Epiphany of Grace

In the story of Jesus as told through the Church Year, we are in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany commenced right after the twelfth day of Christmas, when we gathered with the wide-eyed magi, stunned by the sheer wonder of a child, a miraculous in-breaking of light and love we did not in any way see coming. And we gathered with those beleaguered, hope-weary bodies around the Jordan River, that distraught band of misfits with no expectations whatsoever that on this day, in the middle of nowhere, their God would thunder–and a Son would descend into death’s murky waters and rise again, carrying all of creation with him for the entire, preposterous ride.

Epiphany–that marvelous, terrifying word. It means that God comes precisely where and when we don’t expect it. Epiphany means that God does for us what we could never do for ourselves, no matter our frantic efforts. Epiphany means that even when all seems lost (and these days there’s a whole lot that feels deep-in-the-well lost), God is (despite every fear to the contrary) very, very near.

Epiphany means that light comes, but it breaks in on a timetable we cannot manipulate–and often into the midnight dark, long after we’ve abandoned hope. Epiphany means that we must lose control, that we never really had control, that we truly are at the mercy. Epiphany means that everything really is grace.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you
. {The prophet Isaiah}

We’re All Pentecostals

For most churches, last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, the day 50 days after Easter when we celebrate that God’s Spirit has come to us, that God’s act of redemption has broken free in the world. The days of the old order are numbered; a new world comes.

I grew up with a poor stereotype of Pentecostals. Pentecostals were the folks with bad hair styles and large broods of kids. They spouted crazy noises and did insane things like pull snakes out of boxes and dance with them, daring them to bite because neither scorpions nor vipers could harm the Holy Spirit-smitten child of God. Of course, they had stereotypes of us too. We were the folks who considered drums to be devil-inspired and who preached on the evils of mixed bathing (google it), believing the mere sight of a woman’s bare thigh might induce pregnancy.

The doctrinal turf-wars between our respective churches were nasty. The Pentecostals said (so I heard) that we weren’t filled with the Holy Ghost because we hadn’t spoken in tongues or performed signs and wonders (and if any of those signs and wonders were linked with snakes, I preferred to not be filled). We, returning the volley, said these so-called signs and wonders and strange tongues were signs they had indeed been filled – by demons. This was scary stuff for a kid who didn’t appreciate snakes or demons but who did appreciate several of the pentecostal girls.

You wouldn’t have guessed it by us, but the prime signal of the Spirit in Acts was unity. Everyone heard God’s good news in their own language – but they heard it together. Undoing the judgment of Babel where language separated the nations, God’s Spirit now used language to bring the nations together again. This was the first visible act of God’s promised New Creation, the remaking of the world through the power of the risen Christ. And, as Peter preached, this was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prophecy, where old and young, women and men, slaves and free, would all be brought together by God’s Spirit.

But the Pentecostals had demons. And we were faithless. And those girls were out of bounds. We have a knack for taking a good thing and mucking it up.

I find it rather marvelous that the Spirit used language, words, as the raw material for God’s first strokes of new creation. Of course. Language shapes our hopes and our fears. Language communicates what we love and what we desire. Language opens up new worlds. Language helps us see and understand. There is a reason Guttenberg changed the world with a printing press. There is a reason Dostoevsky or Charlotte Bronte or John Grisham or Louis L’Amour or Anne Lamott capture your attention and expand your imagination. There is a reason why early iterations of the healthcare debate changed as soon as medical review boards became known as “death panels.” Language creates new realities.

We need a new language. We need a new imagination. We need to replace fear with trust, shame with freedom, cynicism with hope, distance with unity. We need God’s Spirit. Thankfully, we’re all pentecostals.