The tide is turning. Can you feel it? Newscasters and sports figures alike are “coming out.” Marriage and/or civil unions are taking root in more and more jurisdictions (the latest polling numbers now show a majority of Americans supporting marriage for same-sex couples). The Presbyterians will welcome openly gay and lesbian clergy. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and the U.S. Justice Department won’t defend the “Defense of Marriage Act” in court.
That’s pretty heady stuff. The prize, it would seem, really is within reach.
But I’m not popping the champagne cork just yet. Sure, backlash is a real possibility. But I worry more that the sights are set too low. Legislative and judicial victories rarely change hearts and minds, for example. And changing an ordination policy doesn’t automatically change congregations. And what kind of change do we want, really?
A similar dynamic seems to have seized the first disciples of Jesus. On the brink of the risen Jesus’ ascension, they ask him whether that profound moment of resurrection signaled at long last the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6).
The disciples’ question is not quite so random as it might appear. The “kingdom” they had in mind was the only benchmark they had ever known for the good life. Surely in that moment, when even crucifixion can’t thwart God’s mission in the world, it’s time for the “happily ever after” moment and roll the credits. I mean, really, after death is conquered, what’s left?
Quite a lot, apparently.
Here’s the peculiar part: the resurrection of Jesus was not the end of the story, not by far. According to Acts, those disciples still had an amazing adventure stretching before them. The Spirit they received on Pentecost empowered them to take up the Jesus-revolution where Jesus had left off – and take it even farther.
A short list from Acts offers a glimpse of what that looked like: overturning economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (4:34-35); resisting institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); dissolving social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and reshaping cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30). In what is perhaps the best shorthand description of what a peculiar faith can do, Acts declares that those early Christians turned the “world upside down” (17:6).
That’s pretty heady stuff, too – and that work isn’t finished yet either, not by far.
Prior to that Spirit-led adventure, the disciples seemed stuck in a first century version of the “gay agenda.” Since the 1980s, that agenda could be summed up with a single phrase: “demanding a place at the table.” I’ve worked hard on that agenda myself. Yet I’m haunted by that “Holy Ghost” who seems much more bent on overturning tables than adding a few more chairs.
The Feast of Pentecost (June 12 this year) offers a great opportunity for an agenda set by that peculiar Pentecost. Maybe “vision” is better than “agenda” – a vision where not everyone looks the same or acts alike or buys into the institutional systems that are, actually, killing us.
A Pentecostal agenda begins with some peculiar if not impertinent questions: Why are health care and tax benefits attached to marriage at all? When will more of us resist the forces of global capitalism that seek to turn everyone into a market niche so we can buy still more stuff while the planet slowly dies? Why are there so few LGBT-identified people at immigration reform rallies and labor union meetings? Now that openly gay and lesbian people can serve in the armed forces, when will we start dismantling the military-industrial complex that compels so many low-income people to enlist because they have no other job prospects?
Even that short list of peculiar questions makes the so-called gay agenda seem rather tame.
Those first disciples asked the risen Jesus the wrong question (as I’m sure I would have, too). Wrong, because the resurrection doesn’t “restore” anything; but it does make everything new – or rather, that’s the promise. And the promise starts to take root when we hear Jesus say this to his disciples: ”You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8).
Well, power to do what, exactly? That’s the question Pentecost ought to pose to every Christian community. Not every community will answer it in exactly the same way and the peculiar visions that emerge will need the insights from all the others. Those first-century disciples quickly discovered something similar, and something else as well: that peculiar Pentecost turned the world upside down.Thank God.