine, resurrection. We cannot live merely as reasonable, rational people. Every time we think we’ve got the world figured out, God grabs some crayons and colors outside of those lines, driving us into more — more trust, more faith, more openness. The longer I live, the more I grow open to the ways God moves, and the more I have to remind myself not to put God in a box.

Pentecost was the day God defied expectations and started something new — the church. This new thing was not meant to be safe. It was not meant to stay quietly tucked away in a room for a privileged few. It was meant to go out into the world, to make a holy ruckus, to share this great mystery of eternal life through Jesus Christ, and to keep challenging our expectations over and over again. The church is meant to be disruptive in a good way — to us and to the whole world.

The Spirit is the engine that drives that disruption. It gets the proclamation in motion even in the most unlikely people and places. It breaks down the lines that have divided us, including language, race, gender, education, and politics. It calls us to be adventurous. It calls us into unexpected places and to unexpected people.

God birthed the Church in a way that disrupted everything. We are inheritors of that legacy. So, let us be bold in our witness as we learn to love and live in ways that follow God in coloring outside the lines.

[1] Craddock, Fred, Acts, Interpretation Series, 29.

[2] Ibid., 29.